Sunday, February 24, 2019

My Second Mandolin

Tom Perkins started coming to our house in July 1990 to play Celtic tunes and educate me on stylistic points. He helped me with mandolin embellishments and loaned me a video on Irish fiddle. He had recently formed a Celtic trio, and I suspected he may have been working toward adding me to the group.
At one of our sessions he mentioned that he owned a mandola he would be willing to sell, and I knew sight-unseen I wanted it. I asked why he wanted to part with it, and he said, "I can capo the bouzouki at the fifth fret if I want to play in mandola range." I was still puzzled why he would give up an instrument in the mandolin family because I was feeling drawn to those instruments, but he did not have the calling that I possess. Thus did I learn about a third member of the mandolin family.

Tom brought the mandola, a Flatiron model 3M, the highest level of the three Flatiron Celtic models, and I immediately loved it. Playing at Quaker Square with Tightly Wound String Band a couple weeks later,  I marveled at its powerful, full tone. That was my first inkling that my el cheapo mandolin left much to be desired.
I played the mandola when Annette and I were married on the Monticello III canal boat near Coshocton in late August. TWSB was the post-ceremony entertainment, and a few Tuscarawas Philharmonic Orchestra friends, my friend Dale, and I played Pachelbel's "Canon in D" before the service. As soon as the Coshocton mayor, dressed in 19th-century garb, married us I was ready to get to playing, but all those guests insisted on greeting us and offering congratulations. Socializing always interferes with music. What were they thinking?
The mandola in standard tuning is tuned CGDA (Helmholtz cgd'a'), a fourth above the octave mandolin and a fifth below the mandolin. Its shares GDA with the mandolin and, as Tom said, is the same as putting a capo on the octave mandolin at the fifth fret. I quickly deduced that capoing at the second fret gave me DAEB, allowing me to play a tune with mandolin fingering as long as the tune did not go below the D string, but the melody ends up an octave lower. I use the mandola for melodies capoed and not, for harmonies, and for doubling the melody an octave below. The mandola is a bit bigger than the mandolin and carries a stronger tone, but its lower range means it can get lost in a mix of instruments. I play melody on it when it is not competing with higher, louder instruments. I learned to read music in the treble clef and transpose fingering to the mandola. A G on the D string on mandolin, for example, can be played on the open G string on mandola. I have played this way for so long that it is second nature.
The mandola is the mandola equivalent of the viola in the violin family. The viola plays in the alto clef, and the alto trombone may be the only other instrument to use that clef. I have found a couple books of Celtic music written in alto clef, but they are rare and short, so it easier to figure out ways to play the treble clef, such as I described.

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