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.

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