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.