A couple years ago I asked my brother who plays the mandolin if he had any advice on buying a mandolin. I can’t remember why. I think at the time Jubal was playing cello and ukulele and I thought the next good challenge for him might be another small four-stringed (actually a mando has eight, but four pairs of the same note) instrument.
My brother mailed me his old black Kentucky f-style mandolin. It sat around our house for several months before we got the courage to pick it up. I learned a few chords, but that was all. Jubal wasn’t as interested as I thought he’d be–mostly due to unfamiliarity. Then after last Christmas I was looking for a way to spend some My Tech High funds (we were homeschooling, and MTH is a supplemental program that takes funds from the state and gives it directly to the parents) before the window expired.
Since an instrument is always a good investment, I decided to buy a new guitar.
So there we were, the Christmas break period of last year, looking up guitar chords and mando chords, joking that we’d make a family band–Jubal on cello, Luke on violin, Daddy on guitar, and me, mando. You see, we’d happened upon the Peteresen’s YouTube channel with their lovely Christmas harmonies and Branson family vibes, and Jubal was enamored. (Okay, I was too a little bit.) We sat in the evenings and I practiced my pentatonic G scale (nigh to impossible, I thought at the time) and Joe strummed the chords for Wild Thing (we joked that he could fill in for any sub-par worship leader at church during passing the elements, should the need arise) and Jubal poked fun at us in the way only an eleven-year-old musician can.
We’d barely gotten a few good blister-calluses forming on our left hands; then we went to Mexico and accidentally caught Covid. (I intend on including this funny essay in the book of David Sedaris-style life book I will write one day when a worldwide Pandemic with a capital P is in the rearview. Because I might get arrested for it in today’s climate. For posterity, I will say it was before vaccines and mandates.)
When we returned from the nightmare trip, I returned to my cheapo ways of online subscribing for free music lesson trials and tablature. I bought a bluegrass fake book for Lu and a fiddling for cello book for Jube so I could practice accompanying them with my feeble selection of two-finger chords. D. G. D. C. G. (Ha.)
They generally humored me. When we visited Missouri in April to see the Petersens in Branson, we took the cello, violin, and ukulele. Ukulele for the car, cello and violin to show off for Grandma. Luke was just doing Suzuki stuff at the time and wasn’t too interested in playing fiddle by ear. But Jubal played The Wind that Shakes the Barley on his cello with my brother’s family accompanying. It sounded fantastic.
The whole trip was very Beatles-centric in the car with the ukulele and I think something inside me snapped (not really. it was probably just a nylon ukulele string.) When we came back to Colorado, I said I’d give Jubal $20 if he’d stop playing Here Comes the Sun and actually learn a real song on the guitar.
(Here I’ll interject a quick life lesson for people who are given the tongue-in-cheek heavenly gift from above, a “gifted” child. It is a curse and a blessing, both in one hand. Much is demanded from you, not the least of which is the daily challenge of making said “gifted” child struggle in some fashion so they understand that life is not about what comes easy, but acting and reacting as normally as possible. You have in your life a child who is fundamentally disabled in one form or another–or several (mostly in the behaving normal arena)–and curious onlookers and grandparents see pure talent in the child’s court and poor parenting in yours. But the talent is actually an obsession or compulsion that appears to be innocent at face value. And you, the parent, trying to temper it, comes off as a sub-par manager and lacking in discipline.
May the odds be evah in your favor. But they’re probably not.)
Jubal, to spite me, played Here Comes the Sun on the four upper strings of the guitar and earned his $20 fair and square. So I challenged him to learn more songs (but they had to be played on all the strings) for money. That is, I bribed him.
And then he took off. In the meanwhile, I signed him up for bluegrass camp in Missouri and crossed my fingers that it would be a good experience. He still played cello, and had no intention of stopping. Both boys gave a wonderful recital in May where Lu played a Suzuki 2 song and Jubal played Bach’s cello song.
When bluegrass camp finally came, we so happened to be moving from Colorado back to the Midwest. The cello and violin were abandoned while we moved into the farmhouse and adapted to country life. Well, for two days. Because after two days of living here we dropped Jubal off at camp where he decided he wanted to be the next Tony Rice.
You all, he hasn’t even touched the cello since bluegrass camp. It’s been six months. He’s played a few gigs with the band he made at camp and he’s played on stage in Branson with Lu and the cousins. He’s picked up the mando and the dobro (got it for his 12th birthday) and the banjo (uncle let us borrow). And the upright bass, when his Pop Pop leaves it at our house.
Luke still plays violin, but he is playing completely by ear now. At the recent Branson youth festival he attended a couple violin workshops, but he is a singer and isn’t as drawn to picking up instruments as Jubal.
And me? I can play a couple tunes on the mandolin. I can play a G pentatonic scale, though I’m not sure how to use it. I’m just now learning how the same chords are all over the fret board, just in different shapes. I still play a two finger D, but I’ve led music at church with Jubal and have sung Christmas carols in front of the Salvation Army bucket in public…And I think it might count for something.
I’ve picked up the mandolin nearly every day this year and I’m getting better. I have to, because how do you teach an already smart kid if not by example? I put down the phone and pick up the strings and my kids do the same thing. It’s relaxing; it’s fun. I honestly can’t believe it.
I guess you can teach an old mom new tricks. If she has manic children and a fear of falling behind.
Now for the disclaimers, because things are not always fun and get-alongy (see “gifted” child struggle paragraph above). Jubal has a terrible rude habit of plugging his ears and humming when he cannot handle noise. I.e., his brother singing. Me singing. Anyone singing. Especially Frankie Valli blasting on iTunes (why, man?). He is uber sensitive to all sounds, which is not fair to the rest of us who like a hummy tune or mindless whistling now and again. So when Jubal pulls his (very loud, resonating) Dobro out and gives it a go, we are sometimes frustrated and simultaneously proud. Why does he get to do that? I can’t explain it. Also not fair: FC wants to play drums like a beast and no one ever wants to hear him beat the cajon. I still haven’t set up the real drum kit in the basement because I don’t want to hear cymbals. It is not fair being born third. (Don’t I know.)
This is another reason I downloaded the Simply Piano app–because it levels the playing field for everyone to have beginners lessons on an entirely different instrument.
I think it is fair to say nothing usually turns out the way as planned. I mean, I put a cello in Jubal’s arms when he was six and he fell in love with the idea of playing music. But every step to get to where we are now (ear plugging included) has been a struggle mixed with joy. Babies climbing all over me while I made a mad little Jubie fix all his hooked bowings. Frustration (mine) boiling over at a child too impatient to listen to his tutor who is trying so hard to teach the little numbskull.
Signing Lu up for violin lessons and him spending the first twenty minutes of each lesson complaining that the strings were out of tune by a hair.
And now, trying to figure out how to get FC into the group playing—and making him realize we’d rather him learn bass than cajon. (It’s really hard to explain to a seven year old that the bass is percussion, too. All a seven year old boy wants to do is whack the drums and make the loudest sound possible.)
I’ve been taking video snippets of them playing music from the beginning and now I kind of wish I’d taken videos of me, too. Because even with all the frustrations, we’re still moving forward. And that’s the best encouragement of all.