A History Of Mandolins In America

historyThe mandolin first appeared in 15th-century Naples, Italy, as an adaptation of the lute.  It was similar to various other string instruments across the globe, including the traditional Russian balalaika, a roundback version from Japan, the Greek bouzouki, the Puerto Rican cuatro, the Brazilian bandolim, and the popular dambura of the Arab world.
Mandolins and similar instruments were brought in to the United States by immigrants from many countries, and were used primarily to play traditional folk and classical music.  In 1880, a group of musicians known as the Estudiantina Figaro, or, the “Spanish Students.” landed in New York City.  Interestingly enough, they did not play mandolins but Bandurrias, which are small, double-strung instruments from Spain which resemble the mandolin.  Playing to wildly enthusiastic audiences in New York and Boston, the students spawned several groups who imitated their musical style and colorful costumes.  Many of the players in these new musical ensembles were immigrants who had brought mandolins from their native Italy.  These musicians helped to generate enormous public interest in an instrument which previously was relatively unknown in the United States.

From about 1890 to 1925, companies such as Gibson and Martin employed salesmen who traveled across the United States, selling instruments of the mandolin family.  The salesmen quickly found that they could generate more sales by establishing mandolin orchestras in the towns they visited.  The mandolin was inexpensive enough that working-class people could afford it, and many of the orchestras were formed around community groups such as social clubs, religious organizations, women’s groups, and unions, and playing in the local mandolin orchestra soon became “all the rage”.  Groups formed in this period from New York, Baltimore, and Milwaukee still survive to this day.

The mandolin is experiencing a resurgence of popularity in all types of music:  bluegrass, country, folk, rock, ethnic, jazz, and classical.  This versatility, accessibility, and relative easy learning curve make it the perfect instrument for introducing people to the world of music.  The mandolin family is the fretted equivalent (played with a plectrum) of the violin family in tuning and size:  mandolin=violin, mandola=viola, mandocello=cello, mandobass=upright bass.  Anyone who can play an instrument of the violin family can play its equivalent in the mandolin family.  Likewise, anyone who is interested in learning a traditional instrument might find it easier to learn the mandolin first, since the skills learned can translate easily to many folk instruments.
Since the instrument has roots in almost every culture, musicians playing the modern mandolin help to preserve rich musical traditions that might otherwise be lost in today’s increasingly homogenized musical landscape.
The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members. If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join. There is no cost to be part of the orchestra, just the ability to commit to the first and third Saturday of each month for rehearsal.  Please contact us through the website (www.mandolinorchestra.org) for more information on joining the mandolin orchestra or for taking lessons in mandolin or violin.

​What’s New With The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra 

2015 was a major year for the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra to be playing out, having performed publicly at The Arts Block, Porter-Phelps-Huntington house, UMASS Renaissance Center, and the South Hadley Town Hall, plus various community events and private engagements.  During that time, the orchestra performed Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Vivaldi’s La Folia, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, Anthony Holborne’s Suite, and more. This year, the orchestra has been working on a new repertoire, which includes Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major (no flutes hired out for this piece), and some original works by Michael Bell and Joseph Marcello, that haven’t been previously performed in public.

After much upheaval with rehearsal and class space, Springfield Mandolin Orchestra’s Founder and President negotiated with the First Congregational Church in South Hadley to rent their facility for rehearsals and classes. A performance of the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is scheduled for Saturday, March 4th 2017 in the Sanctuary. The Monday night advanced mandolin group class meets there, as well as Students of the Sweet Music Studio.  The entire mandolin orchestra meets there every first and third Saturday afternoon at 2pm for rehearsal. The orchestra is made up of group class members and area musicians not part of the weekly class. Members of a Providence, RI-based mandolin ensemble, L’Esperance, directed by Josh Bell, also perform with the orchestra.

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra currently has bookings for private performances, February 12, 2017 at Loomis Village in South Hadley and March 25, 2017 at the Soldiers Home in Holyoke.   If you would like to book the orchestra for your private or public event, please contact Mr. Adam Sweet at 413-224-8600.

The orchestra is always looking for new members. If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join. There is no cost to be part of the orchestra, just the ability to commit to the first and third Saturday of each month for rehearsal.  Please contact us through the website (www.mandolinorchestra.org) for more information on joining the mandolin orchestra or for taking lessons in mandolin or violin.

Photo credit: Craig Harris

Springfield Mandolin Orchestra

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c)3 Nonprofit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.

A little about ourselves

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra was founded in 2012 by Adam Sweet and his mandolin students in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  Since then, the group has performed concerts all over the Metro Springfield area with colleagues and friends from Mandolin New England, including L’Esperance Mandolin Ensemble, Mando Paradiso, the Albany Mandolin Orchestra, as well as individual musicians and students.

We are always looking for new players!  If you would like to play in a mandolin orchestra, join us!  There is no cost to join.

If you would like to find out more about joining the orchestra on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, bass or guitar, fill out the form on our Contact page.  Thank you

Double the strings: Mandolin orchestra forms in South Hadley

11054262_472181252930113_453625999577614312_oBy GENA MANGIARATTI

SOUTH HADLEY — Adam R. Sweet would like to see mandolin jam sessions, popular in the early 20th century, make a comeback.

But for now, the music teacher and owner of Sweet Music Studio has founded the South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra, which had its first rehearsal in February.

According to the Classical Mandolin Society of America, it is likely the only mandolin orchestra in the Pioneer Valley.

“They said, ‘Look, we’re a dying breed. There are very few of us left,’” recalls Sweet, referring to the nonprofit organization, based in Minneapolis. He said the closest mandolin orchestra the society knew of is in Providence, R.I.

Formed at the urging of some of his students, the South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra has nine members — seven mandolinists, one mandola player and one mandocellist.

“The big thrill of playing in an orchestra is being in the middle of the sound,” said member Will Melton, who plays mandola. He was a member of the Providence Mandolin Orchestra before moving to South Hadley. “Being in the middle of acoustic instruments, playing harmonies in split-second time — it’s a spiritual experience.”

To make mandolin family instruments popular again, Sweet aims to reach out to the young.

“I find that most people think they’re banjos,” he said.

He said he has approached South Hadley Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Young about setting up a pilot string program in the schools.

Benjamin Levy of Granby, an orchestra member and also one of Sweet’s students, said he took up the mandolin four years ago as a “retirement project.”

He grew up playing the piano and tuba, and began playing the guitar as an adult, he said.

He stresses that musicians of all levels of expertise should consider joining the orchestra.

“All you really need is a mandolin, an ability to read music, and an interest in playing classical music in a group,” Levy said.

Mary Jennings, a mandolin player who has been taking lessons for a year and a half, said she initially thought she wasn’t ready to play in a group, but Sweet encouraged her to join. She previously studied piano.

“It’s my very first experience in an orchestra, working with more experienced musicians than myself,” she said. “So it’s a lot of keeping up.”

There is no formal audition or fee to join, Sweet said.

“I want it to be a fun community thing that has a life of its own. That it’s something that grows and continues to grow over the next number of decades — that’s really my hope.”

The mandolin

The mandolin is a string instrument played by strumming or picking like a banjo or guitar and using violin finger patterns. It was developed in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries, and became popular in the United States during the 1920s after Orville Gibson designed a new style with a violin-like arched top.

Gibson would go on to found the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., which today is the Gibson Guitar Corp. of Nashville, Tenn.

In the early 20th century, when people listened to live rather than recorded music, mandolin bands would commonly play in people’s homes, said Sweet, a scholar of music history. As recorded music became more popular, the trend waned, along with the traditional mandolin orchestra.

The mandolin is commonly associated with bluegrass, Celtic and classical music, but can be applied to a wide variety of genres. Sweet teaches a weekly mandolin group class where students each semester study a different genre and how the mandolin can fit in to it. This semester, Beatles music is the focus.

“What we need is a rock star of the mandolin world,” said Sweet. “Like a Yo-Yo Ma.”

In a recent interview in his studio, Sweet demonstrated how a mandolin is held and played.

Tuned the same way as a violin, any song that can be played on a violin can be played on a mandolin, but a mandolin player can strum chords, too, unlike a violinist, he said, momentarily breaking into “Danny Boy.”

He describes the mandolin as a social instrument that can be played in groups, like guitar jam sessions. While the violin is one of the most difficult string instruments to learn, the mandolin is one of the easiest, he said.

Other instruments in the mandolin family — which all have four sets of double strings — include the mandola, tuned like a viola, the mandocello, tuned like a cello and the mandobass, tuned like a bass.

Sweet, 51, has been teaching violin and mandolin in the Valley since 1986. He is a classically trained violinist, and spent six years studying the mandolin. He operates his music studio out of his home on Lincoln Avenue where he lives with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Ricky, 4, and Bina, 14.

He has 37 students — most on mandolin and violin, with others studying bass, cello, guitar, mandola, percussion, voice, theory and composition.

Melton said he learned of Sweet from his music teacher in Providence. “The mandolin community is incredibly close-knit.”

Melton, who is the executive director of development for the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he is grateful to have found another opportunity to play in a mandolin orchestra. He estimates there are only around 120 of them in the country.

As well as playing in Sweet’s orchestra, he said, he often jams during lunch breaks with several of his co-workers who play the mandolin.

“The College of Natural Sciences has a pretty impressive string band,” he said.

The South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra rehearses from 8 to 10 p.m. on the third Friday of the month in Sweet’s studio. Right now, he is looking to have three musicians for each part, but the orchestra could grow to 50 pieces if interest warrants it.

“I don’t think there are 50 classical mandolin players in western Massachusetts — but I could be wrong,” he said.

Sweet can be reached through the South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra website at http://www.mandolinorchestra.org.

Learn To Play The Mandolin

ricky-learning-mandolin_1_origSpringfield Mandolin Orchestra Director Adam Sweet offers mandolin, mandola and mandocello lessons.  He teaches online using Skype or Hangouts, Sundays at Downtown Sounds in Northampton, or the First and Third Saturday at the Center Church in South Hadley.

Visit Sweet Music Studio for details.