• The Song-A-Week Social Group - An Interview with Barbara Shultz

    Barbara ShultzTucked neatly away beneath the Mandolin Cafe Forum, out of sight and mind of most of the community, a group of mandolinists gather daily in search of new music, new skills, new ideas, new videos.

    Tunes are shared, written music and MP3s are exchanged, advice doled out, suggestions are given and accepted. A complete musical community that is at once supportive, encouraging and friendly. This is not your typical internet social gathering.

    Meet "The Song-A-Week Social Group."

    Barbara Shultz, Mandolin Cafe member since April, 2005 is the group leader responsible for what we think is the single best, most effective and supportive "social group" of mandolinists on the internet.

    What sets The Song-A-Week Social Group apart from the rest is the incredible amount of work Barbara and her members devote to documenting their efforts. So much so that I have little idea as to its true depth. Browsing through the group and following links, I'm stunned at the amount of content. Our moderators never set foot there and I can't recall a need for our intervention in one of these groups, ever.

    The Cafe has hundreds of "social groups" contained within our space. Some are busy, some are only occasionally used, many have been abandoned. Only a select few have been successful for the long haul.

    Rarely discussed, mostly off the radar, the time for that ends here.

    Scott Tichenor
    Mandolin Cafe

    Mandolin Cafe member since April 2005, Barbara Shultz is a born and raised Texan who now spends most of her time on a century-old farm in central Iowa when not traveling to spend time with her children and grandchildren. Barbara took up the mandolin in 2005 and branched into other mandolin family instruments. Her main interest on mandolin is Old-Time and Irish fiddle tunes. Her other interests include crochet, photography and genealogy.

    What's your earliest recollection of the group's launch?

    I had to do some research to see if I could remember how this all got started. Back in April 2009, in the General Mandolin Discussions, a long-time Cafe member posted a "Whiskey before Breakfast" challenge, a discussion that went on several months and was lots of fun. On May 2, 2009, Chris Travers started a discussion with the suggestion we have some kind of Song a Week group. There was interest and discussion on that idea.

    Another member suggested starting a Social Group as this new section of the Cafe had just been developed. I volunteered, and on May 3, 2009, the Song a Week Social Group was born! The reasons in those early discussions are listed in the introduction to the Song A Week Social Group: Welcome. Every week we'd have a new Tune of the Week. This would be a great way to learn new tunes, show off skills, and see others at work. All skill levels and genres are welcome.

    We kind of fumbled around in the beginning trying to figure out how we were going to operate the group. I was given permission to utilize the polling function, and after some tweaking, settled on having a weekly poll, populated by tunes suggested by the membership.

    How do the activities and posting of the group differ from posting on the main forum itself? Why not just post on the forum?

    Looking back, I think the thing in the beginning that made this seem different than the main forum, was the "Introductions" post. We weren't just faceless names, we introduced ourselves and told our stories. It truly was a social group! Many of the people who were there in the early days are still active. Since our mission was to share and learn, and so many of our members are also into the audio and video production part of what makes us tick, in addition to playing our mandolins (and other instruments), it just took off like crazy. The active members that we have are so very helpful, considerate, funny, personable, and encouraging. They are the ones that keep this going.

    "The SAW group has offered amazing new opportunities for me since joining several years ago. It is great to hear the variety of tunes that folk select and especially to hear all the very fine versions of those tunes. It also gives us a reason to record our contributions and even to collaborate with others over huge distances.The contributors have all become part of a large, musically-motivated family and their comments are always very positive and encouraging."

    — John Kelly

    It's funny, the Cafe's social groups were developed to 'compete' with Facebook, Twitter, etc., which were also in their infancy. Those sites seem to be at the forefront of many of our lives, and so many things said on them are far from anything sociable! But here in the Song a Week Social Group, we maintain the BEST of what a social group should be and leave all the divisiveness that is rampant on those other forums.

    What are some highlights of what is cataloged?

    The sheer magnitude of our content is amazing. I sometimes wonder just how long it can go on. We are currently on week #478 in our polls. That's 478 official tunes of the week. That in itself would fill several tune books! And then there's what we call "Other Tunes." These are tunes or songs our members submit. We have approximately 1,400 of those.

    Some of these tunes just have one submission. Most have several. Our members range from rank novice to professional. The video submissions range from a simple recording all the way to near professional audio/video production. Most tunes have links to notation. Almost every tune submitted is commented on in a friendly, welcoming, encouraging way by other members.

    Early on, I realized that to best utilize this group, we needed to have Table of Contents with links to the tune discussions. I divided those into three areas: "Official Tune of the Week," "Other Tunes," and "Discussions," and there are almost 300 threads in the Discussions category! I truly believe that the fact that we've been able to maintain these Table of Contents with links to the discussions has been a factor in keeping the older tunes recirculating. Any time someone looks through the tunes, finds one that interests them, and makes a comment, or submits a new video, it brings that discussion back up to the top and often sparks interest in it again. I see that discussions that were started that first year have recently been revived!

    Song a Week Social Group - Tables of Contents


    Another section even I keep forgetting about... our photos section. So far, members have submitted 174 interesting photos!

    For anyone that joints us, we encourage you to take some time to browse through the three table of contents and get a feel for how we operate. We have several discussions that go into great detail on the best ways to participate and how the group works. I see we have over 1,400 official members to our group, and as of now, it says we have almost 2,200 discussions! Granted, many of our members are just lurkers, and that's fine with me. I do love for our members to speak up, comment, ask questions, and participate by contributing videos. However, it also makes me happy to know that there are many people who silently just use our group as a resource for learning how to improve their musical experience.

    Infighting and nitpicking common to almost all forums and social media is missing from this group.

    I'm not really sure why this is, but I'm glad! Maybe it has to do with the fact that we seem to operate more as a group of friends than just faceless names. Especially if the person has submitted a video of himself. Videoing yourself playing your instrument, flaws and all, has a humanizing effect, I think.

    What were your own experiences starting out and how has the group helped your playing?

    When I first started, I'd never played a stringed instrument, though I had learned to play piano and read music when I was a kid. I didn't even know what a mandolin was but had friends who got together and played music (Old-Time and Irish, mainly), and I wanted to join them.

    I first tried a pennywhistle, and failed, so they suggested a mandolin. I took some lessons from one of those friends. However, he didn't read music, and was just teaching me to parrot whatever he played, without giving me much direction. Then I found Mandolin Cafe and started reading whatever I could and watching videos. I learned about pick direction, and how to most properly hold my mandolin, and my pick, and why. I found some CDs that I liked the sound of, listened to them over and over, and then put them on my computer and started learning to play and learn by ear.

    Then, I decided to dust off reading simple notation. I bought a number of tune books and played for hours every day. I am by no means any kind of expert musician, but that is what worked for me. I've found that playing along with recordings is very helpful in maintaining tempo and getting the proper feel of the rhythm. I also believe that listening to the tune repeatedly until it is playing in your head without the recording is extremely helpful. If the tune is playing in your head, it's easier for your fingers to find the right notes.

    I truly believe that learning how to read simple standard notation makes everything MUCH easier, but I know that there are many successful musicians who can't. I also believe that you need to first learn to play slow and correctly, before you can play it fast.

    What else would you like to tell us about the group?

    I think that one of the reasons that the Song a Week Social Group is such a good resource is its members. They are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. A beginner can join, start anywhere they want, read the discussions, watch the videos, and ask any question they need to know, and someone will be there to help in whatever way they can. Maybe even several someones! We all started as novices. We all stumbled along trying to figure out what works best for us. There are more than one right way to do almost everything in life! But, I would say that it takes commitment to pick up your instrument almost every day, at least at first, and play it.

    If you've never ventured over to the Social Groups, specifically the Song A Week Social Group, please, check us out! It's not a contest! You don't have to learn a song/tune in a week. You don't ever have to make a video and submit it, but if you do, you will be surprised how much you can learn from that simple act. And, it gets easier each time. Like in the regular forum, any time you have any question, or observation, or just want to say hi, we are there for that, too.

    "If you post videos, the group is a great way to develop your skills, especially if you do it regularly. It gives you motivation to learn new tunes, but you also get encouragement and inspiration from the other members - it's a bit like having a family, but one that actually likes hearing you play, and even joins in."

    — OldSausage

    Members can use the private message function on the Cafe to reach out to me to ask me anything privately. If you are NOT a beginner but already know how to play and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow musicians, I invite you to join, and participate. Every knowledgeable member that we have participating increases our ability to help others!

    Unless there are some major changes in the website, we are cleverly hidden, but this is how you get there. From any page on the Mandolin Cafe, you'll notice the top bar with links, has something called Learn/Listen. Click the drop-down menu, and you'll see Social Groups (or use this direct link to the group). You can click Song A Week in the search box, and you should be able to get to us from there. Alternately, the center section of the main Social Group page, is for 'recently updated' groups. Since we are such an active group, we are usually among the first several groups in that section. There's a join button right there under our name.

    If you consider yourself a "Newbie," I'd also suggest joining the Newbies group. It seems to be the other very active social group here in the Cafe!

    Additional Information

    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Mark Gunter's Avatar
      Mark Gunter -
      What a kick, seeing this article on the cafe's own SAW group, and an interview with Barbara, at the top of the home page! Great idea, Scott, thanks. Barbara and the others in SAW are a great bunch of folks, and many of us learn a lot by observing them.

      Tip for anyone who reads this: When you're working on any tune, use the "Advanced Search" feature in the forum, under "Search Type" tick the box for "Group Messages", then put the title of the tune you're working on in the search box and click "Search Now".

      You may find that the tune has been covered in SAW group, and if so, you'll find links to various versions of the music, as well as mp3 and video takes that your fellow cafe members have produced. What a resource!
    1. BrianWilliam's Avatar
      BrianWilliam -
      Still no love for mobile users....
    1. Bertram Henze's Avatar
      Bertram Henze -
      The question why there is no fighting or nitpicking has been answered only partly, IMHO. One major factor is Barbara herself. A queen of hearts who never says "off with his head". You just don't misbehave in the face of a true lady.
    1. John Kelly's Avatar
      John Kelly -
      Fascinating article. Great to see how successful the group is and how well it has preserved its original aims. The lack of aggression in all the postings is so welcome and the content always totally relevant.
    1. Folkmusician.com's Avatar
      Folkmusician.com -
      Great read!
    1. Matt's Avatar
      Matt -
      [QUOTE=Bertram Henze;1665152]The question why there is no fighting or nitpicking has been answered only partly, IMHO. One major factor is Barbara herself. A queen of hearts who never says "off with his head". You just don't misbehave in the face of a true lady.[/QUOTE

      Here Here!
    1. Jim Taylor's Avatar
      Jim Taylor -
      Thanks - a lurker here, but do enjoy SAW from time to time. I find the index wonderful!
    1. Alex Orr's Avatar
      Alex Orr -
      I've really meant to post more in that group. Two things I love about it. First, if I ever need ideas for how to tackle a tune, I can be assured that there is at least 2-3 videos of people playing it. Second, if there is a more congenial place on the internet I don't think I've found it. Everyone is so encouraging to everyone else. I think that results from everyone understanding that you have to start somewhere, so a beginner's attempt at a song often gets as much encouragement as a nearly professional level take receives. Furthermore, if you're posting a video of yourself, you're putting yourself out there, and I think everyone respects that.