There are some musical instruments that it really sounds weird to say that you play them. (And, no,
I don't intend to retract one iota of that convoluted syntax; it fits right in.) Take the tuba. Please. A
man who plays the tuba is so embarassed about it, that he will stammer out a euphemism: "I play...
low brass... uh...you...the...tuba...
". A woman who plays the tuba won't even whisper the
word. She'll usually say, "What!? Why they told me that this was a harp!
"I play ophicleide" will stop any conversation --and then empty the room quickly since many
people confuse that word with the zoological term for whatever the thing was that burst out of that
guy's chest in Alien
It's not so much that the word "mandolin" sounds strange. After all, it just means "small mandola"
and who could find fault with that? (If you can't wait, go to the bottom.) It's just that the instrument
has sort of disappeared from our general music consciousness.
The mandolin is part of the large "lute family" of plucked string instruments. There are various
kinds of mandolins in use in Italy; they bear the names of cities or regions: the "Roman", the
"Lombard", the "Genovese", and the "Neapolitan" mandolin. They may differ in size, shape,
number of strings and tuning. The traditional Neapolitan mandolin is tear-shaped with a bowl back
and a uniquely cut and shaped front (sounding board); it has eight strings paired into the four violin
tunings of g, d', a', and e'. The strings are played with a plectrum, producing the rapid and
characteristic tremolo sound as the plectrum moves rapidly over unison strings. In that
configuration, the Neapolitan mandolin started to be manufactured widely in Naples in the mid-
In spite of the modern vision of the mandolin as a quaint vehicle for older, traditional popular music
such as the Neapolitan Song
, the instrument has a classical history. If you decide
to study mandolin at the Naples music conservatory
, here is what you have play in order to pass your
final exam--before they give you that piece paper and you hit the bricks to look for gigs:
(Abridged, from the conservatory catalogue):
"Play one concerto for mandolin and orchestra (in piano reduction). Candidate may choose from the
following: A. Vivaldi, Concerto in C major; F. Lecce, Concerto in G major; J.N. Kummel; Concerto
in G major; G. Hoffmann; Concerto in D major; R. Calace; second concerto in A minor (1st & 2nd
"Play a composition for unaccompanied mandolin. The candidate may choose from the following:
(here, ten choices from the 19th and 20th century repertoire);
"Play one composition accompanied by piano, harpsichord, or guitar, chosen from among the
following: (here, 11 choices, including Beethoven's Adagio in E-flat major for mandolin and
"Play one piece of medium difficulty with one hour of preparation;
"Play the mandolin orchestral parts chosen by the exam commission from among the following:
(Here, four choices, including Mozart's Don Giovanni
"Sight read a piece presented by the exam commission;
"Pass an oral exam on the history of the instrument and knowledge of the repertoire."
That is awful lot to do if you are going to wind up as the stereotypical mandolin player who
wanders from restaurant to restaurant with a guitar-playing buddy to play for tips. Yet, you can
study the mandolin; you can even learn how to restore old instruments and make new ones. (You
would then be a "luthier"--like Stradivarius. He made mandolins, too. If you wanted to call yourself
Martin Luthier, think of all the swell jobs you could get repairing instruments for banjo-beating
Baptists!) There is also a Neapolitan Mandolin Academy, which aims to combat the degraded
stereotype of the instrument, preserve the historical repertoire and even get some new music
composed, as well.
(O.K. "Mandola" comes from the Greek word pandura
, a plucked instrument supposedly
invented by Pan. He was embarrassed to say, "I play the Pan-pipes.")
*(The image at the top was borrowed from a delightful website
. I will
cheerfully delete it upon request.)