Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Playing Music Together In A Small Group

Tuesday's Classical Group
Chamber groups are small ensembles such as string quartets and piano trios, who play music intended for performance in close chambers such as parlors and living rooms, churches, or virtually any venue smaller than a large concert hall. While their small sizes and are ideal for intimate settings, chamber groups can, of course, also perform in great concert halls. Chamber orchestras with fifteen or more players blur the definition of a chamber group somewhat; however, while chamber orchestras are relatively large, they remain small and "chamber-like" in comparison to the immense size and volume of full modern orchestras.

It's the best way to meet people. It's much easier than a party. You go to a party, you wonder if someone is going to be approachable or not, but when you play music together, somehow you're communicating immediately, and you go to that level socially as well. Once you start playing music, you can communicate in a way that you could never do just with words.

You form bonds with people you might not otherwise have a conversation with. But because you've shared something so personal, it becomes easier.

It's the ultimate egalitarian experience, because everyone is necessary all the time. Everyone's complete focus is necessary all the time. Everyone coming into the experience understands and respects that. We all realize that we're bringing our best, and we're each bringing unique contributions to the group.

That's one of the best things about it, too. Each person brings something unique, so you have access to the brains of the other people to make a product that you couldn't make on your own. Sometimes there are heated debates, but it's all in good fun.

Playing chamber music helps enhance your musicianship. It’s easy to ‘hide’ in a large orchestra or band, but in a small group your skills are much more exposed. You work harder to play accurately and in tune, to listen and blend, to create musical phrases – and as a result, these musical skills improve.

Thursday's Celtic group
Playing in a small group allows you to be more autonomous and independent. You can make your own rehearsal and performance decisions, and you can choose your own repertoire. You’re not beholden to a conductor. You can tailor your performances to your own interests and/or the jobs you’re hired to play.

Playing in a chamber group helps develop your communication skills. All members of the group have an opinion on how the music should be played. Listening to all ideas and implementing the ones that work best help to hone collaborative skills that you can use later on in college, your career, and in everyday life.

There is a wide variety of music available for almost any instrumental combination.  I offer 4 groups: Beginner's group, Classical group, Celtic group and Bluegrass group.  Some include piano and/or voice(s). Pops, holiday, classical, jazz, etc…. You can find just about anything by going online or checking with your music teacher.  Chamber groups are portable! It’s a lot easier to take a trio, quartet or quintet ‘on the road’ than a full band. Small groups fit better into more venues, creating more opportunities to gig.

Playing chamber music is both a social and musical activity. Start a group containing friends you already have, or start a group with people you hope to become friends with. Either way, you will have fun!

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Flanagan Brothers - Early Irish American Dance Hall Music

The Flanagan Brothers was a New York City Irish dance hall band that consisted of brothers Michael, Joseph, and Louis Flanagan.

Their choice of instruments and related skill gave them a unique sound, which led them to become one of the leading attractions in New York City’s Irish dance halls during the 1920s and 1930s. Subsequently, their phonograph records extended their popularity and fame to Ireland proper and into the homes of Irish emigrants throughout the world. They became a household name among Irish entertainers and were on par with the other great music ambassadors of the time, Michael Coleman and John McCormack.

A set of reels - dancehall music New York City 1930s

The Flanagan Brothers were part of the large community of immigrant Irish musicians playing in New York City at that time. Inevitably, entrepreneurs recognized the potential market for this music as recording material for the increasingly popular 78 RPM discs. The major record companies were at first unconvinced and it fell to small, independent labels to prove the market existed. The Flanagans’ first disc - featuring the horn pipe An Carrowath – was released by the M&C New Republic Irish Record Company in December, 1921. An Carrowath was later recorded as a song, The Little Beggarman.

The Little Beggerman was also the name given to the group’s recording of The Stack of Wheat. Thus begun a highly successful recording career which produced 168 records for numerous labels over the following decade. 

An Carrowath "The Stack Of Wheat" (Red Haired Boy)

New York buzzed with music sessions in bars, on radio, and in private homes. Mike recalled playing alongside fiddlers Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and other musicians whose fame would be established during this era.

For special occasions in the Irish calendar, the Flanagans joined forces with piper Tom Ennis to play as a quartet. Sadly, no recording of this combination is known to survive. Ennis was the owner of a music shop near Columbus Circle and Mike worked there at one time as a record salesman.

Following the release of their first disc, the brothers’ career continue to progress as they recorded for labels like Emerald, Gennett, and Vocalion, but they moved into the big league when they join Columbia in 1923. Columbia’s partnership with EMI in England meant that the Flanagans’ records could also be manufactured under license in England, and their discs were soon sold throughout Ireland.  

The final elements in the commercial success of the Flanagans’ records were added in 1926 when they recorded Fun at Hogan’s, the first of many comics sketches adapted from standard Vaudevillian gags of the day. That same year their first song was recorded and Victor (later RCA Victor), Columbia’s great rival, also recorded the group. Recurring ill health made Lou’s role in the trio uncertain from this time, but Joe and Mike continued their act as a duo and added musicians for dance hall and studio work, as required.        

The Flanagan‘s music was diverse and they recorded a wide variety of material. Their instrumental sound was unmistakable, even when they recorded under pseudonyms like The Irish Big Four, The Donovan Trio, or The County Cork Trio.

After their recording career peaked and the popularity of the dance halls in New York City began to wane, the brothers became focused on their respective families and moved on from playing together.

Joe, who had married in 1923, remained in Queens and signed on as a regular player with an orchestra. Joe passed away in 1940.

Lou, who had continued to suffer from ill health, died at an early age in the mid 1930s.

Mike, who married his first wife in 1924, had moved back to Albany, New York by 1941 with his family. Mike began working for his brother-in-law, who had a successful wholesale produce business, but also remained an active musician. He would regularly play at the popular resorts and clubs in the “Irish Alps” – the area in and around the town of East Durham in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where the center of Irish culture in the northeast had shifted. Mike had been joined by a new accordion player, Noel Rosenthal, and the duo, known as Mike & Ike, played the Catskill resorts and the local Albany scene well into the 1980s. Mike died in 1990.

In 1981, Celtic supergroup De Dannan recorded a cover of "My Irish Molly-O", a tune which the Flanagan Brothers popularized and first recorded in 1928. The De Dannan version of the song became a top-ten hit for the group, which led to a resurgence of interest in the Flanagan Brothers contributions.

"My Irish Molly-O" (De Dannan with Maura O'Connell)

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Bartering is good
I love barter.  If you have a skill please let me know.  I'm always up for bartering. 

Examples of bartering: a lawyer student bartered a house closing in '09 for a couple of months of lessons, a kitchen-design manager bartered a new dishwasher for lessons and an electrician wired my chicken coop in exchange for services.  Another lawyer bartered an hour of advice for a cello bow recently.

Barter's great if you have a skill or a passion for something or you have something you want to trade, I'm always up for that. 

Brekke Bridges

Mandomo Strings is the East Coast Distributor of Bridger Products' Brekke Bridges

The Original Brekke Bridge
The "Original Brekke Bridge" U.S. Pat. No.  6,031,165, shown above, was licensed to Sound To Earth, Weber Mandolins.  With the sale of Sound To Earth to Two Old Hippies, the bridge design returned and is sold through Mandomo Strings in Holyoke, MA.   The original bridge has updated with several new changes and improvements.  It is also available with either an ebony or a maple base.

You can adjust string action under full tension which in itself is a great innovation. No more loosening the strings lowering the adjustable bridge and then tightening only to find out the strings buzz. I was able to set my action to pinpoint accuracy. I was able to set that Flatiron up to play like butter.

"I have used a a traditional Brekke on my custom Bitteroot and I swear by it. I like it so much, I asked Don Paine to put one on my Pomeroy two-point.  I get a powerful chop with my mandolin, more so than any mandolin I've played. I like to think the traditional Brekke has facilitated my chop. I also love the muscular look. Here's a picture of it on my Bitteroot. Notice the high action I used to have. I have it significantly lower now." ~ Kevin Briggs

"I was curious as well about the Brekke, having some reservations about what brass in the saddle might do to the tone, but I can say without hesitation that I sense nothing negative about it. I like the concept and the problems- short and long term- that it addresses." ~ Don Paine

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Mandomo Strings - Holyoke, MA

Mando Mo Strings is a company in Holyoke, MA, the birthplace of American Industry, that has developed a line of affordable musical instruments made with top quality materials and workmanship.  These instruments are on par or better than similar brands, such as Eastman, TDK, The Loar and Northfield.  The instruments are designed in Holyoke, Massachusetts, assembled in China, and finished/set up in the US.  Mando Mo Strings offers a 30 year warranty on parts and labor for all products.

Decisions were made to prioritize air-dried tone-wood (instead of the standard Chinese practice of using a kiln to dry the wood), solid or flamed maple, Triple A grade ebony or rosewood fittings, scalloped solid tailpieces, Brekke or MMS's patented solid ebony/bone bridges, adjustable truss rods, a variety of neck widths.

Mando Mo Strings was founded by Al Bielunis.  Al is an amateur mandolinist, a guitar player, and a student of mine.  I learned about his mandolin company a few years ago when he was just getting started.  At the time, I made some suggestions and helped him with a website and Facebook page in exchange for some projects at my house (I love barter, by the way.  If you have a skill please let me know.  I'm always up for bartering.  For example, a lawyer student bartered a house closing in '09 for a couple of months of lessons, a kitchen-design manager bartered a new dishwasher for lessons and an electrician wired my chicken coop in exchange for services).  Fast forward to 2018 and I find myself completely engaged in the company.  It's really wonderful to be able to offer my experience working with China and importing products with a local company.  I find it very satisfactory.  In addition, I have the opportunity to play these beautiful instruments!

Al stopped by my studio in the summer of 2018.  I recorded this video of his visit:

The Bull Dog

This is the top of the line F5 model mandolin.  Al calls it The Bull Dog because of his own pup whom he named the company after: Mo.  The mandolin is beautiful to look at with its hand-carved top, scroll and its binding, "tobacco" finish.  This model is very popular with the bluegrass group.

Mandomo Bull Dog
The Bull Dog - Bluegrass Mandolin
The Bull Dog has been constructed with a hand-carved solid spruce top, flamed maple back and sides, flamed maple neck, pearl inlay fret markers, pearl inlay Mando Mo Logo, ebony binding, nut width standard 1 1/8" or wide nut version 1 3/16", bone nut, tobacco finish, adjustable bridge, adjustable truss rod. The instrument was hand-carved and constructed with air-dried (3-5 years) tonewood, top tap-tuned to A440 frequency.  

Here's a video I made of the Bull Dog

The Tortoise

A few years ago, the company that assembles Mandomo products made a binding suggestion that Al liked: faux tortoiseshell.  Now for those of you who don't know, tortoiseshell is illegal here in the United States.  I own a tortoiseshell pick that I got back in the 1970s when it was legal.  I love it.  It's gorgeous to look at and warms up when you hold it in your hand.  This tortoiseshell binding is simply lovely.  It makes the instrument stand out and look unique.  The binding goes around the top AND back, something that most Eastman mandolins do not, for example.  This is a bluegrass mandolin, meaning it has the chop, projection and bright sound you'd expect from an F5 mandolin.

Mandomo Tortoise
The Tortoise - Bluegrass Mandolin

The Tortoise has been constructed with flamed maple back, sides and neck, solid spruce top,
Brekke adjustable bridge, high quality Optima strings imported from Germany, Tusq Nut, 18:1 Tuners. Top Tap Tuned to A440 Frequency.

Here's what one of the customers says about it: "The mandolin was everything I asked for. Beautiful maple sides and back. The inlays on the fretboard and headstock and binding were solid and clean. The mandolin is very well made, I had no issues with any of the craftsmanship of the instrument. I am sure you would be pleased with your purchase." ~ Greg Short, Brinkhaven, OH

Here's a video I made of the Tortoise:

The Red Fox

This latest F5-style mandolin is gorgeous to look at, and has a beautiful well-rounded tone with a lot of projection. A group of Celtic mandolin players loved the way it sounds recently, suggesting it would make a wonderful addition to any traditional Celtic or Classical ensemble.

Mandomo Red Fox
The Red Fox - Celtic Mandolin
"I just love the tone of this instrument. I play mostly Celtic music and so I want something with a sweet gentle tone, not a big brassy "barky" sound. " ~ Deb N., South Hadley MA

Each Red Fox comes with: Mahogany back, sides and neck, solid Sitka spruce top, Rosewood fretboard, nickel silver hardware, standard 1 1/8" bone nut (other sizes are available by special order, please ask), adjustable ebony bridge, 13 7/8" scale length, abalone headstock Mando Mo logo, Pearl snow flake dots, white side dot color, natural satin or gloss nitro finish (please ask). The instrument was hand-carved and constructed with air-dried (3-5 years) tonewood, top tap-tuned to A440 frequency.

Here's a video I made about the Red Fox

Other mandolins, guitars and ukuleles:

Mandomo Strings makes a few other styles of mandolins, guitars and ukuleles.  I can't list them all here because there are so many.  


If you want to try any of the instruments and you're local (Massachusetts), please let me know and we can set up a date/time.  I'm always around and happy to share them with you!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Professional Wedding Services

I have been providing Wedding services to the public since 1978!

Rates, Fees and Booking Information

Musician rates are generally $150 per hour per musician.  That applies to solo, duo, trio, and quartet.  Larger groups are rated by bulk.  For example, Mandolin New England's base is a 9 piece and can be as large as 30 pieces depending on the event.  In general, it's best to contact me and talk about the rates for larger groups.  Fees include travel expenses (up to $200 if we have to stay over night - which we generally do if we have to travel more than 50 miles).  PA expenses are also not included.  Generally speaking, all of my ensembles are acoustic.  A sound system can be rented and provided.  A simple amplifier and mikes is an additional $75.  A larger system with a mixing board and monitors is an additional $200.  I do not EMC or DJ weddings, but have worked closely for more than two decades with someone I trust to do this and put on a great show.

To book any of the ensembles or soloists, contact me.  Generally speaking, booking requires a 50% deposit  to Sweet Music and a signed contract.  You can mail the contract back or you can take a picture of the signature page and email it to me.

Ensembles, Bands, Soloists

I specialize in music for ceremonies, whether it be solo violin, string ensembles (duo, trio, quartet, chamber orchestra).  I specialize in classical music, celtic music and bluegrass.  I can also provide Klezmer (for Jewish services), Jazz and Folk music.

Here are some examples of some of my Celtic recordings:
  • The Kilfenora Set - a set of traditional Celtic jigs including "Lark in the Morning" and the "Kilfenora Jig".  I learned these jigs while playing at the seisun at Linanne's Pub in Kilfenora, Ireland 1996.
  • A Blast O'Reels - is a set of reels I picked up while touring with Woodkerne in the Spring of 2009
  • Sidh Beag Agus Sidh Mohr - here's one of my favorite Turloch O'Carolan melodies.  Apparently this is the first piece he composed.  The word "Sidh" is Irish for "Fairy", "Beag" and "Mohr" are referencing two mountains in Ireland, and "Agus" means "and".  So the title literally means "little fairy hill and big fairy hill".  For those of us who are interested in Irish mythology, check out this post, and this, and this one about the origins of Irish music.
Here are some examples of my Bluegrass recordings:
  • Cluck Old Hen - this is a traditional bluegrass tune that is a lot of fun to play.  That's me on the mandolin, John Rough on banjo, Joe Blumenthal on bass and Terry Atkinson on guitar.
  • Maiden's Prayer - this was Joe Val's favorite tune when I played in a fiddle music contest in 1982 or 3.  He was judging that day and asked me to come up to the booth.  He was a real gentleman.  This recording was sung by Terry Atkinson and myself.  I'm playing fiddle here, also Joe Blumenthal on Bass and John Rough on banjo.
  • Brunhild's Request - an original written by a friend of Terry Atkinson's (whose name escapes me at this moment) with Terry on guitar, myself on mandolin, Joe Blumenthal on bass and John Rough on banjo

Wedding Officiant - Massachusetts

In addition to providing music for weddings, I'm a wedding officiant for the state of Massachusetts.  I love officiating weddings, and private ceremonies.  This is something I've been doing since I was in high school.  I have "married" literally dozens of same-sex couples (before the gay marriage law was passed), as well as atheists and non-believers who wanted a ceremony without the religious connotations.  I was ordained by the ULC in October 2018 so that I could get a permit from the state, so now I can officially officiate!  I have a copy of my certificate and a letter of good standing if needed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Why I use Slack for my Studio

Typically used in the business sector for collaboration and easy communication, Slack is a messaging app that teachers are using now to communicate with each other and with their students. Teachers can send out reminders and students can use the app for group projects. I use the app to hold digital “office hours”.

I like it because you can install it on your preferred smartphone.  There is an iPhone version and an Android version.
  • Download the Android version here
  • Download the iPhone version here
There is also a desktop version which you can download to run as an independent app.  I have it, but prefer to use the website version, which runs great in Chrome, my preferred browser, as well as Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Safari.  All you need to do is go to to access my studio page and create a new profile.  If you've given me your email, you should have received a link to join by now.  Log in using your the email address you gave me, and set up your profile page.  You can upload an image or use the default image and fill out the other basic information.


I've created "channels" for each of the groups (Celtic, Classical, Beginners', Bluegrass, etc).  Once you've attended (and committed to attending) any of the group classes, you will be invited to that channel.  Channels are where sheet music is shared, set lists, youtube videos, sound files and all of the related topics for discussion.  You can use the app as you would texting or messaging on Facebook.

If you'd like to know more about how to use Slack, let's talk about it in your next lesson!

Friday, December 7, 2018

I teach mandolin, fiddle and guitar!

I have been teaching mandolin, fiddle and guitar for over 30 years!  I teach out of my studio in Granby MA.  Learn about private lessons here.  Learn about group classes here.

Thank you for visiting my website!

Celtic Group Class 2013

Ben Levy - Fiddle

Dick Chase - Fiddle

Al B - mandolin

Jami B - mandolin

Jaya Reddy - mandolin

Ben Levy - mandolin

Nancy K - mandolin

Wendy Guo - mandolin

Richard S - mandolin

Monday, December 3, 2018

Fiddle Is Fun! - Learn to Play the Fiddle Together in a Group

Have you ever wanted to learn how to play the fiddle (violin), but were daunted by the cost, not able to find a good teacher, or found it inconvenient?  Now’s your chance!  Sweet Music in Granby MA is offering Fiddle is Fun!  This is a group of adults and teenagers that want to learn how to play the fiddle in a group setting.  The Fiddle is a lot of fun to play!  The group will be studying how to hold the violin and bow, how to read music, some basic theory and some fun fiddle melodies.  The group meets Mondays from 7-9pm in Granby, MA.   There are instruments for rent if you do not have one of your own.  The cost is $15 per class and there is no enrollment fee.  Please contact us join!

Sweet Music provides private and group music lessons, events and music services for customers in the Pioneer Valley.

If you would like more information about this topic, please call Adam Sweet at 413-561-2275, or email

Les Poules huppées

CRESTED HENS, THE (Les Poules huppées). French, Bourrée à 3 temps (3/8 time). E Dorian. Standard tuning (fiddle). Composed in 1983 by French...