Mike Marshall’s virtual mandolin orchestra does Bill Monroe

Mike Marshall needs no introduction to bluegrass fans. In addition to his jaw-dropping virtuosity and collaborations with Darol Anger, David Grisman, and many more, he is an avid teacher as his many students on ArtistWorks will attest. Recently, to do something cool while they are all home at this crazy time, he put together a project with thirty-two of his students to play Bill Monroe’s Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.

Marshall created the arrangement and played all the parts, then threw it out to his students to play the various mandolin parts, octave mandolin, or mandocello. He played the bass part, which to my eyes and ears is the scene-stealer. His student, Martin Heitkamp from the Netherlands, took on the role of coordinating the project by accepting videos from and editing them into the final production.

Mike graciously answered a few questions about the project.

Hi Mike, who came up with this idea?

Mr. Mike.

How did you choose the tune, and what others did you consider?

I was looking for something that many people had heard before and maybe was not too fast or crazy difficult.

Was there any special work on the arrangement to accommodate remote players?

No, I pretty much just came up with the arrangement myself, played all the parts and then transcribed them into Sibelius which can then generate TAB and Music notation.

How long did it take from start to finish?

Well it’s been at least a few weeks in the making.

Are there more similar projects in the works?

We’re getting so much positive response to this one that, of course, the gears are now turning to do more.

Was there a screening or could anyone join in the fun?

Anyone who wanted to join in was welcome. That’s the vibe at my online school. It’s all about everyone playing at whatever level they play. We all share our knowledge and love for the mandolin and invite everyone to participate and contribute what they have to offer.

Tell us about the instruments that you played — that’s some bass!

I’m loving this 4th Generation Northfield. It’s a Red Spruce 2 bar with a few radical ideas up under the hood that Adrian and Koske at Northfield and I have been fiercely pursuing for a few years now.

The octave is an Austin Clark that I had built for Caterina with a slightly shorter scale length, and the bass is an old Gibson from the teens that Todd Phillips got his hands on many years ago, and put a fretless fingerboard on it. It’s a party ANIMAL!

What surprised you the most about the project?

So far it’s the reaction of people who see it. There’s something very touching and real about seeing amateur musicians jamming along like this and getting that connection going that we are all missing so much. I thought it would just be for the online students but it is getting some attention. Even my sister called today almost in tears.

What new positive things do you think might come out of this?

I am hoping that people will get more creative with this technology. You know a year ago I would have perhaps poo-pooed all this computer time and internet connection stuff, but clearly at this time we all are needing this and it’s giving us a sense of community. 

It’s a shame that we all can’t jam yet in real time. But I’ll bet that’s not too far off. And when THAT happens, then you are going to see some sparks fly.

How are you and your family coping with COVID-19?

We’re actually doing okay. Caterina is the Professor of Mandolin at the Conservatory in Cologne and she has been using the Artistworks model as a way of teaching her students from there. They record themselves and send her the video, and then they both connect and she reviews it for them.

So the act of recording yourself is a real turning point for most of us musicians. As soon as we hear or see the first playback we usually say “Oh my, I can’t send her that! I better fix that one part.” Well, that’s really cool because us teachers are having a positive effect on the students before they even see us, right?

We have two daughters, seven and nine, and they play piano and violin and are going great guns with the music, with all this time to play and hang out with us. I got instruments stands for the banjo, mandolins, and guitars, and just leave them around so they are starting to pick those things up too, so watch out.

This time is mixed, of course. On the one hand, we are missing hanging out with our friends casually, but on the other, we have all this time. I think that both Caterina and I were wishing for just that for some time now, so here it is. The challenge will be for us all to keep our spirits up as this thing is clearly going to get extended. But we feel really lucky that we have each other and these little ones to keep us constantly on the move and creating the next …. whatever.

How is ArtistWorks pivoting?

Well, they are doing great of course. With all of these students at home, I am, of course, getting a lot more video exchanges from folks, but I’m loving it. Many folks who were maybe too shy at first to send me a video are in that place finally where they say “Well heck! Let me just send him one.” 

And that’s when we can start to get down to business and get some good work done.

How many students do you have and what percent are active?

I have many, many students and in the past it has only been about thirty percent sending me videos, but I think that has come up a bit now.

Do you have any new releases, online shows, or other things cooking?

Darol Anger and I just released a straight-up Duo project called Da Capo on Adventure Music label. It’s just the two of us doing what we do when we play live shows. No overdubs. No other musicians.

I’m very proud of this one. He and I have been playing together for 41 years. JEEEZ! And that energy and connection has never wavered. It’s some kind of crazy magical thing that’s pretty hard to explain.

I’ve been asked to write a concerto for a mandolin orchestra in Germany that I’m working on at the moment. 

Also, the Big Trio with Paul Kowert and Alex Hargreaves was about to get together this spring. That’s on hold for now, but it’ll rear its head just as soon as it can.

Caterina just finished her first solo CD which I helped produce. It’s a monstrous project that I can highly recommend.

Thanks so much, Mike.

Thanks man, happy to do it, my friend.

Mike has a lot of experience herding large groups of mandolin players as you can see from this video which is like a who’s who of twentieth-century mandolin players. How many stars can you identify?


Share this:

About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net