by Sally Hall
I long to play music in a way which feels fun and soulful… to feel joy from music, without shame or inhibitions. I dream of feeling relaxed at trad sessions and not wishing that the ground would swallow me up. I imagine how it would feel to play confidently, without the nervous shakes that come when I feel I’m getting it wrong. I long to feel a part of the lively jigs and reels at sessions, and the soft waltzes and airs.
I have been trying to do this for so long but it has always felt like an uphill struggle. In the last few months however, I’d say that I’ve had a breakthrough, which has come in the form of a new, little box.
I have always had accordions in my life. As a small child, I sat cross-legged, mesmerised by my grandma’s huge piano accordion. “Again, again!” I used to say, “Ragamuffin!” (my favourite jazzy ragtime tune).
There are photos of me playing my first, toy accordion at the age of 5, ribbons in my hair and tartan dresses. One time, my grandma’s group were practising in the garden and I broughtout my little box and boldly bellowed out notes in amongst them all. No inhibitions then.
At the age of 8, she brought me a proper, Italian-made, piano accordion of my own, such a special machine and I felt so lucky. But then came Stella my teacher - scales, arpeggios, homework, practice, exams, performances, trophies on the bedroom windowsill. Pressure. Boring Tyrolean polkas… oompah oompah. After a few years of this, my beautiful box went back into its case to gather dust. I couldn't take it anymore.
A few years on, aged 17, walking through Hertford high street, I hear a familiar sound, but rhythmic and different at the same time. A boy with flowing red hair, no inhibitions, and a little intriguing-looking accordion with buttons, the bellows moving in and out to the beat of the music. I’m mesmerised… by the boy and the box! Although our love is short-lived, Jake opens up a whole new world to me, of busking, ceilidhs, folk sessions, music that makes me want to skip and twirl home with my headphones in.
At university by this point, I blow the dust from my accordion, which now feels big and cumbersome in comparison to Jake’s little pokerwork. But I have all the buttons and keys I could ever need on this thing, and I know how to play it. Surely the grand piano accordion can mimic the sound of its inferior little diatonic cousin.
I get to work the way Stella taught me. Discipline and regular practice. People don’t play from sheet music at sessions so somehow I need to keep all these hundreds of tunes in my head. I want to be ready to spring into action when someone starts a tune. I need to know what key they’re playing in, I need to keep up.
How do people do this? I sit in session after session, craning my neck to hear what on earth the sound is that's coming from my bellows. I can’t hear a thing. It takes me half the tune to even get the starting note. I pretend to play along, embarrassed, moving my fingers mimicking the music, hoping people don’t notice. I have the biggest, heaviest, possibly most valuable instrument in the room, and I can’t get a simple tune from it. I feel ashamed. I give up again.
The years go by and my big accordion stares at me from the storage space under the stairs, gathering more dust. Every time I catch it in the corner of my eye I am reminded of that world that I longed to be a part of.
I start to wonder, are there actually any piano accordion players out there who can play trad and make it sound any good? I hit YouTube for inspiration and discover Karen Tweed and Martin Green from Lau. Their music is beautiful and they give me hope. I set to work yet again. Discipline, practice, practice, practice.
I leave folk for a while and dig out some music that comes much more easily on my bulky instrument… french musette, tangos, grandma’s old ragtime tunes. Suddenly I feel a joy in playing again, for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. My fingers loosen, I feel the music. These tunes feel so much more suited to my big box, and they are lovely to play, but I dream of playing along with a group, not just on my own at home...
Finally, one day I give in and accept that I’m just not a natural musician. I can play simple things well, I have a fairly musical ear and I appreciate good musicianship, but I’m no maestro. So why struggle on with this cumbersome instrument that just isn’t set up for trad. What if I made my life easier and learned to play one of those little boxes that works with not against English and Irish folk?
I do my research and find a D/G Sherwood Howe on ebay. I wait in the house for the delivery each day until it arrives. I ask for help; a local music student shows me some basics, some really nice chord progressions that are a bit above my head for now, and how I can get that rhythmic sound that I’ve been trying to achieve for so long, by slowing things down and emphasising the beat of the music. Stiamh Ionas on youtube introduces me to irish rolls, Andy Cutting videos bring me subtlety and softness. John Spiers shows me fun and bouncy rhythms. Paul Young takes it slow and clear, and breaks it down. I stop trying to learn every tune all at once and start playing just a handful over and over until they come more naturally and I start to feel them. I have a long way to go, but for once I feel I have the tools to get where I want to be.
In the last few months, my life has changed and I’ve moved from London to Norwich. My friendly little box has waited patiently for me to settle and get my bearings. I know where all my local sessions are, I’ve researched them all and asked around. There is even a slow session for beginners. I’ve marked one in the diary for a few weeks time.
I still have plenty of moments when it feels too difficult… when a friend comes through the door and I put my melodeon straight away out of pure embarrassment of the sound that I’m making. Or when I build up to sharing a piece with someone that I’ve been working on, and the fear of getting it wrong overcomes me and I can’t play. But I’m going to give myself time. Forget discipline, I’m going to look for inspiration instead. Surround myself with this beautiful, soulful, simple music that lives to be shared, passed lovingly through the generations. I don’t want much, just to feel a part of it all and to share in this delightful music... with my little box.