Barbara Conrad: Sharing the Good Life thru Music
Tara A. Spears
If ever there was a perfect example that illustrates what a 21st century retiree is all about, it’s Barbara Conrad. Barbara is a true Renaissance woman because she is using her retirement from work to pursue many activities: playing the mandolin, sailing, volunteering, learning new languages and traveling.
Although Barb was intrigued by the mandolin in the 1970s she didn’t pursue mastery of the instrument or performing until retirement. “I got a mandolin for Christmas of 1979, found a teacher and took lessons. For a lot of years it was mainly a solitary pastime, but in 2003 I joined the group I play with now, and that opened the door to the wider world of the mandolin community.” She is currently a member of a small local mandolin orchestra that entertains at nursing homes, hospital and community events around Greater Vancouver.
Before meeting Barb and hearing her play, all I knew about the mandolin was from the Nicolas Cage film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I wanted some background on the instrument and feel others are probably as clueless as I was. I’m sharing a short history of the stringed instrument paraphrased from several musical sources:
“The mandolin evolved in the 1700s in Italy and Germany. Because the mandolin is a member of the lute family, the instrument’s strings are parallel to its belly, or soundboard, and run along a distinct neck. By the 1800s the mandolin was popular among the European aristocracy which led to several significant composers- Beethoven, Hummel, Mozart, and Vivaldi- to write original works for the mandolin. Mandolin playing and making continued expanding throughout Europe and the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 20th century the mandolin was built in a range of sizes from soprano to contrabass.”
However, as musical tastes shifted on the North American continent in the 1900s, mandolins became known largely as a folk and bluegrass instrument. According to the CMSA website, “In 1986 the Classical Mandolin Society of America was formed by Norman Levine to help preserve and revive the classical mandolin tradition. Since the formation of the CMSA, many mandolin orchestras and ensembles have started throughout the U.S. The CMSA has helped mandolinists interested in the classical tradition connect with each other and share music, ideas, and support.” Barbara is a contributing writer to the society newsletter.
In 2003, after learning how to play the mandolin for many years, Barb joined the Classical Mandolin Society. “I went with some of my fellow players to the society’s annual convention, and have not missed one since. That has taken me all over North America, and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people,” said Barbara. “It was a proud moment for me when I was asked to be the MC for our final concert in front of the massed orchestra at the October 2016 Classical Mandolin Society convention, in Philadelphia, USA.”
Barb and her husband of 47 years, James, reside in Vancouver, British Columbia, when not traveling. “The first time I came to Jaltemba Bay was in 2010, the first year my husband and I spent the whole winter travelling in our motorhome after we both retired. That year we did a big circle around North America including Mexico. We spent two weeks in the La Penita RV Park that trip,” explained Barb. “After we got back up north, we thought that of all the places we had stopped, La Penita was the one where we’d like to spend a whole season. We came back in the fall of 2010 and have been back every year since!”
This active lady enjoys spending summers cruising the beautiful coast of B.C. in their 41 foot sailboat. “I used to snow ski a lot at Whistler/Blackcomb and other ski areas, but now that we winter in Western Mexico, the ski season is pretty much done by the time we get home.” In addition to all the traveling and outdoor activity, Barb brings her mandolin on the journeys. “Now I try not to go many days in a row without playing to keep my fingers callused and limber. Also, as playing the mandolin is a physical activity, the more you play, the better you get, and the more satisfying it is to feel you are gaining some mastery. I enjoy playing with other people, whether mandolins or another instrument, but preferably reading music together. In La Penita I have two duo partners: Bob the bagpiper, with whom I play Scottish highland music, and Rita the accordionist, with whom I play a lot of Mexican, Spanish and Italian pieces.”
Another activity that Barb enjoys is volunteering. While in Mexico, Barb got hooked on volunteering with the annual Cancer de Mama Breast Cancer survivors’ Clinic. “My first clinic was in 2011, and I’ve worked with the sewing team every time. For the last few years, I’ve been the co-leader of the sewing group. This year at the Cancer de Mama clinic I did play the mandolin for the women as they waited for service. On two days I played on my own, and on Saturday, my friend Rita came in and we played as a duo. ”
When in B.C., Barbara volunteers on the provincial and Vancouver branch executives of her former employer’s retiree organization, which is a service and social club. “I do some communications and editing work, as well as coordinating our program for making and donating hand-crafted items needed by B.C. Children’s Hospital and other charities in B.C.,” said Barb. “After I became interested in the Italian deep bowl type mandolin I began volunteering in the library of the Italian Cultural Centre when I’m at home, something I started doing when I first got interested in studying Italian.” Besides these activities, when Barb is feeling creative she knits, crochets, or sews.
“My husband has been wonderfully supportive about my interest in playing the mandolin by encouraging me to attend some of the Classical Mandolin Society conventions. As I have progressed in skill level with the mandolin, I have pursued specialized training. For the last ten years I have been going to a week-long mandolin workshop in Italy every August.”
As with any hobby, as you stick with it and elevate your skill level, frequently moving up to more specialized equipment. Barb is no exaction: “I started out playing a Gibson-style mandolin, but with all my exposure to European players in more recent years, I was drawn to the sound of the Italian bowl-back style which I have been playing for about seven years. Now I play one that was built for me by a talented luther, Brian Dean, who lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia.” You can note the difference in design in the photos: first two are Gibson; last two are Italian bowl-back mandolins.
As Barbara’s example illustrates, retirement can be an opportunity for personal growth and meeting new people. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks-and have a great time doing it!