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Kevin L Rietmann

Why Is The English Concertina Played Sideways?

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By "sideways" I mean that the fingers are held perpendicular to the rows of keys, unliked the anglo, the duet, the accordion, the piano, the typewriter...this was discussed in a thread on English Concertina Finger Position, with much ensuing confusion in the written part of the debating; this simple chart explains things infinitely better:

 

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"Simon" refers to Simon Thoumire, who holds his fingers 90 degrees to the norm.

 

My question is why wasn't this orientation of the fingers also used for the anglo and duet instruments? Is it because the duet is larger and the anglo push-pull, thus necessitating more force than the thumb and pinky could impart?

 

Incidentally I'm waiting on arrival of my first concertina, an 1890s Lachenal; the straps are shot and I plan to slap on blocks and hand straps like you get on an anglo or duet. Having the fingers perpendicular to the rows just seems bizarre, like playing music on one of those old telephone switchboards. ;) No thank you! I already play button and piano accordions and also the piano per se, so am married to the whole fingers-parallel aspect.

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What comes to my mind is that the EC once seems to have been designed for playing with just two fingers on each side (whereas the little and ring finger "rest" on the "rest" plate).

 

However. the piano being my main istrument over decades it never struck me as odd to play the EC in the "traditional" way (albeit using all four free fingers of each hand). I guess I have the notion that the vertical (or "sideways") orientation fits with the alternating logics of the English concertina. Might be pointless, but again: it's working quite fine as to me...

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Why Is The English Concertina Played Sideways?

  • Answer no. 1: It's not. All those others are. ;)
  • Answer no. 2 (serious answer no. 1): Because they were invented by different people, and people are different. (We differ in many ways, including our preferred foods. In fact, some individuals are allergic to foods that others love. Some would say the same of concertinas. B))
  • Answer no. 3: The English system keyboard is relatively long and narrow. Turning it "sideways" to the standard orientation while keeping the hand position nearly fixed (needed for control, not to mention playing while standing) could give difficulties in reaching the extreme "right" and "left" of the keyboard in that nonstandard orientation. Many has been the discussion here of anglo players having difficulties with their little fingers on rows only 5 buttons wide. On a standard 48-button English, most "rows" are 6 buttons long, and one is 7 buttons. (And I have two 64-button Englishes -- a tenor-treble and a baritone-treble, -- with 64 buttons each... with one "row" 9 buttons long, though most with "only" 8 buttons. :o)
  • Answer no. 4: (I have a more detailed technical analysis of why the conventional layout "makes sense", and yet why Simon's way makes sense for his style of playing, but it will take me time to write it up, and there are some other things I need to do first. If I haven't posted it by a week from now, please remind me.)

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Ah, but duet layouts are 6+ buttons wide, depending on how you look at it - most layouts have the rows at 45 degrees to the player's hand, it looks like. The Hayden maxes out at 8, and it's supposed to be rigorously thought out, no? The "Early Wheatstone Double System" has 4 rows arrayed vertically, I wonder if they didn't intend the fingers to be perpendicular there.

 

The alternating between sides always made me think that the orientation wasn't such an issue, maybe the fact that the duet has the hands playing mostly independent of each other made sense for the fingers to be parallel. I wonder how rigorously these notions were tested when these instruments were invented. Certainly having the fingers held 90 degrees from each other makes these very different instruments to play, without much crossover in technique. Comparable to the difference between violin and cello, perhaps?

 

My Lachenal winged its way across the US in one flight so it'll be on my doorstep today, and I'll be able to test things out for myself much sooner than I'd thought. Found out that a friend has no less than 2 of the things, and had meant to sell them too...only remember him having a hopelessly out-of-tune Wheatstone. Will have to try his out as well, and compare these handholds out. Another guy I know has an 80 key McCann duet. Looks like the beginning of a concertina band! B)

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The "Early Wheatstone Double System" has 4 rows arrayed vertically, I wonder if they didn't intend the fingers to be perpendicular there.

 

They look and are held similarly to English system concertinas, with thumbstraps but no finger rests - in fact, one of the two "doubles" in my collection (Miss Elphinstone's) was later converted to an F tenor English.

 

Your hand can move much more easily that way, instead of being restricted by a strap over the back of it.

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Am I wrong in saying that Simon Thoumire learned to play without any information or guidance about how the instrument should be held and played? He made his own way and it works very well for him. Dare I ask how much better/worse he might be liberated/hampered/enlightened/hamstrung by a traditional playing position? Given the awesome raw talent the result may be marginal but significant methinks!

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[Am I wrong in saying that Simon Thoumire learned to play without any information or guidance about how the instrument should be held and played?] Yes. You are incorrect about that. Per interviews I've read with him, Simon Thoumire was well aware of how the EC was "supposed to be" held and played. He took responsibility for his own development as an artist and made his own decisions as to what worked for him. I play Anglo and have now taken on EC over the last year or so. I came across youtube of Simon T. while shopping for options to what i felt from day one to be ridiculously confined and uncomfortable EC ergonomics. I was very interested in the input of some of the folks who have created "rests," or things of that sort to adjust the EC awkwardness, but have found it sufficient just to get rid of that pinky thing and turn the concertina to an angle on the lap much like the way Anglo is positioned. I don't hold and play EC exactly like Thoumire, but similarly, and I'm not alone in that by any means.

 

I have wondered if some of the reason for the way EC was traditionally set up was a strand of EC history linked to playing standing up. I could care less about playing standing up....as soon as you orient toward lap playing, any rationale for the strictured arrangement with that pinky trough goes right out the window...

Edited by ceemonster

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Trying to understand how this works:

 

When you play a C scale, do you just use the index and middle fingers on each hand, or do you use all four fingers on each hand?

 

If the latter then would it not be easier if you moved the thumb rest to the middle of the next flat around so that your hand is oriented wrt the buttons more like it is on an Anglo or Duet?

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i believe there are players who use the pinkie. I don't. maybe once in a blue moon, but essentially, not. the two-handed nature of this instrument enables you to play it little need for pinkie. of course, I'm largely interested in EC for melody playing. chordal players might use it all four fingers more, not sure about that...

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i believe there are players who use the pinkie. I don't. maybe once in a blue moon, but essentially, not. the two-handed nature of this instrument enables you to play it little need for pinkie. of course, I'm largely interested in EC for melody playing. chordal players might use it all four fingers more, not sure about that...

Right, as to me the little finger is needed for chords (or open fifths), particularly with low notes on the outer edges.

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In the now defunct publication 'Concertina & Squeezebox',issue number 26,Winter 1992, Simon gave an explanation as to how and why he came to hold the instrument in a somewhat unconventional manner.

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Sorry, I meant to ask about which fingers you would use if you re-oriented the buttons of an EC through 90 degrees.

 

I tried it out and it seemed to me that it would then make more sense and comfort to use all four fingers along the rows (the new rows now lying under the fingers) rather than the usual EC method of using mainly the index and middle fingers running up and down the rows (the old rows before the re-orientation).

 

I am sure that it can be done, but I suspect that, like Simon, you would have to learn the instrument in that fashion. It does not feel like an optional technique that can be switched into back and forth.

 

Looking at this video of Simon playing, I see that he has the thumbstraps very loose to allow his hands to pivot to his unique position. I still think that it would probbaly be better to simply move the thumb strap around one face. But, of course, nobody wants to drill new holes in a vintage concertina

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnLKv2WYFY8

 

If you wanted to play ITM on an EC then this technique has a lot going for it.

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[Am I wrong in saying that Simon Thoumire learned to play without any information or guidance about how the instrument should be held and played?] Yes. You are incorrect about that. Per interviews I've read with him, Simon Thoumire was well aware of how the EC was "supposed to be" held and played. He took responsibility for his own development as an artist and made his own decisions as to what worked for him.

 

Actually, no: Playing the English Concertina--My Technique

 

How did your technique come about?

 

I think it came right from the start when Edinburgh player Tom Ward got me the 48 key wooden ended Lachenal. He didn't teach, but he gave me a copy of Alistair Anderson's beginners instruction book "Concertina Work Shop" and I taught myself from there. As far as I can remember, there were no pictures in the book to show how the instrument should be held, so, instead of holding it straight down with the buttons going horizontal to my leg in what I later learned was the conventional manner, I started off holding it at an angle of 90 degrees so my hands were quite far up. Six months later, when I got my 56 key Wheatstone Æola, I got into the habit of holding it with my hands at 45 degrees, probably because it was a heavier instrument. Also, I decided to not use the pinky holders because I felt that it was really restrictive and stopped me getting down to the notes.

 

 

He persisted with holding it instead of relearning to play in the conventional manner for whatever reason: inertia, sloth, artistic basis; but the initial reason was simply lack of guidance.

 

Most good button accordion players make a veritable art form out of fingering, with no end of finger swapping, sliding, crossing over; and also, paradoxically, eschewing the pinky, even though you'd figure that losing a finger would hamper your abilities; but in busy music it's actually more helpful to be able to hop over other fingers than always be utilizing the little digit. Playing the EC with fingers parallel might necessitate the same kind of ability to hop and skip around.

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i swear i have read an interview with him where he said he adopted this manner of holding it because it was more optimal ergonomically or whatever. i'm not sure i can find it, but it was not described as a case of, hi, i had no clue how it was supposed to be held and i just did what felt right....

 

i must say, that even using a thoumire-ish adaptation that for me is much better than the "proper" method, i still think the EC could use a good design tweaking, and that this wouldn't be a big deal to work out. i don't understand why it couldn't be laid out somewhat a la anglo, but with the high notes on the inside, low notes on the outside rather than exact parallel mirrored sides like the crane. or keep the layout the way it is, lose the pinky trough altogether, and put the thumb thing in a different place to optimize horizontal orientation to the rows rather than vertical. i dunno, there has to be something very simple that could be done. it remains really annoying and awkward to play quickly in the "southward" regions of the layout. it is ridiculous that these notes are so uncomfortable and awkward to reach and use...it is really a great system, and there is no reason for it to be so sub-optimal to hold and play...simon thoumire's thumb strap does look like like it's been moved "norhwards" and/or turned in some way, but i could be seeing that wrong....

 

and while i'm at it...i also think a tweak is in order in terms of sonic capacity/lung power for the EC. these instruments need to be as loud as Anglos for band, ceili and session playing. there has not been enough attention to this due to their "parlor/classical" lineage. ok, they don't express sound the same way the anglo does, fair enough--then re-design them to be louder overall, even if they don't get there the same way bisonorics do. it's like PAs and CBAs--they don't put out sound in the same manner as loud bisonoric accordions do. but if built correctly, they are loud enough in an overall sense to be able to carry the day in a band or dance-hall setting....

Edited by ceemonster

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I might try attaching a leather wrist strap to the strap screws and see if I can manipulate my Lachenal that way, once I have it up and running. With the straps off it definitely feels most comfortable with the thumbs on the outside of the frames. It's no surprise to me that there's a subforum here on Ergonomics...

 

I think there's a thread here about making thumb straps that can pivot about if so desired.

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I saw a young man in a Québécois band do that a few years back and it seemed to work ok for him.

 

Alan

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I'm only a beginner, having experimented very briefly with the Anglo before settling on the English, so I can't speak from long experience. But I sit next to a mirror to practice, and to me the English layout seems to have my hands in a very natural position, wrists straight, fingers in line, so that the natural curl and uncurl that fingers are designed to do brings them naturally over all the notes in a line. Compared to that, the Anglo position with heel of hand braced against a bar leading to bent wrist and the rest of the hand arched back against the strap felt much less natural to me, and possibly more likely to cause carpal tunnel problems. Would it occur to anyone who wasn't already trained to the Anglo that the English system needed turning round?

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