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What’s a Mandola?

If anyone has bothered to read the little bio under my picture that accompanies this blog, you may be one of the many people to ask yourself, “What’s a mandola?”  Luckily in the age of wikipedia you can get your answer online almost as quickly as you can ask the question, but in regular face to face conversation where no one is within reach of the internet, I still get asked.

My primary instrument is viola.  It’s what I majored in while I was in college.  I have spent much of my adult life answering the question, “What’s a viola?” and explaining that, no, it’s not the instrument you hold propped between your knees (that’s a cello).  Viola, for those not in the know or in the mood to get diverted to wikipedia again, is the alto voice of the violin family.  It’s slightly larger than a violin (which is an instrument everyone has heard of and violinists never get pestered with questions suggesting what they play is obscure) and it has a deeper sound.  Violas lack the highest string on a violin (the E), but instead have a string that goes a fifth lower than the violin’s lowest string.  (The strings on a violin in Western tonal music are tuned to G, D, A and E, and on a viola are tuned to C, G, D and A.)  Viola is a beautiful instrument.  I started on violin in third grade and switched to viola in high school because we didn’t have any in our orchestra, and I liked it enough I never went back.  I still play violin occasionally, but that squeaky high E grates on my nerves.  I much prefer the depth and melancholy of the viola and its deeper tones.

For reasons I’m too tired to go into at the moment, my instrument has to fight for respect.  There are a million viola jokes.  (My viola instructor back at Ohio State used to collect conductor jokes.)  I participated in a concert where I teach at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music a few years back that featured all the violists on the faculty, and in between numbers I talked to the audience a bit about the history of the instrument and told several jokes.  The one that got the biggest laugh was, “What do you call a violist with 2 brain cells? — Pregnant.”  Anyhoo, violists tend to be laid back enough that we can take a joke, so it’s all fine.  But it would be nice if more often than not when I told people I play viola they knew what it was.

So leave it to me to pick a new instrument to try that gets exactly the same reaction.  Mandola is to mandolin what viola is to violin.  And I mean that literally, because the string tunings are equivalent and they play the same roles in an ensemble.  Mandola is fun and I’m glad I decided to give it a try, but I have yet to tell someone in the schoolyard that I play one and see recognition in anyone’s eyes.

When my husband got deployed again, at least I knew from past experience what kinds of things I would be able to handle with him gone, and what things I wouldn’t.  I looked over the upcoming orchestra schedule and picked out which concerts were going to be too hard and turned them down.  I knew, for instance, that the concert featuring pieces by German composers that I had played in the past would not take too much work, but the Tchaikovsky symphony later in the season would probably kill me.  It’s hard enough finding time to practice when Ian’s home, but alone with three kids I have to be realistic.

Obviously music is important to me, and the idea of giving up the chance to play in a group while Ian was in Iraq was depressing.  I decided something less intense might be nice during this stressful time.  My friend Linda is the music director of the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, which is an organization that has been making music here for over 100 years.  She plays violin in my string quartet, but several years back tried her hand at mandolin and took off with it.  Linda’s great.  Her mandolin orchestra performed in a concert with the orchestra I play with two seasons ago, and the music was so charming and everyone seemed to have so much fun that it got me thinking that that might be a good thing to try during the deployment.  I asked Linda how long she thought it would take me to learn mandola, and she said, “Oh, maybe 5…. 10 minutes.”  I suppose I should have asked how long it would take to learn mandola well, because I am by no means a good mandolist, but I can keep up okay.

If anything, all my musical training is a hinderence.  The notation in a lot of the music is…. let’s say ‘imprecise,’ so it takes awhile to figure out what is going on or what part of the page I should be reading from.  And one of the quirky things I’ve learned about the long and colorful history of mandolin orchestras in America, is that rather than learn the alto parts in alto clef (which is the clef violists play in), they write the music in this odd transposed manner.  What it comes down to is the music is in treble clef and you play it as if you were holding a mandolin with it’s higher string tunings, but the sound that comes out is a fifth lower.  It makes me crazy.  I never have any idea what key we’re in, and I get confused if I can hear myself playing.  I look at the music and see an A, I play a note on my instrument as if it were an A on a different instrument, and the sound that comes out is a D.  Does that make sense?  No, not to me either, and I’m the one trying to do it every Monday from 7:00 to 9:00.  I’m the only person this seems to bother, and some of the other musicians in the group are fascinated that not hearing the note I’m seeing on the page as I play is a problem.  I’m adjusting, but every once in awhile my brain and hands have a minor freakout and I play something that doesn’t fit with anything.

But you know what?  That’s the beauty of the mandolin orchestra.  No one holds that against me.  Everyone is there because it’s fun.  They are amateurs in the truest sense of the word in that amateur comes from the French meaning ‘lover of.’  Professionals may love what they do, but I can say from experience that there is a different dynamic when money is involved.  Amateurs play purely for the love of it.  I seldom play viola without receiving a paycheck.  Playing Handel may be fun (that’s my string quartet in that clip), but playing it for a wedding is work, and it feels like it.  Playing ‘The Talisman‘ is just as fun as it sounds.  I got to play my first gig with the mandolin orchestra recently at the Italian Community Center where we got to perform fun things like Mambo Italiano with a talented local singer.  We seem to have been paid in pizza.

(That’s us playing the concert in the courtyard, photo by Veronica Kehoss.  I’m in the center.  This performance included first and second mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, guitar, and upright bass.)

I’m really enjoying mandola.  I may stick with it even after Ian comes home if I can find the time for it.  My kids resent my going off to rehearsals, but I’m not going to let them make me feel guilty about playing music with friends for just a couple of hours a week.  (Yesterday I sat for over an hour in the car cleaning out my purse and then staring at clouds just so they could jump on a friend’s trampoline, so they owe me.)  My next door neighbor is kind enough to come over and put my kids to bed on those evenings so I can get away, and I’m so grateful.  Without her I don’t think I’d have signed on to this new musical adventure.  But here I am, with the word ‘mandolist’ on my resume should I ever have to write one up again, and an outlet for my musical ambitions that doesn’t get me stressed.  It’s really nice.  So what’s a mandola?  It’s another word for happiness.

(P.S. Can you tell someone finally taught me how to use the embedded links feature?  I think I went a little overboard with it on this post, but it’s like having a geeky new toy.)

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