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By Mandolin Cafe
September 29, 2013 - 9:00 pm
If I were to share my short list of the most influential people in the long-term operation of the Mandolin Cafe, the name Ted Eschliman would be very near the top.
He's widely known to the mandolin world as the creator of one of our favorite web sites, JazzMando.com, and many of you have gleaned knowledge from his his best-selling Mel Bay book Getting Into Jazz Mandolin. He also served as a long-time columnist for Mel Bay's Mandolin Sessions that ceased operation in April, 2012.
Those are just a few of his mandolin credentials. Move into the retail music world where he co-owns a small chain of regional music stores in southeast Nebraska and now you're talking industry consultant and convention guest panelist. To say that he possesses a gift of communication is an understatement. He's a leader in the music community.
My communication with Ted is frequent, often about the health and well-being of the Mandolin Cafe's Forum where he serves as chief moderator or "shepherd," in his own words as a man of faith. When our members say we operate one of the more civil music forums on the internet, it's Ted's guiding hand that has lead the way.
Meet the man that plays a huge role in the Mandolin Cafe in addition to many other hats he wears in the musical word. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I've enjoyed the role he's played in this bit of fun we engage in on a daily basis. I'm proud to call him my friend.
— Scott Tichenor
Mandolin Cafe: What is it about former trombone players running mandolin web sites?
Ted Eschliman: Ironically, I have a straight answer to what you probably intended as a lighthearted question. My background is in instrumental music education (trombone major), as well as three decades in music retail helping beginning band students acquire their first instrument. I know firsthand that some personality stereotypes are true, one of them trombonists. They tend to be supportive, behind-the-scene types. Not much for the limelight, like a trumpet player, but always looking for a way to contribute to the ensemble, to "give."
I've heard band directors talk about whenever they needed assistance on band trips or contests; it was "ask a trombonist." They always want to help, more comfortable keeping in the background. The Webmaster role certainly seems appropriate.
As for musicality, being a trombonist, I do credit my years on a wind instrument developing my mindset for "line." Without the physical continuity of bow or air column, a musician may never instill a sense of phrasing. When you run out of air, you're forced to stop, breathe, and start a new phrase. This discipline forces you to think line in digestible segments, intentional sentences if you will, and not wander senselessly. I've often found that approach missing in even some high-powered professional's solos. What was that classic line from the movie Amadeus?
"Too many notes..."
Mandolin Cafe: You were already a seasoned guitarist with a recording(s?) under your belt when you picked up mandolin. Was there a "moment" when you realized you had to try the mandolin?
Ted Eschliman: I'd use a completely different adjective than seasoned, more like "frustrated." Seemed there were good guitarists around every corner. The mandolin was something no one around me really wanted to tackle, and like the trombone, an opportunity for a unique voice. I saw a ruby red Ovation Celebrity acoustic electric mandolin hanging in our guitar showroom about 15 years ago and just had to give it a try. Wasn't but a couple years later I surfed into the Mandolin Cafe website and used its resources as a tool for teaching myself. My recording projects (cassette and three CDs) were more homebrewed — MIDI singer/songwriter, with a little hack guitar thrown in. After the mandolin caught on, I abandoned silicon for wood and steel. Software for strings.
My love for jazz took me down a slightly different path than the folk/bluegrass musician learning the instrument. For me the white-note keys of the genre and the limitations of open string based playing steered me immediately toward the path discovering an efficient way of opening up the fretboard to chromaticism and extended chord voicing.
I fashioned on my FFcP (Four Fingered closed Position) strategy as a way to systematically access all 12 keys and tackle jazz standards very early in my own playing, and started to journal it. I determined the instrument and its 5ths tuning opened a uniquely practical world to me I had never dreamed possible before. Two years of teaching undergraduate music theory also drove me to the fast lane to expressing myself on this marvelous instrument. I just had to share it, and the JazzMando site was started.
Mandolin Cafe: Speaking of FFcP, your Getting Into Jazz Mandolin is a Mel Bay best seller. Besides having great content, you've marketed if very effectively. What lessons are there here for musicians who aren't always the best with the business end?
Ted Eschliman: Thanks. Frankly, I was in the right place at the right time initially just getting the opportunity to write for a world class publisher. Having a powerhouse like Mel Bay behind the project even before I started on it was pure luck. A serendipitous connection with my store's district Mel Bay sales rep put me on the radar of company president Bill Bay who liked my website and contracted me to get the book going. But what a lot of authors (and perfomers!) have to realize, it's not just about creating the product itself, it's marketing and post-project tenacity.
Folks may be unaware, I'm not a stellar player, yet I do admit to the gift of communication. I knew from day one I'd never be in a position to hawk these at a workshop, clinic, or performance, so I had to use other tools at my disposal to get the word out and support the distribution capabilities of a great publisher.
Posting a weekly online "Tips and Tricks" column, eight years contributing to Mel Bay's Mandolin Sessions, putting free exercises and articles out there on my site before, during and after publishing, even selling strings and picks to broaden merchandise channels of exposure helped make this book a Mel Bay best seller. Connecting with social media like MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook have also strengthened the network, and I'm always happy to hook up with new learners. Of course, an occasional conversation on the Cafe is good, too, but I try not to cross the line there into heavy-handed selling.
Mandolin Cafe: You've become a champion of instruments with new designs, new colors and other non-traditional (ie., non Gibson F-5, A model) attributes and have really helped drive that market. What's behind that and did you see this as part of your legacy when you launched the site?
Ted Eschliman: It's somewhat controversial in the Cafe community to push too hard, I'm not too overt there with my passion for non-traditional styles, but on the JazzMando website, one of my goals is to propel new designs and new thinking about what the mandolin should be. I've written literally dozens of hands on-reviews with a huge emphasis on promoting new builders with the goal of championing their exposure. Come on, how many tobacco-burst F5s do we really need in this world? It's been done and done well. Time to move into the 21st Century. (I'm especially fond of the L5 guitar body mandolin.)
Builder Austin Clark with Ted Eschliman enjoying an evening at Lawrence's Free State Brewery. Photo credit: Scott Tichenor.
Mandolin Cafe: More than a champion of jazz online, you brought artists like Paul Glasse and Don Stiernberg into Lincoln's (Nebraska) Jazz In June which turns out thousands of listeners. A massive event. What was it like convincing the powers that be that this would work?
Ted Eschliman: Yup, those concerts were quite a chore, but it was a labor of love when I could include them. Someone like yourself who administrated several years of first class mandolin festivals in Lawrence knows the calorie burner coordinating these events can be. I was cursed/blessed with leading the charge on this 4-5 week event in June for several years. With my bias towards jazz mandolin, I was able to sneak Paul and Don into a few of these on the popular local concert series. Attendance was four to five thousand, and frankly, the behind-the-scenes work burned me out, but I got to hook up with some other great artists like John Jorgenson, Joe Locke (vibes) and John Carlini on a personal level.
Ted Eschliman with Paul Glasse.
Below, photo credit: Ted Eschliman
Mandolin Cafe: What's the biggest misconception about jazz played on a mandolin?
Ted Eschliman: Don Stiernberg and I discussed our dream of the day the mandolin will be thought of as much a jazz instrument as a sax, trumpet, or piano, but we know we've got a huge uphill battle. The first hurdle can be the broader mandolin community itself which (speaking of instrument personality stereotypes) is pretty stoic and characteristically resistant to change. Add to this, a general population that doesn't even know what the instrument is (oh, cool little guitar!), we've a long line to get into the "club."
Some of the reasons are mechanical. Outside of tremolo, the instrument's diminutive scale is understandably short on sustain, and its soprano register doesn't lend itself well to a dedicated accompaniment role. It also requires a mic or pickup to compete with a loud wind instrument like sax or trumpet. That said, because it's polyphonic it can be chordal, and especially if you add a 5th course or go into the tenor range of the mandola, there is plenty of green sonic pasture out there.
Going back to the line thing though, I push the idea we have to think like a horn player. Tremolo helps, but I'm of the minority that thinks it's a cheap way to accomplish sustain. It all starts with a healthy pick stroke, and follows with intentional left hand grip, making each note connect with what David Grisman calls "squeezing a golf ball" grip. It's conscious and with the right amount of focus and a good instrument, the mandolin can produce wonderful line in the right acoustic environment.
Good tone is what goes on between the notes.
Mandolin Cafe: Among your former experience, freelance studio singing for a local jingle company. There has to be a few good stories here.
Ted Eschliman: Indeed. I was a hack jazz keyboardist out of college and just into the MIDI revolution of the late 80's, I was able to develop some studio production skills. I went through my singer/songwriter phase as a contemporary Christian singer and did some time in a local studio in some of my own projects. The studio did well producing jingles for local advertisers, and the owner initially enlisted my lyric skills for some client projects. Through singing my own demos, I got on part time as a studio singer. Some of the best local grocery store, funeral home, and mortgage bank commercials you'll ever hear! Still, it's some of the best money I ever made as a musician, and I loved, loved, loved being in the studio.
But I traded it all for what Will Patton and I call the financially lucrative world of jazz mandolin.
Listen to the Ted Eschliman jingle Realtor, circa 1990-1991.
Mandolin Cafe: What kind of projects are you involved in at the moment?
Ted Eschliman: Sadly, I don't feel like there are enough hours in the day, and I'd really like to put more time into practicing. Sometimes I get done writing and responding to web correspondence and I realize I've cut into my personal practice time. This infernal balancing act bothers me, leaves me short on time to develop broader repertoire.
That said, I'm very committed to playing in my church. Currently I'm part of a praise team in a very large congregation, Lincoln Berean Church and this is important to me. As artists I feel it's our obligation to invest time on music that truly packs meaning, and my Christian faith is profoundly important to me. No more noble mission bringing a congregation to His altar on Sunday mornings.
It's also relatively new terrain placing the mandolin in this contemporary context, electric guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and though that's a challenge in itself, I'm enjoying breaking new ground there. The mandolin should not be just "a little guitar," and I'm big on exploiting its three most obvious strengths, backbeat accenting (chop), accompaniment crosspicking for subdivisional energy, and solo tremolo for quieter moments of intimacy. Those are all uniquely "mandolin," and not guitar.
My other passion is playing with my kid. Every parent musician ought to take time to work on music with his/her child before they grow up and leave the house. My 15 year-old daughter has been playing violin about six years now. Accompanying her is incredibly rewarding. It likely won't be her career path, but we always have an audience at family gatherings.
One of the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Interviews from July, 2013.
Mandolin Cafe: You're an industry consultant (Rigel Mandolins, Century Strings, D'Addario, Labella, various builders) and recognized leader in the business of music retail by organizations like NAMM and others as co-owner of a regional chain of music stores that survived the Guitar Centers and amazons of the world. Has the world of music retail calmed down post-internet boom or is it always chaotic?
Ted Eschliman: I've been a columnist for Music Inc Magazine for eight years now, writing about independent music retail, in addition to my full-time job co-owning a (now five) store music chain in eastern Nebraska. I've been with my store for 33 years and have lived through exponential change, retail in general. When I started in 1980, we'd go to trade shows like NAMM, pick the best products, come back to our stores and tell our customers what they needed to buy. Then our team of seasoned professional (most of them players, music majors or former teachers) told them how much they would pay for it. Dare I say, at some healthy margins. In the mid 80's retail changed. Catalogs, 800 numbers, and music industry magazines evolved the communication between music store and customer. In the 90's the onset of the "big box" style of retail made things more competitive, and of course later the internet and cyber-shopping only intensified this. In the last two years, I'm competing with the music store in a pocket, the smart phone. Today's retail is a tough world. Now, a customer walks through the front door and says "I've done my research already, I want X, and I will pay $X." Then they'll show a picture on their smartphone the three lowest prices they can get it.
Still, musicians really need that 3rd and 4th dimensional buying experience. Even though it's hard to pay music store employees a wage they can live on, most of them appreciate the environment where they can connect with like-minded folks and surround themselves with gear and people that make life interesting. We do our best to give employees a steady day gig with flexibility so they can supplement with outside income, bands, choir director, teaching lessons, etc. Our customers purchase instruments and accessories we believe in and use ourselves, in the flesh, and that environment is a much more pleasant atmosphere to purchase from than a sterile cyber experience. My stores sell culture, not commodities, and everyday we work toward that mission. At competitive pricing, I would argue.
Mandolin Cafe: You've held down the role of lead moderator of the Mandolin Cafe's forum for close to ten years, a responsibility we're eternally grateful you've undertaken. What's your philosophy behind the effort?
Ted Eschliman: Our mission as Moderators of the discussion forum is to create a safe environment where healthy discussion about the mandolin and making music can flourish. We set up basic guidelines that serve to thwart behavior that might cause undue discord or disruption, including making taboo topics of sex, politics, religion, and a few isolated issues that have a history of inevitable downward spiral. 99% of our community either gets this or is at least willing to go along with the rules. Once in a while, the clueless 1% decides either out of malice or simple immaturity, they don't want to go along with the rules, and we have to deal with them.
Not surprisingly, this often happens after midnight, under the "influence," and we have to take out the trash. A good janitor keeps messes invisible, you never know how much he/she does to keep the environment clean, and moderating is just like that. We really to try to give folks a long leash, and when we have to deal with trouble, we try to do it invisibly. Clear rules help our cause, and we have some really good people in the membership that privately assist us in keeping the forum progressive, nurturing, and inclusive. I'm very proud to be a part of this community.
Mandolin Cafe: Ten years plus of JazzMando.com online. What does the future look like for the site down the road?
Ted Eschliman: I'm very grateful for the support of my readers, and the beyond the call of duty mentoring you've done personally with my own site. Folks may not realize we have over 2,000 separate pages at JazzMando, complete with lessons, reviews, news, tips and tricks, guest writers, and a lot of practical knowledge that goes even beyond learning jazz.
Of course it started in 2003 with the intent of bridging the jazz world with the mandolin fretboard, but I'd like to think we've done a good job compiling tips, techniques, and playing concepts that go beyond just that and expand the horizons of any mandolinist. One problem I have through is that that massive gravity of the material is falling into itself. There's so much that it's easy to get lost, and I'm thinking the best thing for me to do is clean it up, categorize, and reorganize to make it even more navigable. That's a never-ending battle. I know I can't administrate this forever, and I'm already planning when I might sunset it into more of an archive collection. I'd also like to add video at some point, but there are so many great resources like ArtistWorks and the stuff Don Julin and Pete Martin are doing.
Many have noticed I stopped selling strings this summer, that was a time thing. I made a lot of new friends that way, but I have to balance all this with the demands of family, a full time job, industry consultation, and through all that, still find time to practice on my own. With the JM11s, I put a lot of personal time into not only developing the flatwound mandolin string market, but tireless after the sale support, replacing defective strings, counseling customers on gauging and forwarding feedback to the manufacturer. It was starting to be more than one man could handle, so I started working with the market and research of a different company, D'Addario on a project several years ago.
They were helpful in getting the FW74 strings to the market, but it was an agonizingly slow three-year process. My endgame was to see them continue this into the entire mandolin family, mandola, octave, etc. I'm not holding a lot of hope though; doubtful they'll be budged any deeper. In their defense, I'm not sure our community is aware of how niche the mandolin string market is, compared to the more lucrative guitar — electric, acoustic, classical, flamenco, resonator, etc. Even Thomastik seems to be pulling back the reins on their mandolin family strings. The personal day to day chore of selling the JM11 strings out of my basement single handedly became more than I wanted to continue to tackle on my own. I'm grateful for the support of the JM11 customers, and I have had a couple interested parties look at taking over distribution, but they backed out. I think the FW74 is a string that will scratch the itch, though.
Mandolin Cafe: Our daughters are almost identical age. We know the story behind your family but fill our readers in on your extended family, four-legged creatures included.
Ted Eschliman: It's been fun to share war stories raising daughters with you, but you know we're both blessed with good, talented kids. Like you, I got into the parent game late, my 40's, but being more "mature" has made me appreciate time with my daughter in-arguably more. My wife is quite the professional, 25+ years as a commercial real estate broker, city council, local radio talk show host, authoring her third book, and with all that on her dance card, it's made me investing myself in being a good Dad all the more crucial. Now with my baby driving cars and looking at SAT tests and colleges, I'm aware how fleeting this stage of life is.
The "four-legged" you're referring to would be our Shetland sheepdogs. We've developed a passion for rescue Shelties, adopting these glorious critters in the back half of their lives. Over a period of 25 years, we're on our seventh one now, though we try to keep it to only two at a time. I can't say enough how great it is to adopt older dogs since they're broken in — far less behavior issues. It is sad you only get them a few years, but it's their golden ones for sure. They are a great investment in a quality life for pet and owner.
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