Saturday, April 18, 2009

Edel Fox (concertina) and Shauna Davey (harp)

Holding the Concertina

By Goran Rahm (, April 2001
In previous articles in CW [Concertina World] No. 410 and No. 416 I have suggested some modifications of the concertina design with the motive to make playing more comfortable. In later discussions on the subject it has been questioned that the modifications would result in musical disadvantages.

The main objections have been that wrist straps limit fingering movements and the number of reachable buttons and that wider buttons may cause fingers to hook up on adjacent buttons. The latter problem could be dealt with by a wider spread of the buttons which of course requires a profound redesigning. This in fact might be motivated anyway since the traditional English keyboard measures actually are too small for many players.

The eventual problem with a limited keyboard note range raises interesting questions concerning priorities in the musical performance worth some discussion.

With all squeezeboxes pressing the button only decides which note (frequency) that will sound. The amplitude and all the finer qualities of the tone are regulated by working the bellows. Dynamic expression with force and rhythm requires that working the bellows is not straining. Consequently the mechanical and ergonomical circumstances in this case are of greatest importance for the quality of musical performance.

Now - music may be used very differently indeed, but generally playing well and expressively probably is of greater interest than producing an imposing multitude of notes. This means that making the bellows-work efficient is at least as important as providing access to the buttons. This may not be obvious to a constructor who is not actively playing the instrument. As a matter of fact neither the work with the bellows nor the work at the keyboard is arranged very effectively. The design of the English concertina seems to have been guided primarily by technical demands rather than musical ones.

The English concertina impresses most of all as an extremely compact device for producing plentiful notes at high speed. It does not offer good means for bellows-control however. It is obvious that players of the Anglo or Duet concertinas for example more easily manage getting dynamic expression into their playing.

The dynamic efficiency is accomplished by the transmission of energy from the hands to the sound-source. Ideally the force of the hands should be applied at the very centre of the endplate. Any other place of application results in unwanted movements, stabilizing efforts, loss of energy and time delay. Despite that flexibility of the bellows is ergonomically attractive since it admits a comfortable position of the hands, the resulting instability is a musical disadvantage while it impairs the energy transmission.

The importance of bellows-stability for playing efficiently could easily be demonstrated if you fasten a couple of leather straps (or rubber bands rather) across the bellows between two pairs of end-bolts at the upper end of the instrument so that the bellows move only at the lower end when pushing or pulling. The control of tone will be greatly improved. Accordion players frequently use a similar technique moving only the upper part of the bellows.

The traditional English concertina offers poor stability due to both the polygonal shape and un-balance of the holding position. The more folds and corners the bellows have the less stability. The thumb strap and little finger rest usually are located eccentrically so that the instrument twists with push/pull. The instrument also wants to rotate around the thumbs with the upper part moving away from the player (unless hanging down on the thumbs below the waist with an elbow angle about 120°.

Mostly, in order to get a better position for the fingers, only the thumb end (and eventually the little finger) has got contact with the instrument, the rest of the hand being a bit apart. This circumstance, additional to the instability of the bellows, means that the efficiency of energy transmission spoken of above is seriously reduced. The result inevitably is a loss of precision as well as dynamic capacity. To make the situation even worse the thumbs and little fingers actually are too weak for executing both the job working the bellows by push/pull and stabilizing the unwanted movements of the instrument. If the player is not seated the thumbs and little fingers also have to carry the weight of the instrument.

All these factors are obstacles to optimal performance with the English concertina.

To improve the situation and for greater bellows stability, central application of force, more stable attachment and better means to carry the instrument are required.

This leads over to the question of playing in a sitting or standing position. Some of the problems discussed here may seemingly be treated by playing seated with the instrument on one knee. The most common way - (resting the left end of the instrument on the left knee, keeping it steady there, and working the bellows with the right hand along a straight line) - means that at least the left part of the instrument is fairly stable.

The English concertina is symmetrical however and it is in principle impossible to obtain equal conditions for articulation of the tone at both end parts of the instrument unless it is played symmetrically, which means that it is carried or placed with even load on both ends and that both ends are equally movable. Considering this it is amazing that the method of resting the left end on the knee and doing the bellows-work just with the right end is recommended in most tutors. It seems desperate and the cause likely being the great problems to manage otherwise.

One way to create a little bit more symmetry, practicable on a small instrument with flexible bellows, is resting not the flat part, but the outer edge of one end on the knee, balancing it there, and working the bellows like you open and close a book. With larger concertina models a symmetrical situation is achieved by resting each end on each knee and working the bellows with both hands. The problem combining the need for stability with free movements of both ends remains. With the traditional design it probably is not possible to find a satisfactory solution. To provide for greater freedom to move both ends there has to be a better attachment. The best playing position is standing (or sitting on a footstool) with the instrument slightly below the waist. Sitting on a table-chair with the instrument breast-high is not suitable. When support is needed (and in fact this should be generally recommended) the instrument ought to hang on elastic braces, not a string around the neck.

The modified attachment, which I have suggested, offers greatly improved stability and thus better bellows control. It does however in fact increase the eccentricity, which as I have said before only may be compensated by moving the attachment to the centre of the instrument, which in its turn calls for moving the keyboard towards the top end. It needs to be mentioned here that the ordinary relation between the thumb-strap and keyboard is not very good either and the thumb-strap should be relocated about 20mm further down so that the fingers do not have to bend as much as they do otherwise. (The left side thumb-strap on a treble which normally is level with c' should rather be level with an imaginary B two rows below).

The suggested attachment also offers means to play symmetrically with both ends free in the air since the carrying load is transferred from the thumbs to the wrists.

Now back to the initial question about note range. All resources concerning bellows control must be related to the kind of music being performed. A solo part in a violin concerto for example may not require much energy transmission but a great deal of precision and it also may need a wide note range. Dance music on the other hand may call for great power but not an extensive note range. In practice there should be only a few conflicts depending on the wrist straps, but the fingering habits may need adjustment and a re-learning period of half a year or so may be expected. I use the attachment on a 56 key tenor-treble and a 56 key baritone-treble myself and I have no problems reaching all individual buttons despite having fairly small hands. Only very complicated polyphonic music might demand unmanageable hand positions.

Finally some words about the little finger. The most common method of holding the English concertina is by carrying it with the thumbs, which also are working the bellows while the 4th fingers are stabilizing the process, resting against the fingerplate or the end of the instrument. Fingers 1-3 do the button work. This is also called the "three finger method".

Charles Wheatstone however presupposed that 1st and 2nd fingers were used for button work while 3rd and 4th fingers would be placed at the fingerplate. This also explains the otherwise strange design and location of the fingerplate.

For better fingering capacity different "four finger methods" have been advised, by letting the 4th finger take active part on the buttons either occasionally, or as often as possible. The resulting difficulties holding the instrument probably has limited the use of the method to a small number of advanced players, but with an improved attachment this situation might change.

As far as I have noticed one important circumstance has yet not been regarded concerning this subject. The anatomical linkage between the 3rd and 4th fingers means that if the 4th finger is kept still it will inevitably restrain the movements of the 3rd finger, and it may even affect the movements of the others. For optimal efficiency of the finger work the 4th finger must be touching neither the fingerplate nor the end of the instrument at all.

If not taking active part in work on the buttons it should be "resting" in the air - i.e. following the movements of the 3rd finger.

The consequence of this is that the role of the 4th finger becomes more complex than what is usually understood. If it is actively stabilizing the instrument it will always cause unwanted muscular tension. When playing slowly the musical disadvantage of 4th finger slowing down the 3rd might be negligible but for fast or ornamented playing it would be a mistake not to consider the potentially hindering effect. Due to this the main issue is not if the 4th finger is used for button work - it actually is whether it is used for stabilizing - and the answer is that it should not be.

Since the modified attachment liberates the 4th finger from its stabilizing duty the question arises what to do with it instead. Some alternatives could be seen
a) playing with the first three as before, just letting the 4th follow along
b) using the 4th only when it comes in handy, mainly on the 4th row
c) using a "four finger method" in the sense that the 4th finger takes active part like the others
There are different approaches to alternative c). The Alsepti method, which advises 1st finger 1st row and so on, of course can not be strictly practised. A realistic distribution of the respective duties for the fingers may be 1st finger rows 1,2,3 - 2nd finger rows 1,2,3,4 - 3rd finger rows 2,3,4 - 4th finger rows 3,4.

The deciding difference is whether the 1st finger is primarily used on 1st or 2nd row. In two extreme examples the choice is easy. For single note playing in keys with few signatures it should be on 2nd row. For polyphonic playing in keys with many signatures it should be on 1st row. The problem for the individual player is to change method depending on occasional type of music and the realistic way may be to stick to a method suitable for the main part of the individual repertoire.


The suggested modified attachment particularly if applied on a well-balanced instrument will generally not only improve comfort but will also provide better conditions for effective bellows-work, symmetrical handling, relaxed finger movements and a purposeful use of the 4th finger. All of this potentially improves musical performance for the majority of players. In my opinion there are only few selected situations, as when performing music written for the original instrument, where complicated fingering and note range demands motivate the original arrangement of the attachment to be used. Tradition and habits can be expected to resist acceptance but maybe young players and instrument makers may be stimulated to try the ideas and maybe some of the older players also, who, like myself, in spite of years of experience still have a feeling they have to fight against their instrument.