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Thread: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

  1. #1
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    Question Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    I am a retired music education professor designing a study that will compare and contrast a local community bluegrass jam/class/community with a more classically oriented mandolin orchestra. I play bluegrass on a Stiver F, and orchestral music on a 1918 Gibson K2 mandocello. There are only a few of us that participate in both: there seems to be a difference in attitude and aesthetic between the two groups. There are people in both groups that also play swing, choro, and jazz.
    One serious question I need to ask first is this: Other than the common instrument, is there such a thing as the mandolin culture/community/society, or are there separate, unrelated social structures for bluegrass, classical, swing... and so on?
    The Mandolin Cafe seems like the perfect place to bring this question: I hope to hear from people involved in all different musical styles, but focused on the mandolin family. Opinions are fine, but I would be especially interested in comments offering some evidence and thoughtful support, and especially from people who participate in more than one musical style.
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    The Doctor

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    poor excuse for anything Charlieshafer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    From my experience, both sides of your question are true, and I find it true for different instruments as well. You'll find there are people who only play bluegrass, or jazz, or classical, and will only attend those concerts or festivals. At the same time, you'll find, especially on this forum, people who are passionate about the mandolin family, and play all sorts of music. I fall into the latter category, personally.

    If you need evidence, as I also present concerts, I find that the audiences fall into a Venn diagram arrangement. I have about 60 regulars who come to everything. I also have another 60-70 who will only come to certain types of music, and I can absolutely predict who will reserve for what show. There's the bluegrass crowd. The gypsy jazz crowd. The classical crowd, and then the "alternative strings" crowd. But, out of about 600 active people on the mailing list, only that 60 will come to everything, regardless of style.

    Talking to the musicians gives the same results. Some, like a Tony Trischka, a Darol Anger, or Joe Brent will talk jazz or classical all day long, and then that night lay down some hot traditional bluegrass licks. Others who grew up strictly in one tradition, aren't terribly aware of what's going on elsewhere.

    In short, you'll find all types here, even those who switch from a regular mandolin to an electric, as heck, we all want to rock out at some point.

    Overall though, I'm thing that even though most mandolin players here play different styles themselves, when they do go to a certain session or jam, that event itself will be quite rigid in what gets played. Musicians will move between the communities, but the individual communities can be pretty rigid. In any event, every high functioning group or jam or session will look for equally high levels of precision in the participants.

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    There are multiple ways of looking at this.

    Within the classical mandolin category, there's a division between players who prefer solo or small ensemble repertoire and those who will also join an orchestra.

    A few players who are interested in bluegrass, choro, jazz, et al. will also dip their toes in the orchestra pool. I don't think the majority of them stick around, however.

    I think the fundamental division, however, is between (1) players who are more comfortable reading music in standard notation and (2) those who are more comfortable playing by ear or from tabs. If, like me, you grow up reading music and not getting sufficient ear training, you'll be limited in the type of mandolin music available to you. Yeah, you can learn fiddle tunes out of a book, but what happens in the jam when someone calls a tune you don't know? Classical music may appeal to you because everything is notated for you.

    After I picked up the mandolin in college, I managed to develop enough of an ear to play a number of non-notated styles, so I'm at home in other settings besides an orchestra. I don't think this is true for most of the other people in my orchestra.
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    ex umbris et imaginibus Woodrow Wilson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    I think that it's more of a community than a culture... various communities, geared towards specific interests. I think when I use the word culture, I tend to not limit to a given instrument but rather the varying styles. There's a culture of bluegrass festival goers, there's a culture of classical music, there's an acoustic music culture (all with overlaps) but I don't see them restricted to a specific instrument. The only culture that really sticks out to me, within the larger group of musicians, are the guys that love sawdust and solder and don't just play.

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    I think that any art form that brings people together often creates its own community, with the culture defined by each of the independent sets of interactions that occur throughout the community.

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    One serious question I need to ask first is this: Other than the common instrument, is there such a thing as the mandolin culture/community/society, or are there separate, unrelated social structures for bluegrass, classical, swing... and so on?
    I would say yes there is a mandolin community and yes there are social groups for genres. Also for the different ways of participating - jammers / performers / composers.

    And of course builders and those into the sound equipment for stage performance or recording. Two strong groups one may or may not feel part of.

    I don't know why there cannot be many axes of community.

    I feel an affinity for other mandolinners, whether my genres of music or not, or whether they perform or not, just in what they do, and how, and what equipment they use, and how they have solved common problems. But I also feel an affinity for others who play the music I do, what ever the instrument, what tunes do they know, and what versions, and how do they learn new tunes. And also others who jam more than perform, whether mandolin or not.

    More importantly, I think I am more typical than not in this. I suspect (without extensive evidence and no research) that most people feel this way.

    I think the thing that makes community, as much as anything else, is shared trauma, shared troubles, shared anxieties. All of those who learn to play mandolin go through roughly the same feelings of confidence and its absence, struggle and triumph. All of those who jam, on whatever instrument, have shared trauma of the first few times, of not being prepared, and the triumph of "killing it" at a jam.

    Those we share a trauma with or whose anxieties we can relate to, or those with which we feel kinship and make community.
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    Mandolin Friendly Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Quote Originally Posted by Doc James View Post
    Other than the common instrument, is there such a thing as the mandolin culture/community/society, or are there separate, unrelated social structures for bluegrass, classical, swing... and so on?
    Doctor, I find it tough to understand elements of your question. There is a mandolin culture/community/society that shares a great deal of history but not "other than the common instrument". They are all human beings with an interest in a common instrument, which is why you would describe them as "the mandolin culture/community/society". Other than the common instrument, I find it very difficult to make sense of your question and its terms. Perhaps you could clarify your question?

    The second part, "or are there separate, unrelated social structures for bluegrass, classical, swing... and so on?" should be self evident. There are obviously "separate, unrelated social structures for bluegrass, classical, swing... and so on" separated from the mandolin.

    Think of the violin. Violinists and fiddlers have a common culture and history related to the instrument they play.

    Edit: I suppose that, apart from the instrument, they would have a common interest in music itself and thus belong to the culture/community/society of musicians, or music lovers.
    Last edited by Mark Gunter; Jan-01-2017 at 9:39pm. Reason: Final thought
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    There have been scholarly studies of people who cross the fiddle/violin lines, and have detailed their experiences both musically and socially. What I am really getting at is there any thread other than the mandolin (or any shared instrument) that connects players of different genres. And researchers are always digging into questions that seem obvious, some times shedding new light and surprises, sometimes just reaffirming common conceptions. I supervise doctoral level research and my students come up with such material all the time. Yes, the common thread of music lovers, but within that extremely broad population are sub-groups, as one of my responders noted, like "Venn diagrams," overlapping. Does a shared instrument (mando, piano, guitar, any) constitute such a sub-group?
    Apart from this, I am interested in the attitudes and goals of people who engage in the different genres. Community Music researchers call these "Participatory" vs. "Presentational"-- loosely, in it for just the fun and community, or geared toward serious performance. But as I study and write about them, do I look at them as completely different groups, or factions within a larger population...?
    And by the way, on the surface I completely agree with your description of the scene, and I think you do understand better than you seem to think you do. But I want to hear what others say: That is the nature of research. Thanks for your thoughts.

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    As expected I see a variety of thoughts on my rather odd question. Maybe the people I am really interested in are the ones who play in different genres, how the experiences change (or not) in the different settings. I am aware of the very very obvious factors--notation vs. aural traditions, conducted rehearsals vs. jams, polished performances vs. open mics and such. There is a body of research on community musical groups that investigates such questions, digging beneath those obvious factors and looking for common threads as well as stark differences.
    Already you have given me interesting perspectives and ideas beyond a "Yes/No" dichotomy--Venn diagrams, solo vs. group, jam vs. concert and so on, some of which will be part of my discussion in the study.
    What I am looking for in this Cafe post is not "the answer" by any means; rather, how people respond to the question in different ways. I appreciate your consideration(s) and might contact some of you for permission to quote in the paper I will eventually write.
    By the way, the question of "Is there a..." will not be the subject of my study; that is just a question to be addressed in the process. The answer might very well be "No," or "Yes, but..." I might or might not include that very question in my interviews and discussions, but I thought the Mandolin Cafe (which by the way IS a community centered on the instrument, not on any genre or style) would be the perfect place to throw it out there.
    THANKS!

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Thanks Doc, I do understand a few things, one is just how little I really know. But I'm not criticizing the in-depth study of things that may appear obvious, or any type of scholarly study. It may be that my thinking is limited, or my use of the language differs greatly from yours. The way you posed the question gives me a lot of trouble still. The answers that spring to mind for me are too broad to be very helpful.

    Surely players of a shared instrument, regardless of genre or circumstance, would constitute a sub-group of the broad group of musicians, and probably of music lovers. Participatory vs. Presentational I would think would be difficult; I've experienced factional behavior in some musicians regarding this, but there is overlapping which I suppose would be indicative of grouping. When studying and writing about Participatory vs. Presentational you might wish to treat both aspects, factional and grouping.

    It is interesting that the mandolin in a presentational setting lends itself more easily to ensemble playing than to solo performance. There are those who perform solo with mandolin and those who use mandolin as sole accompaniment for vocal arrangements, but these appear to be few and far between. Regardless of genre, mandolin seems to be best suited to performance with an ensemble.
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Not sure I understand the question correctly, but I'll offer a couple of observations. It seems that any community and development of a culture within that community relates more to the style of music and not to the mandolin itself. Outside of this particular internet community, I see very rare gatherings of general mandolin enthusiasts based solely on playing and comparing mandolins. You can search the Cafe discussion threads for “mandolin tasting” events and get an idea of how rarely this occurs. Probably it occurs about as often as fans of the oboe gather together to discuss and compare their instruments. On the other hand, the very fact that there is a Mandolin Cafe demonstrates that there is a fairly large and active community based around the instrument. Within this community certain cultural divisions show up, such as a pretty bright dividing line between some of the bluegrassers and everybody else, or between those who play by ear or by reading notation only and those who don't, or in the builders forum between those who hang their hat on scientific principles only and those who hang their hat in many places. Regardless of all that, folks who play mandolin all have a need for occasional set up and repair work, for advice on improving their playing ability, and sometimes for advice in buying another mandolin. I would say that defines a fairly loose-knit community that has a lot of passion for the instrument but not much of an agreed upon culture.
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  21. #12

    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    A couple of thoughts here.

    A series of questions to ask would be: How many people play just the mandolin and no other instruments? How many play mandolin as their primary instrument vs secondary? How many learned mandolin first then went to other instruments vs how many started on other instruments?

    Talking about a mandolin culture is complicated by the fact that probably most people here play multiple instruments.

    It could be looked at from the viewpoint of mandolin orchestras, such few as are left today. That concept would have been more interesting to look at in the mandolin heyday around the turn of the twentieth century.

    As far as musical styles go, I think most people would love to be proficient at a bunch of styles but there are not enough hours in a lifetime to master them all let alone on multiple instruments. Music is such a big field no one person can grasp it all.

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    No

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    I admire the spirit of the research but, while I cannot offer anything evidence-based to back up my view, I am doubtful about any meaningful cross-genre culture other than a (sometimes) shared interest.

    The majority of the people on the Cafe come from a bluegrass background, and while I admire and enjoy bluegrass, I certainly do not think it is the only meaningful form of mandolin music. However, the moment anyone dares to question that genre's right to sit at the top of the mandolin music tree, its defenders come out in droves. I love the instrument and enjoy its use in multiple music genres, but despair of the tendency to criticise anyone who dares to cross boundaries with the mandolin. The most glaring case in point being the work of one of the few true genius players, Chris Thile, who routinely gets panned for everything from his hairstyle to his clothing to the way he moves around when he is playing - by guys who quite possibly struggle when a song moves out of G-C-D.

    But of course that's simply human nature. I don't inhabit electric guitar fora, but I bet people there are also quick to pour scorn on the genius they choose to dislike. It's a community, Doc, but one with bumps and divides.

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Thanks to Doc James for the interesting question. I play in both bluegrass and mandolin orchestra settings. Playing by ear and improvisation is prevalent in bluegrass. Playing and following a score in standard notation is the norm for the orchestra setting. Bluegrass musicians usually play without any written music so memorization is common. These would be cultural differences, IMO. Both certainly call for a high skill level on the same instrument, though that brings in the issues of F vs. A, F holes vs oval, carved tops and backs vs bowlbacks and so on.

    The repertoire is certainly different though crossovers do occur such as a bluegrass band playing the occasional piece by Bach or an orchestra doing a medley of fiddle tunes. As already mentioned, players such a Thile, Trischka, Anger, Fleck and so on certainly crossover.

    I've had a thought experiment go through my head from time-to-time. If I had to choose between 1) playing mandolin in any setting except bluegrass, or 2) playing any other instrument in a bluegrass setting, which would it be? For me it would be choice 1, playing mandolin. But I suspect, at least in the U.S., there are many whose love of bluegrass is dominant. Thank goodness no such choice has to be made!

    It seems to me in the early 20th century there may have been more of a mandolin culture when there were school clubs and many more mandolin-oriented ensembles.
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    just asking, you're a member of both groups. How do you control for objectivity and observational bias?

    Would it be more useful to describe more fully the groups you are describing to allow folks more insight?
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    When I think of "(Instrument name) Culture" I can't help but think of things like Ukulele orchestras or hand drum circles.

    We have both of those in my town. Groups of amateur musicians, mainly on a beginner level, who have glommed onto a somewhat offbeat instrument and participate in these gatherings as a kind of support group. It's not about genre, it's about playing THAT instrument.

    Of course we used to have that back in the 20's with mandolin orchestras.

    But these days, I think mandolin has spread out into wider acceptance and integration in various music genres. When you get deep into a given genre of music, people aren't asking you what your instrument is, assuming it fits within the accepted range for that style of music.

    My personal thing in recent years is Irish/Scottish and related traditional music. People in the groups I hang with don't care what I have in my hand. It could be a mandolin, an octave mandolin, a flute, or a guitar (all of which I play, for better or worse). They just want to know if I can play the music. Mandolin is just a tool to get there.

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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Doc, I'm skipping ahead here...

    You are trying to explain what riding a bicycle is and posing it a a question.

    As a researcher you should be asking process questions not product questions.

    You are trying to explain the complexities of overlaying a minor 13, 4 chord over a diminished 2 chord as a question.

    The question needs to be posed IN an enviroment where you can observe it.
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    I would suggest adding the internet, and the mandolincafe more specifically, to be included in "mandolin community". Communities and cultures, like many things, change and evolve over time. With the advent of the internet, our community(s) has changed the way we access and use information. Set lists get e-mailed to band members, iPads on stages are not uncommon, and we now have access to online videos and lesson from people all over the world who play different styles of music that can can cross "cultural boundaries". Some players pick and choose from different genres to fulfill their musical needs and desires.

    The mandolincafe here is a great representation of that. Look in the subcategories and compare the post counts between the different headings. This might lead to some insight to what the people who come here to talk about. This place is my mandolin community and I'm sure that there are other who are in the same boat. I live in a very rural area that isn't to well represented in regards to mandolins and mandolin players. When I want to talk or read about mandolins, I come here for the wealth of information (some of it taken with a grain of salt) that is now available to us.

    Even in our household there are different styles of music being played by different members. I mainly play fiddle tunes / trad Irish / and classical pieces, while my sons love fast bluegrass and rock along with fiddle tunes and Gypsy Jazz. Mandolin are our main instruments, but play other instruments as well ...

    Good luck with your project and I'd love to see the final paper when completed.
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    You could ask the very same question about Violins / Fiddles or Classical Guitars / Elec.Guitars etc............. !!. If you did a survey of 'x' number of Violinists or Elec.guitarists,you'd possibly find quite a depth of appreciation for 'the other' music.

    I think that it would be quite rare to find any musician who only appreciates 'his / her' music & no other form. As musicians,most of us have a great appreciation for the skill in playing almost all instruments. We know the hours of practice & learning that we've put in & we appreciate that in others - so - musical culture ?. I wouldn't describe any of it it as a 'culture',more ''musical preferences'',each with their own set of demands / rules etc. A musician who plays more than one genre of music,will simply adopt the demands & abide by the rules of the music he plays at any given time. To me,it's like riding a bicycle & then driving a car - both are modes of transport,but have different rules & demands. I know one mandolin player in the UK who plays both Bluegrass & Classical mandolin. In each circumstance,his behaviour (& indeed his clothing) is different as he adapts to the set of circumstances that he's in - he doesn't wear jeans & Tee-shirts too often when playing Bach or a Tuxedo when playing Bluegrass !.

    I understand Doc's question very well,& i also understand the reason why he asked it,but IMO,it's not so much a musical 'culture' ,as a set of circumstances in which invidivuals act accordingly = don't chew baccy whilst you're playing Bach !,
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Quote Originally Posted by ToyonPete View Post
    I've had a thought experiment go through my head from time-to-time. If I had to choose between 1) playing mandolin in any setting except bluegrass, or 2) playing any other instrument in a bluegrass setting, which would it be? For me it would be choice 1, playing mandolin.
    Good question and a way to find out what is coupled to what. For me, the question would be
    1 - playing mandolin in any setting except ITM, or
    2 - playing any other instrument in ITM
    And the answer would be 2, and it's an easy one because I already play OM in ITM, and I used to play TB decades ago. Give me anything tuned in 5ths, but there is no life outside ITM.

    I have had excursions into classical, but baroque only because ITM is a faster version of baroque, and under the condition that I am allowed to play it the ITM way, e.g. without sheet music, with my variations in it (or somebody else's variation - the Bach Bourree I did is Ian Anderson's version).
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  37. #22

    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    One of the defining aspects of a "culture" or community can be its
    shared language. For example, I had to think about the abbreviations in the last post to figure out their meaning (and still am not sure what ITM is, though I'm probably just being clueless). When talking about culture, I think of things outside of the instrument or music such as dress, language, behavior, and customs, in which case I would have to say that there isn't a mandolin culture but cultures distinguished by the musical genre in which that mandolin is being played at the moment.

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  39. #23
    poor excuse for anything Charlieshafer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Quote Originally Posted by Doc James View Post
    There have been scholarly studies of people who cross the fiddle/violin lines, and have detailed their experiences both musically and socially. What I am really getting at is there any thread other than the mandolin (or any shared instrument) that connects players of different genres. And researchers are always digging into questions that seem obvious, some times shedding new light and surprises, sometimes just reaffirming common conceptions. I supervise doctoral level research and my students come up with such material all the time. Yes, the common thread of music lovers, but within that extremely broad population are sub-groups, as one of my responders noted, like "Venn diagrams," overlapping. Does a shared instrument (mando, piano, guitar, any) constitute such a sub-group?
    Ah, ok, that makes the answer easier. Throw out the instrument played, as that confuses things. All instruments have purposes that are cross-genre in utility. As Keith Richards once said, "You can't buy a lead guitar. You can only buy a guitar, and to be a guitar player, you have to play all of it, everything it can do." and that's true of a musician. You can be a bluegrass [;ayer, or a classical player, but to be a musician, you need to be able to play it all.

    Here comes the interesting part: All these sub-categories are fading away with the younger players. In speaking with and working with many of them in this area, two factors stand out as to why:

    1: Bluegrass mandolin has already been done. Tommy Jarrell has been recorded and documented. Earl Scruggs may have paved the way, but now it's a super-highway. At best, in staying true to these genres for a whole career, you may add a few notes to a solo, but if you have to stay to the "true history" of any genre, you're repeating what's been done. And it's been done enough.

    2: This generation hears and is exposed to everything. In 20 minutes of youtube surfing, you can catch every style of music imaginable. 15 years ago, no one remembered who Eric Dolphy was among the young guys. Now, they all not only know, but point out specific phrases from various albums. Everyone knows Blues And The Abstract Truth, Everyone knows the early Dawg recordings, everyone knows various Bach, Brahms and Sibelius pieces (as most grew up on classical lessons). I'm looking at a self-described hardscrabble old-time band, and the fiddler is using all sorts of techniques that only classical players at an advanced level would use.
    No boundaries.

    As far as mandolin goes, Mike Marshall started all that while working with Darol Anger and Edgar Meyer, Dawg certainly took the gypsy jazz angle and ran with it, and then it sort of percolated until the Chris Thiles and Josh Pinkhams came along, and now just about every other solo has either a Bach or Miles Davis quote in it.

    Here's the best description as to what's happening from the head of the strings department at Berklee, David Wallace. He's worth a phone call, if you can get through, busy dude.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBj7xUk4ClQ&t=82s

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  41. #24
    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    Quote Originally Posted by demotlj View Post
    ...and still am not sure what ITM is...
    Irish Traditional Music (open to mandolin instruments ever since Andy Irvine, but not mentioned so far in this thread)
    the world is better off without bad ideas, good ideas are better off without the world

  42. #25
    Registered User Frankdolin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is there such a thing as a "Mandolin Culture?"

    I do believe there's a mandolin culture/community in the sense that we all have that love of the mandolin in common. Not unlike my motorcycle life.I'm a card carrying Harley guy who also owns a much loved Triumph and I can meet a card carrying BMW rider with with his/hers totally different lifestyle and bike yet still become friends with a mutual respect with the only thing in common is the bike and love of the open road.I find the same with the mandolin as evidenced by this great site and the huge variation of people and ages with very different ideas concerning how and what style they enjoy. There's always the underlying love of the instrument itself that binds us.IMHO

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