Learning the mandolin — good for my brain, if not your ears

Peghead Nation co-founder Dan Gabel, left, guided me through the mandolin-buying process at Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, Calif., March 2014.

Peghead Nation co-founder Dan Gabel, left, guided me through the mandolin-buying process at Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, Calif., March 2014. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

Learning to play the mandolin at age 57, with no musical background whatsoever, is best described this way: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is stiff.

But that’s OK, because my musical adventure keeps the brain “muscles” loose and in working order.

I’ll never be ready for prime time, although I sometimes fantasize about sitting in on an Irish session at a pub. For now, I’m taking online lessons from Peghead Nation and making noticeable, if incremental, progress. (Peghead Nation co-founder Dan Gabel offers his thoughts below).

The learning curve is steep, and I often say that learning the mandolin is like learning Mandarin or another language that uses characters rather than letters. There is no frame of reference.

I remain confounded by the musical alphabet — the four double strings on the mandolin are G-D-A-E (Great Danes Are Enormous), but the D string-4th fret combination is an F sharp. (Really? Isn’t this hard enough already?)

Music has always been important to me, and there are particular songs I love. But I struggle sometimes picking out what instruments I’m hearing at a given point in a song. And this has nothing to do with the fact that my hearing in one ear is seriously diminished.

There’s tons of research on music and the brain, and the many benefits of music aren’t in question. Other than for enjoyment and the challenge, I’m taking mandolin lessons to try to help my memory and, down the road, stave off dementia.

People in my family tend to live to 90 and beyond. An aunt lived to 105. I don’t want to end up like my mom, who spent the last few years of her life in the dementia unit of a nursing home.

So I keep plugging away, following my online instructor on video, trying to learn by ear. I’ve developed my own system, literally writing down each note of each phrase of a tune. For example, “A2” is the A string, while pressing the second fret.

Through repetition, following my notes and watching the videos, the tunes eventually seep into my muscle memory. I’m not yet at that stage where I can “hear” tunes in my head just by thinking about them, but it’s a tremendous feeling when I can play something strictly from memory, without the notes.

On a really good day, I can even play a phrase or two while staring off into space, not looking at my fingers on the strings.

It’s exhilarating, it really is. Inevitably I come down to earth when I miss a fret by a few centimeters and the resulting twang makes me wince. Sometimes I laugh when that happens, although it can be frustrating enough to give it a rest for the day.

A colleague who also happens to be a wonderful singer and guitar player advised me recently to avoid watching mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers). She feared I would be so discouraged by the level of his skill, I’d want to throw my mandolin away. I’m pretty sure she was kidding.

I’m actually quite happy watching and learning from Peghead instructor Sharon Gilchrist, whose talent is quite evident. At the moment, she’s guiding me through the intricacies of  “Angeline the Baker.”

Here are some thoughts from Peghead co-founder and executive producer Dan Gabel, a fine mandolin player in his own right:

Whether it’s music or cooking or learning a language, working the brain is our best defense against losing bits of our minds these days. And I do think that music, with its connection to math and its physical aspects, is one of the best possible activities in this regard. But I know I’m biased.

I also love that you share your own system for remembering and writing down tunes, and that it sounds like you see this as a bridge between where you are and being able to fully play by ear. It’s a great technique, and really, Stevie Coyle uses a similar numbering system in his Fingerstyle Guitar course on Peghead Nation.

One final thought – listen to Chris Thile and to Bill Monroe and Mike Compton and David Grisman and Kym Warner of the Greencards and Mike Marshall. . . . They’re all monsters and while you could be daunted by the skill, I think it’s inspiring to hear someone play at such a high level. It’s like watching Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan at their peak. They’re expressing where they’re at, which is really the same thing you’re doing. When it comes down to it, it’s a human in a room with an instrument. We’re all deserving of that simple pleasure. 


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in Irish Investigations, music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Learning the mandolin — good for my brain, if not your ears

  1. When it comes down to it, it’s a human in a room with an instrument. We’re all deserving of that simple pleasure. ~ I love that line, Jim – there are so many applications for it. I want to hear you play! ❤
    Diana xo


  2. ksbeth says:

    congrats, jim. this is an excellent endeavor. i love music as well, and played violin in the 4th grade, but can’t read a lick of music and mostly sing along with what i hear. i’ve gone the route of cooking, gardening and puzzles as my mind exercise, all while i listen to music. bravo!


  3. 😀 This is a post I can relate to! I’ve been doing this with the guitar for 2 years now Jim. I am NOT musically inclined. But I love music. I am not naturally endowed with any skill. But I want to learn the skills. I told my instructor that my inabilities are job security for him. 🙂 I’m enjoying it. I don’t have the time to do what I want to do but I have the desire and want to do what I need to do. 🙂 This spoke directly to me. (I feel selfish like I am hogging this….but I’ll let others read your post too. 😉


    • Jim McKeever says:

      I thought this would hit close to home, Colleen! Slow but rewarding progress, and with an audience of one, slow is OK. I just get a kick out of remembering a tune, even if I butcher it somewhat.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I play a remarkable tune in my little room at the back of the house. Which is the only place I want to play. Though I will say, I went out to the wee back yard the other night, all fenced in, with no one around, a soft night falling, and practiced. I have to admit, none of the birds started dive bombing my head. I was pleased. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jim McKeever says:

        That’s a great idea, Colleen … Playing outside is something I’ll try (maybe it will improve the sound!) I’m sure the birds liked your playing more than you suspect!


      • 🙂 Well no bird poop either….so there’s that too! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Don says:

    Admire you beginning this musical journey Jim. Enjoy it and I hope it’s going to give you a lot of joy.


  5. Win Thurlow says:

    Wow, you really hit a chord (groan). My grandfather was a self-taught mandolin player and years ago I inherited his instrument. As well, my sister gave me a ukulele at Christmas. I’ve been meaning to find some sort of lessons, but keep procrastinating. You’ve inspired me. I hadn’t considered online lessons. Do you think they’d work for a complete novice like me?


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Absolutely, Win, yes! I had no musical training whatsoever, and I’m able to at least make it look (if not sound) as if I know what I’m doing once in a while. I strongly recommend the Peghead Nation beginners course. I started it in the fall, and have gained confidence gradually. There are definitely days when I play like a plumber, but no one hears it but me. In the past week, I’ve developed calluses on two fingers. I feel like that’s initiation into a club or something.


  6. There’s nothing like sitting in on a session in an Irish pub. Great and worthy goal AND good for your brain muscles as well. Best of luck, Jim!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. lundygirl says:

    It sounds like you have a good system for learning and the determination to keep going. I don’t play any musical instrument but each week lead a singing time for toddlers – I wish I could play the guitar but we do lots of action songs so maybe that would be awkward!
    my hubby has thoughts about learning the ukele so I’ll be showing him this post – it may well inspire him to get on with it!


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Indeed, Rachel, but he may need a little nudge. I certainly did. I was terrified at first. When we picked out a mandolin at the store, I almost didn’t want to touch it! Now I look forward to picking it up every day. Of course, now that it’s warmer and the windows are open, I’m not sure my neighbors share my enthusiasm.


      • lundygirl says:

        I think your neighbours could do a lot worse than listen to you playing the mandolin. I’m glad you are now looking forward to playing.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thats impressive Jim I have no musical talents at all. Tone deaf for sure, but I love listening to uplifting music. We are never too old to learn something new. Love to see you in action.


  9. markbialczak says:

    How cool this is, Jim. Best of luck in your little victories. Mr. Peghead Gabel’s analogy to math explained to me my frustrations with learning how to read music when I was a kid. And get good grades in the more advanced math classes, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Angie Mc says:

    Mandolin?! Oh my goodness, Jim, awesome! I played the piano as a child, not very talented and it was a “must do” not a free choice. One of my son’s college teammates stayed with us last weekend and pulled out his guitar. He had taught himself how to play a few songs, having never played music, off of YouTube! I thought to myself, I would love to play guitar. But now I’m thinking…I would *love* to play mandolin! I’ll keep you posted 😀


  11. cat9984 says:

    This is really impressive. I was thinking about getting the piano tuned and starting lessons again. But then last summer I participated in a kazoo band for the local festival parade (small town thing). I discovered I can no longer play a kazoo and all you have to do is hum into it. My son wants to learn Latin. Maybe I should do that instead. 🙂


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