• Tim Connell Interview

    Tim Connell

    Though Tim Connell didn't come from a musical family, his interest in music was quite voracious, even from an early age. Connell began classical piano lessons at seven, which included music theory. He taught himself guitar in middle school and by the time he made it to high school, he played piano in the jazz band, bass in the musical theater orchestra, and guitar in a garage band.

    He went on to earn his Masters Degree in Music Education from the New England Conservatory of Music. Music has been his life.

    I first saw Tim Connell in a YouTube video, which was him playing solo jazz on his mandolin. I looked up his website and saw that he lived in Portland, Oregon, which is where I live. My first chance to hear him live was during a happy hour set of choro music he was playing with Mike Burdette on guitar in a downtown Portland hotel. From the beginning, it was obvious that Connell is talented, energetic, and somewhat humble.

    It was also obvious that he didn't really sound exactly like any other mandolin player I knew. His sound was the result of his own unique musical journey that included an extended run on the Irish tin whistle before he found his home in the mandolin.

     — Hermon Joyner

    About the author: Hermon Joyner is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer in Portland, Oregon. He took up playing the mandolin after hearing David Grisman play at a small music festival in Spokane, Washington, in the late 1980s. Joyner wrote music reviews for Audiophile Audition from 2005 to 2011, and wrote feature articles and reviews for Mandolin Magazine from 2008 to 2014. Joyner is currently the publisher and editor for The Mandolin Player, an online journal.

    You've performed on several different instruments in several different genres of music, before you came to the mandolin. How exactly did the Irish tin whistle influence your mandolin playing?

    The tin whistle and Irish traditional music came while I was in college in Boston. That was my introduction to folk music, and to instrumental music that demanded serious study and technique.

    So, the way I play jigs and reels on the mandolin came directly from the tin whistle. All of the groove and the ornaments I copied directly from my own playing, which was in turn copied mostly from the great uilleann pipers and whistlers like Willie Clancy, Paddy Keenan, Mary Bergin, and the list goes on. What I learned from the whistle was how to pay attention to detail and how to learn melodies very quickly by ear. And I fell in love with traditional dance music in general, moving on to klezmer and eventually to Brazilian choro. I hear these Irish ornaments come out regardless of which style of music I'm playing, it's just my accent at this point.

    But how did I settle on mandolin? It was basically after I realized how much I loved going after a high level of technique on the tin whistle. But I also loved other styles of music besides Irish dance music which would have been very difficult to get across on the whistle. I made a conscious choice to put all of my energies toward one instrument, and the mandolin was the one that was, in my mind, both portable across styles and was literally portable, as well.

    Unlike most mandolin players, but similar to what violin players do, you use a bit of vibrato in your playing. How are you doing that?

    My vibrato comes directly from the modern Brazilian way of playing mandolin, which is traced directly back to Jacob do Bandolim, who was copying the vibrato of the Portuguese guitar in fado music. The actual vibrato technique with nearly all Brazilian players and with me is done by picking a fretted note and then slightly bending the string left and right, parallel to the frets. Most often in choro and in my own playing, the vibratoed note is preceded by a slide up, usually with the third finger - so it's easiest and most effective above the fourth fret.

    Can you tell us about your practice routine?

    Not so much a routine, but I do practice almost every day. In general I start a practice session with 10 minutes of warm-up and tuning - just getting the mandolin and my fingers feeling good with no shame, no blame (at least I try!). After a break to wash my hands and strings and stretch a bit, maybe pour a cup of tea I usually do right hand real mellow, single-string down-up-down-up exercises with a metronome set to about half-note = 80bpm. Sometimes with the click on 1 & 3, sometimes on 2 & 4. Just single strings and then back and forth between adjacent strings, and ending with a simple Irish reel or fiddle tune, no left-hand ornaments. This is just to get my right hand mellow and the pick super efficient. This works best if I try to sound as quiet and gentle as possible. Following this with a quiet selection from Bach's Cello Suites is usually a nice segue to the actual practice session.

    Something I did as a part of this warm-up for a long while was doing the right hand exercises with the upstroke on the downbeat - that is, "backwards" picking. I've never heard of anyone else doing this, but it's been extremely helpful to me. I got the idea after hearing Mike Marshall talk about how most of us play our downstrokes heavier than our upstrokes (due to the disparity in pressure on the pick between the strong thumb and weaker index finger). He discussed physical ways to counter this unevenness, such as a lot of bluegrass players who bolster the index finger with the other three fingers, or what Mike himself does: sometimes angling the pick up instead of down, particularly on the lower strings just like a violin bow. Around the same time I'd read some book on meditation which posited that, since most of us think of a breath as going in this order: inhale first, exhale second, a good exercise for awareness would be to reverse this and "begin" each breath with an exhale. So, if it works for the yogis or whoever, maybe the same concept would work on my right hand! Anyway, after 10 minutes of up-down-up-down (I've even learned a couple of fiddle tunes with "backwards" picking!) I find that I am much more aware of evening out my strokes for the rest of the practice session.

    As far as what I do with the real practice time after warm-up: I spent a lot of years working on technique and for a long time I was simply learning the choro repertoire which, in addition to learning the actual melodies, included figuring out optimal chord voicings, memorizing the chord progressions, learning the complex Brazilian rhythmic patterns for accompaniment and learning the arpeggios and scales I'd need to improvise. But lately my practice has been focused on repertoire for my acts, arranging my solo arrangements or solo-song accompaniments, and sometimes simply "triage" for upcoming gigs with new material.


    From the band Stumptown Swing self-titled album from 2014, My One and Only Love.

    You perform in several different genres of music. Can you talk about the groups you play with?

    Rio Con Brio is the name that guitarist Mike Burdette and I gave our duo, which grew out of him coming to my house a couple nights a week after work in 2005-2006 while I was freaking out on Brazilian choro.

    Stumptown Swing was a choice we made to put together a solid swing group, as opposed to just doing pick-up gigs with random cats. Keith Brush was the best upright bass swing player in town, and we'd played with Ben Blechman on violin from the beginning. It has since turned into a vehicle for me to explore lead singing and high-energy bandleading, both of which I am coming to love as much as the mandolin. "Stumptown", by the way, is a nickname for Portland, Oregon, where we all live.

    Stumptown at Wintergrass

    Stumptown at Wintergrass

    The Old Yellers is based around a pair of Americana songwriters, Michael Berly and Matt Voth, who I've known and played with in several groups ever since I came to Portland in 2001. Ten From Town is a project they put together that was stripped-down acoustics, with Everly Brothers-style vocal harmonies, and featured my mandolin as the primary melody instrument. We ended up getting my friend Simon Lucas, with whom I'd played Brazilian music, to flesh out the tunes with percussion. He's since become an integral part of this, now, quartet.

    Tim Connell and Eric Skye - June Apple, from 2016

    Eric Skye is a great steel-string, fingerstyle jazz guitarist who just happened to live a quarter mile from my house in Portland when we met. Again: weekly hangs over espresso at each other's homes for a while and then gigs playing modal jazz and some jazz standards with Brian Casey on bass.

    The project that Eric and I finally introduced to the world was not jazz at all (of course!), but a collection of our peculiar takes on standard bluegrass fiddle tunes, June Apple (2016). We'd play fiddle tunes together just for fun and, I admit, I was a little dubious when Eric began pushing for this repertoire to be our debut. But, I'm glad I trusted his vision, because it came out just lovely, interesting, and sonically beautiful. He is a visionary producer of recorded music and I'd trust him with my life after that experience.

    You were a contributor to Don Julin's first book, Mandolin for Dummies. Can you talk about that project?

    When Don was commissioned to author the book, he set up Skype meetings with me for the Brazilian section, with our friend Marla Fibish for the Irish section, and I'm sure with several more experts in other genres. He basically grilled me about choro in general and specifically about certain rhythms and grooves and musical details, several of which ended up in that chapter.

    You are also contributing lessons to Julin's Mandolins Heal the World (MHTW) lesson site. What can you tell us about that?

    Tim Connell - MandAloneMandolins Heal the World is a great and growing archive of video lessons from Don and now from several other contributors.

    So far I have only put up my solo arrangements from MandAlone, but I will continue to send in more on a regular basis covering harmony, music theory, technique, and improvisation.

    You wrote a book of song arrangements for solo mandolin, MandAlone. How did you approach this project?

    Those arrangements came about naturally as I tinkered with the mandolin, learning choros, learning all my arpeggios, and figuring out two- and three-string chords.

    I already knew all the chords from piano and bass, and I was undertaking the frustrating, fascinating task of figuring out how to play them all on the mandolin. So, learning new melodies alone at home, I would often attempt to fill in the chords underneath, like a pianist.

    Most songs would not work as performance pieces, but I persisted on the ones that showed promise: Ernesto Nazareth's "Odeon" (which, to be honest, was already pretty fleshed out on Jacob do Bandolim's original recording), "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago (to which I later applied the duo-style gliding triplets that I had heard from Caterina Lichtenberg and Carlo Aonzo). "Here Comes the Sun" was originally a special request I had for a wedding gig where I was playing solo mandolin for the ceremony - it was for the bride's entrance.

    NOTE: Tim makes a free download of the music and an MP3 for this piece or download it directly here.

    You've recently set up a video studio at home. What are your plans for it?

    Well, I don't want to get anyone's hopes up, as I'm still on a steep learning curve with FinalCut and ProTools, but it's a simple room with green screen, diffusers, and tripods that I have used to shoot the first MHTW lessons and which I hope to use to produce hundreds of more lessons, both for Don and eventually for my own DVD series. The other thing I'm planning to do is produce performance videos of solo pieces or even multi-track arrangements and compositions, possibly as a substitute for full-length CDs (which certainly are coming to an end), if I can get the sound quality where I want it.

    Also, when touring musicians come through town, those we host at our home, I could record them playing solo or with me. And, taking a cue from my friend Dudu Maia in Brasilia, I'd love to create an archive of performances of the great musicians who live here in Portland. In addition, my teenage son Quinn is an avid film-maker and special effects enthusiast, so building this studio provides him with a greenscreen, good cameras, and lighting.

    Any other mandolin-related projects you can tell us about?

    I'm re-recording all the MandAlone tracks and will have a real audio CD available in June, so folks who don't want to shell out for the book/CD can purchase just the audio. Plus, these tunes have grown better in the three years since I recorded the tracks for the CD that comes with the book. My son Quinn and I will do another Oregon desert trip this August and hopefully record some good follow-ups to the "Here Comes the Sun" video.

    And I am working on an exciting new duo project with a phenomenal Brazilian 7-string guitarist, Brooklyn-based Cesar Garabini. We play lots of choro, but he is also a great gypsy jazz, flamenco, and tango player, so our hope is to have a varied repertoire duo act that plays both classical series and jazz festivals. We'll be touring the Northeast in October and recording our debut album after the tour. I hope it will be available in time for Christmas.

    What is the role of education in music?

    It's hard for me to champion a single method of teaching an instrument to the exclusion of others. Of course, the school model of orchestra and private classical teachers produces phenomenal artists as well as lifelong hobbyists. But we traditional music enthusiasts all know that some of the best players simply grow up surrounded by parents, siblings, and a community of other players, and become masters without any formal lessons. For me, reading music and understanding theory is very important and I loved filling in all my musical gaps at the Conservatory. But I can think of many great musicians - my friend Danilo Brito comes to mind - who far outpace me in technique and artistry, yet have never had formal training and haven't the slightest idea (or desire) of how to read music.

    Tim Connell's Music

    Tim Connell's Music

    Who were some of your influences and what did they teach you about the mandolin?

    Jacob do Bandolim for sure - I adored these recordings and still do. Meeting and spending time with Danilo Brito, who just channels Jacob made these old recordings come to life for me. Dudu Maia, another amazing Brazilian choro mandolinist, has been extremely influential and supportive over the years, urging me to be myself and embrace my "foreign accent" while playing choro. These two guys also taught me the actual mechanics of Brazilian choro - how to attack the strings with the pick, the importance of varying the volume for dramatic effect, the left-hand ornaments. Elisa Meyer-Ferreira, yet another Brazilian master of the mandolin, has been similarly supportive of this gringo choro player. She is also a great example of an artist who is both serious and very playful.

    Mike Marshall's ability to cross genres due to his comprehensive knowledge of rhythm and harmony inspired me to get my harmonic knowledge of the mandolin fretboard up to speed, and it has inspired me to attempt the same genre-hopping while trusting my own sound to evolve. Having spent time working with him in the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, I've also learned a lot from his loose and fun approach to band-leading and music-directing. And, of course, just like Elisa: he's the perfect combination of serious and silly!

    David Grisman's huge tone and distinctive tremolo are big influences on my sound. Also, his dedication to his own original body of work which synthesizes his varied traditional music influences inspires my urge to create a similar situation for myself, though hopefully with a voice all of my own.

    Mandolin Symposium

    L-R: Rich DelGrosso, Dudu Maia, Tim Connell, Don Stiernberg at the 2015 Mandolin Symposium.

    Rich DelGrosso, Dudu Maia, Tim Connell, Don Stiernberg

    I was fortunate enough to attend David and Mike's Mandolin Symposium as a student and teacher for ten years straight, meeting what seems like every mandolinist on earth at some point - and I paid close attention to every one of them! Hamilton de Holanda is an inspiration to all of us and is someone every mandolinist should know about, but for me in particular, the emotional weight of his performances has left a great impact. Carlo Aonzo and Caterina Lichtenberg, as well as Marijke Wiesenekker, are my human connections to the rich classical mandolin traditions of Europe. Mike Compton is one of my favorite bluegrass mandolinists and a serious artist carrying on and adding to Bill Monroe's very avant-garde, angular approach. Don Stiernberg introduced me to the music of Jethro Burns (and to the music of Don Stiernberg!) - his CD Angel Eyes was in constant rotation in my home and car during my early Symposium years and it was certainly one of my big models for tone, tremolo, and taste.

    And, regarding tremolo: Dave Apollon for sure - this is the artist I emulate the most with my tremolo.

    Where do you want go next with the mandolin? What's ahead?

    Again, no promises, but I will be putting time in the next three years into creating my own body of work that I can present with my own original ensemble. When I finally settled on the mandolin, I did so because I was tired of being "jack of all trades & master of none"; a similar discontent is driving me now to focus my energy on one solid project that reflects my identity and serves as a vehicle for what I do best and for the mandolin sounds which are unique to me.

    Tim Connell

    Technical Matters

    Mandolins: Tim plays an Arrow G-Model mandolin made by Paul Lestock from Mosier, Oregon. This mandolin is made with a spruce top and has Myrtlewood back and sides. Myrtlewood is a hardwood tree native to coastal Oregon and northern California. It's the only acoustic mandolin he owns and he has had it for about 10 years.

    Tim said this about its sound: "I had given Paul some feedback about wanting more bass - that is, a lower, boomier G string that was more reflective of my original Vega mandolin and of Brazilian bandolims. I also loved the sound of the noticeably longer scale of his "G-model" but had trouble reaching certain chords on it, so he designed a neck that was only imperceptibly longer than usual. Mainly it has a lower, deeper sound with less of the pure, clean treble that I hear every time I play, say, a Collings F5, and with less of the F5's classic mid-range "bark" as well. The G and D strings are more like a mandola? I always find it hard to put tone into words!"

    Connell also plays a "cheap" 1999 five-string Fender electric mandolin that has been fully worked over by his friend Mike Burdette, who also works as a luthier. Burdette put in custom pick-ups and all new tone controls, besides the usual set-up for the frets and nut.

    Strings: Elixir Mediums (.011 - .040)

    Pick: Connell uses a Wegen 1.0mm TF 100 pick. He files down the three corners to slightly shaper points.

    Amplification: Connell uses a Schertler Dyn-M pick-up attached to the top of his mandolin, so he can "plug and play." He usually runs it through a Schertler Unico or AER amplifier. In the studio, he prefers a Neuman KM-184 microphone.

    Additional Information

    Tim at Age 7 Practicing Piano

    Tim at Age 7 Practicing Piano
    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Chris Bowsman's Avatar
      Chris Bowsman -
      Great interview. I'm going to check out some choro and other Brazilian mandolin music, and more of Tim's stuff. That Arrow mandolin sure looks cool, also.
    1. John Soper's Avatar
      John Soper -
      Great thoughts from a great mandolin player! Thanks for the interview.
    1. Jim Imhoff's Avatar
      Jim Imhoff -
      A scholar and an artist; I learned a lot from Tim in lessons, swing jams, and listening at house concerts. The word that comes to me is "subtle:" June Apple and other tunes show a variety of tone, dynamics, and interplay between the duetists. But it is always musical, never in your face or "watch THIS!" Gives us a whole different way of thinking about the instrument. Portland lost Chris Thiele to Brooklyn, and Brian Oberlin is moving back to Michigan. Hope we can hang on to Tim!
    1. Kathy-a's Avatar
      Kathy-a -
      Thank you so much! I appreciate the introduction to Tim Connell and his music. What an informative interview and such a joy to watch. I agree with Doc James: Tim " gives us a whole different way of thinking about the instrument " What a gift.
    1. Tim C.'s Avatar
      Tim C. -
      Thanks so much Dr. James - & don't worry, I'm not goin' anywhere!

      - - - Updated - - -

      Thank you so much, Kathy as well, that feedback means a lot to me!
    1. Kathy-a's Avatar
      Kathy-a -
      I was happy to find a detailed review praising Tim's new CD "MandAlone" in the Classical Mandolin Society of America 's "Mandolin Journal"- August. Just wanted to share the good news! More great mandolin music to enjoy!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary today of this fine interview with Tim.
    1. DSDarr's Avatar
      DSDarr -
      Yay Tim! One of my favorite mandolin players and teachers. Haven't see you up here in Seattle recently... come on up!