Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sorry! Posts are Now Moderated

It's just the way of things on the internet, I guess, but It seems this little site will be a happier place if I moderate your comments from now on.

If I understand it correctly, you just need to leave your comment as usual, it will come to me as an email and I will then okay it being posted. 99% of the comments that are left here are great. Please keep them coming!

If you experience any problems with this new system, contact me at my email address.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Third Floor - Going Up

I recently had a question from a reader about left hand technique. I thought I would share it here, as a few regular readers have mentioned a need for some help with the left hand. The original question went like this:
I took up the accordion and getting on pretty good. I am a violinist and used to busking the jigs and reels etc. Is there a way I can be more confident on the feel of the left hand on the buttons to be able to move from one chord to the next when the chords are quite distant from each other. I suppose it is a firm placement of the left hand on the instrument. Other than that I would be grateful for any help
My answer: As you can imagine, the whole answer to your question is potentially very long!! As a string player I should think that your left hand will be fairly good at accurate placement, dexterity and visualisation of where its going. However, one thing you say is incorrect (if I understand you rightly) - that is about "firm placement" of the left hand. You have a 16 inch bass keyboard to cover, so the hand actually needs to be as free as possible. I refer to this briefly, and how to achieve it in my artricle on bellows technique entitled I've Only Got Three Hands, You Know! You'll find it here:

Further to left hand technique, once you have found the position described in the above article, I suggest you try the following couple of exercises:

(1) Numbering the fingers as thumb = 1 and pinkie = 5, place your 3rd finger on the Bb fundamental bass, and your 2nd finger on Bb Major. Your arm should be positioned as in the bellows article, low enough that you are reaching up very slightly for the Bb, with arched fingers. Now slide your fingers over the F row and onto C Major, then slide on up to the D row, this time move your 2nd finger over to the D minor. Work your way up and down between these three chords. You can play any rhythmic pattern on each row that you wish. I have chosen these 3 chords because you have a marked button (C) in the centre of the pattern. However, it would be good to pick some other places on the bass keyboard to practise the same pattern, once you are confident.

The key is to slide your fingers over the rows, not to hop. Register both mentally and physically each row that you slide over. The best thing is to think of it by name, as opposed to simply thinking "up two rows" or whatever. (Think of it like going up a tall building in an elavator. You don't necessarily stop at every floor, but there is always a sign that registers each floor as you pass it.) Also move on to sliding from the Bb to the Dm without playing the C, just registering it. Then move on to playing this exercise with your 4th and 3rd fingers instead of your 3rd and 2nd. I very strongly suggest spending several weeks/months getting confident with this method before moving on to the next exercise. Although using the same finger on all the fundamentals is a rather basic technique, I am convinced that it is tremendously important to the brains process of spatial mapping of the bass keyboard. If you are bored in the meantime, try increasing the distance by playing Eb - C - Am. Not very logical harmonically, but good exercise!

(2) Now go back to the original three chords (Bb - C - Dm). I want you to change the fingering so that you are playing the Bb and C with you 4th and 3rd fingers, but the Dm with the 3rd and 2nd. As soon as you can do this, move on to using your 5th and 4th on the Bb. So now it's 5th finger on the Bb bass, 4th on the C and 3rd on the D. Again, move on to shifting from the Bb to the Dm, only registering the C. However, now you should not be sliding up and down, just touching the C with 3 as you reach up. Work toward being able to do the whole sequence while keeping your 5th finger lightly anchored on the Bb bass.

A word about position. If you have not been using your 5th finger, when you begin to do so you will probably need to alter your hand and arm position somewhat, especially if you have a 5th finger that is a good deal shorter than the others. I have been asking you to start the chord sequence with the Bb, as that will help position your hand at the start of the exercise. However, in real music (such as an Irish tune in Dm - probably really in Dorian or Aeolian mode) you would more likely be starting with the Dm. In that case, I would suggest that you take your hand position from where the pinkie will need to be before you start to play! That is always a good plan. Notice the lowest bass button you will be playing before you start, and position your hand so that your pinkie will be able to reach that button. You should be reaching up for everything else.

To continue developing this technique, have a look at some of the pieces you are playing which involve a wide range of chords. In most Major or modal type minor tunes, the minor chords will be placed highest on the keyboard, moving downward onto major chords. This is only a general guideline, but start by playing all the minor chords with fingers 3 and 2. Use 5 and 4 for the lowest row (at least if it is a Major chord) and for any situations where the preceding or following chord is up several rows. Use 4 and 3 for whatever chords are left.

Alternating bass lines and 7th chords (not to mention diminished ones) will create their own challenges. I don't believe it is wise to create too many rules for bass fingering. It's good to have some clever strategies for getting the most out of the 4 fingers we use, and it's good to be flexible enough in your thinking to "find a finger" when you run out of fingers! This is another reason I advocate starting by moving one finger up and down the fundamental row before graduation to the 4 finger approach.

- Kris

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Phrasing and the Bellows

If You Get My Meaning
I'll start by defining my terms, as people use the words "phrase" and "phrasing"to mean several different things. For example some people refer to things like slurred groups of notes, or the use of staccato, legato, tenuto, etc. in music as phrasing. This element of music is more correctly called articulation, and is not what I mean by phrasing here. When I talk about a phrase in this article I am referring to a section in the music, typically about two or four bars long, which stands on its own as a musical idea. In the case of a song, this would be the part of the melody which forms exactly one line of the lyrics. Within a phrase, there are sometimes two or more "sub phrases" - for want of a better term, and so like almost everything in music, there is a subjective element to identifying the phrase structure in some pieces of music.
So what has this got to do with playing the accordion and using the bellows? The accordion is a wind instrument. I believe it is essential to use this fact to its fullest potential, not ignore it and hope it will go away. Used well, the air travelling through an accordion should have the same impact and immediacy as that controlled by the cleverest brass or woodwind player. It should contribute to the expression and phrasing with the same facility and subtlety as the air pumping through the lungs of a great singer. To settle for less is to settle for utter mediocrity!
When I was not too far into learning to play the accordion, I was lucky to have a few lessons from a great Scottish player called Freeland Barbour. (He led the Wallochmor Ceilidh Band for a number of years and is a player I'd say is really worth a listen.) Probably the first thing he pointed out to me was the importance of phrasing, and of changing bellows direction at the start of each phrase and doing it cleanly. Talk about a blinding flash of the obvious!! I had sung, worked with choirs and played woodwinds for most of my musical life up to starting the accordion. But like everybody else I was busy learning tunes and coming to grips with the left hand and hadn't given the phrasing enough thought. I'm grateful to Freeland that I got this lead in the right direction from him early on.
I believe that phrasing is the thing which makes our music accessible to the listener. It cuts the music into "bite sized pieces" which the listener is able to deal with. Here's a little's the answer...and the next idea...and so on. Have you ever heard someone reading out the news on the radio, and they are a bit nervous or in too much of a hurry. They rush through the items and hardly draw breath - except when they stumble in mid sentence! At the end your think "I have no idea what that guy just said." Without good phrasing, this is the exactly the effect our playing has on our listeners. Especially if they are not familiar with the music we are playing. No matter how sensible our tempo, or perfect our rhythm, or flashy the piece - without phrasing it is really just a meaningless collection of notes.
Deep Breath
So, now we know what phrasing is and why we want it. How do we get it? Let's take a Scottish song that most of you will know. (Apologies to Robert Burns experts, this is just the way the words might commonly be sung without too many Scots spellings).

Ye banks and braes of Bonny Doon

How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair

How can ye chant ye little birds

And I sae weary full o care

This song is in three time, like a waltz. The syllables I have highlighted are the ones that would be emphasised when the song is sung - because these are the words/notes at the start of each bar of music. If you play this on the accordion, and accompany yourself with a simple waltz time left hand (bass note on the first beat of the bar, followed by chords on the second and third beats) the notes for these words should fall on the bass note beats.
However, and this is a big however, the phrases start with those little words "ye" and "how" and "and". So this is where the bellows movement needs to start. That's right, the bellows movement is dictated by the phrasing, which in many, many pieces of music is slightly out of phase with the strong beats. And this is where I have to part company with anyone who says that changing bellows direction every two bars is a good way to play the accordion!! Just imagine a singer doing this:

Ye (gulp)

banks and braes of Bonny Doon How (pause)

can ye bloom sae fresh and fair How (wheeze)

can ye chant ye little birds And (gulp)

I sae weary full o care

Not a very entertaining prospect, is it? Of course, I'm exaggerating a bit. In a lot of cases, box players who don't know about phrasing with the bellows get pretty good a camouflaging their problem. Sometimes they manage to sweep it almost all the way under the carpet almost all of the time.....
If you want to take this on board, start with songs, and start each song with just your right hand. Get the bellows movement right at this level first. Some of you will find even this a challenge. That's fine. At least you can see something that, if you work on it, will improve your playing a lot! One of the best methods I know for working on this is to play a line of the song in one bellows stroke, then take a HUGE pause, do the next line, another HUGE pause, etc. This gives you plenty of time to think, and builds in a good habit and an awareness of phrasing. When you are doing this, there are two pitfalls to avoid. (1) Chopping the last notes of phrases off. Hold the last note of the phrase a little extra, instead. (2) Thinking of changing direction at the ends of lines. Associate the change of direction with the start of the line, rather than anticipating it. This will set you up for success when you put the left hand back in.
And when the time comes to put that left hand back in, take it nice and slowly, be aware that you are starting each phrase in mid bar in many songs. Don't allow your left hand to "come out in sympathy" with the bellows or vice versa. Here's a little exercise in waltz time that might help you on your way:
Get ready to do a waltz time vamp with your left hand. Your C bass and C Major chord will do for starters. So the rhythm is bass - chord - chord; bass - chord - chord; etc. Now try it like this: bass - chord - chord; bass- chord - CHANGE DIRECTION chord; bass - chord - chord; bass - chord CHANGE DIRECTION chord; etc.
Good luck with this, everybody! It's one of the great "secrets" of accordion playing that should not be a secret at all!
- Kris