The last day of Inktober deserves a story:
This is my mandolin. It’s a hand-made, solid-wood a-style flattop made by a guy in Missouri now doing business as The Big Muddy Mandolin Company. The mandolin isn’t the friend in this picture, but it’s a powerful symbol of friendship.
About twenty years ago, I stumbled headlong into a group of musician friends. Well, most of us weren’t musicians yet, but we all learned to be musicians together, and inside the little enclosure we made for ourselves it was safe to be a novice, and that safety made us brave enough to keep practicing together until weren’t too embarrassing when we played in public.
We’d gather in a friend’s garage with our instruments and a few beers and we’d play tunes until the neighbors came and told us to shut up. Then we’d move into the living room till the housemate who owned the house put down her fiddle and told us to go home. We’d sit on the sidewalk in front of The Ark for hours, making sure we got the best seats for Old Blind Dogs and Steeleye Span and Lunasa. We’d play at sessions, nursing pints and playing reels until we risked our day jobs in the morning. We busked on occasion, and played bars and libraries and even a country club once.
I played clumsy tinwhistle and serviceable bodhran, and never did learn to read sheet music, but somewhere in there I started tagging along with my friends to The Musical Petting Zoo. During these visits I kept ending up in the Mandolin Family room, surrounded by banjos and octave mandolins and bouzoukis and all sorts of trouble. I stared at the mandolins, drawn to their simple elegant forms and just-right size, but scared away by their complexity. Somebody picked one out for me and showed me how to make a couple two-fingered chords. I tried a couple different mandolins each time I visited, but I kept coming back to this plain little A-style that wasn’t too fancy or presumptuous and seemed just approachable enough that it might maybe get me past being intimidated by an instrument more sophisticated than whistle or drum.
I was messing with that same mandolin one day when Jen called me in to the guitar room to show me this little beauty of a parlor guitar she was going to get, and then it was time to leave. When I got to the car it turned out that Emily had spent the rest of her grad school money buying me that sweet little mando, and Jen had bought me the carrying case to go with it. Other friends jumped in to help: Rollande bought me a strap, a string winder, a tuner, and a little beaded bag in the shape of a clownfish that held a half-dozen picks of different weights. Brian bought me a mando stando so it wouldn’t have to lean against the couch. Other friends gave lessons, advice, tunes.
I poked away at it for a couple of years, overwhelmed by this shower of kindness. I dragged it with me to sessions and house parties, hoping I’d somehow learn through osmosis. The truth was I never got comfortable enough with myself to figure out how to advance past those first two chords and a half-dozen tunes, and I felt like a terrible failure because I had let down the folks who’d gifted her to me. The mando still seemed way too complicated and while I could fake my way through a whistle tune, or hammer out a simple rhythm, I felt entirely out of my depth with chords and hammer-ons and pull-offs and tremolos and all. Every once in a while I’d halfheartedly ask around for teachers, but was ultimately too embarrassed to meet once a week and display how little I knew compared to all the actual musicians I hung out with.
As we all moved away and on to the next phases of our individual lives – a process which happened shockingly fast from late 2003 through early 2004 – music slipped away from my life. I played a few sessions in Kalamazoo, but they never stuck like the ones in Ann Arbor did. I occasionally filled in on whistle and drum with a local band, but the truth is I never did like playing on stage. Instead I longed for those weekly living-room sessions , the clubhouse garage with its twinkle lights, Maritime food potlucks in Sol’s kitchen, Park Lake pickin’ parties. Eventually I stopped going to sessions entirely, let comics take up all my spare time. My poor little mando got relegated to the back of the coat closet, and barely saw the light of day for ten years. Once in a great while I’d feel a wave of guilt and nostalgia, pull it out and tune it up, but like most well-intended attempts to start new habits, my practice never lasted long enough to build up calluses.
Dirk and Emily stopped by one night on their way from Missouri back through to Boston. Dirk didn’t have his fiddle, so he pulled out the mando and restrung her, and we had a few simple tunes in the living room, round and round fifteen times through the Hole in the Hedge. I felt a surge of restorative love for the music, but once they left, the mandolin went back into the closet, buried under sports and work and family obligations and everything else.
And then a few weeks ago, I faced down a series of major changes, and realized that I was going to need some distractions to keep me occupied while I figured out the new direction my life was heading. I needed things that I could pick up and put down without a ton of commitment, to keep my hands and mind from settling into old patterns of overthinking and overdoing. Apropos of nothing, I realized I could bring the mando out of hiding and see if I could make it stick this time.
One of the best things I got out of the last few years playing sports was a better understanding of how to pick up new skills without beating myself up in the process – after a lifetime of only doing things that came easy, and feeling frustrated and humiliated when I tried anything remotely challenging, I finally learned how to learn. I’ve taught myself some pretty scary and difficult things lately, and getting over my and feelings of inadequacy around an instrument seemed pretty simple by comparison, so I pulled out the mando, tuned her up, and went looking for a teacher.
In the twelve years since the mando went into the closet, online music instruction finally became viable, and it turns out there are a bunch of really good teachers out there. Having beginner-level videos to repeatedly scrutinize gets me past the insecurity of asking the hundred stupid questions I was too embarrassed to bother a real musician with – how do you hold your left thumb on an A chord? How do you grip the pick? Can you record that strum pattern for me? – and I can play along with a backing track as often as I want without annoying anyone but the cats. I found an entire Music Theory 101 course online from Yale, and hearing the prof walk through the basics has been a huge help: chord progressions no longer seem like a mysterious art.
I didn’t want to post anything sooner than this because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep it up past two weeks; I never could before. But here I am at the end of my second month, and I’ve got about six reliable chords and two I-IV-V progressions, so yay me. I’m not reliable with tunes yet, but the process of practicing actually feels good enough to keep me coming back, poking at it for a half-hour here, an hour there. My mandolin is a pretty amazing reminder of how many times my life has been blessed by good friends, and how I’ve progressed these last few months. It’d be a shame to put her back in the closet again.