Alison Stephens and Astute Music

Ali with her family of mandolins

After playing mandolin for several years with Cafe Mondiale, I got interested in the idea of teaching the instrument as well. In preparation, I decided to take some lessons myself (mandolin teachers were few and far between, and I was more or less self-taught). I was lucky enough to make contact with Alison Stephens, who was not only a top-flight classical mandolin player, but a great teacher too.

Lessons with Ali certainly helped to iron out out a few technical quirks, and introduced me to some great music. I remember complaining that the mandolin tutor books all looked and felt very ancient (as a guitar teacher, I was used to working with tutor books that looked a little more 21st-century).  Ali agreed, and said “Well, if you know how to write modern teaching pieces for guitar, why not try your hand at some pieces for mandolin?”

It turned out that she was already starting to put together a series of contemporary mandolin books. She was going to be the editor for the series as a whole, but as far as the individual books were concerned, she was up for collaborations with other players and teachers.

The project was to create a series of repertoire books, aimed at pupils from the very earliest stages right up to a high level of proficiency. The challenge was to to write pieces at each level – even very basic – which were musically engaging, satisfying to play, and helped the pupil progress towards the next level.  The resulting series is published by Astute Music – check it out here.

To begin with, we co-authored a book of very simple pieces for a first-year player. It was called “First Images” and we each contributed four pieces. I have put video clips of all 8 pieces on to this Youtube playlist:

Ali then asked me to put together a book of my own material at a slightly higher level, which we called “Signposts“. You can browse them in this playlist:

Meanwhile she was organising, editing and publishing a huge amount of other material – much of it written by herself, but also involving several other collaborators.

Tragically, Ali is no longer with us – she lost her fight against cancer in 2010, leaving a huge hole in the mandolin world both in the UK and worldwide. She was an inspirational performer and teacher, unstintingly helpful and encouraging, and enormous fun to be with. In her short life she left a great legacy of recordings and educational material, and with her warm, unassuming and generous personality she inspired countless players to take up this beguiling instrument. I am very proud to have worked with her and helped in this project.

Here is a delightful video of Ali, which shows her completely in her element and as many of us will remember her, giving a relaxed performance at a mandolin workshop:

Since Ali’s death, responsibility for editing the Astute series has been taken over by Barbara Pommerenke-Steel of the BMG, who has taken on several unfinished books and brought them to fruition, as well as carrying the project forward with ideas of her own.