Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why do you want to learn to play the mandolin?

It was time to learn something new. That was my mindset when I signed up for mandolin lessons at Earful of Fiddle Camp. Even though I have had some musical training (piano and flute), I knew learning to play a stringed instrument was going to be a challenge. So I spent last week swatting mosquitoes and strumming strings, all so I might someday call myself a mandolin player.

Laurel and Michael
of Red Tail Ring
Oh, and as the sign says, we also got to listen to some old time music. On Tuesday, Red Tail Ring taught a workshop on harmony in the afternoon and put on a concert that night. Afterward, I asked Michael (he played the mandolin on a few songs) if he ever gave lessons. He said, "Yes." And then, perhaps noticing my age, he asked, "Why do you want to learn to play the mandolin? What are your goals?"

I responded, "Don't worry, I'm not looking to replace you." He laughed, but I could see that he was serious about knowing my musical aspirations. Perhaps his instructional approach would depend upon what I wanted to accomplish.

"I'm struggling with my fingering."

He asked, "You mean your fingers are tender?"

"They are," I said looking at the blisters on my fingertips, "but I mean creating a clean sound when I play."

He explained that the two were related. Once calluses formed, I'd be able to press on the strings with more commitment. However, we still hadn't addressed the original questions. He tried again, "Who do you want to play with or for?"

Now I got it. "Mostly with my family. My wife and son-in-law are here, too. You know, like around the campfire. Oh, and I'd like to be able to play for my grandson; songs like Puff the Magic Dragon and Itsy-Bitsy Spider." This made sense to him and we made arrangements to connect later in the summer to arrange some lessons.

At the end of the week, campers perform for the rest of the camp, friends, and family in an event called, Earful of Idol. When the group I played with finished our song, I was reminded of my conversation with Michael. I had been miserable most of the day trying to memorize the song. During the performance, I only played about half of the notes, and only half of those at the right time. My "bandmates" picked up the slack and the audience was generous with their applause, but I was ready to quit mandolin. There was no point continuing if I wasn't enjoying it.

That's when Michael's question hit me, "Why do you want to learn to play mandolin?" My purpose for picking up the mandolin was to have fun with my family. It wasn't to perform in front of strangers. Even the best audience couldn't hold a candle to this guy.

Vance wants more cowbell!
Maybe I'll be grateful I played at Earful of Idol someday - maybe not. (I do not subscribe to the "someday, you'll thank me" school of teaching.) At the very least, I gained empathy for students who "quit" math because the effort does not seem worth the experience. Whether it's music or math, learners need to find their own purpose in order to stay engaged in learning.

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