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'First lady of the mandolin'

East Bay News shines a spotlight on renowned musician and RWU professor Marilynn Mair

The East Bay News kicked off their May editorial with a spotlight on renowned musician Marilynn Mair, who shares her mandolin expertise with students at RWU as well as musicians around the world. Editor Jim McGaw's feature first appeared on and included photos and video of Mair in action. Click here for a full version at East Bay News online.


'First lady of the mandolin'

By Jim McGaw, East Bay News Editor 

May 1, 2012

Bristol, R.I. -- It was the highest compliment she could receive as a musician.

“Bem Brasileira!” the man exclaimed to Marilynn Mair. “Bem Brasileira!”

The accolade, which translates to “truly Brazilian,” came shortly after she finished playing mandolin in a “roda de choro” — a Brazilian jam session — in a little Rio de Janeiro bar.

“In most of the jam sessions, people know I’m not from there because they haven’t seen me,” said Ms. Mair, a professor of music at Roger Williams University (RWU) who travels to Brazil several times a year to study and play music. “But afterwards they come up to talk to me and ask me where I’m from.”

When she tells them the United States, they can hardly believe her. “They’re stunned, because I play like a Brazilian.”

Ms. Mair is regarded by her peers as one of the foremost players — and scholars — of the mandolin, a member of the lute family that features four pairs of strings on a frame roughly half the size of an acoustic guitar. The instrument is most commonly associated with bluegrass music, one of the few styles Ms. Mair doesn’t play.

Although classical music is her bread and butter, she’s no snob. Ms. Mair teaches a course on rock and roll at RWU (see below) and is not above composing the occasional goofy pop oddity: Her website includes an MP3 of the song “Tootsie Roll,” which she wrote in honor of the candy’s 100th anniversary. The song was recorded at AS220 in Providence with her “family rock band” in 1996, before her divorce. (She has a son and daughter, both adults.)


Around these parts Ms. Mair is best known for leading the 10-piece outfit known as Enigmatica, which formed in 2001 and features several East Bay residents. The group showcases the entire mandolin family, plus classical guitar.

“We play Baroque, Brazilian and contemporary music. Almost every show we perform a piece composed by Will Ayton,” she said, referring to the RWU professor of music whom she credits for starting the music program at RWU. “He writes beautiful music. He’s a real composer, while I’m more of a tunesmith.”

Mr. Ayton, who plays viola da gamba, doesn’t regularly perform with Ms. Mair but on occasion the two play together in a Baroque music trio.

“She has a strong reputation that speaks for itself,” Mr. Ayton said of his colleague.

Besides performing and teaching at RWU, Ms. Mair is the longtime director of the American Mandolin & Guitar Summer School, which at its inception was the only summer camp for adult mandolin students. She ran it at Roger Williams for 20 years before the economic downtown left it “high and dry.” Now she leads the camp at Summer Keys, a prestigious summer music program in Lubec, Maine, where she introduced the first-ever mandolin concert.


Intimate sound


Ms. Mair’s introduction to the mandolin was pure happenstance.


“It kind of picked me,” she said. “I played the violin and piano growing up as a kid. I played in orchestras, I came to college and played folk guitar. At some point, someone said, ‘Oh, you play the violin and guitar. You should play a mandolin.’ They handed me one and I just fell in love with it.


“There’s something very intimate about the sound of the mandolin. It’s very expressive and it’s a more melodic instrument but you can still play some chords on it. I also like the plucked-string sound.”


She first studied mandolin under the late Hibbard Perry in Providence, a city she said has a “real history” with the instrument. (An Italian immigrant and mandolin virtuoso, Giuseppe Pettine, founded the Providence school of American mandolin technique.)


After taking lessons with Mr. Perry, she visited Europe, saying “I tend to have a classical perspective on things.” She studied in Vienna, Germany and England, playing with several ensembles and orchestras.


Blame it on Rio


Somewhere along the way, however, her attention turned to the music farther south of her — namely Brazil, which she first visited in 2005.


“I first went just for 10 days to see if I could live there because the reputation of Rio is of a violent city,” said Ms. Mair, noting that she was by then single and did not speak Portuguese well.


She was immediately taken with the people and their culture. In fact, Ms. Mair already had some friends in Brazil, including Paulo Sá, whom she met in the U.S. in 2004. (They later wrote a book together, “Brazilian Choro — A Method for Mandolin.”) During Ms. Mair’s 2005 trip to Brazil Mr. Sá arranged a mini-tour of Rio with his band and introduced her to the informal Brazilian jam sessions, also known as “rodas de choro.”


Choro is Brazil’s first original urban music, developed in the 19th century. Although it’s considered to be music for virtuosos, choro comes from a long tradition of people getting together in homes to play music, she said.


“It’s sort of like the blues is our original North American music. It’s a style of music that is improvised but in a very specific way, not at all like jazz improvisation,” said Ms. Mair, recalling the time she was playing a choro tune in the back seat of a Brazilian taxicab when the driver exhorted her to stop “swinging.”


In 2007, she took a three-month-plus sabbatical to Brazil, where she began studies under her current mentor, choro master Joel Nascimento. She also attended Escola Portátil de Música, an all-day Saturday school run by well-known Brazilian musicians on the campus of the University of Rio de Janeiro. There she learned to play the bandolim, the Brazilian version of the mandolin that’s characterized by a brighter sound that allows it to be heard over the typically large bands that also feature saxophones.


Ms. Mair even formed a band there with younger musicians called Água no Feijão, which translates to “water in the beans” — a Brazilian expression of hospitality. She soaked up as much of Rio’s culture and music as she could.


“I wanted to go home as a Brazilian,” she said, adding that the three and a half months there wasn’t nearly enough time. “My band was bereft when I left. ‘What are we gonna do without you?’”


Since then Ms. Mair visits the country three times a year for about a month at a time. “Many of my trips have been funded by the university through their research grants” which, she added, has also supported the recording of a CD and one of her books. The 2009 CD, “Meu Bandolim,” was recorded both in Brazil and the U.S. and can be found on her website or at, which also carries her books.


Always looking to improve


Ms. Mair, who’s been called everything from “the first lady of the mandolin” to “the angel of the tremolo,” is now writing a series of hybrid choros, based on themes from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In June, she heads back to Brazil, where she’ll continue her musical studies.


“I’m playing with a Brazilian accent now and getting better at speaking,” said Ms. Mair, who’s proud of what she’s been able to accomplish with the music in such a short time.


“I’m very pleased that I’ve written choros that are played in Brazil in rodas.


“Even,” she said, “when I’m not there.”


Call her ‘Dr. Rock’


Although Roger Williams University has offered music courses since professor Will Ayton’s arrival in the late ’70s, the school didn’t offer a major in the subject until four years ago.


“We’re graduating our first incoming class this year,” said Ms. Mair, who specializes in teaching the music of the Americas, particularly Latin America and North America. It’s part of a series of courses on world cultures through music.


“It puts our American music in the context of students who are studying classical music and now our popular music,” she said, adding that students are assigned to go to a live performance and write about where the music comes from — its influences and branches.


She also teaches a classical music technique class in which students learn to understand the formal structures, tonal palette and other devices used by Mozart and other composers.


Her most popular course, however, is one she’s been teaching for three decades now: “The Art of Rock and Roll.” Students have a required “listening list” that starts with classic blues from the ‘20s and touches upon New Orleans R&B, the Velvet Underground, punk rock, contemporary hip-hop and everything in between.


“I take it from Bessie Smith to Outcast,” said Ms. Mair, who said the course teaches students how to truly hear the music they love. “I call it listening in 3-D, so they can listen to any piece of music and take it apart — the bass line, rhythm track, the lead, the formal track — everything.”


About three-quarters of the way through the course, she said, there’s always a student who tells her, “My band says I’m playing much better now.” Her reply is, “It’s because you’re listening to them, you hear what they’re doing.”


Students are also much more knowledgeable about the music than their peers who haven’t taken the course. “There are so many students at Roger Williams who are real historians of rock,” she said. “They know far more about music from 50 years ago than I did when I was their age.”


Ms. Mair said parents were initially suspect when she first launched the class 30 years ago, but times have changed.


“Now all the parents are like, ‘Oh, I wish I could take this class.’”