Attending the International Mandolin Symposium in Trossingen, Germany, is always a pleasure for a mandolin anorak like me. Mandolin talk starts casually over meusli and coffee first thing in the morning and then continues effortlessly until the small hours of the morning when you try to peel yourself away to bed having sampled a few glasses of the local wine or beer. The in between time is punctuated by talks and concerts when there is a rest from talking although not from thinking about the mandolin. The six hours left over and available for sleeping seem to pose no problem. Usually I need at least eight hours but during the symposium I am on a kind of mandolin high which gives my body more than enough energy to cope well at least until I return home, collapsing and in need of some recovery time!
So this year being the fourth symposium (I have attended each one which takes place every four years) looked to be particularly interesting with teaching as its main theme but I couldnt have foreseen what a special pleasure and joy it would turn out to be. Having recently discussed my own mandolin teaching project in an article for Music Teacher magazine (January 2008) it was exhilarating to share experiences with so many other teachers who are running similar projects in their own countries.
The symposium opened with a talk by German guitarist Marlo Struass who talked about the Monheimer Modell or MoMo for short. We saw photographs of small children of about six years old playing simple open string accompaniments to songs such as Frere Jacque. It was interesting to see that these children didnt use scaled down instrument but were instead using full size instruments strung with four nylon strings. It is this kind of detail that is so interesting to compare. Marlo also uses imaginative material such as his own composition Mandolin-Rap, which entails the mandolin class play a chord comprising of the four open strings whilst singing a little song on one note. Marlo generously gave out copies of his composition and guided people to he website ( www.marlostrauss.com) where further copies can be downloaded free. The Mandolin Rap chord is played on the first and third beat in common time and the in between beats are slightly percussive caused by the strings stopped with the hand. The song is in German and I have since made up my own words along the lines of were playing mandolin and mandolin is cool although Marlo has promised to put an English translation on his site.
Jeanette Haase runs a similar project in Dusseldorf called An Instrument for every Child which has resonance with our Wider Opportunities scheme presently running in English primary schools. Children tend to have groups lessons of 45 minutes in all the German projects as opposed to our half hour slots. In Jeanettes project the whole class are taught in the first year (this is equivalent to Year 2 in most of the UK with the exception of Northern Ireland where children start school at 4 years old). In the second year (our Year 3) they are taught in little groups and in the third year (our Year 4) they join an orchestra. This project seemed the most unusual in that there was only one mandolin and one guitar available for a whole group of twenty children. The rest of he group are occupied by a painting or craft task connected thematically to the music work. In questioning Jeanette seemed to think that children responded well to this arrangement since the children involved in the art work tended to listen to the sounds made by the child trying the instrument rather than dissolving into chatter.
Costs such as fees paid by students were another interesting area of comparison. Jeanettes project worked out at 35 Euros a month per pupil whilst Marlos cost 26 Euros a month. This is quite different because it means 12 payments during the year and in the UK lessons are usually calculated on a termly basis, three times a year. At current exchange rates Jeanettes project would cost roughly £331 per year whilst Marlos would be £246 as opposed to £180, the cost of my project. To be fair my project is subsidised and German projects do have a bursary for pupils who cannot pay the full cost. All projects are inclusive of the loan of instruments.
These two projects are, however, only the tip of the iceberg. Ariane Zernecke-Lorch, for instance, described her teaching project which involves a different approach, Teaching in Music Clubs. Ariane works within the framework of an amateur plucked string orchestra and runs classes for young people who then feed into the orchestra.
Anna Torge, on the other hand, was inspired by the famous Suzuki method which is used for other instruments such as the violin and which involves teaching very young children with tiny instruments. We saw a lovely film of Anna teaching and she explained that at the time of filming she was still waiting for especially commission tiny mandolins so some of the children had unsuitably large instruments.
We were greatly entertained by being given sweets (Smarties) in order to feel the sensation of holding lightly and precisely between the left hand thumb and index finger before transferring the skill to the mandolin fingerboard. This and other attempts to engage us in activities told me that Anna is a gifted teacher.
There were lost of other talks from further a field than Germany or even Europe. The Japanese and American contributions were mostly about adult activity but Jose Zambrano gave a sparkling talk illustrated with musical examples of mandolin life in Venezuela. Sadly until I asked a question at the very end he forgot to mention that children are able to learn the mandolin with free tuition and free instruments as part of the famous El Sistema approach to music making. In Venezuela all children have the opportunity to learn an orchestral instrument and to play in an orchestra. It is also seen as a social project and it would have been fascinating to learn more about the mandolins inclusion in this programme. It was also notable from the symposium that the mandolin still isnt being taught in school in its native land, Italy, although it flourishes there in six different institutions at conservatoire level.
So in conclusion mandolin teaching to young children, like many other things in our modern world, is becoming a bit of a global thing. It is fantastic to see schools in so many different societies realising the value of music in education and allowing the mandolin to play its part. Long may it last.