Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Music makes the man

The mandolin is a light and happy instrument

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Express Staff Writer

Jeff Waggonner strums his A-model Mandolin. Express photo by Dana DuGan

Bring music into your life
First in a series of three

One of the benefits of living in the Wood River Valley is the ability to watch and hear up close an extremely adept cohort of local and visiting musicians play a myriad of instruments for our pleasure. After awhile one may be inclined to pick up one of those sublime sounding instruments and join the ranks of amateur players who gather in living rooms to create music. A person could spend weeks jumping from instructor to instructor, instrument to instrument and never leave the valley. It's all about bringing music into your life and exploring the possibilities.

When you've suddenly decided that this is the year to learn a new instrument, the first issue may be which one. The accordion may appeal for a number of reasons; it's cool looking in a retro kind of way and is essential for Cajun music. A fiddle is a tempting prospect, especially since several inspiring fiddle players have played in the valley over the years, including Eileen Ivers, Sam Bush, Laurie Lewis, and Alison Krause. Taking up the piano might work, but, then again, it's not very portable. Drums, of course, are always a blast. Finally, a guitar-playing friend, sick of seeing his ax manhandled by amateurs, suggested the mandolin. Bingo!

It seemed important to own a mandolin and, thankfully, friends were kind enough to help out with the process and teach a few chords. Chip Booth, a mandolin player and instructor who works at Sunburst Guitar in Ketchum, helped tune the new instrument and advised buying a "Beginner Mandolin" book.

Finally, after months of struggle a real lesson seemed in order. Mitzi Meacham, who owns Music & Me in Hailey, suggested taking a lesson from Jeff Waggonner.

Waggonner, 22, was born in San Diego and moved to Coeur d'Alene when he was 10. He already played piano, but at age 12 picked up the guitar. He spent the summer of 1998 at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and graduated from Whitman College in 2004, where he was a Film and Rhetoric major.

So, he can speak, but can he play? Yup. Waggonner is what you call musically inclined. He also plays the guitar, drums, harmonica and bass.

The lesson at the cheerful Music & Me studio began by tuning the mandolin by ear, something that seemed fairly impossible since what passes for an "ear" at this point has been dulled by years of loud rock 'n' roll, kids crying and the noisy machine ridden sounds of the 20th century.

"So what do you know already," he asked. This was a quick bit of business. An enthusiastic instructor, Waggonner responded to the playing of three chords as if he were listening to a particularly gifted child, despite having to point out that the G and C were mixed up. Oops.

What makes the mandolin an interesting and fairly difficult instrument to learn is the tight space one has to work within on the small neck. Each of the four strings has a twin, making eight strings but only four notes: G, D, A and E. The mandolin is completely different than the guitar on the fretboard layout. However, on the positive side there are frets as note markers, unlike the fiddle. Most of the open-position chords only require two fingers, and having to learn with a flatpick, rather than fingerpicking, is quite a bit easier.

Mandolins evolved from the Lute family in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries, where a deep bowled version was popular. The original instrument was called the mandola, from the Italian word for almond, mandorla. A later, smaller version was developed and became known as a mandolina. Eventually, mandolins became standard instruments for Celtic, bluegrass, jazz and classical styles. Much of the development of the modern day mandolin is due to Orville Gibson, of the Gibson Guitar Company, and his chief designer Lloyd Loar.

In May 1896, Gibson filed his first and only patent for the construction of a mandolin with a carved top and back, and sides that were cut from a solid piece of wood. This American style mandolin is now widely used worldwide.

Waggonner first wanted to know if there was something in particular the student wished to learn. Richard Farina's "Pack Up Your Sorrows" was suggested. Written in the 1960s by Farina and Paulette Baez Marden, a sister of his wife Mimi, (and Joan Baez). After, figuring out the chords in only a few minutes, he added a few other nuggets to that limited repertoire, taught the scales and some essential finger picking exercises. The repetition helps give the fingers muscle memory and helps with stretching to play certain chords.

It's not easy to master this instrument. Even when a few chords are learned cold and sound right, there are a million other ways to go.

As a songwriter himself, Waggonner is particularly drawn to a freewheeling style; learn some chords, make a song. His focus as a teacher is to encourage his students to find their own way. Practice a lot and make the finger movements a habit, he said.

His influences are Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and bluegrass, though he plays all kinds of music and is great with kids. But guitar, not mandolin, is really his main instrument.

"I want to teach School of Rock classes," Waggonner said. "I'm looking for kids who want to play with other kids in bands. I want to motivate them. I'm going to put together kids, who I think can play, together, and teach them how. They'll learn the experience of playing together. I want to verify that it's worth getting into."

Whether the mandolin seems worth getting into is another story. It seems light and happy, and it feels right, but who knows? There are other instruments to learn, other chords and scales to memorize and many, many songs to play.

Next week: Learning to fiddle.

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