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Mike Marshall's Trip to Wuppertal, Germany

By Mike Marshall
June 4, 2009 - 10:30 pm

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NOTE: Mike Marshall recently paid a visit to Germany and hosted a mandolin workshop at the University where Caterina Lichtenberg teaches. On the heels of our recent Cafe column Caterina Talks Classical, Mike offered to share with us the experiences behind his trip in his own words and we felt our readers would enjoy his observations.


Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall

Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall

I visited Germany this past May and went to the heart of the classical mandolin. I was invited to teach a workshop at the University of Cologne where Caterina Lichtenberg is the head professor of mandolin on the campus in the town of Wuppertal.

What an amazing experience. I taught a workshop to her 11 full time mandolin students. Also present were some guitarists as well as a few other music students and faculty.

These mandolinists study with her 3 times a week for 1 hour each and they also play for each other and are critiqued by each other. In addition, they perform in a couple of ensemble classes.

They perform often with pianists, harpsichords and guitarists who are also students at the University, as well in a Baroque Ensemble (with early instruments) and in an Zupforchester (plucked string orchestra). What an invigorating and engaging environment to be a part of at this early stage of one's development as a student.

The idea for the workshop was to present the American style of mandolin playing to these otherwise very classically based students, to teach a few tunes and show some of the techniques that I use when playing my own music. To my relief, the right hand position that I have developed over the years is very close to what Caterina has been teaching these students. There were many other similarities as well that made the exchange very easy going. Of course these students all play bowl back mandolins and use very different picks than I do.

Caterina made if very clear from the start that the students would be very interested in what I would have to say about playing chords and rhythm on the mandolin, so that became the focus of the workshop. Bluegrass, Jazz and Swing and Choro were all very new to these students so there was plenty of good energy in the room. This was all very new and hip for most of them.

The mandolin in Germany and much of Europe is thought of primarily as a melodic instrument and many of the players have no experience or knowledge about how to play chords and what kinds of things to do as a rhythm player. Harmony is taught there the same way it would be here in classical music. They don't really use the language of jazz to describe harmony, so we had a few linguistic issues. One of which is the fact that in the German school of music they have the letter H. It is our B. When you say 'B' in German it actually means Bb so we had some pretty good laughs with that one.

This business of not playing any chords was a pretty big shock to me, since from the beginning here in America, most of us think of the mandolin as a time keeper and we spend the better part of our music making lives playing grooves of various kinds.

The other shock to me was that in Germany women primarily play the mandolin. No real 'man' would ever play such a silly instrument. This I found very curious since in America and Brazil of course the opposite is the case and the mandolin actually has a kind of machismo image. Interesting, for sure.

Caterina's students were all really stunning players. I could not believe what I was hearing. She has been teaching at the university since 2003 and before that at a conservatory since 1991. Caterina began as a student of Marga Wilden-Hüsgen in 1989 after the wall came down and then ended up become an assistant teacher to her. In February 2007 Marga retired and the University held a competition to find a new professor. In this competition in May 2007, ten of her past students applied for the position and finally four were chosen for the final round which was held on May 14th in 2007. Every one of these four invited persons had to give a performance, to teach a student in front of the 15-member commission and open public and then hold a lecture and talk about their vision for the future of this professor position - it was a 12 hour marathon... At the end Caterina took over as the head professor of the department and began teaching in November 2007.

As a mandolin crusader, Marga was a miracle worker. A fireball of a woman who pushed anyone in her way to the side in her quest to give the mandolin it's due as a legitimate position in the world of classical music. And she succeeded. She really created something spectacular in this little town. Marga was the teacher of most of the best players you see in Europe today. They all play at a very high level and with a complete understand of the history of the music. Caterina and Gertrude Troster both studied with her. 6 or more of Marga's former students have gone on to great teaching and performing careers as mandolinists. She also published many out of print works and method books on her own. Today the mandolin is taken seriously at the University level and taught in the music schools in Germany right alongside all the other instruments and it is in large part due to Marga's tenacity.

These original students of Marga are now beginning to spawn the next generation of great players and I believe that it will grow and grow from there on into the future.

The mandolin in Germany had a similar heyday much like our American mandolin orchestra history in the early 1900s. The only difference is that it has continued its presence and importance in Germany throughout this century. Today there are over 600 mandolin and guitar orchestras still in existence going strong with many young players in these groups. The German Plucked String Society (BDZ) has 12,500 members.

There are many gatherings, contests for all age groups, festivals, new music being composed and many schools for learning the instrument throughout the country.

This is in part due to Germany's social support for the arts. In every town there are music schools. These are after school centers where any child can go and take music lessons fairly inexpensively and the government is helping to cover the costs so that the teachers earn a decent wage. It's a very strong model, where many kids are beginning to learn mandolin and other instruments and these good players/instructors are able to make a living.

As her former student, Caterina is continuing in Marga's footsteps keeping the standard of playing and teaching at the highest professional level. No different than the other orchestral instruments taught at the University. So consequently we have this second generation of young mandolinists who are playing beautifully with lots of fire and incredible technical skill.

Caterina's students are learning to play the entire classical mandolin repertoire from the 17th century through contemporary compositions. They are also learning the art of teaching children, groups of children and adults. There are very different sets of skills needed for each of these situations and the music school is required to teach the teachers to communicate well before they graduate.

I have learned quite a few things about our instrument from Caterina. Paris in the 18th century. This was a great period for the mandolin. Some of the best players and teachers were in fact from Italy but they made their way to Paris (at that time the center of culture in Europe).

The composer Leone was from that period and wrote some beautiful and very challenging music using all of the most advanced right hand picking techniques This is cross picking like you can't imagine. The method books from Denis and others who were there demonstrate that the level of playing at that time was at the highest of any period.

Much of the music from the 17th century is written for the Baroque mandolin with its gut frets and strings. This instrument is actually tuned in 4ths except for one string, which is a 3rd (much like a guitar but higher pitched). Some folks think of this instrument as a soprano lute. It is played with a quill. Surprisingly the sound is really powerful with all this resonance coming from a deep body and this featherweight wood that makes you feel like you are inside of a cathedral. Many builders in Europe are making beautiful replicas of these instruments today. Caterina actually runs a Baroque ensemble with Baroque mandolins, lutes and thiorbos and other instruments.

All of Caterina's students are required to study and perform on these instruments as well as the traditional Neapolitan instrument that we all know as the bowl back and of course tuned EADG.

The mandolin seems to have fallen out of popularity sometime after this golden era in Paris in the 1789 and started to become popular in Vienna at around 1800 till 1830 and it is later that we have another boom in Italy around the second half of the 19th century. Raffaele Calace was one of the men who took the mandolin again out of its folk music image and elevated the art to a much higher level with some amazing works for solo mandolin and mixed ensembles The great mandolinists who immigrated to American in the late 19th century were all from this school of mandolin playing. Metal strings, lots of tremolo, very passionate playing.

Calace was also a builder of instruments and created some of the most amazing mandolins to this day. And he wrote a 6 volume method with many wonderful compositions. He also built mandocellos with 5 pairs of strings with a high E and wrote a method for this instrument as well.

When you hear some of Caterina's students playing his solo pieces you will be stunned. This is really difficult music but to hear these young kids really playing this music, bringing it to life and lifting it way off the page, it is an inspiration.

The students are also playing the works of the contemporary composers, one of whom is Yasuo Kuwahara (1946-2003) from Japan. He was a friend of Marga's and wrote some very intense new works for mandolin that utilize many of the advanced techniques that had actually been created 200 years previous. The students all seem to love his music and as soon as one student learns a new piece, the other kids want to jump on it as well. So there is a spirit of pushing each other just from being in this environment that is really healthy for the development of great playing.

All in all, it was a great trip. I felt like I was transported back in time to an era when the mandolin was taken seriously at the University level. If I have anything to do with it, one day this will be the case in our country. The only difference will be that there will also be a program for learning jazz harmony and improvisation and other types of music from around the world, all with the same level of detail and history that I experienced there in Wuppertal for classical music. It's a Dream for sure.

What a beautiful model we have right now with the work Caterina is doing. I encourage you all to go there and visit. She is a delight, as any of you who have met her know, and she will welcome you and give you the grand tour I am sure.

Unfortunately for foreigners who would like to enroll in Caterina's program there is a very intensive musical examination that you would have to pass and one of the requirements is to be fluent in German as well so... I guess it would be a long road for many of us.

Additional information:
Caterina Lichtenberg
Mike Marshall

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