Interview April 2011

A mandolin camp for the Rest of Us

Jim Richter is inviting all to his 1st annual Jim Richter rock-n-blues mandolin camp. He hopes it’ll approach mandolin instruction from a perspective more immediately beneficial and useful than some workshops. He also has top ten advices for beginners.


By Reidar Falch

“Calling me Jim is perfectly fine. As the old joke goes, you can call me whatever you like, as long as you call me to supper,” Jim Richter opens.

Jim is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin, “Of the instruments I play, mandolin is the one through which I feel the most complete as a musician. I’m a good bluegrass banjo player, but not much else. On guitar, I’m a heckuva blues and blues-oriented rock player, but not a compleat player. Mandolin, however, is the genre-busting instrument where I think I make the best music.”

“I became enraptured with bluegrass and New Grass Revival back in the early 80’s. I had already been playing classical guitar for a year prior to seeing the newly reformed NGR with Fleck and Flynn. For those who don’t know, NGR was the granddaddy of all newgrass jambands, originally staffed by Sam Bush, John Cowan, Curtis Birch, and Courtney Johnson. When Birch and Johnson quit circa 1981, it was reformed with Bush, Cowan, Bela Fleck, and Pat Flynn,” Jim says.

He continues, “After seeing Bela play, I started playing banjo that week. But I also loved Sam and less diligently took to learning some mandolin. At this time it wasn’t my passion, however. I played mandolin on and off for 15 years, till I seriously picked it up in 2002, with the focus on blues and old time mandolin, including some Monroe.”

Jim has posted his music on YouTube, “Motivation? That is hard to say. I think it primarily comes from being somewhat musically isolated, as I don’t gig, teach, or play as much as I used to due to family. I have a day job, 3 kids, a wife, and am currently in school. YouTube is a conduit for sharing my creativity with others, since I can’t gig or jam that frequently. I love live performance or jamming more than anything musical. It’s also a litmus test to see how my arrangements or instruction connect with people.”

He is very proud to say that the YouTube videos has connected with people, “I regularly receive emailed testimonials from people who claim to have picked up the mandolin because they saw my Voodoo Child or Rain Song videos. Do you realize how that makes me feel? I picked up mandolin because of Sam Bush, who is a bona fide icon of mandolin. How overwhelming is it for someone to tell you that started playing because of what you’ve done. Someone you’ve never met, never seen, and maybe lives 1/2 a world away.”

“I don’t gig that often -definitely not more than regionally, my discography is short, and my chops are above average. Yet YouTube has allowed me to connect with someone on a very personal level. I didn’t start posting stuff on YouTube because of that, but it is why I continued,” he states.

His announced camp is for the Rest of Us. He explain the concept of the Rest of Us, “Those individuals who get into music, want to make an artistic statement, but feel overshadowed and tiny next to those with powerful technique. This comes from my own battles with thinking I’m a hack because I don’t have the clean rolling eighth notes of an Adam Steffey, the incredibly fast triplet runs of a Andy Leftwich, or the genre jumping abilities of Chris Thile. At times I think your professionalism as a mandolinist is based on technique and not substance.”

“It can also include those who get into it for fun, but feel that the music instruction available is not for them,” Jim continues.

Jim’s approach to teaching is one of co-leadership, “At its most authoritarian, it would be mentorship. I’m a firm believer that we each learn in different ways; thus, no one way can be the right way.”

“I’ve worked in mental health and social work for 20 years and am currently in the Masters in Counseling program at Indiana University-Bloomington. My approach to music education cannot be separated from that experience,” he states.

“The over-arching desire I have in the co-leader relationship with the student is to assist the student reach his/her stated goals by helping them locate the trigger for change and the barriers disallowing this,” he is using the word student just to clarify the role of the co-leader.

Jim’s question is, “For example, someone wants to be a blues player. Why should the student start out in some of the primers readily available which focus on bluegrass, scales, etc? If the person wants to play for fun, why should I take him down the road of scales, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, etc?”

He will ask them what they want to play for fun and allow them to direct the nature of the education, “I want the student to feel that they are making progress from the beginning, which usually means being able to play some songs they like or to jam with others. Very few students actually want to become contest pickers or professional musicians. Why should music instruction for these folks come from that more formalistic perspective?”

“Students do not sign on to a particular Jim Richter system of learning. At most, they sign on to a Jim Richter approach, which is Jim being supportive and allowing the student to determine the curriculum and pace of learning. Will this approach work for everyone? -No, because some can be uncomfortable without the traditional and rigid teacher/student relationship,” he explains.

Jim’s approach to music in general? “Saying the most with the fewest notes possible. Finding a great melody and sticking with it. Studying John Lennon is never time wasted.”