Ernie's thoughts

I am pleased to present this report of my attendance and impressions of the Teaching Workshop and Annual Convention of the Classical Mandolin Society of America (CMSA) held in Denver, Colorado from November 15 to 20, 2005.

An estimated 300 people converged on the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Denver to participate in this the 19th Annual Convention of CMSA.  It was also the site of the Second Annual Teachers Workshop sponsored by CMSA.  Old friendships were renewed and new ones were made with both amateur and professional musicians – musicians from around the world who share the common bond in promoting the art of mandolin playing.  

This convention was true to the stated objectives of the CMSA in that it provided opportunities to develop teaching knowledge and skills and to share in research and information.  Presentations were made by guest experts in all aspects of “music for the mandolin family of instruments” – including composition, arranging, conducting, playing techniques, interpretations, and various genres from bluegrass to Balkan and South American.

The general format of the convention was for delegates to participate in daily morning sectionals (I joined the Second mandolin section led by the only Canadian presenter, Johanna Hebing from Quebec).  Here we were led through the intricacies of the music which we had received before leaving home and which we would be playing in the “en masse” orchestra at the final concert later in the week.  We improved our skills of reading, fingering, plucking, dynamics, tempo and timing.

The second session each day was given over to an array of presentations – from tremelo techniques, chords, progressions, voicings, duo-style solo techniques (for the more advanced player), conducting of large or small ensembles, classical interpretations, South American music, to fascinating little divertimenti written in the 18th century and only recently uncovered.   Sessions were not restricted to mandolins but, rather, presentations for mandolas, mando-cellos and guitars rounded out the programme.

Afternoons were given over to more sessions and these were followed by a 2-hour rehearsal of the en masse orchestra.  Imagine, if you can, the thrill of playing with about 140 of your friends all of whom share you’re your passion for making music – mandolin music.  Led by Dr. Jim Bates of Otterbein College, we were whipped into shape over the week and managed to wow the final night concert crowd with simply “awesome” selections by Georges Bizet (Carillon from L’Arlesienne Suite Nr. 1, Ricordi di gioventu (Jugend Erinnerungen) by G. Sartori, Tres Piezas de Sudamerica fuer Zupforchester by Markus Kluger:  Tango Infernal / Lettre D’adieux / Samba Sudamericana, and a Stephen Foster Medley arranged by Dr. Jim Bates.

Every noon-hour we took our lunch while being treated to mini-performances by our friends and colleagues in the “open-mic” sessions.  On the Friday, after the lunch sessions, we witnessed the annual CMSA Mandolin Competition.  All delegates were welcome to challenge for the prize money ($300, $200, $100 respectively for First, Second, and Third places).  Nine competitors gave it a shot – including two young people (I’d guess they were 11 and 13 years of age) who play with the Denver Mandolin Orchestra.  It was a remarkable session – we all had to remain quiet between competitors, the judges could not see who was playing, they were introduced only by a number.  The top three were quite outstanding and deserved their prizes.

The highlight for many was the array of performers who entertained at the evening public concerts.  Soloists, duets, trios, small ensembles and orchestras were invited to perform and demonstrate the incredible versatility of the mandolin and the beauty of the plucked instrument sound.  We heard classical, rag-time, jazz, and a whole range of newly-minted pieces.  Audiences were wowed with the playing of Evan Marshall, Stiernberg and Carlini, The Emerald City Quartet, Mandomonium, and the 103-year-old Montana Mandolin Society.

The CMSA Teachers Workshop:

This second edition “add-on” to the Annual Convention took place over the two days preceding the convention.  It was an intensive and extensive 9 hours of workshop for those who are teachers of mandolin playing.  Approximately 20 people from across the United States and Canada participated this year.  Toni Nigrelli, ex-principle violinist with the New York Symphony Orchestra and long-time teacher of mandolin, provided progressions and pedagogy for both beginners and advanced mandolin students.

For the beginners, she covered the range of topics including posture, teaching tools, left and right hands, reading music, note values, scales, interpretations, sight reading, and how to practice.  For teachers of the advanced student, she covered teaching of positions, various picking techniques, speed tricks, double stops, intervals, duo-style, chords, musicality – all done with the greatest of good humour and intensity.

Ms. Nigrelli kept our attention with stories and a variety of exercises intended to punctuate the points she was making.  It was exhausting but great fun and all teachers came away with renewed enthusiasm and excitement.  We can hardly wait to put into practice many of the ideas and practices we were shown.

I am delighted to have shared in this experience and I tried to capture the elements in all of my notations throughout.  I certainly plan to make use of these resources and ideas with all of my students.

Once again, I can but attempt to express the sheer thrill of this CMSA experience. And encourage everyone in RMO, whether you play mandolin, mandola, mando-cello, octave, mando-bass or guitar to consider membership in this amazing organization.  Next year’s convention will be held in Louisville, Kentucky – probably around mid-November.  You just have to go!  You’ll never regret it.


© Regina Mandolin Orchestra 2013