A Few Minutes with Don Stiernberg

Could you tell us about your teaching style?

I was raised by teachers so teaching is something I've been hearing about and thinking about my whole life I suppose. I also had the profound experience of learning from Jethro Burns. He took teaching seriously. He was always encouraging and positive. So I try to do the same. It seems like the least I could do after what was given to me. It really gets fun when someone is really into it, and when I can get someone to believe in their abilities and just go for it.

For the most part my handouts have both standard notation and tablature, and I try to demo things and people record those for the by ear part. A couple times at the Symposium I've called up one of the young hotshots to read and play the stuff I can't! Chord melodies I present every which way...full notation and/or tab, and sometimes a tune's lyric with the chords tabbed along--change when the word changes! I believe in both standard and tab, one is not better than the other and we can benefit as players from both.

I like to keep things fun, and my goal is to make players more confident about their own skills. The first year at Santa Cruz I encountered young players who could play rings around me. "How could I help them?" I thought. In a jam I asked somebody "what was that cool lick you played on the Bbm7?" He says "Huh?" I said "you know, the iim7 chord, you played an awesome phrase, what was that? " He says "What?" AHA! He showed me the way I could help--telling pickers the names of things they play, why it works, and what else might work. I learn a bit more each year about how to teach, and I'm grateful-it's helped my own playing too.

What will your ensemble be like?

In the Swing/Jazz ensemble I make an arrangement of a swingin' tune for all mandolin family instruments plus rhythm section which usually includes bass and guitar along with some of us mandos chunking away.. So it's a bit like "Mando Big Band".

I follow a formula of sorts - an intro, the melody, room for solos with the ensemble playing background figures, a soli ,then of course a re-statement of the melody (usually harmonized) and an ending. The soli is a written jazz solo which is harmonized, like you'd hear a sax section do. So everyone gets work on reading (standard or tab), phrasing, chord voicings, teamwork, dynamics. It sounds like a lot of work but we have a blast. It's not like "Whiplash" although sometimes I have become Tough Love Donnie about being able to hear the soloists. :)

In previous years we've done everything from Charlie Parker to Jobim to Miles Davis. This year I'm working on "Witchcraft", a great (and easy!) one that Sinatra sang that has wonderful melody and changes.

What other things do you expect to experience at the Symposium this year?

I have been playing and teaching for a long time, and it seems every year someone touches my heart with music and reminds me of why I started to play in the first place. It might be one of my colleagues doing a performance that puts me in tears or makes me laugh out loud, or it might be someone talking emotionally and reverently about their influences in Music Appreciation Class, or it might be on final concert night seeing people congratulate one another on their performance, or it might be hitting a bluegrass vocal trio or hearing seemingly endless ideas from all kinds of players at a late night jam. It might even be just hanging out and telling stories in the repair shop or dining room. I have come to expect these experiences, I've been renewed by them, and I'm grateful.

Don Stiernberg's Web Site