Mandolin For Dummies
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The mandolin community is like one big happy family, perhaps in part because the mandolin isn’t the world’s most popular instrument (yet) and mandolin lovers need to go to great lengths to satisfy their mandolin appetites. If you run into a stranger with what looks to be a mandolin case, and if doing so seems appropriate, introduce yourself as a student of the mandolin. Don’t be surprised if you’re treated like a long-lost friend from school. Mandolin lovers just can’t get enough mandolin.

mandolin community © Sergii Kovalov / Shutterstock.com

Attend acoustic music concerts

The only thing better than listening to recorded music is being present while the magic happens. An acoustic concert doesn’t need to be mandolin-specific; many acts use various instruments, and mandolin may be just one. You may get exposed to musical mandolin styles that you never considered, resulting in a broadening of your mandolin horizons.

Concerts are a good place to network with like-minded musicians. If the performers are good acoustic string musicians, most likely a number of aspiring acoustic musicians are in the audience. Many concerts have an after-show reception or party where you can make new friends; some of these events are invitation-only, but many aren’t. In many cases, the artist comes to the lobby to sign autographs. Keep your eyes and ears open at the end of the concert, and you may get a chance to meet a legendary performer in this way. Everyone needs to go to live music concerts in order to support live music and avoid it fading away.

Be open-minded when choosing which concerts to attend. The acoustic guitar, fiddle, Dobro, cello and the banjo are all considered cousins in the world of string instruments, and as such, are related to the mandolin.

Try out mandolin workshops

Mandolin workshops certainly allow you to increase your mandolin skills, but they’re also a great way to get deeper into the mandolin world. If eight people show up for a mandolin workshop in a town near you, you have the perfect opportunity to meet seven other mandolin players like yourself. Meeting other mandolin players and talking mandolin is a big part of the mandolin subculture. Discussions among mandolin players often include topics such as different types of tunes, picks, strings and so on, along with conversations about new recordings or upcoming mandolin concerts.

You may need to be prepared to drive some way to attend a workshop held by one of the mandolin greats, but doing so is worthwhile.

Visit mandolin camps

Acoustic music camps are a great way to meet other mandolin enthusiasts and improve your skills. Most acoustic music camps offer classes for all popular string instruments, including mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo, etc. Here are a few options:
  • Swannanoa Gathering presents five weeks of acoustic music instruction held each summer at the Warren Wilson College near Ashville, North Carolina.
  • Steve Kauffman's Acoustic Kamp produces two camps each summer in Marysville, Tennessee—one week specifically for bluegrass and one for Old Time and Traditional string band music.
  • Marshall Mandolin Summit is a mandolin-only camp held in Marshal, Michigan, each summer. A wide range of musical styles, including classical, choro, jazz, bluegrass, and others, are represented at this mando-centric event.
  • Nimble Fingers has been promoting acoustic music education in Canada for over 30 years. This camp consists of two weeks of instruction with a one-day festival in the middle.
In the UK, a music course is held by Sore Fingers Summer Schools—Europe’s leading organization for bluegrass and old-time music camps. The school offers world-class tuition for all the instruments played in bluegrass. The school runs classes, held in the Cotswolds, a few times a year, and hosts a music festival, too.

Another great entry in your diary would be the International Italian Mandolin Academy—a yearly week-long event that takes place in Italy, with the focus being on Italian classical music.

Go to acoustic music festivals

Attending an acoustic music festival requires you to load up the car with a tent, sleeping bag and, of course, your mandolin, and drive a long distance to attend a weekend-long event—while hoping it doesn’t rain. Festivals can vary greatly in size and musical content. Larger festivals can have three or more stages happening all day long, and so you need to plan out your day to see the bands that appeal to you.

Take some sunscreen, a hat, an umbrella or rain poncho, maybe a folding chair and plenty of water to any outdoor concerts you attend.

When you decide to go to one of these events, don’t worry about sleep (festivals can be a bit noisy, so you may not have much choice, anyway!). You can track down some of the best music in the campsite or even where people have parked their cars. Most of the campsite pickin’ goes on pretty late at night, and sometimes into the wee hours, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to get to bed.

Campsite music can vary greatly from one festival to the next, ranging from the featured performers you saw on the main stage earlier that day to the festival-goer who only knows three songs and has had too much to drink. In either case, these events are great places to chat and play with other like-minded musicians.

If you aren’t into outdoor camping, several great indoor festivals take place, which are usually held in convention centers and hotels. Among the well-known events are Wintergrass in Belleview, Washington, and the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual event in Nashville. Almost everyone who attends these events is a musician, so you find music being played everywhere and at all hours, in the lobby or hotel rooms rather than around the campsite.

Check out a jam session or orchestra

Playing with other people is the best way to improve as a player and to network with other musicians, even if some of them don’t play mandolin. Public jam sessions and mandolin orchestras enable you to meet like-minded players.

Ask people who work at local music stores if they know of any jam sessions or open-mic nights in your area. Open-mic nights are events where amateurs can get on stage and play a few songs. Playing in front of your peers can be an amazing experience and do wonders for your confidence. Even if you’re not ready to perform in public yet, you may meet someone to begin playing with. This type of playing can be good for you, because sheet music is rarely used—all the playing is by ear!

In contrast to an informal jam session is the organized mandolin orchestra. Yes, you did read that right! Believe it or not, community mandolin orchestras are currently making a comeback. A mandolin orchestra is similar to a traditional string orchestra, with the big difference being that the instruments are plucked and not bowed. In most cases, parts are written for first and second mandolins, mandola, mando-cello, guitar and bass. Finding this type of group can be like finding the mother lode or a rich seam of mandolin culture. Where else can you come across 20 or 30 mandolin players in one room? Ask around—a mandolin orchestra may be located in your area. If not, start one!

Mandolin orchestras usually rely on the players being able to read music.

Join the online mandolin community

The internet is a great way to meet like-minded people. Mandolin folks can enjoy a variety of ways to get to know each other and learn about our beloved mandolins. A few options to check out:
  • The Mandolin Café is the mandolin player’s home in cyberspace. Developed and run by Scott Tichenor, this website is an absolute wealth of everything mandolin. The site features stories and interviews with many of the greatest mandolin players of today, along with mandolin-related news. It also hosts a vibrant discussion forum covering everything from playing advice to reviews of new instruments. Some of today’s top performers and educators give advice or share sage knowledge about mandolin playing. The classified ad section of the Mandolin Café is one of the best places in the world to find, among other items, new and used mandolins for sale in all price ranges.
  • Mandohangout.com features mandolin discussion forums, links to lessons and a place where mandolin players can post videos of themselves playing, allowing other mandolin players to comment.
And, here are a few mandolin groups on Facebook that you should check out:

Find online mandolin courses

Many pre-recorded mandolin courses are available online, making it easier than ever to learn to play the mandolin at home. Some sites charge a membership fee, and others are free or donation based. Here are few you may want to check out:
  • ArtistWorks features music instruction from today's top professionals in a wide range of genres and styles. Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg make up the mandolin staff. The ArtistWorks model includes a video exchange program where the student sends a video, and the instructor replies with another video.
  • PegHead Nation offers a variety of mandolin instructors. All video lessons are pre-recorded. Members pay a monthly fee per course or instructor. Instructors include Mike Compton, Marla Fibish, Sharon Gilchrist, John Reischman, Joe K. Walsh, and Aaron Weinstein.
  • Mandolins Heal The World allows members to access hundreds of video courses/lessons from a variety of instructors for a monthly fee. This site features a wide range of skill levels and genres. Members can also schedule "live" lessons from Don Julin (yours truly) or others via video conference for an additional cost. Instructors include Chris Henry, David Benedict, Tim Connell, Jordan Ramsey, and Alan Epstein.
  • MandoLessons offers a wealth of standard fiddle tunes and other mandolin repertoire pieces. Most are beginner/intermediate level. Users can pay whatever they want as owner Barron Collins-Hill has set up his one-person operation on a donation-based model.

Join a national organization

The Classical Mandolin Society of America (CMSA) is a national organization with a mission to promote and support the art of classical mandolin playing in North America. Started by Norman Levine in 1986, the CMSA provides grants and scholarships for mandolin education and recruitment. It also publishes a quarterly newsletter, Mandolin Journal.

CMSA holds a yearly conference where mandolin players (not all classical) gather to study with some of today’s finest classical mandolin players and teachers. The conference activities include masterclasses, faculty concerts, lunchtime concerts by CMSA member ensembles, late-night jamming (or sight-reading events), and the final night concert where attending members can participate in the En Masse Orchestra of over 100 mandolins! Every mandolin player needs to experience the sound of 100 mandolins tuning simultaneously at least once in a lifetime!

Across the Atlantic, the British BMG (that is, banjo, mandolin and guitar) Federation is a great source for mandolin networking in the UK. The Rally is one of the BMG’s main events and consists of a weekend-long event featuring workshops and competitions. The Summer School is the other event organized by the BMG, and is a weekend event (held yearly) that includes classes and performances on mandolin, guitar and banjo.

Explore your own town

When you start to look around for mandolin activity, you may be surprised to find that it really does exist. You can make a mandolin connection at the hairdresser’s, at the supermarket, or at church. Looking for mandolin culture is a bit like hunting morel mushrooms. At first you don’t see any mushrooms, but after a while you start to see them in the same patches of woods that seemed empty before. Go out and explore (for mandolin contacts, not mushrooms, unless that’s your bag, too!).

Spread the news

Telling other people about your new-found joy may influence them to take up the mandolin as well. By doing so, you potentially increase the number of mandolin players in your community. I can’t imagine anything negative about having more mandolin players in a community. My motto is: “Mandolins heal the world!”

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