Saturday, 30 March 2013

dusting down the squeezebox

We were going to go to the point-to-point at Higham.  Neither of us have ever been to a point-to-point, and I thought it might be rather charming, smaller even than Fakenham races, being to Cheltenham what a novelty dog show is to Crufts.  That is probably unfair to point-to-points, since the Systems Administrator says you get some quite good horses at them.  By the middle of the week, as the weather continued so cold and the forecast barely any better, I began to think that it would be unbearably chilly.  I froze at Fakenham, although I enjoyed myself, and that was with the benefit going to lurk periodically in the members stand, where we could look at the course through a big plate glass window while drinking hot chocolate.  You don't get anything like that at a point-to-point.  You are basically standing in a big field while horses run about.  If it had been a lovely spring day, with happy members of the hunting, shooting and fishes classes and jovial dogs all brisking around, it would have been fun.  Not in the icy blast from Siberia.

When I got up and looked out of the bathroom window I discovered it was snowing.  I had to rush downstairs and put the camellia and Corylopsis I borrowed for Thursday night's talk under cover so that the flowers didn't spoil, since I'd left them standing by the front door until I return them on Monday, but I hadn't been expecting it to snow.  We were definitely not going to the point-to-point (though according to the Racing Post all point-to-points were going ahead today, and a miserable time I'm afraid they'll have of it).

My bread-making skills are coming on by leaps and bounds, with all this dire weather, so I couldn't amuse myself making bread because I did that yesterday.  We ate some of it for yesterday's lunch, but there is still enough left that we don't need any more yet.  The SA's confidence in the bread has risen to the point of not buying any yesterday morning when going shopping, so if the bread hadn't worked we'd have had to eat oat cakes, or crisps.  I was touched, though, since it would be rather demoralising to pull a freshly baked loaf out of the Aga only for one's partner to announce that they had bought some anyway, in case your's was inedible.

Instead I dug my concertina out of the cupboard.  I haven't touched it for years, and recently I've been thinking that maybe I should.  It is a Wheatstone English concertina, and was my father's before me.  He bought it in a junk shop in Glasgow, whose name, Dunlop's, 31 Candleriggs, is still on a plate inside the lid of the case.  He was a junior fellow at an Oxford college at the time, and looked so shabby that the shop owner was initially reluctant to let him touch the instrument.

The English concertina is small with hexagonal ends.  Standing flat on the kitchen table beside me it measures 15 centimetres tall.  The ends are covered with polished steel, cut into a flowing leaf curlicue pattern, and the bellows are of black leather.  There are two screw holes on the upper side of the body at each end, relicts of a time when it must have had a strap fitted.  Towards the bottom of each steel plate is a small steel shelf with curved end, that rests on your little fingers while you play, and towards the top of each plate is an adjustable black leather loop through which you put your thumbs.  Although it is a small instrument, it feels remarkably heavy after a few minutes, taking its entire weight on your pinkies and your thumbs, and I tend to play sitting down so that I can rest one end on my knee, but professionals like John Spiers just stand there and play.

The keys are metal, as are the reeds, though I haven't touched those since my father had it refurbished for my benefit around 1980, by a chap who lived in Lacock who cured a couple of stuck notes and a leak in the bellows, and re-tuned it.  It probably needs tuning again, but not so badly as to upset an amateur ear like mine.  It has two volumes, off and loud.  The buttons are arranged in four rows at each end, the white notes in the inner rows and the incidentals in the outer rows. Successive notes in a scale are at opposite ends of the instrument, so to play a scale you hit a key at one end, then a key at the other end, then the next key diagonally up the instrument at the first end (going to the outside row of buttons for a black note, staying on the inside row for a white note) and so on.  Since you can't look at both ends of the instrument at once while you play you have to learn to find the notes without looking at all.  It makes the same noise whether you push or pull.

I don't know what any of the notes are.  I could find middle C on a piano, but I don't know which it is on the concertina, though I suppose if I can play a scale without using any notes in the outside rows I must have started on C.  Since I can't read music it doesn't make any difference not knowing. When I played (a little, and very badly) at Oxford I was teased for always arranging tunes in C, so I learned to choose a key with at least one outside row button in it, just to make sure that whatever key I was playing in it wasn't C.

I stumbled my way through a few half remembered Irish tunes, then dug out a reasonably familiar CD by Kathryn Tickell and loaded it on to my i-Pod to give me something to learn, and practice upon.  The i-Pod is brilliant for this purpose, compared to the old days of having to drop the stylus down on a vinyl LP again and again.  Learning tunes isn't so hard, if you were brought up as a folkie and have never been able to read music.  You listen a few times, hum along with the source, hum it some more, and start trying to play it, and it sticks.  I was never at all good at the concertina, and after a lapse of years am still at the stage of searching around for the notes on the instrument. They are easier to find when they are close together, so I get half a dozen right, the tune coming haltingly, then a bigger interval flummoxes me and I am left trying keys experimentally, looking for the note.  Add to that the fact that sometimes I know where the button is but hit the one next to it by mistake, and it must be agony to listen to.  Fortunately the SA doesn't mind watching telly through headphones, and we don't live in a studio flat.

My father was of the stern belief that you must keep the rhythm going, so if you hit a bum note don't stop to correct it, but keep the shape of the tune and keep going.  That's good advice, but only once you have got to the stage of knowing where all the notes are and being able to hit the right one reliably.  Once I can do that I can focus on the shape of the tune, and start putting in chords and twiddles and triples, and little percussive shakes of the bellows.  If I ever get there.  If the weather would only brighten up I'd be outside like a shot.  I very much doubt that my playing will ever progress to the stage where I would wish to inflict it upon other people.  I am not musically gifted, but just musical enough to be able to hear the difference between inspired genius and the dull plodders.

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