I started playing the mandolin about 15 years ago. I’d had a guitar since I was 10, but one or two people I knew had mandolins, and I must admit I thought they were pretty cool. I’d never particularly been into folk music, and even today it’s not usually my first choice to listen to, but it is fun to play.
I discovered that so long as I played in the right key, and kept the appropriate rhythm, almost anything I did seemed to compliment the tune I was playing along with. It wasn’t long before I also realised that while there are always loads of guitar players about, mandolin players are a rarity; as such I was often given an extra level of respect and kudos before I’d even played a note.
Over the next few years the fact that I played the mandolin became one of my defining characteristics: fat beardy bloke with a girls name; wears a leather coat, a rainbow coloured scarf and plays the mandolin.
When I went to Canada for a year on a student exchange programme (where “and an accent like someone from Monty Python” was added to the above descriptive list), I took my mandolin with me. Very quickly I got into playing with a guy called Mike Charlton (or ‘Morg’, as he was known as back then), who had the most incredible voice and knew hundreds of folk songs, which he would blast out while playing the guitar while I accompanied him on the mandolin. I also got involved with a couple of Peruvians and a Canadian to form a wee group playing Andean folk music. And at the Chinese New Year Festival, I even dueted with a girl from Hong Kong who played the Yang Chin (like a hammer dulcimer).
For the couple of years after my return from Canada, I would go down to the weekly folk night at the Caledonian pub in Dundee, where if you turned up with an instrument you got a free pint. As an impoverished student, I became adept at making that pint last all evening.
I continued playing on my own after I moved away from Dundee, but it took a downturn once I became self-employed. Anyone who has ever run their own business knows that your interests and hobbies get pushed to one side as you focus all your energies on trying to make a success of your business. I was no different, and the mandolin began to gather dust. Sure, I would pull it out every now and then, but it was rare, and steadily I lost much of the proficiency I’d gained.
Along with the leather coat that I’d grown out of, and the rainbow coloured scarf that I’d lost, the mandolin ceased being a defining part of my make up. In fact, nearly everyone I’ve got to know over the past 7 years or so has no idea that I ever played the instrument.
A couple of weeks ago, when we decided that it was getting cold enough to light a fire for the first time since we moved here, we called out a chimney sweep to make sure we didn’t inadvertently burn the place down. It turned out that he was something of a folk musician himself, and noticed the mandolin sitting in the corner of the room, whereupon he told me that the Blue Bell Inn in Castle Douglas had a folk night once a month and I should go along. I mumbled some kind of reply that I would give it serious thought while inwardly I felt embarrassed about the fact that I play so rarely that the tips of the fingers on my left hand have lost their calluses and become soft again.
Maggie has been on at me for some time now that I really should start up the music again, as it always was such an integral part of who I am. But the fears of turning up to a pub where I knew no one, when I am new to the area, and am hopelessly out of practice, made me want to run in the opposite direction as fast as I could.
However, folk nights generally tend to be friendly and welcoming- they don’t last long if they’re not - so last night, I tried to keep my fears from overwhelming me and went along.
There were around 8 or 9 musicians and singers when I arrived, who were already in full swing. I found a chair on the outer edge of the circle, and spent 10 minutes trying to re-tune my mandolin through all the playing, singing and background pub noise. Once I was in tune, however, I discovered that my mandolin was too quiet to be heard. This is largely due to the fact that it is an electric/acoustic instrument, which means that I can plug it in to an amp if I want, but the sound quality is compromised a bit.
To begin with, this wasn’t a problem; in fact I was rather glad that all my bum notes weren’t audible. As the evening went on though, my confidence started to grow. Certainly I’m not the player I used to be, but I was surprised just how much started to come back once I began to relax and just let my fingers remember what to do.
While the first half of the evening was primarily instrumental, the second was dominated by singing, where most of the drunken occupants of the pub were pouring their hearts out loudly and passionately along with the musicians. The advantage to me was that most of these songs tend to be based around 3 chords that I can play on the mandolin. So rather than try and pick out a tune, I could just strum along (which is louder as well as easier).
In the end I had a grand old time and am looking forward to the next folk evening. Last night I was playing for over 2 hours, when for the last few years I’ve rarely played more than 15 minutes at a time. Consequently I have rather large and sore blisters on the tips of the fingers of my left hand.
However, as these blisters settle down they will start to form the calluses I need, as I am now determined to bring the music back into my life.