Among many other accomplishments, Bruce has won the Kansas State Mandolin Championship a number of times and the Walnut Valley Festival Mandolin Championship in 1998. I personally got to hear Bruce play his signature piece Russian Rag to win the Kansas State Championship a few years ago. Wow! He sent me back to the practice tapes. The lad can pick. Bruce is a gifted and versatile musician and composer. He currently serves as President of the Classical Mandolin Society of America.
Q - Bruce, every guest at some point has to tell us about his/her instruments? What's in your herd?
A - This is one I will leave my standard reply to unopened! I say that because I have always thought it unwise to place an inventory list of instruments on public display. I have seen people who actually list all their instruments and equipment on websites! Given the makeup of the players on this list I will make an exception.
I primarily play a Monteleone Grand Artist, although I have Bruce Weber, of Sound to Earth, building me a custom Mandolin at this time. My first serious instrument was a '85 Flatiron F5. It was made before they started designation "Artist" or "Master". It had a radiused fretboard and x bracing. In the early 1990s I had to have it renecked (factory warranty) and flew it into Bozeman myself to meet the person doing repairs. That is when I first met Bruce Weber and saw his work firsthand. I must say that I was impressed. I have stayed in touch over the years as he started his own company in the 'post gibson' era, and I like their product. I am looking forward to that one.
I also play a Klaus Knorr La Raggianta bowlback (modern German custom classical mandolin builder) that I bought from Butch Baldassari. Great for more traditional classical work. I do have several electric mandolins, a Mandobanjo (I am a gentleman; I know how to play it, but I refrain from doing so), and the first mandolin I ever owned, a A5 copy by Jim Triggs. I am a Guitar player as well so there are a few of those around. I also have a Martin Bowlback that is for sale if anyone is interested. I plan on listing it on Mandolincafe.
It seems like over the years many mandolins come and go. My wife says "just what we need, another mandolin around the house." The ones I really like stay here. The ones I am not drawn to end up going away.
Q - Glad to have you as guest on the list for a week. I have a question which relates to your experience with the Classical Mandolin Society of America, and your present work as CMSA president (a brave volunteer job, there):
Over the last few years, do your sense greater or less youth involvement in the mandolin? Are there any new formal educational programs getting started in this country? If there are, what are some of the practical ways by which private mandolin enthusiasts can help them?
A - I sense a greater youth involvement in the last few years. We now have two new youth Mandolin Orchestras programs in public schools. In Alabama, and New Jersey. The CMSA has started funds for each of these orchestras. If any of you would like to make fully tax deductible donations of dollars or instrumets t either of these funds, or for that matter the CMSA general fund, we would love to put your money to good use promoting Mandolin.
Even as a casual spectator I see more youth involved in Mandolin growth today. At Winfield this year I did a workshop with Anthony Hannigan, Emory Lester and John Reischman. One hour after the workshop a young man (I am guessing eleven) approached me in the vendor area and told me he really liked the workshop. He asked if he could play my Mandolin. I was a little hesitant at first (the enviornment was very busy) but thought it could be done safely. We stepped out of the traffic path and I handed him my Mandolin. This kid proceeded to burn up the fretboard with an amazing display of difficult passages, and he executed them well. I watched his body position (a dead givaway for young Thile followers) and listened to his style. I commented that he had a lot of Chris Thile in his tone (It was obvious whose music had reached him). His eyes got big and he smiled. He said that he had recently learned a Chris Thile tune, and played it for me, quite well I might add. I asked him how long he had been playing, and he said two years. This young guy had progressed further in two years than I had in my first seven!
Two years ago I met a young man at the CMSA convention named Scott. Scott had been taking lessons from Evan Marshall. What I wouldn't have given to had that opportunity at a young age... He is progressing rapidly and will likely perform a piece with Evan at the convention this year.
Every where I go I see very young people taking up our beloved instrument. I do believe a lot of this is thanks to the public exposure that Chris Thile's music has generated in the popular market. I also believe I am seeing more older players as beginers and intermediates. Part of this is the natural effect a slow economy has on the public taking up instrumental music as a hobby in general.
Q - Bruce, tell us about the custom instrument you have on order from
A - It will be a top of the line f5 from his product line. I will fly in this spring to pick some woods, and to try to salvage a piece of wood from my great grandfathers homestead cabin decaying outside greyclif montana. I hope to have Bruce use a piece of it for headstock veneer.
It will have a radiused fretboard, tone bars, a slightly deeper body, and a top that is thinner so it is geared to my personal setup preference. The setup I use is Thomastic Infield Stark (heavy) strings, which are flatwound and the stark set averages about 22 lbs tension per string as opposed to 26-2 per string on a phosphur bronze medium set. I also use fossil walrus ivory for the nut and a saddle insert to brighten the tone of the flatwound strings. I do use a pickguard, especially when playing duo style.
To explain the reason for the lighter setup; I had many tendonitis / endocondlitis problems starting about year 7 or 8 and continuing for several years in strong symptoms. I did excercises, anti-inflammatories (shots/pills), ice baths, stopped playing altogether, etc. The answer I found that worked for me best was, decreasing the tension of the strings I played, and refusing to play in groups (jams) where the mix of players didn't make it possible to take my turn without having to beat my instrument up to be heard.
Q - Can you share any tips or strategies you have learned over the years that help enable you to relax and perform up to your highest level while competing or playing in other high stress performance environments. i.e. Winfield or at CMSA conventions etc?
A - Boy you Comandos don't ask easy questions!
This has been a question I have spent many years woring on, and I still face today. I believe the single most important thing is knowing your material cold. Prepare it and practice it at different tempos, different dynamic levels, on different instruments (I practice on my usual axe at a 14" scale with a radiused fretboard, and a bowlback with 13" scale and a flat fretboard, and on the electrics as well), play your pieces for various audiences (family, friends, church, the bar-room gig you can sneak a out of place number in), play them after doing strenuous excercise so you heart rate is up, play them when nearly asleep at night and in the morning, play them while watching tv or doing something else that is distracting. If you are an type A personality like me, you will likely find that stepping onto the stage to compete (alot harder that performing at CMSA, although that is not an easy task given the company) will do many things to your body and mind. Bloodpressure goes up, and all the senses are distorted. I remember looking down at my fretboard once in a winfield competition to start, and it didn't look anything like the one I had played on just ten minutes before! I never could find any way to keep my ansious level from increasing, but if I knew my material cold, and was aware that my body would react this way, I could use it for energy to deliver in performance.
I also found several things that helped enhance my performance. Rest and reasonable nutrition in the few days before a competition helped. I am the stupid one who would jam hours a day and play hard right up until the time to go on stage to compete. It really added to the difficulty. I somehow felt that if I didn't live the whole winfield experience (vacation there for two weeks before in a camping enviornment, party, late hours, junk food, playing in loud jams for way too many hours at a time), that I wouldn't really 'deserve' a win. I looked at the majority of players that come out a day or two before the contest, eat, drink, sleep, and practice sensibly, as pansies. Boy, how wrong I was! If I ever did it again I would be more sensible.
I did a lot of introspection during my competeing years on internal and external stradegy. I looked into alexander technique, I meditated (though I still don't do that well), I tried second guessing the judges tastes. I learned pieces that had been winners selections before. In the end, Dave Peters gave me the best advise I got... he told me to play whatever I had been playing that year, whether I thought it was something the judges would like or not. That way you felt it (which shows) because you liked it enough to do it all year. Simple thought, profound result.
I did also find that competeing in a smaller contest (KS state championships a month before) gave me a boost and edge of confidence to do the winfield contest. I would suppose that just as stage fright becomes less noticible when you gig 50 times a year, so goes competeing. If you compete a lot you will be much more comfortable with the changes your particular mind and body have as related to performance stress. I am in the middle of a book on performance stress right now that I find very interesting. It has a series of exercises with evaluation, to guide you into your own best approach.
Bottom line imo, you can program yourself (to a small degree) to 'relax' when playing in a high stress situation, but hit one wrong note and you go off track fast! My belief is it is better to understand what your particular mind and body naturally do when exposed to performance stress, and learn to operate in those conditions more effectively. Just understanding what normally takes place, ie for me; breathing speeds up, perspiration (especially hands) increases, heart rate goes up, etc., and accepting that this may be the state you will have to perform in (and that is not all bad) can make a big difference in the way you feel about the changes while you are playing. Are the changes going to unnerve you, or will you anticipate the changes and use them to give you energy to burn.
Lot of words, but I hope some of them are of use.