‘A fascinatingly-detailed account of how a love affair with the mandolin became a love affair with Italy as well. It shows the lengths to which an excellent musician will go to become an even better one.’

Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

The mandolin lesson
A journey of self-discovery in Italy


5 stars!

This delightful memoir had me hooked from the first page. Who would have ever thought the mandolin could be so enchanting? Well, it is. And so is author Frances Taylor.

A natural writer as well as musician, Taylor describes in rich and vivid detail the years she traveled from the UK to Italy to study under the tutelage of Maestro Ugo Orlandi. Her innocence and then maturity as both a traveler and a musician is honest and heart-warming.

The strength and determination at which she accomplishes her musical goals serve as a model to others. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have already bought a copy to give to a friend!

Julia Ratledge
5 stars!

Within the last few weeks I have read this book twice on my Kindle and have enjoyed it immensely. Frances Taylor’s ongoing love affair with music and Italy and of so much more shows on every page of the book. It’s an extremely interesting journal of her life which covers her commuting from England to Italy to learn more about mandolin playing, music and more about the instrument. For me, The Mandolin Lesson gets five stars.

Brenda Wright

I was shocked to see that this book, published a year and a half ago, has so few ratings/reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. This book deserves to be read.

I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of memoirs, usually because I find that you need to be familiar with the writer to appreciate what has been important enough to them to write about it, and as of today, I only have one friend that I know well and who has written a memoir (see that review here). But there was something about this one that simply sounded appealing to me. I have an interest in music, and while I don’t play the mandolin myself, I can see this as an instrument that one of my sons would play if he could get his hands on one.

But this book is about more than just mandolin lessons. This is a book about art and pursuing one’s passion, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this so much.

Frances Taylor is a mandolin player and teacher in England, but wants to further her own knowledge and expertise with the instrument and finds a teacher in Italy who will take her on. This requires frequent trips forth and back, staying with new-found friends while in Italy, and the book is as much a commentary on this transient life as it is about learning the mandolin. It might seem strange to be a professional and still taking lessons, though of course a true professional is always trying to learn more and the true artist is always looking to stretch him/herself. Taylor comments on this: “It is strange being a professional player in one country one moment and a music student in another country the next.”

Even though Taylor is a professional, she still gets some of the nervous twinges when being tested, and allows some self-doubt in her own abilities (and even makes excuses when things don’t flow just right):

To my horror, my feet do not touch the floor. I have been given a piano stall to sit on instead of a chair, but I do not feel able to adjust it. Under the beady eyes of the examiners, I start the music and immediately regret doing so.

Without proper contact between my feet and the floor, I am uncomfortable and unable to support the mandolin adequately. Worse still, I cannot establish a secure sense of pulse. I am unbalanced and insecure and the music reflects this. It is clumsy and awkward. I tense up and hit the strings too hard, which results in one of the A-strings becoming flat and making everything sound even more dreadful. I can’t think of a word to say in Italian when the music is finished. My mind is blank and confused.

I can’t speak to Frances Taylor’s music abilities — a CD with the book would be nice — but her writing is beautiful:

I am aware of the vast expanse of duck egg blue that is the sky. As the light changes and fades imperceptibly, I notice a slight bruising of purple-grey clouds. I love the quality of the light. Pale, creamy yellow light illuminates the grey clouds from behind, giving them a halo effect. Later, in the distance, I notice the naked trees seem to scratch the apricot sky. I love the desolate beauty of November and the weeks leading up first to Advent and then to Christmas.

And just when I wondered where this memoir was going — what was she going to get from this experience that makes it worth putting down in writing — she makes some wonderful observations about art, love, and life:

I can barely bring myself to speak of or write anything about these impending celebrations, since it seems an acknowledgement of my own mortality. I hadn’t realised that I am so old, that I am possibly halfway or further though my life. In my mind, I am still twenty.


The playing, the ability to express oneself, the creativity to arrange something, in this case notes or sounds, beautifully and in a pleasing manner, is something far more ephemeral. It is something spiritual.

I had always understood that love meant putting other people’s needs before your own. Now, I realise that it is impossible to put other people’s need before your own until you have first seen to your own needs. It is a paradox. Love is a paradox.

And because she writes it so well, we learn these things. Not because she tells us, but because she shows us. We have experienced the journey with her and come to learn the same things right alongside her.

This is just what a memoir should be. A journey that we can share, and something that offers us insight on things much grander than ourselves.

Looking for a good book? The Mandolin Lesson by Frances Taylor is a beautiful memoir about a woman, already an accomplished mandolin player, and her journey to become better in her art. It is worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

Reading someone’s memoirs and then reviewing them, seems a very personal, almost intrusive thing to do. ButThe Mandolin Lessonhas been written so that we can share Frances Taylor’s journey — not simply the physical journey, but the emotional, the musical and the spiritual journey as well.

Frances’ passion for the mandolin leads her to travel regularly from her family home to Italy over the course of four years, so that she ‘may learn to play more beautifully.’ The enormity of what she is undertaking strikes the reader as she reflects upon her son, a chorister at St Paul’s, and ‘how strange it is that music brings us so close together and yet today pulls us apart.’.

The whole book (except the introduction and the update) is written in the present tense so that it feels like you have access to the author’s internal dialogue as events happen. Whilst I liked the immediacy of this approach, and the attention to detail is impressive, I sometimes felt a little overwhelmed by the level of detail conveyed. However, about halfway through reading the memoirs, I found myself converted — the details immersed me in Frances’ life, in her love of music and Italian culture and her innermost thoughts and feelings.

The Mandolin Lesson is a descriptive, reflective account of a remarkable, talented woman and a very salient part of her life. It will also without doubt tempt you to visit Italy, and possibly experience the mandolin!

Alissa McDonald

Consciously or not, most readers of this newsletter have had their musical lives touched by Frances Taylor through her work for our Federation. Her account of travelling to Italy in pursuit of playing her mandolin more beautifully cannot help but be of significant interest to this community.

The Mandolin Lesson focuses on the years 1994 to 1998 when, ‘with a tincture of not disagreeable madness’, Frances finds herself commuting between London and Italy for monthly lessons with Ugo Orlandi at the Conservatorio in Padua. Her prior qualifications exempt her from the first three years of study for a diploma in the mandolin and from all classes in its remaining four years other than lessons with the Maestro. These classes open unexpected doors to friendships that deeply integrate her with Italian life in Padua, Brescia and Bologna.

We witness her relationship with herself transform through this contact with a country that becomes her second, spiritual home. Via flashbacks we learn also of early years blighted by illness; teaching herself the violin; early visits to Italy to meet the luthier Pasquale Pecoraro; of the life-changing first meeting with Orlandi. Above all we discover what it means to be profoundly engaged with the instrument about which she is so passionate.

Her tale is eloquently and engagingly told. Skilful juggling of past and present tenses draws the reader into experiencing, as if in the moment, whatever lesson this instrument brings to Frances. Often it is nothing to do with mandolins but everything to do with what makes her tick as a person. Her journeys to Italy are not just practical, logistical adventures. They are internal soul-searching voyages too. A tightrope of recurrent themes emerges in a life constantly walked between hesitant, fearful vulnerability and impetuous courage; between energised success and exhausted failure; between inner turmoil and the serene joy of playing beautiful music; between life as the calm, nurturing teacher and mother in England and as the stressed student nurtured by friends in Italy.

It is a great strength of this book that Frances has written so honestly about these paradoxes in her situation. Through confronting the fears in her past and present she eventually discovers the answers that will make her playing beautiful and validate the enormity of undertaking to rework her technique after so many years of performing as a professional mandolinist.

It is our good fortune the mandolin brought Frances back full circle to a plucked instrument from the ukulele she desperately transformed into a violin as a small child. The source of the warmth and generosity she brings to teaching us becomes abundantly clear in the course of her history of ‘doing everything late and with great urgency’. The Mandolin Lesson is a thoroughly enjoyable read that has relevance to us all as players. So carpe diem! Explore it and be prepared to find yourself craving a plucked string adventure in Italy.

Susanna Ingram
The British BMG Federation Newsletter