Pushing My Buttons

Self-exploration via the playing of the English concertina

Concertina buttons close upRecently I decided to work on my next solo album.  This has been a project in development for many years, but recently, suddenly and frighteningly, my calendar became empty of other distracting work, so to dedicate myself in earnest to recording seemed like the obvious way I should use my time.  Progress seemed to flow rapidly for the first week or two, which is not surprising because much of the material for the album has been somewhat arranged for years.  But when I started recording the English concertina, everything seemed to stop.

I had selected a medley of tunes for the album and had started to work on them.  In fact, I had just about finished playing and recording all the other instruments when I decided to try adding the concertina as well.  I didn’t really think it was necessary for the arrangement, but I thought it would be fun to include it on the album, and this medley seemed like a good place for it.  I knew it would be hard for me to get the part up to speed, but I didn’t mind spending a few days practicing it.

It was over a month later when I finally finished it.

As this was going on, I began asking myself a lot of questions.  For one, I wondered why this instrument was taking more time than all of the other instruments combined!  Have I, over the years, spent so much less time mastering this instrument compared to the others?  Or does it have considerably more technical challenges when it is used for this particular music?

I also had to ponder why I was allowing so much time for this instrument.  The cost-to-benefit ratio seemed wildly out of balance.  What was my motivation, and was it reasonable?  Why was it so important to me to include this instrument and to play it at a high standard?

Some of the answers came to me as I was working, and my reflection continued whenever I took a break.  Finally, today, when I was satisfied that I had recorded what I wanted, I figured it was time to also record my thoughts about the process.

English, not Anglo

English concertinaIf you are not familiar with the instrument, I will introduce you to it.  It is a small roundish accordion.  That is to say, concertinas often have hexagonal or octagonal ends, connected by folded bellows.  These bellows, when squeezed or pulled, enable air to pass over reeds that vibrate.  Each reed plays a different note.

Actually, to say that it is an accordion is as misleading as calling a cello a big violin.  It would be more correct to say that it is in the accordion family.  However, even this information will tell you very little, because members of that family can require vastly different methods of playing.

To illustrate this, consider the instruments in the violin family.  Some basic assumptions hold true for all of them, for example, that the strings will be on the front instead of the back, and that one arm will supply the energy for the sound (the right arm with the bow) and that the opposite hand (the left one that touches the strings) will change the notes.  This is not true for instruments in the accordion family because the reeds that correspond to notes can be placed anywhere on either side of the instrument.  I mention these details because the ergonomic design has a profound effect on the style and repertoire of the instrument.

This is very clear in the case of the concertina because there are two very distinct kinds.  To make matters more confusing, one of them is called the Anglo concertina (it’s the one that is preferred for the playing of Irish traditional music), while the other is the English concertina (made famous by the Irish folksinger Liam Clancy, among others).  They are the same size and shape, and they both have buttons on each side that open valves for air to pass over reeds.  The sound of a single note on one type of concertina is virtually indistinguishable from the same note played by the other.

But don’t let their apparent similarity fool you.  The main difference between them is the number of notes you get per button.  Similar to a harmonica which plays different notes depending on whether the player blows or draws air, the Anglo concertina obtains different notes when the bellows are pushed or pulled, in other words, two notes per button.  For the English concertina, there is only one note per button.  This system requires twice as many buttons as the Anglo to cover the same range, but it also means that the English concertina can play any combination of notes simultaneously.  The Anglo can only combine notes that are played by pushing the bellows, or only those by pulling, but not both.

Consequently, the two concertinas have gravitated towards very different repertoire.  The Anglo, since it has many notes in close proximity and requires constant and energetic changing of the direction of the bellows, has often been chosen to play traditional dance melodies.  You might say that it plays music suitable for hyperventilating.  The English, in contrast, is superb for accompanying singing and can serve as a portable organ.  At one time, in fact, it was very popular among members of the Salvation Army.


It so happens that I am quite fond of music suitable for hyperventilating.

The gigs I’ve done have often required me to stray outside of my comfort zone and to play what I would not otherwise have tried, thus expanding my sense of musical identity.  Indeed, my expectations for my own playing on the English concertina have been expanded in this way.  Specifically, it has been useful for me to sometimes use the English concertina like an Anglo.

This is very challenging, however.  Irish traditional dance music is quite fast and is full of melodic ornamentation.  It is as if the music flows in perpetual motion punctuated with quick curls and swoops.  This kind of ornamentation comes naturally, often even accidentally, on instruments such as the pipes, flute, and fiddle.  To accomplish it on the English concertina, however, requires considerably more inventive technique.

Compare, for example, what is required to play one note on the fiddle.  The fingers of the left hand don’t even need to move; rather it is the bow that must be drawn across the string.  To play the same note again, the bow changes direction, but again the left hand doesn’t move.  To play the next note in a scale, only one finger of the left must move down onto the string or up off of it.  This economy of motion is similar for the playing of guitar, flute, or tin whistle, and enables an abundance of grace notes with ease.

On keyboard instruments and accordions (including concertinas) there is more motion required per finger per note.  For one note to start, there must be silence before it.  Therefore, the finger must begin off the key or button.  Then the finger must come down to play the note, and afterwards it must reverse and come off the note in order for there to be silence again.  If the same note is repeated, the finger once again must reverse its direction and come back down.  In other words, a finger must move twice as fast as the music it is playing.

To relieve some of these demanding finger motions, the work can be shared among many fingers.  On the piano and the piano accordion, all five fingers including the thumb are used to play the notes; on the Anglo concertina, all except the thumb.  However, on the English concertina, the thumb and baby finger are used to hold the instrument, so only the three middle fingers are available.  Remember also that the English concertina requires navigating to twice as many buttons as the Anglo concertina.

This apparent design flaw is mitigated by the fact that a scale on the English concertina is always shared between two hands.  In fact, notes of a scale played in order (ascending or descending) always require a ping-pong effect, as if the notes are being tossed back and forth between the hands.

This makes quick scale-wise runs very smooth and efficient; however, it also creates some problems.  For one, left and right is a binary system, and a scale is not.  A scale has seven notes before it begins repeating in another octave.  When you get to the eighth note of the scale, the pattern reverses and becomes almost its own mirror image.  This is also true for chords and arpeggios — all the essential elements of tonal music.  This means that if you are right-handed and you learn a particular passage, you will have to relearn the passage left-handed if you want to play it in another octave.

Handedness, of course, has to do with the fact that our brains have two hemispheres.  Each one is able to control only one side of the body.  These hemispheres function, for the most part, independently, but they coordinate via the corpus callosum that connects them.

It is remarkable what the brain must do in order to play a melody on the concertina.  It must create and retain a map not only of the complete melody, but of the portions assigned to each hand.  Imagine for comparison that half of the letters of all the words on this page are removed, leaving odd spaces.  Now imagine that the letters that were removed are placed on a separate page, with spaces between them corresponding to the letters that remain on the first page.  Now imagine you have a pen in each hand and are copying, by hand, both pages of this text simultaneously.  You must make sure that the spaces between the letters remain precisely big enough to accommodate their absent neighbours.  This is the equivalent to what an English concertina player is doing when he or she plays.

It may be argued that the playing of virtually every instrument requires equivalent coordination of the hemispheres of the brain.  But in most cases, each hand performs a musical role very distinct from the other hand.  In the case of the piano, both hands play simultaneous lines, but the lines typically remain audibly distinct because they are in different ranges of the instrument; rarely do both hands assist each other in playing one melodic line within a small range.  Therefore, for piano music, each hemisphere’s brain map is likely to seem more complete by itself.  Not so for the English concertina.

Now consider that on this instrument I am trying to play a style of music whose uplifting and danceable character is, to a great extent, the result of two stylistic elements: speed and the addition of more notes.

The fastest notes in this kind of music are grace notes.  They are so fast, in fact, that when they are transcribed in notation, they are assigned no duration whatsoever.  Typically, the pitch of a grace note is just one note higher or lower in the scale than the note that follows it.  In other words, the notes that are in the most rapid succession must be played with opposite hands on the English concertina.  The perfect synchronizing of the two hands is essential.  More important than speed is the precision of the timing, because grace notes must land so tightly on the beat that the notes after them seem to be right on the beat as well, and they must not overlap with any other notes.

This would have been much more daunting to me if I were not very familiar with the English concertina.  But I grew up with it.  Both my mother and father played it, and I also knew the members of The Friends of Fiddlers Green who played it.  Many of these musicians, including my parents, played some dance tunes on it.  But the rhythmic bounce and the distinctive ornamentation that I thought were essential for an Irish style were elusive to all the players I knew.  So for most of my life I assumed that it was impossible.

Then, a few years ago, I was hired to play for The Magic of Ireland, which meant playing a lot of music for dancers.  There were already other musicians in the band who played fiddle, tin whistle, piano accordion, guitar, mandolin, and percussion.  So concertina seemed like the most suitable thing for me to add.

In my endeavour to make my playing fit and sound right in this context, I browsed YouTube videos of other players.  I discovered Simon Thoumire.  And my mind was blown.  Watching him convinced me that all the speed and precision necessary for Irish music (typically played on an Anglo concertina) were indeed possible on an English concertina.


But what is possible isn’t always wise.

After The Magic of Ireland tour, I continued to play the concertina, and I continued to improve my playing of jigs and reels on it.  But that was never a priority because I play other instruments much more fluently.  Besides, it isn’t very often that anyone asks me to play concertina.  And yet, somehow, for this track on this album, it became a priority again.

It wasn’t an easy choice for me to continue working on it for so long.  I tried to focus intently on what I was doing, in order to give my brain a chance to rewire itself with new dazzling concertina skills.  But as the days grew into weeks, my progress was slow.  In fact, the tedium of returning to the same tunes day after day, practicing with a metronome at various speeds, dissecting and analyzing my mistakes, rehearsing tricky finger crossings, and getting very sore fingers was hardly my favourite way to play music.

I began to feel increasingly distracted.  Eventually I changed my practice to include rhythm exercises and drills using computer software.  I added the learning and practice of other tunes on the concertina, hoping that if I applied techniques in different contexts, my fingers would flow more naturally.  I improved, noticeably, I thought, but still, getting my recording to sound right eluded me.

I continued because I didn’t want to have to admit to failure or to giving up.  I was worried that I might be a little nuts for spending this amount of time on an instrument that was just going to double what other instruments were already playing.  It didn’t seem that I had very rational reasons to continue, so I began to consider reasons beyond what is rational.

For example, it could be that I was using this work as an escape.  Self-promotion, employment, financial responsibility, and a social life are all aspects of my life that I avoid.  I had hoped that finishing the album would help me get back in control of my life.  But it seemed that even as I worked, I was getting farther from finishing anything.  Perhaps the concertina part was just another way for me to procrastinate.

After several weeks I knew that I had to stop.  It seemed that I had recorded the best version that I possibly could.  Through the magic of recording software I combined multiple takes into something that I thought was passable.  I even moved around individual notes manually to get them to sound more in time.  Then I sent a mix to a few of my close musical friends to find out what they thought of it.

The response was positive from everyone; in fact some of them really raved about the recording and told me that they played it over and over.  I was grateful for the encouragement.  But a couple of them noticed that there was something not quite right.  None of them specifically mentioned the concertina as a problem, but my friend Pat McGuire did admit that he preferred an earlier mix I had made without the concertina, although he couldn’t say why.

I felt like I had settled too soon.  I went back to the mix and tweaked the timing, the levels, and the stereo balance of many of the instruments.  The changes were minor and almost imperceptible, but they made the groove sit a little better, and hopefully let the more exciting instruments jump out more.  The concertina, though, was still a problem, and I knew I would have to tackle it again.

It was very difficult to keep believing that it was important.  It could certainly be argued that it wasn’t at all — that the concertina isn’t necessary for this track, that the correctness of the ornaments is only of interest to a few experts, and that my time could be spent more profitably on something else.  Even if the concertina part is vital, there are many people who I could hire to play the part better than me.  The sound would surely be equivalent on Anglo concertina or some other accordion.  Even if it must specifically be the English concertina, there are definitely better players than me.  Conceivably, even Simon Thoumire might be willing to do it.

Then I happened to listen to a TED Talk by Ruth Chang in which she explained what she thought hard choices were really about.  In her opinion, sometimes the pros and cons are not ultimately relevant.  Some decisions are about something deeper than getting the most reward for the least effort.  In fact, when you face a really tough decision, the best decision might not be the one likely to turn out in your favour.  It is the one that defines who you are.  It is about your identity.

This is relevant because this whole album is about my identity.  There are other easier albums that I have almost completed that I have been keeping on hold, because I feel they only represent a small part of me, my musical tastes, and my skills.  I wanted to be sure that this album wouldn’t be just another side project, but would help promote and define my solo career.  That is no small matter because, in addition to the variety of instruments I play, my musical influences are of different styles, countries, and even languages.  But clearly, it was the drive to express and explore my musical identity that motivated choices for this album.

That’s why the concertina mattered so much.  That’s why I had to play it myself at a high standard.  It wasn’t just its aesthetic appeal; it wasn’t just a display of my diverse abilities likely to get me hired.  It is part of how I wish to see myself.  I can be a person who plays a rare antique instrument that I inherited from my father, or not.  That is the real choice, regardless of the costs or benefits.

Moreover, what English concertina players would there be if I didn’t play?  To my knowledge, there are very few professional players in Canada (a handful at best).  None of them are Canadian born, other than my mother and Grit Laskin, and none of them are younger than me.  If the art has any value, and I believe it does, don’t I have a duty to continue it and to do it to the best of my ability?

A very important part of my identity is that of a tradition bearer.  That, to me, is not just a simple tag.  I see it as being a window to something much larger than myself.  It means not just performing common fiddle tunes or traditional songs popularized by Great Big Sea.  It means giving people a glimpse of an ocean of material that they might not otherwise ever discover.

The English concertina itself is such a window because it allows glimpses of the English folk tradition, rich in sea shanties, dance music, and ballads in which the narrative and imagery are more important than the driving rhythm.  What other instrument is so small and portable, capable of complex Irish tunes, and yet also capable of rich and sometimes boisterous harmony?  It is a powerful contributor to cultural identity because its assets have engendered indelible associations with sailors, dances, hymns, travel to far away lands, and, in my own concertina’s case, every song that my father ever played on it.


I kept at it until, after a month, it was finished.

This success is anti-climactic because I know my playing on the recording still isn’t that exciting or masterful.  I am satisfied that it is proficient enough to blend with the other instruments that are more typical for this kind of music.  I doubt that anyone will listen to this track to hear the concertina, and many people may not notice that it is there.

But music is more than just what we hear; it is about the meaning that we perceive in what we hear.  I choose now to write about the experience in such detail because what can be heard on the recording can’t express what it means to me.

As I have said, it is my hope and my intention that this album represent not just what I can do, but who I am.  That is the motivation behind the variety of material that I have selected and the arrangements that I have developed for each piece.  It makes the inclusion of the English concertina important, but it also makes it important for me to communicate my introspective journey.  For me, music is not complete without thinking about it.  It is the search for meaning that makes music good, even more than its technical perfection.

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