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The Mandolin Symposium 2011

Held on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the weeklong seminar, presented by David Grisman and Mike Marshall, recently concluded its eighth consecutive year with a final student-faculty performance Friday, July 1. Once again, over a hundred mandolin students came together to study with and be inspired by over a dozen world-class teaching performers, each a specialist in one or more major musical styles.

Bill Monroe's centennial provided the backdrop for this year, reflected in the full ensemble performance of Dawg's "Happy Birthday Bill Monroe" and a medley of Monroe tunes. This year's Symposium shirt design by Tracy Grisman also featured a portrait of Monroe. A special class on Monroe was team-taught by Grisman, Mike Compton, and Andy Statman.

Insights into the background and influences of each instructor were provided in morning Music Appreciation sessions, which typically combine faculty interviews with authentic, ever-surprising multimedia contributions chosen by Mike, David, and faculty, and assembled and run by attendee Dan Large. This is one aspect of the Symposium that really stands out. The interviews were casual and low-key, which was much appreciated especially after several late nights; the multimedia choices were superb. And while the focus of the Symposium is the mandolin family, here in Music Appreciation we got the very clear message that behind every one of these great mandolin players is a broad appreciation and understanding of music - each one shared with us, in words and video, formative influences including a wide variety of singers, instruments, styles, periods, and points of view, from Big Mama Thornton to Hugo D'Alton. We started each day by seeing, hearing, and relating many musical concepts and sounds; followed our interests through the day of classes and ensemble work; and ended it with nightly faculty concerts (each one of such quality that I would need another article to explore them), followed by organized and spontaneous jams.

David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Don Stiernberg (jazz), Mike Compton (bluegrass), Eric Thompson (old time), Andy Statman (world), Marla Fibish (Irish), and Chris Acquavella (classical) taught an average of nine classes each. Almir Côrtes, Saúl Vera, Choro Famoso, and Tim Connell taught Brazilian styles. Renata Bratt held sight-reading workshops at night, and Lynn Dudenbostel was on site all week for repairs and modifications, generously donating all his fees to the Symposium Scholarship fund. I wish I had the space to comment further on each faculty member, but the site listed below this article does an excellent job of that.

My own focus this year was choro, jazz, and classical, although I should mention the great Irish teacher present this year, Marla Fibish. I loved her playing and spoke with many who were fascinated by her classes. New choro faculty member Tim Connell also plays Irish tin whistle and mandolin, and these two teamed up for some wonderful late-night Irish jams.

Classical teaching artist Chris Acquavella was an outstanding new addition this year. He has a diverse background, great skill and musicality, and a unique ability to connect to students in the classroom situation. I took two classes with Chris on right hand technique; they were extremely helpful and enjoyable, especially as Chris built in plenty of student participation. I noted the pleasure with which other students commented on his repertoire classes for solo, duet, trio, and quartet work with baroque, classical, and modern repertoire.

As usual at the Symposium, each instructor led an ensemble, and this year these were uniformly well conceived and well prepared. Jazz master Don Stiernberg's group performed a bebop tune, "The Eternal Triangle" by Sonny Stitt. Don's arrangement included many solo opportunities after a very tight head. Obviously, there was some real listening going on in that group, because with all the challenges in harmony and tempo, they sounded great. Since I have an interest in the composing process, I played in Mike Marshall's ensemble. He put together a composition on the spot in rehearsal. We were his canvas; he began by improvising a lovely little melody and then layered it with parts for each playing level in the room, all going and coming to create movement, but together sounding enchantingly cohesive. Everyone had something fun to play that stood out at some point, and that also made us listen to each other to keep the blend going.

Don Stiernberg and Mike Marshall teamed up for one of my favorite classes, "Jumping into the Jam" - another memorable hour from which I came away feeling ready to have a productive year. These two men are a perfect teaching team. In addition to a very helpful composition class with Mike, I also enjoyed several other classes with Don. In my opinion - and I know I am in good company - there is something uniquely valuable to everybody, not least to choro hopefuls, in Don Stiernberg's teaching jazz at the Symposium. I guess it has to do with the fact that in this place, we are learning MUSIC, in addition to mandolin-specific technique. I would find it very hard to think of someone better than Stiernberg at demystifying complexity, at clearing the paths for the player to find good chords and notes to play. In addition to being, for me, the Chet Atkins of the mandolin in terms of clarity and good taste, he's a mighty big gift to music students. And at the Symposium, this becomes part of an elegantly balanced meal.

Choro studies were handled with inclusive warmth by Mike Marshall with Choro Famoso, Tim Connell of Rio Con Brio in Portland, OR, and an absolutely superb guest artist, Almir Côrtes. Almir is from Bahia in the northeast part of Brazil, is pursuing a PhD program in music at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Sao Paulo, and has just concluded a year as a visiting scholar at Indiana University in Bloomington. His contributions at the Symposium were breathtakingly beautiful, containing for me the soul of the graceful friendliness and liveliness of choro. Almir is an excellent improviser, a true melody-spinner with a huge vocabulary and breadth of repertoire. Because of his awareness and quick-thinking response to other musicians, when he was playing with Mike or Tim, the effect was magic. Almir taught one class this year, Improvisation in Choro, and it is one of the very best classes I've taken at the Symposium; he broke it down for us in a clear and logical way and had us involved at every step. He also assisted, along with the rest of Choro Famoso, when percussionist Brian Rice taught Brazilian Rhythm - another great clarifying and empowering exploration into the mysteries of playing this music.

We were lucky to have the great Venezuelan mandolin/mandola player, Saúl Vera, visiting this year. Before coming to live in Florida, Saúl had a long and varied career as an internationally respected professional musician and conservatory professor in Caracas. He is a master of the bandola llanera, an instrument unique to the Venezuelan plains, and has authored a method in its technique. The music appreciation segments given by Almir and Saúl opened big windows for us into their respective cultures.
Thursday, Choro Famoso members Andy Connell (clarinet/sax), Colin Walker (guitar), and Brian Rice (percussion) joined Mike Marshall, Almir, and Saúl, and at that point the choro experience began in earnest. Each of these artists brings a deep understanding with him along with a huge amount of skill, generosity, lightness, and humor. There was a special class this year - and I hope it is repeated - in which students were invited to play the mandolin on a choro with these three. With that kind of intuition supporting you, learning choro is exhilarating - though for pure joy and excitement, you had to be at the "roda do choro" faculty concert given by Choro Famoso, Almir, and Saúl Thursday night.

As always, from initial check-in to the final concert, the Symposium combined a large array of thoughtfully prepared class and ensemble choices with complete student freedom to choose from the buffet, and to change course at will. The team behind all logistical and supporting activities before and during the Symposium - Stephen Ruffo and son Jesse, Patrice O'Neill and son Ben, Peter Braccio and son Jacob, consummate photographer Maria Camillo, Ross Pomerenk, and John O'Brien - never missed a beat, even though we all missed Patrice, whose grandchild was being born. The careful preplanning of Ruffo and Patrice, and Pete's multifaceted skills in evidence during the event, were central to the mood of calm focus that prevailed all week. And of course, one of the sweetest rewards of the Symposium is watching for Maria's portraits - dozens of colorful, tasteful, impromptu shots - going up on the Symposium web and Facebook sites even as we reluctantly take our leave, preserving our memories of the unique individual and collective identity we acquired in this place, and allowing us to show it to others.

I think the lodging has been much improved by its relocation last year to a new section of the campus. It feels like a small village, everything located nearby and everyone close enough to join in the after-hours party or jam fun of their choice, all in bucolic surroundings - complete with a few meandering deer and a much-appreciated coffee shop for those whose nights lasted too long to make it to the cafeteria for breakfast. Several of the faculty stayed involved with late-night jams, to the utter delight of all present. With around 60% of the attendees there for the first time, and with six new visiting artist/faculty members, there was truly something fresh and magical about this year - this was felt across the board, by longtime and new attendees.

I have tried to think of a few criticisms of this year's Symposium, but aside from the fact that Mike and David couldn't seem to figure out how to add a few more hours into each day, I can't come up with any. Lest the reader suppose I have compromised my journalistic integrity, I did solicit the opinions of a few other attendees, and it seems they have the same problem. What makes this experience so special? Here are a few comments:

"I've been looking around for a place where I could learn a lot about the mandolin - and not just in a specific style...but a place where you could come learn jazz and classical music as well as bluegrass... and when I heard that Mike Marshall and David Grisman were running it, it just sold me...It's just great to be able to come and listen to them just talk, and ...treat you like a real person, you know. I was really surprised with how patient and kind each teacher seems to be...they really want to help us along the way, step by step, to get better and to take the mandolin places that it hasn't been taken before." - David Benedict (1st year attendee)

"I was just looking online for places where mandolinists came together - I was looking for a mandolin camp or some little getaway, and this just popped up. I didn't realize how big a deal it was, but as soon as I came here, it just blew my mind. It really did...I knew I'd be working with a lot of my heroes growing up, I mean I've been listening to these guys since I was ten! so to be here with them, practicing with them, learning from them - it's been such an amazing experience. And I think probably the biggest thing that surprised me about coming to the Symposium was just how laid back and friendly everyone's been, you know? Like, you'll be chatting, having lunch with a bunch of guys, having a great conversation, and then later that night you'll see one of those guys you were chatting with, having a good time with, on stage - and it turns out he's a famous Brazilian choro player! Everyone's so down to earth... Everyone here is here for the same thing, you know? just to have a good time and learn more about the instrument ...I've made so many friends here that I'm sure will be lifelong friends....this honestly has been the best week of my life." - Ramsey Khudairi (1st year attendee)

"This year was my third Mandolin Symposium. I have been playing mandolin for about eleven years. Most camps that I have seen teach one or two genres of music such as bluegrass, jazz or classical. At the Symposium you can learn all of these. The other thing that impresses me is the other students the camp attracts. Since it has such impressive instructors, the playing level of the students is extremely advanced. They are fun to play with."- Emily Wilson (returning attendee)

"I've been playing mandolin for thirty years - however, I learned a lot my first two years, and then I didn't learn anything for about the next twenty-one, until I started coming here. I've learned more about mandolin in the past seven years than I ever thought would be possible in my lifetime. I've talked at least ten people into coming here, and I intend to talk it up for the rest of my life." - Booi Volk (returning attendee)

"I came down and didn't know a soul, and within a few hours I knew I'd made the right choice -it was one of the most amazing weeks of my life, musically, on a personal level, and on an emotional level, just from everything I learned... I was kind of all over the place, playing a lot of different instruments in rock bands, jazz gigs - sort of a semiprofessional session guy of sorts, but wanted to just clear out all the distractions and get good at one instrument. When I came here I heard this music that Mike Marshall was playing called choro...and that was the thing that year that hit me...I said "I'm going to go back next year and play a few tunes." It forced me to get serious about technique...really learning my chords, and all the voicings...because I was around people who were playing at such a high level. I was most impressed by the faculty, who were experts in their field...so I came [back] every year." - Tim Connell (faculty)

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