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Why not more "expressive" bellows changes on the English?

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Thanks. It is a Model 21, 48 button. I also have a 36 button Wheatstone and I have never used the high C button on any tune I play. So I removed the reeds and buttons on this one which lightened it up a good deal. I have since made other modifications following Henrik Muller's ideas about button travel. All mods are reversible.


Edited by fred v
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Some of these challenges/issues are behind the practical developments in English Concertina design by Henrik Muller (for Irish) and Paul Connolly (for Scottish) and in my Caledonian Concertina (for Scottish). The developments for playing Scottish traditional music also have considerable potential for enhanced playing of ITM, subject to taste of course. 

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When I was first thinking of getting a concertina, I spent a lot of time trying to get my head around the differences and the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo and English systems.  (Apologies to the duet players: you were not on my radar at the time.)


I remember posting here words to the effect that it seemed like Anglo players pump the music out of their instruments, and English players just press the buttons and let it pour out.  This was not a criticism of EC players, but a way of trying to describe the fluidity and soft expressiveness that is possible with the instrument.


I became aware that the accepted wisdom is that Anglo is rhythmic and good for dancing and Irish, and English is more legato but "harder to dance to".


However, my actual experience of listening and dancing is that the most important variable is the musician.  Keith Kendrick can pump a tune and accompaniment out of an EC so that you'd really think it was an Anglo.  I have learned many of the cross row "routes through the maze" on an Anglo that allow a legato approach to whole phrases.  My Morris side has an EC player who combines lift and flow  in such a way that it is a joy to dance to.  We also have a former member who has played EC for us many times who is every bit as good.


Elsewhere, I remember reading similar debates where advocates of acoustic guitars argued that the electric guitar is "incapable of expression".  (No doubt that came as a surprise to B B King!)


When I was trying to choose whether to play Anglo or English, my head told me EC because it is fully chromatic and laid out logically.  I borrowed one for a month and could barely get music out of it.  I then picked up an Anglo, it made sense, and the more I play it, the more sense it makes.  It is for others to judge whether I play "expressively".


Perhaps the truth is that no instrument is "expressive".  An instrument is a conduit for the musician's expressiveness.  That is why there are a few excellent bodhran players, many proficient players, and some who just make a banging noise.


I think if I were to try EC now, and work at it as hard as I worked at Anglo, I could probably make it work. I understand music more now than I did then.  With Anglo, my first objective was to start crossing the rows for a purpose.  With English, it would be to learn the bellows control to put the phrasing and lift into the tunes.


As with the piano accordion, it is possible to play long passages on the EC without changing bellows direction.  However, the best players are those who deliberately choose when to do this, and when to play with short chopping movements of the bellows.

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The English is chromatic while the Anglo is diatonic.


I really don’t see the difference between an Anglo and English as far as articulation.  Both have a bellows. Both have their challenges. I think the real difference is that an Anglo is diatonic just like the Irish whistle which is absolutely awesome if you play in just a couple of keys.  If you want to duplicate a diatonic instrument, then use another diatonic instrument.  The same with playing in modal music…  you can’t beat a diatonic instrument.  

However, if you want to play classical music or violin music, etc. then the English will shine.  The English is chromatic while the Anglo is diatonic.  That’s how I see it although the flight of the bumble bee (chromatic piece) has been successfully played on both.  I personally warm up my English each day by running up and down the chromatic scale a few times and playing all keys up to 4 sharps and flats around the circle of fifths up and down.  

I really should also do Regondi’s golden exercise which is basically harmonizing all keys with arpeggios going up one semitone at a time.


No one instrument is “better”!  One is just a little better suited to a particular style / genre.

Edited by 4to5to6
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  • 3 months later...

In response to the original post, I don't use huge bellow sweeps or set a specific pattern. I just change whenever I feel like it, when I'm getting to the end of one direction, and try to make it unnoticeable. This works great when I play a repeated note not with the button, but holding the button down and just changing the bellows.

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I don't play English, but I know a man who does.  In fact, I know several.


They use the bellows like a violin bow: sometimes long strokes, sometimes short, sometimes "percussively".


The piano accordion gets similar criticism.  One way of playing it is long bellows strokes, maybe one stroke per phrase of music, which can make it either mellow and relaxing, or bland and unexciting, depending on your point of view.  However, a good musician knows when to use one technique and when to use another.  I have known piano accordionists who could play for the Morris with more "punch" and "lift" than most melodeonists.


Conversely, the Anglo is sometimes stereotyped as a push pull instrument that is "best for dance music" but it is possible to play whole scales and phrases (sometimes whole tunes) in one bellows direction.



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Have a listen to Simon Thoumire, Rob Harbron, Alistair Anderson, Lea Nicholson, or Danny Chapman. They all put a great deal of thought into the use of the bellows for expressiveness and punch, and the results are plain to hear. It's true that the EC design makes it easy to play legato, but that doesn't mean that's the only thing that the instrument is capable of.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Not to get too off topic..


but, trying to make an Anglo sound English. Or an English sound Anglo is largely a fool’s errand. While similar, they are just different and have different techniques and idioms.


what it really comes down to is… does what you or they are playing sound good?


and especially when playing with others. More often than not, Less is more.play the right notes, in time. And leave it at that.


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Define “Expressive”!


5 hours ago, HansQ said:

It depends on elementary mechanical conditions. Bellows reversals demand effort and even if not being "lazy" more energy has to be consumed. The transport of energy from the player to the instrument is entirely depending on the efficiency of the connection and if you hold/grip the English by the tip of the thumb and tip of the little finger you will NEVER be able to transfer the same amount of energy as if connecting the whole hand with the instrument Anglo-wise.

First thing,,, English concertinas DO have wrist straps!  My 48B treble model 22 came with them as well as my Tenor Trebles and baritone treble.  The Model 22 is a short stroke, small chambered EC that is made to be played fast and is over the edge loud by design as mentioned in one of the Wheatstone price lists.


Second… I never considered bellows technique to be the defining difference between Anglo and English concertinas but whether you play mainly diatonic or chromatic music.


I personally think the OP’s question is a logical fallacy called “begging the question”.  I assert that there is no reason to not have maximum bellows expression with the EC.  The bellows of an Anglo is bit stiffer than an English to prevent bellows bounce but otherwise there is no difference with bellows technique.


This is like asking the question: Why can’t an Anglo Concertina play a chromatic scale as fast as an English Concertina?  The EC must therefore be a much faster instrument.  This would certainly ruffle a few feathers and may not be true depending on an Anglo player’s skill level and what/how they have practiced.  Every type of instrument has there strengths and weaknesses but most can be overcome if physically possible with disciplined practice.  All types of bellows techniques are learned.  

I will say that Anglo players are forced to learn superior stacato bellows control in this way early on and English players can get a bit lazy and slur all the notes…. Hey, on that thought…


What about the opposite question??? Why can’t Anglo Concertina players be as smooth and legato as English Concertina players?  Is this not also a big part of “expressive” bellows technique.


Both Anglo and English have equal bellows expression but different challenges to overcome.


practice, practice, practice…


play, play, play…




Edited by 4to5to6
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26 minutes ago, HansQ said:

(How do you manage to cut the "quote" window into separate "quotations" ? I did by accident  but I can not do it again ? Due to that, those added numbers below...apologies for that)


When you select a portion of a post (like I just did), a “Quote Selection” button appears (in addition to the “Quote” button at the bottom of the post that quotes the whole post. At any time while composing your post you can go back to any previous post (on the same page) and select a portion and quote it by hitting the button.


30 minutes ago, HansQ said:

(How do you manage to cut the "quote" window into separate "quotations" ? I did by accident  but I can not do it again ? Due to that, those added numbers below...apologies for that)


You can even quote the same section again.

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Hmm. Well, I know it's possible, with practice and effort, to play bouncily on a unisonoric concertina, English or duet. But as an Anglo player who's dabbled in a couple other systems, I have to disagree with the assertion that there's no difference between bisonoric and unisonoric bellows technique.


When you're just starting out with Anglo, feeling your way through your home scales—assuming you aren't attempting Irish-style cross-row playing from the beginning—you're naturally going to get used to using bellows direction changes to play along the rows. That's something that an English or a duet player just doesn't have to do.


What's more, changing bellows direction to play two consecutive notes on the same button results in a noticeably different attack and decay than you get just using buttons. To reliably approach that sound on a unisonoric instrument is, for me, kind of tricky! Your mileage may vary, of course.

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Check out Simon:


or his awesome Roll technique


Let me ramble on a bit and try to approach this from a different angle…

How about defining “expression”?  Expression in music is a huge topic…  I remember years ago making a list of all the different characteristics of music I could think of and the list just kept growing to over 50..,


One short list was:











All of these are “expression” and the bellows have a big part.  Different colors and brush strokes as an artist would say while painting.


This said, every instrument and “genre” has its own characteristics…

I think what we are actually talking about in this discussion when we say bellows “expression” is more traditionally called “percussive articulation”.

The Anglo Concertina is growing in popularity along with the growing interest in TIM (Traditional Irish Music), which is amazing!  Most would agree that the Anglo is better suited to TIM than the English not to say that you can’t be very, very good at playing TIM on the English as many musicians past and present (Simon) have proven… It’s just a bit more natural on the Anglo (rolls, cuts, etc. and being diatonic by nature).


What is TIM?  Another big question!  I played the Irish whistle for many years before switching to mainly the EC about 10 years ago.  With the diatonic whistle, I used to spend a lot of time practicing articulations such strikes, cuts, rolls, crans, etc. which I came to realize one day were the defining sounds of the uilleann pipes and so concluded that really it was the unique strengths and limitations of the pipes that actually defined TIM.


I hope this makes sense.  I’m not sure the debate about which instrument is best or worse at certain techniques is actually that healthy or productive on most levels.  Learn to have fun and be expressive on what ever instrument you choose.  That’s the fun of it all.  There’s 80 year old Latin bongo player’s that have played their whole life still perfecting their technique.  I was a rock bassist for many years, 4-string, then 5, then 6-string, now I play mainly the treble, TT and BT concertina… quite the switch.  I love it.  I am pouring everything I have learned for decades as a musician into the instrument. It’s a perfect match.  I recently spent a small fortune on a golden era amboyna TT Aeola and am restoring a super rare 56B BT model 14.  I even hope to build concertinas in my retirement and restore scrapped instruments to playable condition to pass on to interested young players.

Here’s some “expressive” pieces…


I love playing old Victorian music on the EC like say like Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot


But also love tunes such as the Beeswing Hornpipe


Or modern arrangements such as:

I love playing fast but slow and smooth with expression is much harder.


Or, for a challenge:


I still haven’t figured out the middle eastern maybe Turkish? sounding section starting at 2:42 but I’ll get there.


Have fun and play, play, play.  


Edited by 4to5to6
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Sorry for being long winded or over complicating things…. 

Short and not so sweet…


I think the answer is obvious… laziness or lack of skill.



Edited by 4to5to6
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Ok.  Fair enough… I thought that the underlying discussion was really about musical expression in general.  

It’s really not my nature to be so blunt…. My apologies…


On 1/12/2024 at 4:14 AM, HansQ said:

Very interesting but have you not made it more complex than the question put by Leah on *expressive bellows changes* indicates ?  Maybe ask him what he refers to himself - i e the  "definition" of "expressive" to be dealt with here ?  The crucial question still is: WHY not...?


On 9/7/2023 at 6:13 AM, Leah Velleman said:

I've noticed that English players don't seem to play with a lot of changes of bellows. It's mostly just big long strokes, and occasional quicker changes as special effects, and if someone wants to play staccato or add phrasing or accents they do it with their fingers.


Obviously they don't need to change bellows as often as Anglo players.


But I feel like I'd be excited for the opportunity to change bellows whenever I wanted, with no need to plan ahead or use an alternate fingering, and no constraints imposed by the layout. Anglo players constantly use bellows changes as expressive tools. We use more than we really have to, because they're such good ways to control dynamics and phrasing. (Like, I play cross-row, and I could play 99% on the draw and skip learning most of the push layout. But it would sound bland, so I don't.)


Why don't English players seem to do that too? Or are there some that do, and I just haven't seen it?


This is a sensitive topic.  It is a comparison between two entire types of concertinas and two entire groups of players.  How do you answer a critical question on why someone does NOT do something.  It’s like asking “Why doesn’t Jonny make his bed?”  These are loaded questions.

And besides, I did give a number of examples like Danny and Simon that use bellows changes extensively as well as some pieces I play that extensively use bellows changes. I practice scales using bellows changes on every note.

The fact is that a very disciplined and well studied English concertina musician will use a lot of bellows changes as expression and everything else they can at their disposal.  Why wouldn’t they? Music is expression as I explained in great detail previously.  You only have the bellows and buttons.  The short coming of the concertina, in general as an instrument, is the lack of balance when you play two notes (specifically treble and bass notes) that are far apart.  I do believe the advantages outweigh this disadvantage or I would play the concertina.


The beauty of the English Concertina is that you don’t have to make the bellows changes if you don’t want to.  Like Leah said, “I’d be excited to change bellows whenever I wanted”.

However, if you are lazy, you can choose not to on the EC.  Unlike with an Anglo Concertina where you must make these changes.  I’ve yet to see an Anglo player do cross row fingering legato.  The beauty of the EC is that you have the choice as Leah stated.  What if I started a post asking “Why don’t Anglo Concertina musicians play legato or smoother?  Would not the answer be the same?  Or (fighting words) is it not possible?


People can be lazy.  It’s harder to use the bellows on the EC to make “bombastic percussive expressive” passages just as it is hard to play legato passages on the Anglo.


Edited by 4to5to6
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