In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Frances Taylor is our first female interviewee – and a classical mandolinist to boot. Her first CD (of Baroque music for the mandolin) is due to be recorded this year. As a trained violinist, Frances did not encounter the mandolin until she was in her early twenties.
From then onwards she has devoted much of her time to the study of mandolin playing and its technique, as well as researching into its largely unexplored repertoire. Currently she is promoting early Italian music for one or two mandolins supported by a continuo of harpsichord and cello.
Frances was a pupil of the internationally acclaimed virtuoso mandolinist Ugo Orlandi, and studied the Italian school of mandolin playing at Padua Conservatoire. In 1992 Taylor also gained a M.Mus in Performance and Related Studies from the University of London. It is believed that it is the first degree awarded in the UK that included mandolin performance as an integral part of the assessment.
Taylor has given solo recitals throughout the UK and Europe, including the first solo mandolin recital for 20 years at the Purcell Room, London in April 1990.
An enthusiastic teacher of mandolin, Frances has created a special project to introduce young people to the mandolin in which, with the help of private sponsorship, mandolins are purchased from Italy and loaned out to pupils wishing to study the instrument.
How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
When I was about four I used to hear violinists such as Fritz Kreisler on the radio – I guess I am showing my age now – and I was so enamoured with the sound that I asked my parents to buy me a violin. My paternal grandmother managed to find a ukulele as my Christmas present and although it wasn’t really what I had in mind it was perhaps auspicious considering that I have ended up having such an affinity with another plucked string instrument.
Who or what influenced you in your decision to take up the mandolin?
Eventually my parents allowed me to have the violin although not until I was about 12 years old which is usually too late for people starting and hoping to become a professional musician. I usually feel a bit embarrassed when I have to confess this bit of information as so many people start at young ages such as six or seven years old.
There are other exceptions like me and to be fair to my parents I did suffer from a great deal of childhood illness (bronchitis and asthma) so I can see why they took such a long time over getting me started.Finally I come to the mandolin which I didn’t hear until I had become a violin teacher myself. My first violin teacher, Paul du Marquis, was also a mandolinist and by this time a teaching colleague.
One evening we were taking our individual classes at a Music School when I heard the ethereal sounds of the mandolin as he practised between pupils. I just fell in love with the sound of the instrument and had to learn how to play it.
When did you play your first gig/concert in front of a real audience? How did it go?
I used to teach violin at Fyfield Boarding School in Essex. I don’t know whether the school still exists but when I was there they ran a series of recitals and asked me to take part. I accepted the invitation but asked to give a mandolin recital with piano accompaniment. This was my first departure into gigging on the mandolin.
Although it was successful and led to many other engagements in schools, churches and music societies, it was a time of great experimentation as I struggled to find original and suitable repertoire.
Tell us about the contexts in which you like to perform. For example, do you prefer to perform as a solo artist, with an orchestra or as part of a group?
Do you prefer large venues or small? Do you prefer a small informal get together with friends to a professional concert?
I like all sorts of things for different reasons. I have played with big orchestras such as that of the Royal Opera House and that has its own particular buzz being part of a special tradition. I also very much enjoy playing solo concertos with orchestras when I have the opportunity – there is such a sense of occasion. I think perhaps the most satisfying work for me, and that which I now devote most of my time to, is playing early music.
It allows me to play with small groups of musicians and to perform in some interesting venues – churches, historic houses and so on. The Baroque period offers such an extensive repertoire of original music for the classical mandolin and it really is the rock’n’roll of about two to three centuries ago. The music has such an energy and there is such a lot you can do in performance that comes from yourself as a performer. It is a liberating experience.
What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is (are) your favourite(s) (for performing with, casual playing at home, in the studio, etc.)?
(I’d be interested to know whether you’ve ever used flat or arch top instruments to play classical music – as Simon Mayor does in his eclectic way – or whether you’ve ever tried bluegrass on a round back!?).
I have one Embergher (1909) one Embergher (1957), probably completed or made entirely by his pupil Pecoraro, and one Pecoraro (1976). I also have a copy of a Vinaccia mandolin made by Chris Allen and his wife Sabina Kormylo (1997) which I adore.
These are my working mandolins. There also exists a whole fleet of Calace and Suzuki mandolins which I lend out to pupils and take to my workshops. I have tried a flat back, well a number actually, on the BMG teachers’ course last February.I took part in one of the workshops on folk music and I find there are many aspects about this kind of music similar to Baroque music which interests me but I think the correct flat back is necessary for the right sound.
So another instrument to add to my shopping list! Chris and Sabina are also going to make me another Baroque mandolin, a Lombardian mandolin with six courses of strings.
The mandolin is not the first instrument that most people would think of in a classical context.
How do other professional classical musicians regard mandolinists? And do you think that the mandolin’s status and profile in the classical world needs to be raised?
I think this was certainly the case when I first started but things have changed enormously now. The increase of interest in World Music and the educational ideals of making education at all levels accessible to everyone have been advantageous for the mandolin. For instance one of my pupils last year was the first to offer mandolin as part of her GCSE music exam and she obtained A*.
This summer some of my mandolinists (9 and 10 years old) are going to play for the first time in the Waltham Forest Music Festival. I find that people are now interested and pleased to welcome the mandolin on board whereas 20 years ago it was definitely a marginalized instrument.
Please tell us about your work promoting the mandolin to young people.
I have a project to promote mandolin to young people in school. At the moment I visit two London Junior Schools where the children are offered tuition and are lent out instruments. I started at the first school lending out instruments that I had purchased myself.
At the second school things were a little different – they had six instruments of their own to begin with since they are a Greek Orthodox junior school and have a cultural background which includes the mandolin. Now many of the children own their own instruments. I also visit a music school on the edge of Epping Forest where some of my violin pupils are now part of a small mandolin ensemble.
Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
I used Calace strings by Dogal (RW92 Medio). I also use a Number 1 plectrum also made by Dogal Strings in Venice, Italy. WWW.dogalstrings.com I am still experimenting with the Baroque strings.
Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
I admire particularly the playing of Ugo Orlandi and indeed of all the pupils he taught at the Padua Conservatoire. It was for this reason that when an opportunity came for me to study with him I took up the challenge even though it seems like the craziest thing I had ever done in my life.
Already a later starter, already a professional musician, and already a mum to a small boy at that time, I didn’t see how it would be possible for me to meet this challenge. However, somehow, with many adventures I embarked upon a four year period of study (1994-1998) in which I commuted to Italy about once a month for a long weekend.The big deal here was that I had to change my technique which as an adult with professional commitments was not all that easy to do. In Italy the mandolinists play with straight wrists and the right forearm is in line with the strings.
They could play fast, clear notes and all the ornaments are executed with style, precision and elegance because the plectrum is at a right angle with the string. And they have a fantastic tremolo since this technique allows them to have an even and perfect control, not to mention the most amazing dynamics.
Do you play any other instruments?
The violin as I mentioned before.
How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
My desire is to continue expanding my teaching program. I would like to introduce other violin teachers, especially student violin teachers, to the mandolin through ‘come and try’ workshops just to give violinists the experience of the mandolin and to raise awareness.
I think a lot of violin teachers might find themselves in the situation of young people wanting to learn the instrument and not realizing that they have transferable skills themselves which they could use. I could be a resource base to provide information about technique, repertoire, instruments etc. Also I want to continue exploring the Baroque repertoire.
If you had to start over again would you still choose the mandolin?
Definitely yes, but I would start a little younger.
Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
The question I get asked most about is tremolo. The basis for this is a good down stroke landing preferably on the next two strings silently when it is performed slowly. Play crotchets in groups of four, say 16 or 32 bars. Then introduce the up stroke and again play in groups of fours, counting 1&2&3&4&. Then move to semi-quavers.
Think of your four crotchets beats in a bar, feeling them with your body or tapping them with your foot, and then count in your head 1234 1234 1234 1234. This makes sure you have the correct number of notes inside each beat.Finally you can double again to 1&2&3&4& inside each crochet beat and now you will be making a tremolo and playing demi-semi-quavers.
It sounds easy and to some extent it is but you have to be patient – it might take a few months or a few years to perfect. Another good tip for everyone that I got from my teacher Ugo Orlandi was to practice technique like the above exercise and then to practice music and not to think about technique –only think of making music. In other word it is impossible to have your mind on two things at once. You are already doing many things at once just by playing the mandolin. Eventually the technique is just absorbed imperceptibly into your playing.
Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take? (throw in a second and third if you like!)
Tricky. Probably some motivational music, so a toss up between The Hours by Philip Glass and the Double Violin Concerto by Bach.
What would you do if a friend sat on you favourite instrument?
When I was younger I would have been devastated because I had a belief that everything was in short supply. Over the years my belief about the world has changed to one of abundance. It has amazed me to see how just the right instrument has come to me at just the right time, or how the money I needed for an instrument has just somehow come to me just when I needed it.
The same was true about finding a luthier to make my baroque mandolin. At that moment when everything seemed impossible and no one was interested in my idea he was just at my shoulder overhearing my conversation.
I never looked back. So if my friend sat on my best mandolin I might feel sad for the loss but I would also know that my friend would feel a hundred times worse than me. I would be bound to comfort my friend knowing that the next perfect instrument was about to arrive!
Please tell us about your forthcoming CD.
Italian Mandolin Sonatas is the working title of my CD which will be recorded on the Claudio label. It will be Baroque music for mandolin with harpsichord and cello accompaniment. I am recording in July 2005 and hopefully it will be available from the Autumn.
And finally, what burning issues do you have that you would like to have been asked about?
No, I think I have done enough talking for now, as usual. My passions, other than mandolin, include all things Italian – the clothes, the food and yes, you guessed it, talking. For further discussions, information etc please contact my website which will be greatly expanded in the Autumn.