Women and the Mandolin

John Baxter

NOTE: This article is very subjective, and other than references to the women interviewed, the views expressed here are my own. I make generalizations that may not be true for the reader, based on the readers experience, culture, upbringing, background, etc.

One of the earliest references to a woman mandolinist comes in 1770. Her name was Mlle. de Villeneuve, and, according to Paul Sparks's book, "The Early Mandolin", she was the only woman mandolinist to perform at a "concert spirituel" in Paris (Sparks, p.93). Sparks gives the text of a review of that performance:

"Mademoiselle de VILLENEUVE . . . performed a mandoline concerto, composed by M. Frizeri, with all the art, and with all the great execution of the most skillful master. She gave greater pleasure than one could have expected from an instrument which is too dry, and too lacking in resonance, to be heard in a large hall."

(Journal de Musique November 1770, 43)

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINATED FROM A SIMPLE QUESTION: Why aren't there more women mandolin players? It seems to me that of all the instruments, women would be attracted to the mandolin (of course I'm biased toward the mando). It is small and light, has a sweet, high tone, and the fingerboard accommodates small hands very well. These are features that I would think women would find beneficial and desirable. Yet, outside of the classical realm, there just doesn't seem to be that many women playing mandolin.

So, I put together a short questionnaire, and contacted ten women mandolin players, ranging in experience from 4 months to 40 years, with skill levels encompassing beginner to professional. This is admittedly a very small sample group for a survey, but frankly, they were all the women mandolin players I had access to. If I were doing a survey regarding men, I would have had more contacts than I would have had time for.

I want to state right up front the reason for this article. My intention is to give recognition to women mandolinists, encourage those that are just starting out, and to honor the contributions women have made. Along the way I will explore some questions that I have considered lately. But this article is not intended to create some issue of a gender gap regarding women and the mandolin. In fact, the survey reflected a strong base of encouragement from the women's family and friends, and a feeling of acceptance, for the most part, by the "mando-guys." Most of the women felt that the mandolin was "gender-neutral", but there were some insightful observations made that I think we should take to heart. I've learned a lot from this survey. From the beginners, I've seen myself reflected in their self-consciousness and shyness, and from the more experienced players, I've realized just how important texture, emotion, and context are, instead of my tenancy to want to learn to play the hot licks, as fast as humanly possible. The comments were inspiring, but there was also a thread of exclusion, although not prominent, none-the-less, significant.

As a male player, have you ever had anyone comment, "You don't play like a guy." or "You are really good, for a guy."? Although this may seem silly, if not inappropriate, these are the kind of comments women mandolinists are periodically faced with. The fact that the comments are even made, no matter how infrequent, is indicative of an attitude reflected in many other areas regarding women.

Although the range of initial interest in the mandolin is as varied as the styles it encompasses, I suspect the majority of men playing mandolin, at least in the United States, were drawn to it by the influence of bluegrass. This may not be quite as true today, with the many styles prevalent, from Dawg music to jazz, but the majority of men playing mandolin were probably influenced by bluegrass. I'm not so sure this is true for women, at least proportionally. Therefore, I think there is a fundamental difference in the way women approach the instrument. Where men may be focused on a specific style, I think women are more apt to be focused on the instrument. I asked the women what motivated them to play mandolin. I was curious as to how many would say Bill Monroe, or David Grisman, or Sam, or Jethro...

"I had reached a plateau after years of strumming a guitar, and never could learn the fretboard stuff. I loved the sound of the mandolin (Grisman, bluegrass). the size attracted me. I thought maybe I could learn the scales and fretboard stuff on a different instrument where I didn't have the hangup of having struggled without much success for 20 years, and a friend handed me an old beginner mandolin and told me I could borrow it for as long as I wanted. Yippee!"

"I played acoustic guitar in a band and we needed a mandolin player. The 'band' and friends all chipped in and bought me a mandolin as a surprise birthday present!"

"First hearing old-time string band music."

"Since I couldn't (or wouldn't) sing, I thought I would try taking up the mandolin.

"I always thought they were cool. Then my husband started acquiring guitars and the shops we would go to always had a few mandolins hanging around. I kept wanting one, but wasn't ready to take the plunge. Then we were at this major guitar show in Arlington, Texas, and my mandolin found me. It called my name all weekend, so I bought it."

"I got tired of tapping my foot at bluegrass jam sessions. I tried the guitar but it felt too big and clumsy, the mandolin was a good fit, plus it is a "musically logical" instrument."

"I had a few lessons as a child and enjoyed it. After hearing the Mair/Davis Duo CDs I had a strong desire to get involved with the mandolin again."

"Mark lent me one; I liked the sound; I already played some violin and guitar so I could immediately do something with it; it added an interesting tone color to the old-timey jam sessions I soon was dragged to (having lots of tune-playing pals), but I wasn't responsible for leading the tunes (like the fiddle) or playing constantly (like the guitar). I soon started studying with Hibbard Perry, who was right in Providence, to get a better sound from my right hand. Within a couple of years I was playing chamber music with other music students and professionals, giving recitals, studying in Vienna, amassing a collection of sheet music -- I was hooked!"

"Because I played mandolin in my infancy."

Beth Dearinger, of The Uptown Mandolin Quartet, was attracted to the "ethereal 'other-world' quality" of the mandolin sound. For Becky Smith, it 'fit' her better than a guitar and she liked how nice and handy it was to be tuned in 5ths. Kathleen Fitzgerald-Gustafson likes that it's small, it's sensible (movable positions), it lends itself well to celtic music and she likes the sound of it. Dottie Palsgrove loves its unique sound and versatility. Michiko Kataoka loves the mandolin's tone, beautiful and pretty.

I spent some time browsing through my local record store, and found very few albums featuring women on mandolin. But I had no problem finding a fair number of albums featuring women on dulcimer. I wonder why this is? Are some instruments more appealing to men, and others to women? Or does the style of music typically played on a particular instrument influence instrument choice? These are of course philosophical questions, that would take an in depth survey and analysis to determine trends that affect our choice of instrument and music. But there may be an influence that goes back to our childhood. In the fifth grade I signed up for band. I was given a choice of learning trumpet, clarinet, or flute. I remember the boys were reluctant to choose clarinet or flute, viewing them as "girl" instruments. Big mistake. If there is one instrument other than the mandolin I want to learn, it is the clarinet. Maybe if I had of been exposed to Benny Goodman at that age, I would have made a different choice. I think that is why it is so important to expose our children to a wide range of styles and instruments. Maybe I'm an exception, but there was definitely a boy/girl thing happening when I was growing up. Let's try a little test. When you read the following list of instruments, which comes to mind first, male or female?


Although each persons response will differ, based on experience, individual perception, or other factors, I suspect there is a definite pattern. Some instruments are perceived as predominately played by males, and some as predominately played by females. And of course this will differ from country to country, culture to culture. Again, I think perceptions toward instruments are often influenced by the style of music the instrument is associated with. Whereas instruments such as piano and guitar encompass a wide range of styles, mandolin is generally associated with bluegrass, classical, or celtic music. Each of these styles have women mandolinists participating. Bluegrass seems to have the least number proportionally. For those that have followed and participated in bluegrass, for many it started in the jams at the many festivals held each year throughout the country. There are certainly women participants and enthusiasts, but I haven't seen many women jamming on mandolin. This brings us around to my original question: why? Here's what some of the women had to say:

"In general, men are more competitive or 'macho' about their playing and many women don't care to participate in that style of jamming. Therefore, some women don't even attempt to 'mix it up' with the big boys. I think men players tend to be more aggressive players naturally."

"In any jam, no matter what the instruments, there are very few women. This is a bit unnerving. Men seem to be willing to play anything, anytime, without self consciousness, or without belittling themselves, or manage to push through that stuff even if they do feel it. My self-consciousness, my female compulsion to consider others first (how do I sound to them, am I too loud, am I off beat, are my mistakes more obvious then everyone else's) can serve me well in terms of jam etiquette, but makes me shy about being "out there"."

"...being passed up in a jam session because you're a woman, so you must not be able to solo, (just keep on chucking)."

"Gender isn't a big deal outside of the "macho" bluegrass scene. I've played in an improvisational context with jazz-guys, rock-guys, free-improv guys, fellow artists who are intrigued by the mandolin and what they've heard me do with it. This is the best situation for "jamming", where musicians are all interested in what will come out of combining their various strengths. It's a stretch for me to go from "choro" to jazz standards, or from my own writing to other's compositions, but the collaborative artistic experience is always worth a few risks."

"I think there is an unconscious fraternity among men that excludes us until we prove ourselves. Perhaps the problem is that men don't know if they should do anything different with a women around, and are afraid to offend or make a faux-pas; so they ignore us (in a jam session) figuring that is better than putting their foot in their mouth."

"Most guys approach their music (especially in Bluegrass) like a sporting event. As a women, you need to recognize that aspect and be able to 'play' like you are on a team. To be accepted by the 'guys' I've had to play pretty aggressively. Picking in a band can be sort of like a team sport. :-)"

Of course, there is another perspective from the women on this subject. I asked: "Do you feel in the minority when around male mandolinists? Is there a sense of acceptance or exclusion?"

"Of course, but I definitely feel accepted and I feel honored many times by that."

"I hardly ever think of it, so I guess I feel accepted."

"Not so much; I went to Weiser, and got a negative experience as far as exclusion goes, but generally I am treated as an equal, and try to act as an equal. I carry my share of PA equipment and set up, and wish other women would try to learn some of the technical aspects of the craft, and not act like "helpless females."

"In the 4 years that I have been involved with mandolin I have been very fortunate not only to feel accepted by the male mandolinist that I know, but encouraged by their enthusiastic support of my efforts to advance my knowledge of the instrument."

"I think this depends on the age group. The players in my age group have been very supportive, encouraging me along the way, teaching me new tunes, etc. When I first started out and we jammed with the old timers it was a different story. Besides just being blown off, I recall one old guy saying, "Well, that's a different way of playing, but I reckon it'll work!" But even this was a minority. In fairness to the guys assumptions that woman can't take a solo part, I do see a lot of women who play mandolin in old-timey or local bluegrass groups and only chord along. There's certainly nothing wrong with this, it's easy to learn movable chord positions and within weeks you can strum along at any jam session. There was a time when this was all I wanted to do (lasted about 3 weeks) but I really had to horn my way into a jam session once I wanted to take my turn since I had the reputation of strumming. I figure you can either sit there and get insulted or jump in and start playing. Better yet start the next round to show everyone that, yes, I can play along now, and then you don't get left out anymore."

"Mando-guys who are players are unfailingly courteous and seem to sense there's something going on in my style that they can't put a finger on. Since most jam sessions are held on mando-guy terms, they are usually surprised and pleased when I'm there and think it's neat, even if I, admittedly, am not clear on that style's ground rules. Occasionally an amateur mando-guy-student will be annoyed by something (my reputation, the fact that he doesn't understand what I'm doing) and let me know pretty unsubtly that his particular mando-hero is much better at his particular style than I am. Some will be furious if I don't agree with their hero choice. This is true in all fields of the arts though, where individual preference of style is often confused with "best"."

I was curious as to the influences the women would list, and who their favorite players were. As you can see, they have a wide range of interest.

Malcolm Smith (a fiddler)
Sam Bush
Mike Marshall
The Vienna Mandolin & Guitar Ensemble - (Vinzenz Hladky)
JS Bach
Linda Ronstadt
Norman Blake
Bill Monroe
Robin Flower
My husband
Led Zeppelin
The Beatles
My father for introducing me to the mandolin
Marilynn Mair - for inspiration
Josh Bell - as my teacher.
Tim O'Brien
Peter Ostroushko
Scott Tichenor
Kinuko Hiruma (mandolinist)
Jerry Garcia
David Grisman
Takashi Ochi (Germany)
Edith Bauer-Slais (Vienna)
Jacob do Bandolim (Brazil)
Hibbard Perry (Providence)
Vincenz Hladky (Vienna)
Sigfried Behrend (Germany)

Mike Marshall
John Reischman
Gertrud Troster
Joe Weed
David Grisman
Norman Blake
Jethro Burns
Jesse McReynolds
Marilynn Mair
Patrick Vaillant (France)
Alison Stevens (England)
Tim Ware
Andy Statman
Jerry Garcia
Bonnie Raitt
Nina Gerber

Women add a dimension to music that is unique and refreshing. Maybe it's the lack of a competitive attitude, or aggressiveness. I'm not claiming that I can listen to an unfamiliar piece of music and identify whether the player is male or female. But I do think women approach mandolin performance differently. Marilynn Mair has a perspective on this:

"I think I'm more interested in conveying texture and context than mando-guys. I want to play music driven by emotion of all sorts -- including the "non-lovely" feelings of fury, loss, and grief, along with the more delightful ones. Communicating a non-verbal moment of exquisite beauty ranks high; and taking the audience through a musical landscape of changing and sometimes surprising hues. I go for a wide range of repertoire, from tough-to-hear atonal technical monsters to delightful rhythmic choro. Presenting a variety of musical contexts keeps performance fresh for me. On the other hand, most mando-guys I know specialize in one style, play fast with a minimum of tonal or expressive variation, and choose flash over depth. That's not meant to be an indictment, just an observation."

Of course women have the same frustrations with the mandolin that men have. This is one of the things that makes music universal, not just the joy and creative outlet of playing, but we all share those areas that keep us reaching for better tone, cleaner technique, and the discipline to practice. Here's some comments from the women when asked what frustrated them most about the mandolin:

"Motivating myself to practice, time to practice, slow progress, lack of excellent teachers in my area (everyone is either a guitar or fiddle player and knows a bit about mandolins). My own reticence to dare to play with better musicians - I have this terrible self-effacing way that I find all too prevalent among most women (in all areas, not just music), and have a hard time getting around to just jump into a jam."

"Tone-- I always want it to be warmer. Writing-- I come up with much better ideas on the accordion or the guitar, and I barely play them."

"Not having enough time to practice."

"Finding music locally."

"Keeping my callouses and 'chops' up to top playing level."

"When I started playing, we had no knowledge of methods for learning a "correct" technique. So we developed our own along the way. It might be that a classical method would have helped, but after 20 years there is no way to know for sure. Now, I think there is more information available for beginners, thanks in part to The Classical Mandolin Society of America and to growing interest in the instrument."

"Staying in Tune, keeping intonation is not too hard on good mandos, but I feel sorry for students who have bad bridges, or poorly set up instruments. I try to get the local music store to help them."

"Finding music locally (yes, I know you can mail order) and getting my fingers to work right. Chords are a b---- for me."

"At the present time it is finding another classical mandolin player to get together with."

"Mandolin music score is scanty."

The contributions women have made in mandolin music are not only inspiring, but a delight. I first heard The Mair-Davis Duo a few years ago when I purchased their "Picaflor" album. I don't play classical style mandolin, but I love classical music played on mandolin. Marilynn Mair, along with her husband Mark on guitar, have recorded many wonderful albums. What I like about their music, besides the passion and great technique, is the range of music they play. They have impeccable taste in their selection of music and I highly recommend them.

Another group I have recently listened to is the Uptown Mandolin Quartet. Beth Dearinger plays beautifully. They perform wonderful versions of Telemann, Bach, and Ravel and I also highly recommend their album.

Dawn Watson, known for her work with the Country Gazette, has produced a great teaching tape called "75 Sizzling Mandolin Licks". This is one of the best tapes for bluegrass licks I have seen, and if you want to learn a lot of licks (well, 75 to be exact), this tape is well worth it.

I first became aware of Lorraine Duisit when she was with Trapezoid. She has also recorded a spell-binding, magical album with Tom Espinola called "Feather River." Lorraine plays mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and harp, and does so with a beauty that lifts the spirit. Any recording with Lorraine Duisit is worth hearing.

Marie Burns, who performs with her sisters as The Burns Sisters, plays beautiful mandolin on "Willow" as a member of Mac Benford & the Woodshed All-Stars. If you like old-time stringband music, this is a wonderful album, deeply rooted in the past, but obviously living in the present.

Of course, Gertrud Troester of Duo Capriccioso is well known within the classical mandolin world. Her work is inspiring. She has two teaching tapes on The Classical Mandolin, available from Plucked String.

There are of course many family bands and female groups that feature women mandolinists, such as the Any Old Time String Band, The New Coon Creek Girls, The Hodge Family, Robin Flower, and Sidesaddle.

I think I would be remiss to just focus on those that have achieved recognition through recordings and concert appearances. I think we need to recognize that there are many women participating in music festivals, teaching in their local community, and contributing to discussion groups like CoMando. They may not be known outside of a small circle of friends, and they may never have recorded, but non-the-less, they are an essential part of the mando fabric we are woven into.

"I think it is great you are featuring women, though some part of me wants to be a good mandolinist, not a good "woman" mandolinist..."

Becky Smith plays a F5 custom made by herself, with the help of luthier Tom Ellis. ("Ellis" is on the headstock). Also, she uses a 1917 Gibson A model for classical, Renaissance, and Celtic music.

Marilynn Mair plays a Lyon & Healey A.

Beth Dearinger plays a 1924 Gibson F4.

Roseann Carcello plays a Givens A and Flatiron Octave Mandolin.

Kathleen Fitzgerald-Gustafson plays a 1987 Flatiron A5-Jr, she's waiting for her Nugget.

Donna Hornsby plays a '95 Flatiron Festival A.

Dottie Palsgrove plays a Lyon and Healy-A.

Michiko Kataoka plays a 1994 Vinaccia 1994.

Kirsten Bey plays a Hohner HM20.

Nancy Friedland plays a Kentucky 250S.



Mair-Davis Duo

Uptown Mandolin Quartet

"Music for Mandolin," Alison Stephens and Sue Mossop, Amon Ra (England). Selections include a Barbella dueto, the Beethoven for piano and mandolin, Hummel, Mozart for voice and mandolin and two or three Calace pieces.

Mac Benford & the Woodshed All-Stars - "Willow"

Lorraine Duisit (with Trapezoid) - "Trapezoid"

Lorraine Duisit (with Tom Espinola) - "Feather River"

Mary Coogan plays some very tasty mandolin on a couple cuts on the latest "Cherish the Ladies" CD on Green Linnet.

Duo Giocondo - (self-titled CD) - Caterina Lichtenberg - mandolin

Hummel Concerto and other works - Dorina Frati - mandolin w/ I Solisti di Fiesole

Duo Capriccioso, Vol. 1, 2, 3 (Thorofon) - Gertrud Troester: mandolin
10 Calace Preludes (Thorofon) - Gertrud Troester: mandolin
(Gertrud also has 2 teaching videos put out by Plucked String)

Classical Mandolin and Guitar - Duo Gervasio - Carmen Scultz-Thiergartner
Baroque Mandolin and Guitar - Duo Gervasio - mandolin; baroque mandolin

Fantasy for Mandolin and Organ (Studio Lyric) - Sanae Onji: mandolin

New England Christmastide 1 & 2 (North Star)
Steeple on the Common
Wind in the Rigging
folk-based group w/Marilynn Mair: mandolin

Random Acts of Music (Clean & Friendly Music) - rock band w/ electric mando
Marilynn Mair - e. mandolin

Songs Without Words (PMO) - Providence Mandolin Orchestra
(over half the mandolinists on this are women, includes interviewees Dottie Palsgrove and M. Mair)


Guiliani Quartets (BME) - Elizabeth Lamson: mandolin

Jeanne d'Arc (What Cheer) - modern opera with mandolin in the orchestra
Marilynn Mair: mandolin, electric mandolin


The Virtuoso Classical Mandolin (Everest) - Edith Bauer-Sleis: mandolin

Music for Mandolin (Turnabout) - Elfriede Kunshack: mandolin

Hoffman and Guiliani Quartets (Turnabout) - Kunshack & Bauer-Sleis

Mandolin Music (Nonesuch) - Maria Scivittaro: mandolin
(Maria Scivittaro was a really important French teacher who recently died)

Picaflor - Mair-Davis Duo w/ Marilynn Mair - mandolin
Contemporaries (limited availability) - Mair-Davis Duo w/ Marilynn Mair -

Becky Smith
Marilynn Mair
Beth Dearinger
Roseann Carcello
Kathleen Fitzgerald-Gustafson
Donna Hornsby
Dottie Palsgrove
Michiko Kataoka
Kirsten Bey
Nancy Friedland
Pete Tritz for the recommendation of Mary Coogan
Barry Trott for the reference to Mlle. de Villeneuve
Liz Rotundo for the recommendation of Marie Burns on the Mac Benford & the Woodshed All-Stars album "Willow"
Steve Patterson for recommendation of Alison Stephens and Sue Mossop