Friday, November 1, 2013

Marla Fibish:  The Irish Mandolin

I had the great pleasure of taking an Irish mandolin class from Marla Fibish at the 2013 O'Flaherty Retreat.  for those of you who don't know Marla, she is one of the great teachers of Irish mandolin in North America and a superb musician herself.
Marla started out playing the mandolin thirty years ago in San Francisco which has had a long Irish music tradition that continues today.  Marla is one of those musician who had to explore her instrument mostly by herself and in the process learned the strengths and limitations of the mandolin.  She plays a 1921 Gibson A2 that she inherited from her grandfather that has become her trademark.  She also plays mandola and guitar, but in this lesson we focused mostly on the mandolin.
Coming into this lesson I was biased by the many glowing reports about her teaching style and her musicianship.  I was not disappointed, in fact those remarks were muted if anything.  Marla is a warm and welcoming person who has a lot of information to impart and is more than willing to spend time with you.  She clearly has a love for the music and like all elite players has strong opinions about how best to play the music.  She does not impose a prescriptive method, but she does want you to play to your potential and to learn to improve your technique.
The class started out with basic strokes on the mandolin.  She insists that you get the best tone out of your instrument and she has developed a number of exercises to help all levels of players.  She taught a few new tunes, but most of the emphasis was on learning to get into a groove with the stroke and to make sure that you play with taste, drive, and tone.
We spent half the class on reels and the other half on jigs.  Marla also taught an "enrichment" class for advanced students (much like a master class) that explored issues with various tunes and techniques.  The basis of these classes was learning how to use the pick and we practiced a number of increasingly complex exercises in alternate picking (DUDUDUDU) for reels and jig picking (DUD DUD) for jigs.  All of the class was familiar with alternate picking and most of them had the idea of DUD DUD  down before the class so she was able to teach a number of interesting ways to use these strokes. 
While all of this seems like it would be fairly basic stuff, it really wasn't.  I've seen both Roland White and Andy Statman give similar classes and each time I came away with new insights into the mandolin. Ironically in the Roland White class only the better players seemed to understand the absolute need to keep up basic skills and for me that was the insight.  In the Andy Statman class every player there was an expert and the class went down very well.  The same is true of this class.
One of the things that Marla emphasized is that playing the mandolin requires a system of techniques.  Mandolins are relatively new to Irish music and some tunes are not suited for the mandolin as much as they are for the flute or fiddle.  If you read Joe Carr's book on Bill Monroe he addresses this issue much in the same way that Marla taught.  Bill Monroe could not play the tunes the same way the fiddle did so he developed his own style that included doubling notes instead of using passing notes and changing the tunes in minor ways to reflect the strengths of the mandolin.  Over the years Marla has come this same conclusion about the mandolin and Irish music.  Instead of a complex descending triplet/roll she would substitute a smothered triplet on one note or advise not to even do it.  It is possible to play those fiddle ornaments, but there are ornaments that the mandolin can do and the fiddle can't (such as droning an octave below because of the sustain a mandolin has) that fit much better with the mandolin.
As a result much of the music Marla plays is a little slower than session speed and much richer on the mandolin. 

Here is a sample of her teaching the Paddy O'Brien reel The Antrim Rose:

If you ever get a chance to take a lesson from her (She does Skype lessons, take it.  You won't be disappointed

Mike Keyes

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