A private tour inside the palms of mandolinist Avi Avital – click the squares:
My hand is crooked from playing the mandolin. I think it got worse over the years. It looks completely normal when holding the instrument. Yet, when I spread my fingers, it looks totally wrong. I find it interesting to see how my hand shaped itself into the hand of a mandolinist. For example, my index finger is now naturally bent in the exact position required to hold the instrument. If archaeologists were to dig up my bones thousands of years from now, they would be able to reconstruct a mandolin just from examining my hand.
My hands are much too large for my instrument, which requires extreme precision to play; it’s all about the meeting point between the string and the fret, no larger than a millimetre. When you play a fast passage, you either hit the notes or you don’t – there is no middle option. This poses no problem for small hands with delicate fingers, but mine are so big that I need to be extremely focused in order to achieve the necessary precision. It does, however, allow me to stretch and play chords that other mandolinists cannot, something that composers take advantage of when a piece is commissioned for me.
After years of pressing the strings, the skin on my left fingers has grown so rough that I can hardly feel my fingertips. Unfortunately, Apple didn’t take that under consideration; my left fingers don’t work very well on touch screens!
I can’t stand wearing anything on my hands, even my wedding ring. I wore it for less than a week, during which I could not stop fiddling with it until my wife finally said, “Just take it off!” One day I was asked to do a photo shoot for a very trendy campaign for the Dresdner Philharmonie’s new concert hall. Fashion photographers were even brought in to help send the message that classical musicians are stylish. Arriving on set, I received a warm welcome from the makeup and wardrobe team who dressed me in all kinds of clothing and accessories that appeared to belong to someone much cooler than me. They adorned my hands with bracelets and rings, and when I later saw photos of myself wearing leather jewellery, I felt like I had lost my inner truth to the illusions of advertisement and perception. I was so disgusted that I insisted they photoshop the rings out. That incident taught me the value of maintaining a clear line between doing what I love and allowing myself to be branded – a slippery slope that many musicians stumble down.
I’ve played the mandolin since I was eight, and I only recall having to take a break due to injury twice. The first time, I was 11. We were assigned a project to create a model of a traditional Ethiopian village, using household materials. I tried building a Tukul, which is a round hut made of mud. I was using empty toilet paper rolls, which I needed to cut with a utility knife. Obviously, the roles cut easily, but unfortunately, so did my hand. The second time, I was 24 and already a professional mandolinist. I was cutting something in the kitchen. I later recall playing an entire concert using only three fingers.
Mandolinists worldwide hold the pick between their thumb and the first joint of their index finger. However, Mandolinists who studied in Beer Sheva (a southern city in Israel) with my teacher, held it between their thumb and the fingertip of the index finger. This is because that teacher, Simcha Nathanson, was not actually a mandolinist. He was a fine violinist who immigrated to Israel from Saint Petersburg, and found his way to the Beer Sheva Conservatory, searching for a job as a violin teacher. Once there, he was told that there weren’t any current openings for violin teachers, but there were about 40 untouched mandolins sitting in the basement. Nathanson was offered the job of establishing a mandolin orchestra, and so he did. That orchestra grew to be the town’s pride. And because he didn’t know how to play the mandolin, he didn’t know how to hold the pick. He simply held it the way he assumed made sense. Since then, and for the next 40 years, that’s how he taught any mandolin student who came to him. And that is the main reason I sit here today. Ignorance led to a far better invention. That “wrong” way of holding the pick is, in fact, more intuitive and more effective as it allows for faster playing and a greater colour range. When I arrived in Italy to continue my studies, my new teacher took one look at my hold and said, “No, no. That is not how you hold a pick.” Following his demands, I practiced a G major scale for an entire year, only to convince myself that the so-called “false” hold was actually much better.