I believe it was three Christmases ago that I opened a present from my wife Janet and found the most beautiful mandolin I had ever seen. It was elegantly ornamented with ornate mother of pearl set into its woodwork on both front and back and accoutred with lovely hardware for the string tuners. For the first two years, I casually "fiddled"(1) with it, but at the beginning of 2009, I got serious and studiously put myself to the task of learning to play my chosen instrument.
Using a chord chart that Janet had also given me, I began to memorize where to put my fingers on the fret board to play a given chord. I then searched about on the Internet for simple music that used few chords. If the music called for a G chord, I would look at the chart and put my fingers in the indicated locations on the fret board and strum. With repetition, I began to slowly memorize the "finger shapes" required to play a chord. Next, I began to learn individual notes on the fretboard. This was quite a bit easier and I later realized that I probably had gone about my self-teaching backwards. Once again, it was a matter of reading a note or a tab on a sheet of music, putting my finger on the appropriate position, and then plucking a string.
If that description sounds a bit mechanical, it was so intended because my "learning" was terribly mechanical. I call it music training by brute force. Having no formal music training in my background, I wasn't even sure how to learn, let alone what to learn. What has been surprising to me most of all in this process of self-study is that little I am able to accomplish has been fairly well received.
The first strangers who heard me toodling around on my mandolin were friends I knew online. Using an Internet voice communication program called Ventrilo, I grinded out a couple tunes to a few folks who had the misfortune of being online at the time. It was far from perfect, but rather than being laughed and scorned, I was commended for my attempts and applauded for what I had learned. In short order, a couple of the others pulled out their own instruments and we broke into a sort of impromptu online jam session.
This past October, I subjected myself to my first public appearance with a mandolin in my hands. I attended the Cape Cod Mandolin Camp, a three-day festival which featured well known and gifted mandolin instructors teaching workshops in a variety of types of music and culminating in a concert featuring the students. I learned quite a lot, most of which entailing a realization of just how much I did not know. Many of those who were there were students at renowned Berkley College of Music, but a few, like me, were utter novices. But regardless of who we were, we did have one important thing in common: more than anything else, we were all hopeless geeks. This camp was far and away the geekiest thing I have ever done, surpassing any Dungeons & Dragons game I'd ever participated in by several orders of magnitude. (I can't wait to go back next year.)
As it happened, Ben was sick that weekend. That fact made for a perfect excuse for me to chicken out of the student concert and leave early on the last day. I wasn't ready for that sort of demand upon my insufficient skills and I knew it.
When I returned home, I picked up my studies with a renewed vigor. I practice more often and tried to put into effect those nuggets of knowledge I had picked up at the Mandolin Camp. I was finding some improvement, and feeling a bit more comfortable now that I knew what it was that I did and did not know. It was the previous feeling of "not knowing" that had always nagged at me; not knowing if I was playing a chord properly, not knowing what music to focus on, heck, I didn't even know if I was holding the darn thing the right way.
Several weeks ago, in November, I contacted the music leader at our church and asked if he'd mind if sat in on the team's practices as a means of trying to better myself at my own instrument. Our Worship Team is composed of about half a dozen people playing the piano, a couple accoustic guitars, an electric bass, and drums. I was told that I was welcome to practice with them. That first week, I found myself encouraged, if not compelled, to join them on the platform during the service. I did. I played softly and timidly, but again, I was well received. Over the last five or six weeks, I've had a couple pretty shaky outings and a couple of really good ones that even made me smile. As it turns out, there's a lot of Christmas music that lends itself to the mandolin. The feedback from people in the congregation has been very encouraging, even those comments from those who think I'm playing a yukelele. (I told one enquirer that it's an oboe. They responded with, "Oh, cool.")
So, why the mandolin?
I could come up with a variety of answers ranging from liking the sort of music it is associated with. Folk music, one of my favorite forms of music, going far back into the Renaissance and right back into today's Bluegrass, has always employed the mandolin. Celtic and Italian music both rely on the mandolin. Even rock music has featured this instrument. (Jimmy Page was an excellent mandolin player.) But the real reason I picked up the mandolin was that I thought it would be easy. Stupid me. Years ago, I started to try to play the bass guitar. As I started getting the hang of it, it dawned on me that I couldn't really just sit and play the bass alone without someone else to play the melody. So I fell out of it. Later, when I contemplated finally learning to play an instrument, I realized that the mandolin was played like a four stringed instument just like the bass guitar. I assumed I already knew much about the mandolin and that this would give me a running start. As it turned out, the mandolin is exactly the opposite of the bass guitar. Same string tuning, reversed. Ugh.
But I love it. I find that the more I play, the more I want to play. It's almost addictive. Each time I accomplish something new or better, I find myself more hungry to learn more. If I thought I had any real talent that this, and that there was a market for it, I'd quit my job and hang out under Park Street Station and play for coins. It's the perfect instrument. It's fun, it's got a unique sound that lends itself to many forms of music, and it is easily transportable.
When I decided to learn an instrument, I had one simple goal in mind. I wanted to be able to sit in front of a campfire and play for my friends. I think I'm almost there.
(1) Mandolins and violins are tuned the same way. Ain't I witty?
(2) For more info on mandolins than you can possibly want to know, try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mandolin.