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Making a timeless, joyful noise

"Making a timeless, joyful noise" Continued...

Although Burton, who is now a senior at ISU, spent most of his homeschooled adolescence on the farm, raising chickens and shooting glass bottles in the lane, he started his college career with 25 credit hours. He also tested out of the first three semesters of music theory, two years of what any music student will attest to being very grueling and demanding instruction.

To bring in a little extra cash, Burton plays gigs three or four times a month. While he could advertise and work with an agent to travel the country and bring in a lot more money, Burton doesn’t want to turn his hobby into work. He limits his gigs to local venues and often plays with Brent McPike, an ISU professor who serves not only as his mentor on the mandolin, but also as his fishing and other outdoor activity buddy.

Burton also earns extra money passing his talent and love for the mandolin on to the next generation. He has four students, three who come to his house and one in Ohio who takes lessons via Skype. Unlike his own teacher, Burton doesn’t force his students to read music. Instead, he uses methods like “listen and learn” and “point and play,” where he encourages them to translate what they hear between their ears to the neck of the mandolin.

“If I can hum it, I can play it,” Burton said, and his goal is for his students to do the same.

As one of the best mandolin players in the country, Burton could follow in the footsteps of other musical prodigies like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and become a star, especially since Bluegrass has broken into the mainstream. But Burton isn’t interested in fame.

When he’s 25, Burton will be eligible for a third straight title at the National Mandolin Championship. By then, bluegrass and some of its stars may have faded off the pop charts, but Burton will still be finding more joy than most in music, no matter who’s listening.

Thomas Hardesty
Thomas Hardesty

Thomas is a recent graduate of Indiana State University who teaches high school and writes part time for WORLD. He and his wife live in Clinton, Indiana.

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