Student reviews

Mandolin 2002 by Ron Stevens

After last years great week at SFSS I was eagerly looking forward to another intensive study week of Bluegrass mandolin.

It was tinged with some apprehension as at the last moment the tutor booked for the week, Butch Baldasarri, had been forced to cancel. I had learned some material from Butch Baldasarri's tutorial books etc, and was keen to build on that.

His replacement was Barry Mitterhoff, also from the USA, whom I had met previously but as a performer and I was not familiar with his teaching material or style.

Upon arrival the omens were very good indeed, booking in with three friends I was allocated a bottom bunk!. No clambering down cold, steep metal ladders from a lofty perch in the middle of the night for me this week!

Sunday evening was full of reacquainting with friends met infrequently at musical happenings like this, some music and a couple of beers to unwind and then to bed in good time to be alert for Monday morning. A dorm with four quiet people and no snorers rendered the earplugs surplus to requirements, this is unusual!

Monday morning came early and we were soon ushered into our classrooms to meet Barry Mitterhoff and get to work. Barry sat in a chair with his legs crossed and cuddling his mandolin on his lap at the front of the class. He wore a smile on his face that never disappeared all week even in the moments of musical hell which happen from time to time in a class of 19 people on mandolin trying too hard, too intensively to unlock the secrets of a musical passage all at once!.

Barry was exceptionally well organised in his tutorial role and made the learning fun with his anecdotes about tunes or performers. He was very knowledgeable not only in musical styles but also in the history of tunes and the styles we worked on.

Work we did too. Barry had a steady approach and went through all the material thoroughly. He usually played the piece we were to learn, solo at the correct tempo. Next he would slow it down to explain how the piece should be played and elaborate on the tricky bits. Then it was our turn. Barry would play a couple of bars and then let the class play that back to him, often one of us at a time to ensure you were taking it in. This bit was done without any music to encourage us to learn, hear the notes and phrasing. I found this most stretching as Barry tried to get us to link the bars up after we had been through the whole thing, I was somewhat relieved to say I was not on my own!. Questions were welcomed and it was only when there were no more that we pressed on with the next item. Barry took on board material suggested by students and sent us home with enough material to keep us working diligently all year!

Throughout the week Barry took us for "one to one" sessions to give individual advice on how we could improve our own playing techniques to get the best out of yourself. I have still some improvements to make! My main aim is to improve my right hand technique and make sure I strike both courses of strings evenly rather than accentuate the first one. These are the type of things that seem so simple to say, but once part of your playing style, are very difficult to eradicate. Its all about learning the right way when you start and getting good habits rather than bad. When I started playing mandolin I did not know anyone in Lincolnshire who could teach me and consequently learnt from vinyl records on my own until I had enough confidence to go out and join a group. As a result I learned in my own way and developed my bad habits that are extremely difficult to leave behind and it is often these bad habits that prevent you from achieving a better standard of playing.

So that we did not forget the tricky bits we recorded all the sessions and I shall be using these recordings to work through the material taught during the course of the week. In our music we tend to learn the material and commit it to memory, until the memory lapses!, then its back to your music and/or recordings. The variety of the training material covered by Barry embraced Old time, Rags, Waltz's, a little Jazz and of course loads of Bluegrass. There were no tunes that I did not enjoy but probably my favourite is the Flatbush Waltz in Gm (named after an area in New York) and this may well be my first priority.

In conclusion I would say this course was one of the best learning experiences I have had with the mandolin and my only regret is that Barry does not live a bit closer to Broughton Astley.

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