It’s been a while since we’ve had a new one here. Four years, in fact, which was my new violin. This one came from my husband’s family, an inheritance of sorts. He told me about it, over the phone, from his family’s house in Claremont. When he brought it home the next day, in its odd, teardrop-shaped case, I couldn’t wait to see it.
I opened the case as if it were a treasure chest. Two things hit me: the dark, mysterious beauty of the mandolin, and the smell. Oh, the smell inside that case. It was foul—a toxic mustiness, moldy and obscure, like Cheetos meets old sneakers, or the wet towel in the gym bag that goes unnoticed for a week. Or the truffle I once bought in Italy, shocked by its horrible smell. Which, in turn, reminds me of the time I bought a bottle of fine red wine that had gone bad, where the taste was still quite good but the bouquet grew more unsavory by the hour. I told myself fine, don’t breathe in when you take your sip, but after a while I thought of how sad that was, how sniffing appreciatively is part of the experience. The savoring at all sensory levels. So it is with playing a musical instrument. (Would we still tolerate the violin, after all, if it weren’t such a pretty instrument, with such smooth curves and sumptuous tones, emitting that faint whiff of quality wood and pine rosin?)
I lifted out the mandolin, examined it and tuned it. I tried to pluck out one of my fiddle tunes, but the instrument felt foreign and ungainly in my hands, and there was that horrible smell wafting from it again. I set it right back down and tried to scrub the lingering smell off my hands. That was it for two weeks. Eventually I braved the bad smell once again and pulled the mandolin from its case. I bought it a little stand and now it’s sitting here with me in my office.
It’s a vintage instrument, a circa-1925 A-style Gibson mandolin. It’s far more pedigreed than my violin. It has history. It has been a part of my husband’s family all his life. (He said the case had that horrible smell back when HE was a kid. Hoo boy, that’s a smell that’s not going to come out.) The finish is dark, close enough to black that the wood looks almost like ebony. An ivory-colored binding around the body’s periphery resembles a purfling, and there is a double ring of actual purfling around the center hole. The body has a teardrop shape and the pegbox seems comically oversized, like those clowns wearing size 25 shoes. That said, the tuning pegs are mechanical and thus effortless to use. There are six pearl dots on the fingerboard whose significance I’ve yet to discover. A pick guard—another baffling feature and concept—is pinned into the fingerboard and screwed into the side of the instrument.
I want to do this instrument some justice, if only in picking it up from time to time and strumming it. Tuned like a violin, with frets to help me find my way on an unfamiliar neck—why wouldn’t I want to try? And yet it feels so impossibly odd and heavy in my hands (not to mention the lingering smell I hope will dissipate with time). So, I turn to this community for help. Anyone out there play both mandolin and violin? What do I do with this thing?
Care and feeding instructions, please?
© 2010 Terez Rose
More entries: June 2010
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