My unrequited love affair with the mandolin
Me, holding my mandolin wrong, the day I got it.
“What is that?!” I asked, drawing so close to the cd player with my jaw hanging open I was practically drooling on the speaker. I was 14, and passing by my older sister’s room where she and her Swedish boyfriend were lying on the floor, listening to music. Instantly, I was swarming in, drawn wordlessly to the haunting melody filling the room. “Morphine,” Ariel said. “No, I mean, what is that instrument? Is that a guitar? That can’t be a guitar.” “You mean the mandolin?” Anders asked, turning up the song. “Mandolin…” I whispered, lovingly caressing the word as if it were melting on my tongue. “My god, that’s beautiful.”
I’d heard of the mandolin before, of course. But somehow it had escaped my notice until that moment. It was just another element to roots music, another layer in acoustic folk songs, bluegrass, and old time sea chanteys. Much like learning at an early age that almost all the music I loved was in minor, realizing I could love any song where a mandolin was present was quite the revelation.
I’ve had a theory for awhile that much of what people love about music goes beyond an emotional impulse to a physiological response. Our bodies respond to music in curious ways–songs can slow our heartrates, make us breathe differently, make us feel as if we are flying. Who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly weeping over some piece of music when we didn’t even know we were sad? Music taps into something beyond our psyches. Is it our particular genetic makeups then, that draw us to a song? Are we with Scottish blood particularly attune to that particular maudlin emotion a bagpipe can stir? Does my J hapligroup lineage explain my intense connection with Middle Eastern melodies? And does my particular heart rhythm and speed inspire my love of synchopation and frantic, driving, frenzied drumming?
When I hear a mandolin, it’s as if warm air is being shot through my body to the tips of my fingers. I am both filled with joy and sorrow. My heart strains against my rib cage and I am sometimes compelled to hold it in. Mandolin strips me of any walls and leaves me absolutely unprotected. It’s unsettling and freeing all at the same time.
I’ve wanted to play the mandolin for a long time, but never seemed to get up the courage to buy one and actually commit. I took a year or so of piano lessons at age six which were an unmitigated disaster. I hated my teacher, she hated me, and I spent the whole year playing by ear–defiantly refusing to learn to read music. In middle school, after several years in Seattle Girl’s Choir, I finally decided to teach myself piano. Choir had taught me how to sight read, so how hard could it be? I started with Richard Marx’s “I will be right there waiting” and moved up to Dan Coates’ EZ piano for beginners. By the end of the year I had progressed to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. A few years later, I was playing Tori Amos. I finally had a teacher I could deal with: me. I could yell at myself, pound the keys, curse and lash out with impunity, which is my process for learning almost anything. I didn’t have to be polite in the face of frustration. I didn’t lecture myself for not practicing.
Unfortunately, being self-taught has its limitations. Despite my years of Girl’s Choir, I had a beginner’s understanding of musical theory at best. Like grammar, I struggled with the “rules” to music. I knew what sounded good, and I was arrogant enough to believe I didn’t need to know why.
Mandolin, though, would require a proper teacher–this much I knew. And the prospect of finding one I liked who could in turn tolerate me, was daunting. So my dream went to the back burner. My husband, John, always the proactive do-gooder, dragged it back out a year ago after he’d listened to me complain about my lack of creative outlets a few too many times. I was working as a nearly-full time stay-at-home-mom with freelance writing projects here and there, and the arrangement was hard on me. I’d worked non-stop since I was 16. I needed something all my own that would remind me I was someone outside of motherhood. John, seeing my desperation, bought me a mandolin.
This was it. I really had to shit or get off the pot. Had all my years of pining for a mandolin of my own been only so much talk? Or was I ready to really do this? I called around and found a teacher who would take me. He was a bluegrass player and even though I mostly wanted to play folk, alt-country, and indie rock, I chose him because he seemed so laid back. I knew I wasn’t an easy student, but maybe he could deal with me?
He could. We hit it off just fine. Tall, mysterious, and soft-spoken, he seemed unfazed by my twitchy uncertainty and weird questions. He taught me chords. He gave me songs to play. It was all going so well. And then winter hit. I’d been practicing during my daughter’s nap times on the front porch, my straw hat pulled low over my eyes as I toughened my fingers to the strain of holding down strings. Over and over I played those two songs, my heart lifting as recognizable chords snaked out of the f-holes like magic. Inevitably, a neighbor would come by to cheer me on, or tease me for looking the part in my cut-offs and country hat, and I would treat them to the simple melodies I was picking up.
When the weather got worse I came inside and tried to play quietly downstairs, but I was so afraid of waking the baby I couldn’t derive the same sort of pleasure I’d had on the porch. If my daughter was awake, she’d join in the fun, reaching for the pick, strumming on the strings. It was amusing, but hardly the practice session I desperately needed.
At my lessons, it was clear I wasn’t getting enough time to practice. I hated seeing the disappointment in my teacher’s eyes as he tried to yank my hand into the proper position. Ashamed and frustrated, I realized now wasn’t quite the time. I emailed my teacher, tail between my legs, and begged off lessons for a bit. “I’ll come back in a few months,” I told him. “Really.”
It’s been nearly six months since I dropped out of mandolin lessons. My gorgeous mandolin sits in the corner of our room, dusty and neglected in its case. Sometimes I’ll pull it out and look at it, drinking in its beauty, trying to play those chords I learned. But my moments are always short-lived. It’s hard to find time with a toddler, especially since her naptimes are spent writing a book that is sucking what creative energy I have these days. I’m not complaining. I feel rich with my words and the promise that I might someday pick up that mandolin and really, truly learn how to play. In the meantime, I always have Morphine.