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Mandolin Teachers' Weekend Residential, Wiston Lodge

Friday 20th June 2003

I've just returned from a mandolin tutors' weekend which was an interesting experience in many ways. There weren't many participants - seven, in fact - but we came from all over Britain. The event was organised by two Germans: Barbara, who now lives in Scotland and runs the only mandolin orchestra here (www.dacapoalba.co.uk) studied guitar and mandolin in Berlin; Jochen, who lives in Hamburg, studied mandolin in Germany and has won international mandolin solo competitions (in Germany).

All of the other participants were classically trained musicians and were primarily concerned with teaching mandolin in the classical style mainly to children, and along a graded examination route. And then there was me, who has never had a music lesson in his life, and whose aim is teaching mainly adults to play the mandolin so that they can play music with their friends and community. I worried about the difference because there was a little bit of blinkered thinking. I overheard a couple of them talking about how they would never use tablature, and decrying books which used it. However, Barbara and Jochen encouraged me, praising my difference, insisting that there is value in all methodology.

After our educational sessions on Saturday evening, one young woman said she was interested in learning tunes by ear, so I said "Let's do it now!" and I announced I was going to teach a tune. All credit to them, everyone gathered round and I taught a simple, fun polka. For many of them, this was the first time they'd ever learnt a tune by ear, and they were quite chuffed. Also, I don't think many of them could play without reading music, so I handed out books of Scottish dance tunes and led them in a session of tunes - great fun. With everyone relaxed we played all sorts of music, from classical rondos and preludes to blues.

The educational sessions were interesting, but rather weighted towards the classical method: knuckles parallel to the fretboard, thumb on back of neck, straight back, and so on. However, there was lots of valuable discussion and ideas, and I'm glad I went. The final workshop was on improvisation, from another participant who, although classically trained on the fiddle as a boy, discovered blues and jazz, so welcome another who can play without relying on dots! He took us through a blues improvisation, talking about ways of approaching improv, and this, unfortunately, was just too short, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Jochen was great, giving us the benefit of knowledge gained through studying mandolin (of all kinds - he told us part of it was playing a six-string mandolin tuned in fourths), but he was also keen to hear our thoughts and opinions. He played several example pieces which were wonderfully executed, from a Calace gavotta to more modern stuff from Marlo Strauß and Oliver Kälberer (his stuff was particularly striking). I was particularly touched when Barbara, whom I have known for a wee while now, indicated her respect for me as a teacher.

Mandolins: Jochen has a lovely Fylde Talisker mando, made from a whisky barrel. Elsewhere there was a 1908 Gibson, a Paul Shippy, a nice-looking Davidson (Cambridgeshire, I think) and a Vanden. I had brought my friend Sam's Red Diamond for a holiday, so it was interesting from a mando-spotter's point of view. We ended the weekend on a very warm note, and I have loads of ideas for future classes. Now to digest it all....


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