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LearningMusician Features >> My Turn

My Trip to Mandolin Camp


Miller McNay
Contributing Writer

Michael Connolly writes:

Earlier this year, Seattle mandolin player Miller McNay went to the fifth annual Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz, California. A weeklong residential camp, the symposium offers mandolin players of many genres a chance to come together, learn from the world's best players, and play in a variety of ensembles. In this piece, Miller shares a firsthand account of this years's symposium.


"Is this really going to be worth all the money?"

Since arriving in Santa Cruz two days earlier, I'd sat in the same room with several of my musical icons - but I hadn't yet come away with any concrete knowledge. More than I'd received actual instruction, I'd heard other students gush about the instructors' playing styles, drooling when they played a particularly tasteful solo.

Come on, I thought. Teach the workshop - don't just open it up to the class for questions. We only have so much time. Then it happened; I attended Mike Marshall's class entitled "Chords, Chords, Chords". Finally I found myself in a classroom setting where the teacher had prepared a curriculum and was teaching it. At last, a workshop started out comfortably and quickly moved to territory which would make me work to push my skill level. This is why I spent the money. This is the reason I traveled from Seattle down to Santa Cruz, California to the fifth annual Mandolin Symposium.

For one week in June every year, a musical community gathers to celebrate a small stringed instrument many people wouldn't be able to identify. Hosted by iconic players David Grisman and Mike Marshall, the Mandolin Symposium encompasses all aspects of the eight-stringed family of instruments. Attendees from all corners of the world ensure that the event spans a number of genres, including bluegrass, Celtic, Brazilian, jazz, and classical. The symposium features world-class players and instructors giving workshops and concerts daily for the duration of the event. In addition, students participate in a group ensemble of their choice and spend most of their free time wandering amongst the many ongoing jams. For a solid week, we spent all day, every day, living and breathing music.

Getting Settled

This year's symposium was held on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, located in the hills just above downtown and surrounded by a lush redwood forest. After registering, I went to check out the on-campus housing where I would stay during the symposium. It was located conveniently close to the classrooms where my instruction would be. It felt like going back to college again - only this time there was just one subject: playing music on the mandolin. My private room shared a kitchen and common area with another student - on our first meeting, we started our relationship off with a musical jam. It was never this easy to make friends in college!

The symposium kicked off with an orientation meeting for all the students and staff in a small on-campus theatre called Town Hall. This would be the daily "general assembly hall" for the duration of the event. The purpose of this first gathering was to welcome the students and briefly introduce all of the instructors. This year's lineup was nothing to scoff at - in fact, it was the reason most of us decided to attend in the first place.

The Teachers

One of the most creative figures in modern mandolin music, and the camp's host, is David "Dawg" Grisman. He is a prolific composer and an adept performer, combining so many different genres that he is widely recognized as having defined a genre of his own - "Dawg" music. Grisman was a long time collaborator with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Starting in the 70s the two collaborated, first in a bluegrass band called "Old and In the Way" and up to Garcia's death in the 90s under the name "Garcia/Grisman Band."

A mainstay in the acoustic music world for over thirty years, David Grisman is the guy a lot of us came to the symposium to meet, listen to, and learn from.


The author with bluegrass legend Ronnie McCroury

The other head honcho was Mike Marshall. Marshall is one of "those guys" that can play any stringed instrument, and do it about as good or better than anyone else. While his main focus is mandolin, he's also quite formidable on the mandocello, which can replace a bass and or guitar in many situations. Mike is not quite as well known as Grisman overall, but in the mandolin world, he's among a small list of peers with (at least) equal facility on the instrument. Mike is also recognized as one of the foremost mandolin instructors: he explains his strong grasp of music theory in a clear thought-out manner, while directly relating it to the mandolin. Mike has published a series of instructional books detailing his various "fingerbuster" exercises for melodic playing, as well as a collection of Bach pieces transcribed for mandolin.

Other instructors included one of my personal favorites, bluegrass mandolin wizard Ronnie McCoury from the Del McCoury band. North Carolinian Tony Williamson, who is primarily known as a bluegrass player, also brought his extensive knowledge of swing styles and his expertise on vintage instruments. Caterina Lichtenberg, from Germany, came to teach the original European tradition of classical mandolin. One of the more eccentric instructors was Andy Statman. Statman is a Hacidic Jew who incorporates clarinet and mandolin into his jazz, bluegrass and Balkan music. He leans toward making purely improvisational music that always keeps listeners guessing what he'll do next: In his faculty performance the year before, Andy led Mike Marshall through a 55-minute long improvisation for mandolin and mandocello. From what I heard, it had been brilliant, inspired...and exhausting.

Rich Delgroso was invited to the symposium to teach traditional blues on the mandolin. Though we don't often say "mandolin" and "blues" in the same sentence any more, several early blues musicians did use the instrument to create the style of music we know today. Rich is the type of guy you could easily imagine hanging out with at two in the morning, sipping whiskey as he tells stories of all the old blues cats he's known. Another bluegrass icon in attendance was Herschel Sizemore. A friend of Bill Monroe, Herschel turned down many fulltime gigs to remain at home with his family until finally joining Jimmy Martin's band in the late 60s. He has continued to perform regularly since then. Known for composing several bluegrass standards and revered for his sweet clean-toned playing, Herschel was the elder statesman in attendance this year.

Of all the genres represented at the symposium, none of them had the excitement and exotic appeal as the choro musicians from Brazil. Dudu Maia and Danillo Brita, two young virtuosos in Brazil's most beloved folk music form, performed with a passion and fluidity that was truly inspiring. I think Danillo received a standing ovation almost every time he played his instrument. However, his teaching ability was hampered by the fact that he speaks very little English, except his catch phrase taught to him that week: when asked, "How are you?" Danillo always replied, "I'm cooool, maan!".

A Day at Mandolin Camp

As I settled in, my days at the camp began to follow a predictable pattern. Each morning at 7:30, I hiked the half-mile to the cafeteria for breakfast, often passing early morning deer feeding along the way. At 9:30, we convened in the Town Hall for the music appreciation class, where Grisman and Marshall interviewed a different instructor each day about their musical background. The conversation often included the teachers' influences, favorite players, and instrument instrument choice, and was always accompanied by a multimedia presentation including photos, videos and audio samples. This was a very informative part of the event and allowed us to become much more acquainted with the instructors.


Left to right: Dave Grisman, the author, Sam Grisman.

After music appreciation we headed to one of the elective classes, which were separated by students' skill levels and the genres they were interested in studying. Class sizes were around 20 students, and depending on the instructor, could serve as an exercise in patience. I say this because some of the instructors weren't well-prepared to lead the class - instead, by answering every question that was posed, they allowed the students to guide the topic being discussed. What was it like? Just imagine a roomful of fans meeting one of their musical idols for the first time. I felt like I was in the Saturday Night Live sketch were Chris Farley interviews Paul McCartney: "Remember when you were in the Beatles... and uhh... made the record Abbey Road? That was awesome!" More than to admire, I was there to learn, and some of the eighty or so electives offered fell short of that mark. However, others were, as Farley would say, "awesome".

By contrast, each day's lunch was actually a fairly productive time. While the instructors almost never ate with the students, this was a time when we, the campers, got to compare notes on how the various classes stacked up against each other. Since you could change electives right up until the class was scheduled to begin, talking with other students was invaluable in helping to pick the best classes.

After lunch, we headed back to class for the second workshop of the day, which was followed by the mandolin ensembles. Each instructor led an an ensemble representative of their chosen genre. I joined David Grisman's ensemble and we rehearsed two of his original tunes. This was one of favorite parts of the symposium; I was learning new tunes and playing them with one of my musical heroes. At the end of the week, all of the ensembles would be performing in a public concert to finish off the camp. We also planned to play a few pieces as an all-symposium mandolin orchestra.

The all-symposium rehearsals were somewhat frustrating. The tunes we rehearsed were arranged for a classical mandolin orchestra: first mandolin, second mandolin, mandola, and mandocello. However, we were seated fairly randomly, instead of by section. As a result, it was very hard to get a cohesive sound from each section, a problem aggravated by not getting any feedback the director as to whether I was playing parts correctly or not. Having never played in an orchestral context before, it was hard to rehearse without any guidance for our particular parts. I did have the opportunity, however, to borrow one of David Grisman's personal mandolas (a John Monteleone F-style). After the series of slapdash rehearsals, the concert performance was surprisingly tight.


Mike Marshall teaching the group.

One of my favorite classes was Mike Marshall's master composition class, which gave indivdual students an opportunity to perform for an instructor to critique. There were about 20 people in this group - everyone put their name down with a song they wanted to perform. There wasn't enough time to hear everyone's tunes, so Marshall chose three people to perform, two of which were acquaintances of his already. And Mike's third choice was me! I chose a tune which I described as 'original slow groove'. I told Mike the tune was complete but that I'd like to explore the harmonic possibilities of chord changes, which weren't the most obvious. Needless to say, playing an original tune of mine with Mike Marshall in front of a class was a thrilling experience. He shed some light on building chords around the appropriate melody notes and how that affected the feel of the song. I think that particular segment of the class was helpful to many of the students and I also got very positive feedback about my song, from Mike and the class.

Summing It Up

As you can tell I have some critical feedback about this event. However, after it was all over, I returned home with a great sense of inspiration and motivation to learn more about my instrument. That, and the friendships I made through the week, are really what attending an event like this is all about. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a music camp I can definitely recommend the experience - and I might just make a return trip to the Mandolin Symposium. LM


Miller McNay lives in Seattle, Washington, where he records and performs with the roots music band Captain Gravel and works for the acoustic music shop Dusty Strings.

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