Carlo Aonzo

Carlo Aonzo, mandolinist, is a native of Savona, Italy. From a musical family, his initial teacher on the instrument was his father. He went on to study with Ugo Orlandi, the current patriarch of the Italian mandolin camp, at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory of Padua. His playing has been recognized with awards at prestigious competitions including the "Vivaldi" prize of the 6th annual Vittorio Pitzianti National Mandolin Competition in Venice as well as the 27th annual Walnut Valley National Mandolin Contest in Winfield, Kansas.

Carlo has toured throughout northern Europe, Italy, and the USA, performing in duo with celebrated flatpicking guitarist Beppe Gambetta and as a soloist with chamber ensembles and orchestras including La Scala Philharmonic, Milan. As director of the Ligurian Plectrum Orchestra (Orchestra a Pizzico Ligure), he has been called to play in the presence of Pope John Paul II. Since 1998 he has directed the annual winter Festival Internazionale di Mandolino in Varazze, Italy; performers there have included the most respected names in mandolin and guitar. He is an active scholar of historic mandolinists and mandolin repertoire and has contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He is a regular faculty member at the mandolin-oriented Kaufman Kamp and teaches annual June workshops in New York.

Carlo’s recorded output reflects his scholarship and passion to champion the mandolin’s forgotten past. He has recorded Paganini’s complete works for mandolin on period mandolino Genovese with the octave-guitar tuning (Integrale per Amandorlino & Chitarra Francese, Arion). His recordings have also featured the works of early 20th century Italians with guitarist Beppe Gambetta (Serenata, Acoustic Music Records) and Italian immigrants to America with Gambetta and mandolinist David Grisman (Traversata, Acoustic Disc). For Mel Bay, he has recorded a video studio concert of solo mandolin repertoire (Carlo Aonzo: Classical Mandolin Virtuoso) and was featured in Mandolin 2000.


Q - I have been studying your scales and I would like to know how you would apply the scales to a song?

A - Niccolò Paganini. Do you know this guy? Paganini was using to tell: "If I don't play scales for one day, I will feel it at my performance. If I don't play scales for two days, the people hearing for my concert will feel it!"

Scales are good because your fingers are learning exactly where to go on the fingerboard. Automatically your finger's will know how to apply the scales to any song.


Q - What techniques and skills do you believe are most important for an intermediate mandolin player to concentrate upon, who wishes to reach advanced playing levels?

A - Read and play music over music, notes over notes, better if the music was written specifically for mandolin. 2) Come to my workshops. (However, this year's workshop is sold out)


Q - Do you own and or play any vintage mandolins? If so what makers and from what years?

A - My main instrument is a 1994 Pandini (Ferrara). I'm using also a 1890 De Santis (Rome) for special project on the Golden Age with original instruments. For XVIII century music I use different kind of original instruments from collections.


Q - what does he think a classical mandolinist should study? What shoud a folk/bluegrass/choro player study?

A - What is the difference between those different genre of musicians? Let me answer from another point of view. The point is that there's not any substantial difference among different genres of musicians. Consider instead the differences between two musicians, one who plays by ear and one who plays by reading music. Assuming these two players are at the same musical level, you can easily understand how the first can improve technics and repertory much more easly and faster than the second.

Another good topic is that it would be very good if you could read music and play by ears too. A lot of classical musicans are missing the "by ears" approach of the music.


Q - Which classical mandolin/violin exercises or methods can be valuable for someone who wants to improve on :
reading notes
acquiring good fretboard vision
gaining stamina and speed?

A - Any kind of good music is good as long as it is not too easy. Better if that good music is originally written for the instrument you play. There's no one single work that can cover the whole needing of a mandolinist! Anyway you can find good materials in methods written by Munier, Calace, Branzoli and also the Italo-American Pettine.


Q - Why is a mandolin out of the common orchestra formation, being as old as any other instrument present at it?

A - That's not totally true. Mandolin is sometime called to play with "common" Orchestras from its appearance in the musical history. We have a huge list of pieces with different instruments with mandolin inlcuding big names like Stravinsky, Schonberg, Prokofiev, Malher, Leoncavallo, Verdi, Paisiello, Mozart, Vivaldi, etc. Of course, the mandolin is called to characterize some special points of the works, because of its very special and unique voice.


Q - Mandolin orchestras exist , but why there isn`t a mandolin section in a traditional orchestra , along with bowed strings, metals, etc?

A - I'm asking your question to my self for many years many, many times, and maybe one good answer is: Because the mandolin is too hard to play!!! Think about that.

To have an acceptable sound from the mandolin is very difficult. To have a good sound from it is for few people! How to put together an orchestra?...

Well, Giuseppe Verdi wrote in his Opera work Otello a section for a little mandolin orchestra. It was in the period of the maximum trend of the mandolin....


Q - I have improved my tremolo thanks to the exercises you gave out at your workshop but still have some problems, particularly with the attack. Once I get on track, it sounds acceptable. But when I try to ornament a tune with a few quick tremolo notes, my pick gets caught in the strings. Do you have any suggestions? Teflon picks maybe?

A - Waiting for our next meeting to speak about your tremolo technique, maybe I could tell you about picks.

The best material for picks is from natural dead tortoises. Since it is forbidden to produce objects with tortoise's house material, you can find good plastics (or other materials) in the modern production of picks that can be good enough in the place of tortoise in terms of quality of sound. The main difference is that one tortoise pick lasts one lifetime (I'm using my third pick!); plastic picks, if they are good, last one concert!


Q - How do suggest a mandolin student divide practice time with scales, learning new tunes, and keeping older material in their fingers?

A - Well......when you have three daughters to take care, you can easly learn how to share and use time as better as you can. Jokes apart, for a professional player, is good to split a ideal day dedicating the morning to the instrument, the afternoon to the music, the night to the friends. It means: the morning is good for improve technich with exercises, mechanism of fingering, etc. The afternoon is good to read, learn and study new music, the night is good to play ensemble music and silently enjoy with others your improvement


Q - I'd be interested in hearing a list of your favorite pieces written for mandolin solo.

A - Starting form the list of pieces in my Mel Bay Video the following is a good choice:
Sauli: Sonata and Partitas
Riggieri: La Fustemberg
Calace: Preludes Nr 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, gran preludio. Many of solo pieces by Calace are very good
Milanesi (Sirlen della Lanca): Preludio (A minor), Minuetto, Sarabanda e Fuga, Studio scherzo
Leonardi: Angeli e Demoni


Q - I'd also be interested in hearing your opinion of the works of Leoni of Naples.

A - Leone was a great mandolin virtuoso and teacher of the second half of XVIII century. I like his sonatas. His tuthorial (Paris 1768) is full of interesting matters for XVIII century music for mandolin.


Q - What kind (shape) of picks do you use? Small, large, round, pointed, Ranieri-type? And how stiff / thick pick do you use? And how do you grip it: between the thumb and side of the forefinger (near or touching the forefinger nail), or between the thumb and the pad of the forefinger (opposite to the forefinger nail)?

A - I use a medium sized plectrum with point. The Ranieri draw of pick (you can find in his first volume of his tutorial) is too small for my taste. At the moment I'm using a heart shaped's good for romantic music...

It's held by the thumb opposite to the other fingers together. If you take a look to the pick, it will be the central symmetric point of a three pointed system: thumb, pick, index (with other fingers


Q - I'd also like to know whether there is a tradition of music written for mandocello in Europe before, say, 1900. I have heard some of the American mandolin orchestra music, but I'm not aware of a European tradition. Were there mandocellos in, say, eighteenth- or nineteenth- century Italy? Were any solos or duets written for the instrument then? Anything you'd recommend for mandocello in particular? (I've fallen in love with her throaty growl!)

A - When you speak about Mandocello, my first thought is to Mr. Mike Marshall and his incredible tone on the Gibson mandocello.

In Italy, the correct term for the bowl backed is: Man-do-lon-cello, as literal trasposition from the bowed instrument family: Violino > Violoncello = Mandolino > Mandoloncello.

The topic is so wide that it would deserve to be discussed with much more time. Then I hope to see all of you at my Mandolin Workshop in Manhattan!

Few informations on the instruments are that big "mandolino" are drawn by B. Pinelli from Roma in the early XVIIII century. In those xilographies two instruments, a mandola and a mandoloncello are used for serenade and for street festivals.

The first dated music for this instrument was written in Paris by R. Leoncavallo in a Simphonic Poem "La Nuit de Mai" on 1887.

The first virtuoso who used the Mandoloncello for his performance was Raffaele Calace. He was using a mandoloncello with an added E double string on the top and called this 'new instrument' "Liuto Cantabile". He was using it for much of the music he composed for the mandolin, but also he wrote many pieces strictly for his instrument and one tutorial. His Gran Duo for Mandolino and Liuto Cantabile is maybe the highest example of the use of this instrument.


Q - I have all your CD´s, I think, and like them a lot, but I would still like to see a CD of yours with purely classical / early 20th century romantic content. I love those classical pieces in your video - have you plans about making a CD like that?

A - I thank you very much for your support!

Yes, I started a recording on the solo mandolin works by Raffaele Calace on David Grisman's label Acoustic Disc. I had the material ready to do the recording at his studios, the only problem was that the recording session was scheduled for September 13, 2001--two days after three famous planes changed the face of the world. You can imagine my feeling doing those recording, thinking to my family so far away, etc. This project is in stand by at the moment.

I'm finishing instead a recording on the Vivaldi concertos with the Ligurian Plucked Instrument Orchestra under my direction, that seems to be a great Album, friends are saying...

My next recording project is with my Mandolin Quartet (2 mandolins, tenor mandola, guitar) about the two different aspects of music for concert hall and music for amateurs during the golden age of the mandolin (1880ca 1940ca). Author: A. Amadei, C. Munier, G. Manente, D. Berruti.


Q - My main stumbling block is getting a smooth tremolo. Living here in Finland at the outernmost reaches of classical mandolin ;-), I don´t have access to a classical mandolin teacher, but try to rely on good printed methods like Pettine´s. It seems that different teachers express themselves differently about how one should use the right wrist in picking, and tremolo in particular.It seems to me that your right hand moves up-and-down, parallel to the top of the mandolin, with no rotation movement at the wrist / forearm? Have I understood this right?

A - Right! It is a rotation around the pivot wrist, parallel to the top. The arm is sort of fixed to the mandolin body with not any movement of rotation or up\down movement.


Q - I´m really jealous for the New York mandolinists for the opportunity to learn from you in Manhattan Mandolin Workshops. Do your teach any courses in Europe (preferably in Central or Northern Europe, outside Italy)? If you do, how could I get information about these?

A - Why spend energy in jealousy when you can enjoy us with a vacation in the big apple? We could establish a special prize for the farthest attendent, right Chaim!? (Chaim Caron is the organizer). Next year the Steve Kaufman camp is another opportunity to meet all of you.

At the moment I have not any teaching activity in northern Europe. I teach mandolin regularly in Savona, Italy at Polo Musicale Savonese where I hold a class with many people from different countries. Sometimes students come here for a short period of study like a month, a week, or a weekend.


Q - When you have a correct playing position (sitting), should the mandolin "stay in place" with the body / thigh contact and right forearm, without the left hand at all? I have heard that the left hand should be totally free for fretting, and not needed to support the mandolin. I sometimes succeed in this with my bowlback, mostly not....

A - To hold the instrument in a way that let us free the left hand is a good thing. You can have it sitting, putting your right ankle on the left knee. The mandolin will be held between the right leg, the right forearm and the abdominal muscles!... well, or maybe the belly...

This position is indispensable for very difficult virtuoso pieces. Most of the music of XVIII century, instead is playable also while standing up, using or not a strap.

In fact, in the old iconographic documents like paintings, xilographic works, drawings, statues, etc. often they were playing standing with silk strap or nothing.

This last is the technic I'm using for the Vivaldi mandolin concertos.! (soon available on CD with my plucked instruments Orchestra...! keep in conctact!)


Q - In your video, it looks like your wrist is quite straight, not arched. When you play, does your right hand make any contact with the bridge, or your curled fingers with the top of the mandolin? Does it make a difference if you have, or not? I have tried to learn "free wrist"/"floating right hand" technique, but it still is quite a challenge.

A - The technic of the straight wrist is relatively modern. The main mandolin tutorials of the past were indicating to arch the wrist without touching the top. You can see it in many drawing and pictures and the beginning of books. In this way of course you'll have a full sound from the instrument, but it will be very difficult to control where to pick, because you don't have any close reference point for the hand.

This basilar reference point is given (in my technich) from the 'conctact' of the wriste with the bridge. This last is only a conctact and not a support.

In this way you don't need any other reference point, then your fingers MUST stay in the air touching only each other themselves. The good tone is given by a free hand working around her wrist.

I learned the new technic from my father who was a Nino Catania follower. The same system was used by Giuseppe Anedda and his pupils, the most famous of whom is Ugo Orlandi, my teacher.