From The Concertina Newsletter, Issue No 10, February 1973
By now you may have reached the conclusion that to do the Anglo full justice you could do with a few more fingers on each hand. No doubt the day will dawn when a race of concertina players can be specially bred with as many fingers as you care to order, but meanwhile let's see how to make the most of what nature has provided. To save space I won't bother to specify the left hand or the right hand unless it isn't obvious from the context. You can tell from the number of the button which side is under discussion, 1-5 and 11-15 on the left, 6-10 and 16-20 on the right.
Whatever style you adopt eventually (and more about styles later) your best bet to start with is to give yourself confidence by becoming fully acquainted with the way the Anglo behaves up and down the major rows. So assuming you're going to play a tune in one of the two major keys, and perhaps have a basic position for your fingers, and this is the way I rest mine when I pick up the instrument: little finger (L) on button 1; ring finger (R) on 3; middle finger (M) on 4; index finger (1) on 5; and on the right hand, I on 6, M on 7, R on 8, L. on 9.
If you push the bellows with your hands in this position you get the major chord of your main key, C on my box. When you want to play in the second key, G in my case, you get the same effect by resting L on 2, R on 13, M on 14, I on 15, I on 16, M on 17, R on 18, L on 19. You'll avoid a lot of initial fumbling about if you keep your hands in the basic position for the key you're playing in and always press the same button with the same finger. When you need to play any note which lies on a button not immediately covered by a finger, just give it a poke with the nearest digit at your disposal and return your hand to normal as soon as possible.
As your playing develops then obviously your fingers will become more nimble and increasingly accurate at hitting buttons that lie off the beaten track, and you may well find that you can manage better with some other basic position, or even without one at all. This will depend on the size and weight of your box, the number of buttons you have to cover, the style you adopt, the key or keys you play in, the length and thickness of your fingers, whether you bite your nails and how sweaty your hands get. In any case you'll soon experience enough situations calling for a vital decision about which finger to use to realise that this is only a general guide for the uninitiated rather than a hard and fast rule, and to prove it here is the first main exception.
With the position I suggested, the seventh of the upper octave - B in the key of C, , F in G, , - is left exposed to the elements with never a friend in sight save a rather weak little finger on the next button down. As soon as you try a run from the dominant upwards the little finger has to cope with , , , , , , - obviously too much to expect of a member so feebly endowed. So if you need to reach the seventh, move all your fingers up one button - I on 7, M on 8, etc., and for going over the top of the scale, move up another button, I on 8 etc. It's easier to jump a long distance with the index finger or middle finger than the others so leave that part of the work to them and make sure the weaker fingers don't have far to travel.
Once you're happy sticking to the one row try crossing the rows and find where alternative notes lie. For example another way of playing the high notes in the C scale is to play them on the G row. A scale of C could go like this:
|C (I);||D (M);||E (M);|
|F (R);||G (I);||A (M);|
|B (M);||C (R);||D (R);|
|E (L);||F (R);||G (L)|
The little finger seems better going up this run than coming down, so on the way down try:
|G (R);||F (M);||E (R);|
|D (M);||C (M);||B (I);|
|A (M);||G (I)|
I find I often press a button with one finger and then, still holding it down, slide another finger onto it, leaving the first finger free for the next note. Hence the change in fingering on button 17. This might seem awkward at first but it's a useful trick to cultivate and one that will help you out of some nasty situations.
The sequence I've just described will be especially useful when a tune in C leads up to a chord on the dominant (G) and you need a sharpened fourth ( - F in this case). Tunes that do this are Jockie to the Fair and Happy Clown, at the end of the A music, and Bellingham Boat at the end of the B music.
Another run involving crossing the rows comes in useful when you're playing a tune in G which goes down the scale below G on 16. Instead of playing the lower notes on your left hand you can do this: G (I); F (I); E (M); D (M); C (I); B (M); A (R); G 6c (I). The A on comes in handy when you're playing in C too, if you need a run from E the tonic (C ) down to the dominant (G ). These runs help you keep your left hand free to do whatever it likes by way of accompaniment, whether you want to play the tune in unison on both hands, or a counter melody a sixth lower, or just bash out chords.
It's worth trying out every possible combination of buttons and fingers, especially over difficult passages, till you find the most economical one with the fewest wide stretches. This isn't quite so crucial when you just play a single-line melody, but when it comes to adding counter melodies or chords or both, or whipping off four-part fugues, then the less jumping around you have to do the better the music will flow. It only needs one or two missed notes or slips in timing caused by a finger getting lost in mid-air and your concentration and confidence will suffer and your audience will begin to cringe. There are enough people trying to knock the Anglo as it is without you encouraging them by making a careless mistake which could have been avoided by more intelligent practising.
Once you can get the right notes without too much trouble, it shouldn't take you long to realise that you accompany a slow ballad in a different style to what you would use if you were playing for a morris dance. So try out different ways of sounding the notes and see what effect you can get. For a song try a legato approach, holding each note on till you play the next one, but being careful not to run notes into each other. You can get a gradual sounding of a note by holding the bellows still, pressing the button down, then moving the bellows very slowly. Try this with one note, then with two and three, then with a handful of notes. See how quietly you can play and try playing a tune or an accompanying chord sequence through as quietly as possible. This requires much more control than loud playing and is a good practice exercise even if you never want to play in the gentle, subtle style that a lot of songs demand.
At the other extreme dance tunes need to pack a lot of punch, and the best way to achieve this is to keep the finger action strong and crisp. To get a powerful staccato effect hold your finger over the button and start moving the bellows in the required direction so that they are under pressure before you play any notes. Then hit the button quickly and take your finger off straight away. This will give you a loud, clean note and is the sort of procedure you should bear in mind if you want to produce good dance music. It's especially effective, and fairly easy, to vamp chords in this manner, which not only provides a strong rhythmic basis but also leaves enough space between each vamp to allow the tune to come over clearly whether you're playing it yourself on your other hand or accompanying some other instrument. Try doing this quietly as well - it takes some getting used to.
One exercise which helps strengthen the fingers and therefore makes this staccato technique easier to perform is to tap each finger separately as quickly as you can and for as long as you can bear to on any hard surface - a chair arm or table or a friendly knee - and develop the hammer action involved. You might get some funny looks if you indulge in this indiscriminately but it's all in the cause of Art.
This will also help prepare your fingers for jumping from button to button over the keyboard as we mentioned earlier. Ultimately it's possible to play a tune fairly quickly with just one finger by athletic leaps in all directions, and while I have my doubts about advocating this as a regular feature of Anglo playing it is a useful ability to have and is bound to affect the rate of your progress as soon as you try and play more than one note at a time on one hand.
Next month, chords and where to put them!