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My unusual new student, E.H.


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I have been teaching students of the Anglo concertina for many years. All of them adults with various abilities, interests and goals. Every student wants something different and I work with them to get the most out of their concertinas. Most often, I give my students harmonic arrangements of tunes and songs that I pick for them, then we work on learning and playing the music. Not so with my unusual new student E.H.

 

He is a professor of interactive media at a major university and knows his way around a computer. Though not much of a player yet, his musical knowledge and curiosity is wide ranging. He wants to learn traditional tunes on the Anglo and I’m there to help him. Although he is a beginner on the box, he has managed to get through a few of the tunes I’ve given him and practices studiously.

 

Then, a few months ago, he started giving me tunes that he wants to arrange. Not just titles and recordings; rather... he pulls good tunes off The Session or other ABC sources, drops them into Musescore (a free notation app) and with his charts and meager practical knowledge he begins to craft written arrangements in the Coover tab. He has grasped the principles of my harmonic style. Each new arrangement he makes shows his growing understanding, yet he is unable to play any of these new scores as his instrument is at the shop for repairs.

 

Still, we work together on his scores every two weeks on Skype. Before our lesson, he sends me a few new scores that he has been working on. Then for an hour, he shares his screen with me and I go over his work.

 

First we discuss and correct any melody notes that seem questionable to me. I give him instructions verbally, and watch his curser move about as he makes the changes I suggest. Then we tackle the chords.

 

Based on those improved chords, we adjust all the bellows direction markings and start figuring out his options for the (mostly) left handed accompaniment. There are many possible ways to get the melody, rhythm, chords, accompaniment buttons and bellows all working together. We work through these options and agree on the best way for him to get the job done. I play the tune this way and that until we both like the result. Then I tell him verbally what to change in the score to reflect our agreed on arrangement. E.H. makes the document changes as I watch him edit on his shared screen. Any miscommunications or mistakes are easily corrected as I monitor his work in real time.

 

This is a strange way to learn an instrument. One that I have never encountered before. E.H. has a bunch of scores now that he really likes, but is not yet able to play them and that is fine with him, all part of our process. The creative act of collaboratively arranging and making a beautiful score is very satisfying to both of us.

 

Now that his G/D Morse Anglo is back from the shop, E.H. has his work cut out for him to start learning to actually play these finely crafted scores. I’m sure he’ll do just fine with time and application. Our lessons, using this unique learning system, foster deep  insight into the possibilities and limitations of the Anglo concertina.

 

If you want help creating your own custom Anglo scores in tab, I would be happy to assist.

 

Here is Sweet Jenny Jones, one of our creations. (Note that left hand draw 3a is pitched at a low A on this modified G/D box).

 

sweet jenny jones 2.pdf

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Fascinating how people approach arranging in so many different ways.  I admire people who are knowledgable enough to take a systematic approach;  my 'arranging' is mostly a matter of trying endless combinations and trying to remember what works and what doesn't. Trial and error has its merits, but in recent years I've come to realize the limitations of that approach.

 

Sweet Jenny is a wonderful tune for Anglo. I've played it for cloggers for years , and my version is constantly changing.

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I too use the Trial and Error method (T&E). Otherwise known as Hunt and Peck. The Anglo is just so unknowable. The only way for me to figure it out is to play a bunch of ways, listen and adjust to make what I hear align more with what’s in my inner ear... or something. Could be any number of things. I could list them.

 

You can’t really know how it feels or how it sounds unless you try, T&E is the way for me. I think that a good arrangement is one that both sounds good and feels good to play.

 

That's what makes these screen sharing lessons so interesting and fun. E.H. has little playing experience but very good taste in tunes. He (delightfully) presents me with a score where all the grunt work of data entry has been done. I get to just play around and edit his rough version on the fly and instruct E.H. at the same time. It’s really a blast for me.

 

I might say to him... “If you do it that way in measure three, you are forced to cut, but if you use the right hand 5 button on the push, then it sounds smooth, right? Listen, I’ll play it both ways for you. They both sound good, but this way is easier, right?” Easier and simpler are usually better in my book, right? Together we cook that tune down to its essence through the exorbitant use of T&E. Then it’s recorded in tab... set aside to work on later.

 

Back to T&E; In our sessions I will often play a passage in an E.H. score a dozen times using T&E as I tease out the best way for him to play it. Then together, we make the edits, him on his computer keyboard and me with my words. For example, I might say... “See if you can get all those button numbers to line up”, or “Put the UM lower than the PA there”, or “Where your curser is? Thats a 4a not a 3”.

 

That kind of detail stuff.

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On 1/18/2022 at 7:54 PM, Jody Kruskal said:

I too use the Trial and Error method (T&E). Otherwise known as Hunt and Peck. The Anglo is just so unknowable. The only way for me to figure it out is to play a bunch of ways, listen and adjust to make what I hear align more with what’s in my inner ear... or something. Could be any number of things. I could list them.

 

 

You've eloquently expressed something that has shaped my playing of the "unknowable" Anglo over the years.

 

I believe systematic arranging is a much easier process on EC than on Anglo.

 

I've played regularly with Randy Stein on EC for years, and he's a genius at mapping out complex arrangements and then mastering them.  On the tunes we play together, I generally can't do that; the rich palette of chords available to the EC are beyond the reach of my 30 button Anglo, my knowledge of music theory is negligible and in some cases I don't even have all the notes. So I do a lot of hunting and pecking for things that work, trying countless combinations until I find something that sounds right.

 

In arranging the tunes we perform, it's a mix of his systematic, educated approach and my T&E.  Often he comes up with things I just would never think of; sometimes they have to be adjusted to work with the limitations of the Anglo, but they end up being very cool.  Sometimes I'm guessing my T&E process results in things that he finds interesting, although I should let him speak for himself.  Our process has strong similarites to what you do with EH.

 

I'd be interested in hearing from Anglo players - I'm sure there are - who employ a more formal arranging process.  

 

I also wonder about the innate difference in sound and feel produced by different modes of arranging. I have a hard time picturing a T&E approach producing the intricate, textured sound of randy's classical and jazz playing.

 

Likewise, I doubt a more structured kind of arrranging can produce the kind of drive and sheer electric charge of someone like melodeonist  Will Allen in the UK - or Jody Kruskal in Grand Picnic.

Edited by Jim Besser
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Your playing sounds great to me, Jim, as does Randy's.  I'm T&E myself and far behind you both but I can pick up an old jazz standard (mom played stride piano), Quebecois dance tune, or mountain holler by listening to the tune and mood.  I'll never play it exactly the same or even the same way the second time through.  Josh White (remember him?) said jazz is about the melody.  Not a quote but that's how I remember it.  Dig the tune and .........😊

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1 hour ago, Jim Besser said:

 

I believe systematic arranging is a much easier process on EC than on Anglo.

 

I've played regularly with Randy Stein on EC for years, and he's a genius at mapping out complex arrangements and then mastering them.  On the tunes we play together, I generally can't do that; the rich palette of chords available to the EC are beyond the reach of my 30 button Anglo, my knowledge of music theory is negligible and in some cases I don't even have all the notes. So I do a lot of hunting and pecking for things that work, trying countless combinations until I find something that sounds right.

 

In arranging the tunes we perform, it's a mix of his systemmatic, educated approach and my T&E.  Often he comes up with things I just would never think of; sometimes they have to be adjusted to work with the limitations of the Anglo, but they end up being very cool.  Sometimes I'm guessing my T&E process results in things that he finds interesting, although I should let him speak for himself.  Our process has strong similarites to what you do with EH.


I've only played with local friend Bill Geiger a couple of times so far (he is a new but prodigious player of EC, I play AC) and have had a hint of the same experience of contrast in approach partly dictated by the instrument.

 

Ken

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Jim Besser wrote "I'd be interested in hearing from Anglo players - I'm sure there are - who employ a more formal arranging process."

 

I suggest, when it becomes available, listen to Aaron Bittel performing his original composition, JANUS, in our upcoming concert for WCD. Based of the compositions of the brilliant modern composer, Walter S. Hartley, it is an approach to music on the anglo that is executed and composed with great intention and originality. 

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Gosh Randy, thanks.

 

That piece (Janus Dance) is an unusual case for me, because it was written as an experiment in using the Anglo's strong suits (open fourths and fifths, parallel octaves, wide harmonies spread over several octaves) in a non-tonal context. Yes, it was very intentional, but I don't want to hijack the thread by getting into that here, since it sounds like we're really talking about arranging accompaniments to existing tunes. As Jim knows, when I'm playing trad tunes on Anglo I don't tend to create the same sort of chordal arrangements that he or Jody, or Randy on EC, do, although I still try to play to what I think are the instrument's strengths.

 

In Bertram Levy's American Fiddle Styles for Anglo Concertina he goes into a fair amount of detail about his process for creating the arrangements in that book -- an approach he says he learned from his bandoneon studies. I believe you can hear the same approach on his two most recent concertina albums, too. The process he describes is quite methodical and centers around phrasing, ergonomics (especially hand positions), and emulating specific stylistic elements of old time fiddle and banjo playing, mainly in service of the rhythm. I should do more of that in my own playing but I'm generally just not patient enough.

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  • 1 month later...
On 1/19/2022 at 6:52 PM, Jim Besser said:

I'd be interested in hearing from Anglo players - I'm sure there are - who employ a more formal arranging process.  

 

I still consider myself to be fairly early in my musical journey, but here are my experiences, for what they're worth.

 

My main focus has been on hymn tunes, and I employ a mix of trial & error and formal arranging. My command of music theory is still very limited, but part of my aim in the formal approach is to give more attention to voice leading. It does tend to produce a different result from what I would arrive at otherwise. I'm usually working from somebody else's chords (or four part arrangement), because I want to preserve the traditional/familiar feel of the music, but I'm slowly getting more confident at starting from scratch.

 

I don't entirely ignore the limits of the Anglo keyboard as I go (in particular, I avoid the missing low A on my G/D), but I often address bellows direction conflicts as a separate step. In fact, the entire job of fitting the arrangement to the Anglo keyboard is usually a somewhat separate step. This can lead to some awkward fingerings, but I try to make sure I have something that I can play cleanly, and sometimes I change the arrangement to make it easier to play. A bit more of the trial and error approach tends to leak in at this point at well, but I take the results back to the formal arrangement, validating each one against the other.

 

It's not unusual to be missing half of the notes for a particular chord, so I tend to prioritize the "interesting" ones. I think it's often good to limit myself to just a couple of harmony voices anyway, which means tetrachords will be missing at least one note anyway. Sometimes I can't continue the chord I want across a particular melody note because of a bellows change, and I'll just play that one note by itself. I'm beginning to get a better idea of how I can have the harmony stay silent at times while still feeling full and present.

 

I've been noticing lately that I have a tendency to place the melody lower, keeping the melody and harmony closer together than might be preferable, because that lets me access more bellows reversals for melody notes, which opens up different chord options.

 

When I forgo the formal process entirely, I find that I tend to rely heavily on "standard" chord spellings. Those do still show up a lot in the formal approach, but I'd say there's more variation in the note combinations I arrive at with that method.

 

I'm sure there's more I could say, but that's probably enough rambling for now.

Edited by Steve Schulteis
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  • 2 weeks later...
On 2/24/2022 at 1:18 PM, Steve Schulteis said:

 

I don't entirely ignore the limits of the Anglo keyboard as I go (in particular, I avoid the missing low A on my G/D), but I often address bellows direction conflicts as a separate step. In fact, the entire job of fitting the arrangement to the Anglo keyboard is usually a somewhat separate step. This can lead to some awkward fingerings, but I try to make sure I have something that I can play cleanly, and sometimes I change the arrangement to make it easier to play. A bit more of the trial and error approach tends to leak in at this point at well, but I take the results back to the formal arrangement, validating each one against the other.

 

 

Fascinating; I'm going to have to think about that for a while. I probably approach things similarly, but without the logical, thought out process that you seem to use.

 

BTW, I used to have a square Herrington that looks just like yours.

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1 hour ago, Jim Besser said:

Fascinating; I'm going to have to think about that for a while. I probably approach things similarly, but without the logical, thought out process that you seem to use.

 

Well, I'm able to come up with a logical, thought out description of my process, at least. 😛 In practice, the edges of things can get a little blurry compared to my very black and white explanation.

 

Handling bellows direction as a separate step is just a way for me to reduce the number of things I have to keep track of at one time. Maybe someday I'll be fluent enough to do everything together, but right now it helps to keep each problem as simple as possible, even if that causes a bit more back and forth.

 

 

1 hour ago, Jim Besser said:

BTW, I used to have a square Herrington that looks just like yours.

 

Actually, I think it IS the one that used to be yours. But I've since sold it - Gen Totani is its current keeper. It's a charming instrument, and it never failed to attract attention.

 

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11 hours ago, Steve Schulteis said:

Actually, I think it IS the one that used to be yours. But I've since sold it - Gen Totani is its current keeper. It's a charming instrument, and it never failed to attract attention.

 

 

I always enjoyed that instrument.  And enjoyed communicating with Harold as it was being built.

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