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Miniature Orchestra

Miniature Orchestra

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My Long Road To Mandolin

I wonder if I could have arrived here sooner; there were periods where I was working on related efforts, like folk guitar (60s) rock guitar (70s) bluegrass (80s) and so on. But I started musical life as a violin player. After hearing my amateur mother and friends play chamber music, I begged for lessons at age three, and was granted my wish the following year.

When I was older, my mother encouraged me to listen to and buy dance records so we could play them if we had a party. So I bought a copy of "Sherry" by the Four Seasons, and then came the Beatles. I did pick up some guitar from cowboy songs and chord charts, but the Beatles and other bands got me interested in electric. This led to dance bands in high school.

All the while I was still concentrating on violin and then viola, heading off to conservatory in 1969. That didn't last, I dropped out to form a band at the invitation of a talented keyboard player and composer friend. This became a serious effort, the art-rock DC band Grits, which was where I learned the ins and outs of the music biz, the gear, the songs, and the people.

We failed to make it to recording with a major label, although we came close, and I wanted to make a living. Back to viola, practicing 8 hrs a day, and some auditions found me playing opera and ballet and then a major orchestra. I missed the club scene and the thrill of band life, trying a new song with no safety net, and learning how to make my guitar into a little orchestra on its own. I tried sitting in with country bands on guitar or violin, and dabbled with bluegrass.

No way was I adept at either, and I thought the smart thing was to use my viola/violin skills at jazz. It took a long time for me to learn how lame I was. I eventually achieved some facility around the time I realized I was not really happy with the scene or the instrument, and that there were many much more talented players trying to make a living at it. That effort was retired in 2008.

Through the years I had the occasional opportunity to hear mandolin played. I remember Seldom Scene playing in DC at the Birchmere---John Duffy was so much fun to watch and hear. Also, the occasional orchestra cameo part would come along and I would hear the old guy in the violin section mangle a mandolin part with his klutzy playing. I took over that job as soon as it was open, for a performance of Verdi's "Otello".

Other parts came along, but I was still chasing jazz on 5-string violin or viola. I eventually took a chance on a Steve Ryder 5-string in 2000, but it languished when I was not able to immediately be fluid on it. Only the anticipated return of "Otello", in 2011, with me being expected to lead a section of players, inspired me to really buckle down and work on facility.

I started a year ahead, and since one can only play one piece of music so much, I found myself trying other stuff, and I spent a lot of time with the electric. My previous work on 5-string violin had taught me lots about jazz harmonies, which meant I at least knew where the notes were, even if I couldn't get to them gracefully. Eventually I was finding solo versions of all my favorite songs and jazz tunes, and I felt secure enough to order the 10-string I am using now.

I don't know if I could have gotten here any other way. The need to pay the bills meant I had to settle for where my skills were wanted. If I had stayed in rock, I might have been a limited guitar player, only comfortable with rock licks. I might not have been able to raise a family, and I might not have been able to pay for instruments, sidemen, and recording to do the CD efforts I have tackled.

So maybe it was all necessary, but I'm not unhappy to find myself here at a late stage. At least I know how I'm going to spend retirement. No new mandos needed, only new tunes.

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