While I was writing Opus Twelve – New Music for Mandolin Ensembles, I went on a quest to learn everything I could about mandolin techniques.  I’m starting to assemble some of my findings here both to share with adventurous mandolin players and to inform composers who are writing for mandolin, mandolin ensembles, and mandolin orchestra.  Eventually, I hope to add some video/audio demos.  The Austin Mandolin Orchestra is always on the lookout for exciting new pieces to add to our repertoire!

Instruments:

  • Mandolin – like violin, standard tuning is GDAE. Mandolin orchestra, like string orchestra, includes Mandolin I and Mandolin II parts, with Mandolin I typically featuring higher range and more complexity.
  • Mandola - the American (or Tenor) mandola is tuned CGDA, like a viola.  However, it is important to note that European mandola (called a mandola or octave mandola) is known in America as an octave mandolin.  Few mandola players read alto clef, so often octave treble clef is preferred.  Because of the physics (string size & tension, scale length), the Tenor Mandola has unique timbre, especially on the lower (C and G) strings.
  • Octave Mandolin - an octave mandolin (aka mandola in Europe) is tuned GDAE, one octave down from the mandolin. Octave treble clef is appropriate. Octave mandolins can be used as a substitute on Tenor mandola parts.
  • Mandocello – tuned like a cello, CGDA, one octave below the Tenor Mandola. Sometimes the mandocello doubles the bass, but it is capable of fairly basic melodic lines (which can sound quite stunning!).
  • Guitar – many mandolin orchestras utilize a standard guitar, which may be nylon or steel-stringed.  Nylon-stringed is more common in orchestras. Guitars can execute melody lines, but are often used to re-inforce bass (or mandocello) lines and chords/harmony.
  • Bass – There are a few fretted bass mandolins, tuned EADG.  However many mandolin orchestras utilize a standard double bass, which can be played pizz or arco.

In America, flatback mandolins are more common.  In Europe and abroad, bowlback instruments are more common.  While birds of a feather flock together, it is not unusual to see orchestras with both flatback and bowlback instruments.  While not aesthetically interchangable, these instruments commonly intermingle in typical American mandolin orchestras.

Skill Levels:

Be aware that many mandolin orchestras in America are volunteer community orchestras performing music at the complexity of a middle-school or high-school string orchestra.  Pieces that are written at easy to moderate difficulty levels, will have more opportunities to be performed. Sometimes these groups include one or more virtuoso players, so a concerto format (with solo part) might be a way to add interest/complexity while keeping the overall piece within the range of all players.

 

Alternate Tunings:

  • while alternate tunings are sometimes used in solo repertoire, they are not recommended for ensemble/orchestra music.  It takes a long time to change the tuning and it’s hard to keep a mandolin in tune to begin with.

 

Borrowed Techniques:

  • Dynamics work the same as for string ensembles, but don’t expect fortissmo for a mandolin orchestra to match that of a brass quintet.  Mandolins are softer instruments.
  • Arco and pizz.
    • Arco does not exist, there is no bow.  Passages marked arco will be played ordinarily.
    • The mandolin is normally plucked (pizz).  However mandolinists often employ a technique called palm mute to simulate pizz (or staccato).  Palm mute is executed by resting the picking hand gently over the plucked strings so that sounds rapidly decay.  It’s a nice sound. Composers should mark ‘palm mute’ in the score to request this technique (and cancel with ‘ord.’).
  • Timbre
    • sul ponticello is an acceptable instruction for the player to pluck near the bridge.  This provides a brighter tone emphasizing higher harmonics, so in mandolin music this is often called metallico instead.
    • sul tasto is commonly used instruction to play over the fingerboard, which will provide a warmer tone.
    • naturale instructs the player to play over the sound hole which produces an ordinary, balanced tone.

Tremolo:

A book could, and probably should, be written about tremolo on mandolin.  It’s a complex and sometimes controversial topic.  Since mandolin, like marimba, is a percussive instrument with rapid decay, players will naturally seek to add tremolo to extend long notes. This may or may not be desirable.

A composer should be clear about his/her intentions with regard to tremolo:

  • To indicate tremolo, just mark the part with tremolo, and if needed, cancel with ord. or non-trem.
  • Alternately to be more specific, individual notes can be marked with the tremolo symbol. In this case, notes not marked with the tremolo symbol will be considered non-trem.
  • Use the instruction non-trem in a score to be clear in cases where you do not want tremolo.
  • On a related note the L.V., let vibrate, symbol (without a tremolo symbol) is an acceptable way to inform the player to let a note ring without tremolo.
  • Bass and guitar parts are always assumed to be non-trem, unless noted otherwise.
  • Use tremolo carefully on mandocello.  Mandocellos have a unique envelope, that has a longer sustain, so tremolo is harder to execute and may actually make the sound softer.  It can be a cool sound, but just be aware that unlike on mandolin or mandola, a non-tremed half or whole note on mandocello can have have a very satisfying sustain.
  • One suggestion is that you can bring out a part with trem if other parts are non-trem, that’s an easy way to get a ‘solo’ sound out of one particular part.

A player interpreting a score without tremolo markings may use the following guidelines:

  • First consider the abilities and preferences of your group.  Above all, if you are playing with other people, it should sound like you are playing WITH other people. Don’t be THAT GUY that’s doing his own thing (unless you are the soloist).
  • Next consider the style of music.  A Ballo Lisco piece would likely be a very acceptable place to apply tremolo liberally.  Some pieces just sound better without tremolo.
  • Next consider tremolo for dynamics.  You can tremolo or not.  You can use measured tremolo (fractional increments of the tempo, in beat) or unmeasured tremolo (not synced with the beat).  You can speed up or slow down the tremolo.

Other Mandolin-Centric Techniques:

  • Articulations
    • Hammer-on, as on guitar, ‘hammer’ the fretting finger onto the fret to create a note without picking.
    • Pull-off, as on guitar, pull a fretting finger off a string with sufficient force to sound a lower note on the same string.
    • Slides, as on guitar, slide the fretting finger(s) up or down on the fretboard to change the note(s).
    • Natural harmonics are an accessible technique for intermediate players and work like on guitar.  The player gently rests the fretting hand above the 12th fret and produces a note one octave above the open-tuned note.
    • Artificial harmonics are an advanced technique in which the player uses one finger of the picking hand to rest 12-frets above a note held by the fretting hand, while plucking the note to produce a note one-octave above the fretted note.  Artificial harmonics are used when a harmonic note is required that is not an octave above an open-tuned note (any pitch in the range of the instrument is possible).

 

That’s all for now. Please check back, I’ll add more thoughts as I have time.