A “Concertina Moment”

Having arrived at the age where one can explain away a momentary lapse as an expected event, I am comforted in recognizing such a feeling earlier in my career as a concertinist. The”concertina moment” comes suddenly in the height of passion when improvising or venturing on unfamiliar territory in a session during a solo. Everything is going along great; everything is fitting perfectly when suddenly a phrase jumps out with a figure that is totally absent from your move- library. You stop and die or worse, play something from the musical tower of Babel. With time one develops one’s wits and can substitute a chord in place of the mystery phrase. The goal, of course, is to be able to play the whole phrase on the fly and this requires an intimate knowledge of the clavier in both directions. I am amazed now how, once developed, those………what were we talking about……..”concertina moments” become infrequent.

My new tutor presents a method to develop this skill and will be one of the subjects covered in my workshops.

Playing in D and A on a 30 button C/G need not be feared. Playing in D actually is as natural as playing in G, both of which in a strange way are more natural than playing in C. Why? Because there is only one C and one E in the middle octave while there are Ds and Gs in both directions. True the F# is only represented on the out but that is no more an obstacle than the “in” E. In addition, in both D and G the dominant chords (A7 and D7) are in the opposite direction to the tonic chords (D and G). This allows for replenishment of air in most tunes just as the G7 in the key of C. In the key of A the challenge is one of air since the dominant E7 is in the same direction. As a result one must careful arrange the piece to find spots to open the instrument. This is one reason why myxolydian (flatted G) Appalachian and Irish tunes work easily in A – the G chord is opposite to the A.

The most important guideline when constructing scales and phrases in any key is that the leading tone and the tonic should be in the same direction this is what I call the pairing principle and is essential to playing phrases with the correct intention. For example in “shave and a hair cut – two bits”, the “two” is the leading tone to the tonic “bits”

For D, the leading tone is C# in which the C# is on the right top row (R1 or R2 in the Jeffries) and the D on the lower row left (L15). Also in the Jeffries one can play the C# on R1 and the D on R6 on the in. In G the leading tone F# and the tonic G are both found on the same side (lower Row III and Row I respectively) in the opening position in both octaves. For the key of A it means playing the G# and A on the top row. The left is easy L5 to L4 while on the right they are found on the top row R3 to R2 in Wheatstone and R3 to R5 in Jeffries. In the key of F the leading tone E (L15) to F (R7) only works in the middle octave.

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Use of Air Button in Reverse Shoes and Stockings

Use of Air button

John, I went back and reviewed the reverse fingering exercise of Shoes and Stockings and I can see how the air issue could be a problem for you. Specifically the out movement in the ending measure 4 and out movement of the beginning of measure 1 (and measure 8 and 5) could create a feeling of instability in the centering of your instrument Here are some suggestions.

Try to practice the exercise in two ways: with and without the air button. First try to practice the piece without using the air button by planning out bellow excursion as previously discussed. This method requires that you carefully prepare the hand before executing the phrase as also discussed. This is the most important point of the exercise. If it is still a problem for you, simply play the last G of measure 4 and 8 (the last beat) in the closing position. You can use either the row II G (L10) or row III G (L13).

The second method is to use the air button to reestablish the center of your instrument. I would use the air button on the last beat of the second measure (the C) and on the last beat of the 6th measure (the D). You could either use the air button simultaneously while playing the note or shortening the note with a small rest. This is easier with the second measure since the C is a quarter note while the D in the sixth measure is an eighth note.

Of course the reverse direction version is only an exercise to learn to play the same notes fluidly in both directions. As I pointed out in the conclusion on page 38, once you have internalized both directions carefully, you will be mixing the two versions, which will ameliorate any bellow length issues.

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How long should the fingers remain over the buttons

As to the question of how long your fingers should remain over the buttons. You do not need to rest the fingers on the buttons to be used throughout the entire phrase however when visualizing a phrase the fingers should be placed initially in the shape of the phrase and centered over the buttons. In the bandoneon it is referred to as making a dibujo (drawing) or diagram of the buttons sort of like a constellation of stars in the heavens. If the fingers are sitting over the relative position of the buttons, they merely have to press the button – bang -out it comes perfect and there can be no mistakes because you are right there. Once the note is played the position can be relaxed a bit but in the small concertina, the shape is not difficult to maintain. This is especially important if the phrase returns to a note such as in measure 4 of Shoes and Stockings which ends A, F, G , F, G. What you don’t want to do is play the first note and start looking for the next note. In the first lessons it is probably best to put the fingers directly on the buttons. As you become comfortable with this process the shape can be more generalize. Nevertheless you should always know exactly where the fingers are going to be and this is best accomplished by preparing the hand for the entire phrase first. .

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Bellow Excursion

Bellows excursion

In general one should not be using the entire bellows for a phrase. Just as in a violin, the excursion of the bow (and the bellows) should be planned out in the initial arming process. How much bellows to use is worth some discussion. One should not be timid with the bellows. The bellows are the articulation of the music – not the buttons, this is the great attribute of bellows instrument such as the concertina and bandoneon that both possess fluid bellows that can shape the phrase like the human voice (unlike for example a piano which strikes the string with a hammer). The buttons are mechanical – on or off. The fingers should be relaxed when executing the note. Whether you play loud or soft, the same touch is used on the buttons. How long your finger stays on the button determines the length of the note but does not create articulation. Articulation which comes from the word ARTE creates the expression, the accents, the phrasing and the volume; they all come entirely from the movement of the bellows. In general, accents come from wrist motion while volume comes from arm movement. Slapping the buttons really is transferring energy to bellows, which is better accomplished with the wrist. Slapping the buttons, if I understand you correctly, means loss of flexibility which ultimately slows you down. The fingers are always the same, supple and relaxed, and move from the knuckle joints.

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The Question of Sufficient Air

Answer to question of sufficient air

The situation of running out of air is no different than a student violinist running out of bow length. True there are situations where there is not enough bellows length but every study in the book is worked out carefully to avoid that if one follows the arrangements as written.

Generally the reason one runs out of air is because one is searching for the next note while pressing the preceding note and using up air. The solution is not to search for the note. This is in fact the whole point of the lesson. This is so important that I need to say it again. The solution is not to search for the next note. If your fingers are in position for the entire phrase before you start playing the phrase it is only a question of playing them in the correct sequence. In the case of Shoes and Stocking, it means placing the fingers, for example in first measure, on G, B, C, and D. Try playing all four notes at once. Now put the fingers in the same position but don’t press the buttons. Try now to play the buttons separately in the sequence G B CC D. If you are still have air issues, play G- release, B – release, C –release and so on the notes come out short. You can practice the phrase with very short notes (staccato) and then try to play the phrase perfectly smoothly (legato). Then try to play as loud as you can. Then try to play as soft as you can and as fast as you can. The fastest you can play it is almost like playing all the notes simultaneously as described above. Each phrase should be treated as such.

More importantly this first lesson demonstrates the concept of visualizing the phrase first in your brain, placing the fingers in the correct position and then playing the sequence in the proper order –preparing the hand. Every phrase should be approached in this manner. It is really hard to do and takes constant practice, as we all tend to want to play the music note to note. This later technique however is a very inefficient learning process, much harder to play rapidly and harder to memorize. You are not the lone ranger, everyone experiences this tendency, myself included. Nevertheless this is the guiding principle in the book and I commend you for spending the time already to really explore this approach. It is important to make this process a habit. You will find that after the first 8 lessons, you will be miles ahead of more experienced player that search note by note.

As to the second question of playing the last measure of 1/16th notes where there is change in bellow direction, the same principle of preparing the hand applies. In the reverse fingering page 35 measure 4: the first notes are in the closing position – D, E, D, C, B, and G. All 5 fingers can be placed on this phrase. Push them simultaneously. The second part is in the opening position and the notes A, F#, G are all on the left hand. Play this note simultaneously. Now go back and forth between the 2 positions, playing the phrases as blocks of sound until the movement is seamless. Once you can do this with an automatic sense, you can separate the notes and play them as short notes pressing and releasing each one in the correct sequence.

Finally, there are times after long phrases where the simultaneous use of note and air are used in the following short phrase to reposition the bellows. It is useful and similar to the violinist moving his bow rapidly on a short phrase to prepare for the next phrase, which requires a full bow.

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reflections on comments from the concertina web Oct 10

I have greatly appreciated the initial comments on the concertina web so far. Let me say that the audio examples are on there way and will be posted on my web site shortly.

It is true that the concepts presented in the text represent a challenge to previous convention but I would hope that concertinists would view these as methods to amplify their technique rather than to discard previous accomplishments. Many tunes work fine along a single row but there are always places in the tune where the music just doesn’t come out. Rather than struggling to make the fingers do something they don’t feel comfortable doing or simplifying the tune beyond recognition, I would suggest that there are alternative ways to accomplish the phrasing, which preserves the musical intention and rhythm.

It is also true that this method requires study. But we all study our instruments because we want to improve. I would hope this text offers that opportunity. I, like many musicians have had to (painfully) start over from the beginning a number of times. One learns that it is not a step backwards but a move forward through a new door into a new world of possibilities.

I would like to address a few initial concerns expressed in the concertina web. One should not get bogged down on the scales in the beginning. They are offered as a perspective and should be treated as a punching bag on which to occasionally work out. They should not be learned 100% before going on. The reason is that within the framework of a tune, the fingerings on any portion of the scale will change depending on the measure beforehand or afterwards.

As far as the first tunes, they are offered not so much for the tune but rather to learn the process of visualization. The natural tendency is to learn a tune note by note (the melody). However there is a much easier way to learn –it is by visualizing phrases, placing your fingers in the shape that encompasses the entire phrase and only then playing it. This is how pianist learns to play Bach. Much of Bach is just giant fiddle tunes. I would hope that you will approach the first tunes as a method to learn this process of visualization, a process called preparing the hand It is very challenging at first because the brain wants to constantly default to play the melody note by note. It is a lesson I still have to learn over and over for myself but, once learned, makes the efficiency of learning incredibly easier and faster. It also dramatically improves memorization.

Finally I would like to comment on the question of chordal accompaniment. I think chords are great and I certainly addressed chords in my first tutor. However the focus in this text is on phrasing and on emulating the styles of the fiddle. We all know that the fiddle can stand alone and make great dance music. It uses the techniques of double stops and other melodic and bowing rhythmic devises. These can be accomplished with the concertina as well and these techniques are explored in great detail in the text. I saved chords, for the last sections, not because it is more difficult but because one must get the phrasing right first. Also as one progresses to the last chapters, it becomes clear that counterpoint melodies serve the function of harmony just as well as full chords while providing further movement and drive.

I hope these comments are helpful. Please feel free to write me with questions at any time at info@bertramlevy.com and I will try my best to answer them.

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The book will be available for sale on September 15th 2011

Finally the book American Fiddle Styles will be ready for sale in the next week. Already people have begun to order the text. Over the next month, the audio samples will be added to the web site to help you in studying the text. I will be happy to answer any questions or clarify points that you may have.

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