Shetland’s many musical activities were recently added to with the formation of the Shetland Mandolin Band. Jenny Henry, who teaches the instrument ‘aboot da night’ at the High Level Music Centre in Lerwick, got the group going – sooner rather than later, due to her incompetence with social media – and they met fortnightly during November.
Like many a fine musical idea it started with a session. But – unlike a lot of those ideas – the Shetland Mandolin Band was not forgotten once the music stopped.
Organiser Jenny Henry says: “The idea of a mandolin band, or ‘orchestra’ even, has been spoken about tentatively whenever a few players have got together at the folk festival or a session of some kind, but none of us ever got round to doing anything about it.
“Since I started teaching, and with pupil numbers increasing, it became fairly obvious a group of some sort would be a great help to new players. They could meet together, preferably with more experienced mandolinists, to share tunes, pick up tips, and just enjoy playing along with other folk rather than just sitting with me for half an hour at their lesson.
“I thought I’d message a few folk I knew of who played and see what their thoughts were. After adding some names to a Facebook message I logged off thinking I’d write the actual ideas down later when I’d thought about it a bit more… then I got a couple of ‘pings’ asking what this empty message was about! Obviously Facebook doesn’t like you hanging about, so I said I thought it was time to get a mandolin group together and would they be interested?
“The response was very favourable, so I just went ahead and booked a hall, set a day and time, set up a group page on Facebook and invited lots of folk. I couldn’t believe it when player after player turned up on the first night – 30 in all, plus a double bass player. It was a great night and the consensus was to meet fortnightly.”
The first meeting of the group was informal, but plans have quickly developed to help the less experienced to learn from accomplished players – including some of the isles’ most famous musicians.
Jenny says: “We just played tunes off the cuff, trying to do some of them a bit slower so beginners could join in where they could, and there wasn’t any structure to it. But you forget how intimidating things can be for a learner, whatever the subject, and we’ve now decided that the first half-hour or so of our sessions will be planned beforehand and aimed at the less experienced players, so they can learn up the tunes between times.
“The band’s lucky to have the likes of Gary Peterson – of Hom Bru fame and probably one of the main reasons there are so many mandolin players in the islands – along with accomplished players like Christine Hughson, Grant Nicol, Trevor Jamieson and Terry Irvine to name a few, coming along.
“That’s a great boost to those who are newer to the instrument, maybe playing it as a second instrument or even those who’ve played in the house for a long time but haven’t played much along with other folk.
“The biggest challenge, I think, is going to be making sure the experienced players don’t get too bored and the beginners don’t get too scared! But everybody seems keen to make it work as an inclusive group, and the idea is that we’ll arrange the music to suit all levels so that everybody can play a part in whatever tune we’re playing.
“It would be great if there were more mandolas or other bigger mandolin-family instruments, but it’s mostly mandolins at the moment, accompanied by May Gair’s excellent bass playing, and we’ve had a couple of guitarists along too which is splendid; it makes a big odds having the accompaniment.
“Much of what we’ve played so far is ‘traditional’, but we’re planning to branch out and play a selection of musical styles. And there are some great ideas being suggested, so if we ever make a public appearance there should be something to suit everybody, and some surprises for the audience as well.”
As well as getting more involved with playing and teaching lately, and getting the ball rolling with the band, Jenny would like to find out more about the history of mandolin playing in Shetland, with a view to producing a publication in the future.
She is looking for stories and photos relating to local players, visiting artists, instruments, concerts, concert programmes, in fact anything to do with the instrument, even shop or makers’ receipts and records.
Having played since the mid-70s, she knows a bit about the recent history, but anything previous to that era would be particularly welcomed.
“I’ve found a few bits and pieces in the museum and archive’s online collections, but I’m sure there has to be more out there and it would be most splendid if folk got in touch with even the peeriest bit of information,” Jenny said.
Contact Jenny via email on firstname.lastname@example.org;
by mail to 126 Sandveien, Lerwick, ZE1 0RW; or phone 07787 344073.
Photos: Kevin Jones