Teaching the mandolin in school — linking into a wider opportunities project

How do you go about starting a project like teaching the mandolin in schools?’ This is one of the most frequently asked questions that I face as I go about my work as a performer and teacher of the mandolin. Although, it does rank slightly better than ‘do they teach mandolin in schools then?’ or worse still, ‘what exactly is a mandolin?

Five years ago, when I began my project in spring 2002, the mandolin may not have been a completely marginalized instrument but it certainly wasn’t a main stream one either. So perhaps the question should be why? Why should I think it is such a good idea to teach the mandolin in school, especially when the curriculum is already so full.

The answer lies somewhere between my professional experience as peripatetic violin teacher of (at that time) just over twenty years and my evolving life performing as a mandolinist which had taken me to Italy for further training. As a violin teacher I was committed to helping young people to experience music through the violin and especially to help those who might not have access to private lessons. I had had a difficult upbringing, battling first with childhood illness and later fighting the limited expectations of the adults around me. It was the kindness of my violin teacher who gave me extra tuition at no cost which made it possible for me to realize my dream of working with music. I noticed that this activity, learning an instrument was only a vehicle for an amazing interaction of energy between human beings and I began to understand that my pupils didn’t need to go on to be professional musicians for me to feel successful. It was enough that I had contributed to them becoming successful, happy, human beings. If in addition they still enjoyed making or listening to music, whether as a professional or an amateur, then that was a bonus.

Learning the mandolin, I found, was quite normal in some other countries. For example, when I commuted in the nineties to Padua, Italy, to study mandolin with Ugo Orlandi at the conservatoire I discovered that young people were also able to have lessons at the conservatoire during the afternoons. The training in Italy is different in many ways. Firstly, they take seven years to train to be a mandolinist. (Other instruments can take longer.) This course, however, starts with beginners and ends up with professional standard players. It compacts our grade system and diploma course together. Secondly, the Italian system makes solfeggio an integral part of the course. This means that quite elementary players have an excellent grasp of pitch and rhythm.

Being a violin teacher lead me to notice how difficult it was to teach the violin to mixed ability children. Giving children the experience of playing an instrument is a tall order. Many children cannot cope with the complexities of pitching notes and many find the coordination between the bow and fingering too much to manage. So it occurred to me that the mandolin might overcome these problems since, although similarly tuned and fingered, it is fretted and the plectrum is straightforward enough in the early stages. It would be, I thought, easy for pupils to play recognizable tunes within a short time.

Finding a school willing to trial your innovative idea is not so easy. I thought I would approach some local schools and see if they would like me to play and talk to the children in assembly. Of course there are lots of difficulties about a approaching a school which doesn’t know you, even if you are fully qualified in both music and teaching. Luckily, before I picked up the phone, a colleague who had recently been appointed as head teacher at a local East London junior school invited me to her new school.

The next problem was instruments. I had understood from early on that as classical round-backed mandolins are not easily available in Great Britain I would simply have to buy some myself from Italy with a view to lending them out. As well as the problem of sourcing them, mandolins are not the cheapest of instrument for beginners. I purchased four instruments from the Calace family firm in Naples at the cost of £400 each (inclusive of cases, postage and bank transfers charges). The arrived by post in cardboard boxes packed with lots of polystyrene chips.

The first children were chosen by selection of their musical ability. After playing in assembly and sending a letter home about lessons we had such a long list of children waning to play the mandolin and only four instruments. At one level I didn’t like having to ask prospective pupil to play rhythm and pitch games with me knowing that I would have to make a choice. On the other hand I didn’t see another way at that time. Giving four a chance was infinitely better than nothing. The chosen children began their lessons. Parents were asked to contribute to the cost of the lesson which was subsidised by the school. The instruments were loaned out entirely free to pupils on the understanding that they were cared for and all parents or guardians signed an agreement to this effect. The instrument remained my property and I insured them.

I was lunching with a friend one day shortly after I began this project and chatting animatedly about my work between mouthfuls of pizza when my friend made an announcement. She had come into a sum of money which she wanted to put to charitable use and she had decided to help my project with a sum of £2,000. This enabled me to finance five more mandolins. I was ecstatic — overnight I was able to double my pupils!

My hunch had been right. Within six months I was able to perform simple tunes in an informal concert with the children who initially started on the mandolin project. I accompanied a performance of Twinkle, twinkle little star on my mandolin and all the children managed to keep their place and finish together. Afterwards they were so pleased with themselves — their faces beaming with pleasure and self-confidence. I too was pleased since this was something I had been unable to accomplish with violin pupils. Using the finger to stop strings and make different accurate pitches on the violin requires time and patience unless the pupil is exceptionally musical.

In the autumn of 2003 I received a call from a Greek Orthodox junior school in Croydon. They had their own collection of mandolins and were looking for a teacher. Surprised I soon learnt that many of the children at this school were embraced in a culture, through Greek or Greek Cypriot family connections, that featured the mandolin as well as the bouzouki music. I began visiting the school one day a week. Now I had two schools.

I also visit a music school at Epping in Essex on a weekly basis to teach violin. The music school is run during the evening and takes young people from a wide variety of local schools. Pupils come for instrumental tuition, theory, aural and group music making. It is a wonderful scheme because it provides a sense of community as well as a quality music education. I used to be timetabled to teach a small group entitled string group which consisted exclusively of violinists. Often I would provide a mandolin accompaniment to our music, the quirky resonant sound of which delighted my pupils. Then on one occasion, when we were rehearsing for a concert, I said, ‘what could we do to improve our performance?’ I was expecting a reply that included something about dynamics. ‘Well we could use mandolins,’ offered Lizzie, one of my shyer pupils. Taken aback I said, ‘Do you really mean that?’ ‘Yes,’ the group replied unanimously. Now at this stage there were only three pupils in the group but they were all amazed the following week when I turned up with mandolins for them to borrow.

This was a significant step forward. I had slowly been collecting a stock of instruments with which to run workshops. I had lots of ideas for workshops but as I continued with my busy teaching schedule I found it necessary divert some of these instruments to private pupils and then to the three in what has become the mandolin group. The mandolin group has increased to six with ages ranging between seven and seventeen years old. They all participate in playing repertoire which includes baroque sonatas by unfamiliar composers and which they seem to think are ‘cool’ pieces. The range of ability is between Grade 1 and Grade 7 with simple parts being arranged for the novice players. New players are recruited from wind players as well as violinists. The group has become so accomplished that they perform not only in music school concerts but also in the community, at local churches, for example, and recently in a hotel for the mayor’s annual dinner. However, most importantly I learnt from this experience that in most cases children only become infected with an enthusiasm for an instrument when they are exposed to it over time. This would link back to my Key Stage 2 work and the starting point of the mandolin project.

It is true that children will sometimes be inspired by an ‘all singing, all dancing’ presentation in assembly. Yet, in our visual, technologically driven modern world that spectacular presentation is just another flashing advert which leaves little or no impression unless it is repeated. This set me thinking because after a few years at my East London school life had become undulating. Following a sparkling start I had experienced the usual ups and downs of trying to sustain interest in my instrument. Many of the problems were completely outside my jurisdiction. A music teacher is not a social worker and cannot put everything right in a pupil’s life. Also there are constraints. I was unable to provide completely free lessons although I could provide free instruments.

I tried different approaches such as visiting year groups with my pupils for my presentations. In the meantime the school developed its music curriculum provision in line with Wider Opportunities. All children began to participate in musical activities with visiting singing and Kodaly teachers from the Da Capo project and all children from Year 3 upward started to learn the recorder. With this background of all children having of having the basics in rhythm and pitch, albeit at an elementary level, and with the changing educational ethos that Wider Opportunities has brought I have started a new scheme to find pupils. In the summer term of this year Year 3 children were offered what I call ‘Making Music with the Mandolin’ or ‘Come and Try Sessions’. These taster sessions which have only been possible with a supportive head teacher have attracted forty pupils. I have to say that the single Dance Tonight with Paul McCartney accompanying himself on the mandolin did coincide with the letter going home and may have helped a bit!

I still have only eight places for mandolin in September and two of them are already taken, so I am looking for six new pupils. Am I downhearted? No, of course not, because I gave forty children to experience, amazingly, making music with the mandolin at no cost to the parents. I had them all strumming open strings, with their fingers (no plectrums), in different rhythms whilst I played various tunes. Their gasp of delight when they opened up the cases and saw the instrument for the first time and their happy, positive response to the whole activity sent me home exultant with joy. And this autumn I have a very long waiting list!