September 22, 2020

Don Julin's A-Ha Moment at Mandolins Rule The World

By Kristi Kates | March 25, 2017

With over 30 years of musical experience, Traverse City’s Don Julin is most definitely an integral part of the old guard of northern Michigan’s music scene. So when it came to kicking off a brand new project – well, for Julin, it really wasn’t all that new. It was just more of what he does best.

Melodic Journey
“Performing, teaching, recording and writing are all hats that I have worn as a working musician,” said Julin. “One of the most satisfying things about [having that expertise] is the moment when you share a nugget of wisdom with someone at the beginning of their musical journey. The look on their faces when they have a breakthrough is priceless. I remember that feeling and love it when I can help someone else reach that ‘aha’ moment.”

One of the ways Julin has helped lead other musicians to those breakthroughs is by offering music instruction locally on his primary instrument. “I started giving mandolin lessons at Good News Music in Traverse City about 15 years ago,” he said. “Even though I had a steady stream of students coming down those blue shag–carpeted stairs with mandolin in tow, it did not take me long to realize there was limited growth potential due to a finite number of possible mandolin students [who lived] within driving distance of the music store.”

Rockin’ Royalties
The “worldwide web” as it was called back in the day would soon become the answer to Julin’s problem. “As the internet became part of our daily lives, it became clear that you could connect with like–minded folks,” he explained. “It was at that point that I had my own ‘aha’ moment – I realized I needed to be teaching mandolin on the internet.”

Julin started by uploading free instructional mandolin videos on YouTube with a caption stating that he was available for lessons via Skype or Facetime. He’s notched 1.3 million views so far. “[I had] mandolin students from around the country and beyond scheduled mandolin lessons,” Julin related. “And I kept producing free videos.”

In 2011, Julin received an email from an editor with Wiley Publishing; Wiley produces the best selling For Dummies book series featuring non–intimidating guides for readers on a wide range of activities and topics. Wiley was in the process of seeking an author for “Mandolin For Dummies” and soon offered Julin a contract.

“‘Mandolin For Dummies’ came out in 2012 and has sold over 30,000 copies to date,” Julin said. “The editors were great and helped sharpen my teaching, communicating and organizing skills.” He added, “The other important lesson I learned from this experience was about royalties and the concept of doing the work once and getting paid many times.” The standard musician pay model, he pointed out, is based on performance; whether it’s a live show or a lesson, many musicians only get paid when they work. “Even though I love performing live, you only get paid when you play,” Julin said.  

Virtual Sounds
Enter Mandolins Heal the World (MHTW), Julin’s brand new website that allows him to virtually teach students all over the world and even get paid for it since the students buy what are essentially subscriptions. “MHTW is the result of my love of teaching mandolin and modern technology,” Julin said. He explained, “Members enjoy unlimited access to this library of mandolin educational material, and the membership model allows me to offer it at a low cost. As a working musician, if all goes well, I get another income stream, making it possible to avoid the dreaded daytime job.”

The MHTW website launched on October 1, 2016. A few free videos give visitors a feel for the site, but access to the vast majority of the video lessons and courses requires a paid membership that can be purchased as a monthly or yearly plan.

The title of the site is a catch phrase Julin has been using for years – “I should be clear, I’m not a doctor and don’t even play one on YouTube,” Julin quipped – but he does personally believe that playing the mandolin offers health benefits. “It is entirely possible that we are a bunch of old optimistic hippie musicians who think music can make a difference,” Julin laughed. He added, “It can’t hurt.”

Living Lessons
Interested parties can try Julin’s theory for themselves. MHTW currently offers about 200 video lessons with more being added every week. They range from a beginner mandolin lesson to advanced concepts, techniques and practice tracks. Students can study and rehearse when it fits their schedule and can watch the videos as many times as they like.

“Consider the power of repetition when learning something new,” Julin pointed out. “This is much more effective than seeing your instructor play it a few times at a lesson and then sending you off with a sheet of paper.” Julin still offers Skype and Facetime lessons, too, but said the website fulfills most musicians’ needs.

“Most students can get enough from the website so that we only need to meet once per month or even less,” Julin said. In addition, the website’s embedded Soundslice Living Sheet Music software is a great tool for beginners or for those learning complex pieces because it syncs the video with the sheet music or tablature so that students can watch the instructor’s hands play while a cursor follows the sheet music.

Musical Experts
In addition to Julin himself, a number of other musicians contribute lessons and information to the MHTW website. “Most of them have an area of expertise and are very comfortable teaching on–camera,” Julin said. From Nashville, Chris Henry offers insight into the traditional bluegrass style of Bill Monroe. David Benedict is one of the new breed of music school–educated mandolin players. Jordan Ramsey is the 2016 National Mandolin Champion and a leading authority on McReynolds Style Cross–Picking. Tim Connell is a fixture on the Pacific Northwest mandolin scene. And Alan Epstein, who has more than 40 years of mandolin experience, offers a set of mini lessons called Mandolin Vitamins. “These are some of the most talented mandolin players and teachers on the scene today,” Julin said.

At this point, Mandolins Heal the World already has over 100 paying members, with new musicians joining weekly. Julin, who plans to expand his musical staff over time with up to 20 teachers, said he’s also considering a mandolin camp in northern Michigan as well as some additional projects. But overall, his biggest long–term goal is simply to help more people experience the joys of playing the mandolin. “The most rewarding part of this endeavor is being able to help people learn to play the prince of all stringed instruments, the mandolin,” he said. “Oh, and a little mailbox money is nice, too.”

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