Mandolin Diary – Week 2

10th-16th August 2020

4 minute read

The postman brought me lots of mandolin-themed treats this week, standing me in good stead to explore the Victoria College’s Grade 1 Mandolin syllabus.

When planning this project I had visions of tackling a grade per week, at least in the early stages. Whilst I could probably have honoured that goal, this week has got me thinking about the longevity of my mandolin playing.

Firm foundations

I don’t know how familiar you are with the parable of the seed sower, but I could see all this mandolin work ending up like the seed sown on rocky ground, springing up with enthusiasm before quickly withering away. With hindsight this is what happened on my previous attempts, as I aimed straight for my Don Giovanni performances before letting everything slide. To combat this I plan to spend a bit longer on each step, ensuring I really cement the technical side of things. If I aim for the best standard I can on each exam piece I have more chance of the seed taking root in good soil, serving me well for years to come.

Warming up

Tuning

Having to tune two of each string has taken a bit of getting used to. You really don’t want to cut corners when tuning two unison strings or it can end up sounding like a bad headache! This will encourage me to be more precise with my violin tuning too.

Scales

No matter what instrument you play, when practised properly, scales are like a magical gateway into the headspace and posture required for a rewarding and successful practice session. I’ll admit there were a few days this week when I impatiently rushed straight into my pieces, but I quickly realised my error as these were predictably my worst days!

My focus in this week’s scale practice was on catching both strings on my down strokes and on finishing each note by resting the plectrum on the next required string. This idea echoes advice I give my violin students: always try to finish each note in the place where you need to start the next.

Technique

One of my new books is Victoria College’s Scales and Exercises for Mandolin. It contains all the technical exercises required for grades 1-8 and I have worked on these each session. For grade 1 they include:

  • practising alternate down and up strokes using a 5 note scale;
  • playing a few arpeggiated chords;
  • playing the C and G chords.

The last step is given both in stave notation and tab format, so as I’ve never had to read tablature before I have written those two chords out daily!

Online resource

I took a few moments out of one of my practice sessions to absorb some wisdom from the incredible mandolinist Chris Thile. His video for the Sheldon Online Academy discusses simple plectrum and left hand technique which I found very helpful. The main points for me to remember are keeping the whole of my right arm relaxed (as focusing on a loose wrist can often result in tension higher up) and to exercise my 3rd and 4th fingers so they become as strong and accurate as the others and are always ready for action.

Repertoire

I have a great selection of early grades music to work through now and have tried to focus on a different book each session. You’ll see the fruits of my labour over the next few weeks! I have particularly enjoyed learning the Microjazz pieces whilst playing along with the accompanying CD.

Things to work on

  • Catching both strings on the down stroke, otherwise what’s the point of having two?
  • Remembering that tones and semitones are a bit bigger than on my violin!

This week’s video

Here is Henry Purcell’s Rondeau from syllabus List A, taken from Music for Mandolin.  It may only be one video this week, but at least you get to see two of me!

Join me for more grade 1 goodies next week.

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