Session Survival Skills @ Melodeons In Wendsleydale 2018

It was a number of weeks ago now, but better late than never! Here’s my write up from a mega sunny weekend in Yorkshire teaching on the inaugural Melodeons In Wensleydale event.

Over 80 melodeon players gathered at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes from Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd April for a weekend of melodeon workshops lead by myself, John Spiers, Issy Emeney and Steve Dumpleton. I had been invited to teach two differently themed workshops, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. On Saturday, I designed and lead a ‘Session Survival Skills’ workshop and on Sunday I lead a workshop teaching my own compositions.

The weekend kicked off with a Friday night session in the round exhibition hall at the museum. It was quite a feat to behold (see my Instagram post below). It gave me an opportunity to soak up the MIW atmosphere, chat with a few session newbies and meet up with all my one-to-one students who had arrived (SO many Angels in one place!). It also gave me a chance to get my head in gear and make some extra notes for my SS Skills workshop the next day.

Session Survival Skills

The idea behind the Session Survival Skills workshop is to make any session more accessible for beginners and those new to playing in a group. I developed the idea after hearing countless stories of one-to-one students who struggle with their playing in sessions, despite being able to play in their own homes! We found that there are many reasons for this (see ‘problems in the wild’ image below) but the main issue I encounter with students is a lack of confidence; both psychologically and physically with their instrument. In order to build confidence, I start by simplifying the material.

I designed the day around my ‘deconstructed session’ model which I have been developing over a number of years and has proven to be quite successful in building confidence in group playing. In advance of the workshop, I provided 3 tunes that I felt represented common session repertoire categories. There was Constant Billy for the ‘simple, Morris, well known’ category, Jenny Lind for the ‘I can’t tell what key this is in’ category, Iron Legs for the ‘sounds great, bit silly, tricky to play’ category and a sneaky 4th tune Äppelbo Gånglåt for the ‘person who always has something lush and less well known up their sleeve’ category.

In order to join in during a session, it is good to know that you don’t have to play all the notes! You can create what I call a ‘Trunk Tune‘ by stripping back all the fancy superfluous notes of a tune (the leaves and branches) and bringing it back to its bare essentials (the trunk). This leaves far fewer notes to concentrate on per bar and therefore makes it a whole lot easier to pick up on-the-fly in a session.

The first exercise of the day was to play through the mini repertoire in order to simulate a ‘wild session’. Just like a typical session you might experience down the pub, or ‘in the wild’ as I like to think, with no comforting boundaries, guidance or leadership from me. Afterwards, I lead a group discussion on the problems and feelings that were experienced in that uncontrolled ‘wild’ scenario. A list of solutions, or ‘Survival Skills’ as I like to call them, were drawn up. These are tools you can use in wild sessions to get in there, have a go and importantly keep going (i.e. survive) when attempting to play in sessions. 

List of ‘problems’ my MIW workshop participants have faced in ‘wild sessions’
The solutions to our problems, or as I call them ‘Survival Skills’. (I struggle to spell ‘mimicry’, OK?!)

Into Action

We spent the remainder of the day going through each tune, ‘trunking’ it and trying out some of the survival skills.

I kept the tempo super slow as that was one of the main problems that people had encountered in wild sessions. Keeping the speed slow is beneficial to absolutely everyone in a group, no matter how competent the player. In fact, I have witnessed more times than I care to remember advanced players who cannot play with control at super slow speeds. I’ll blog about the benefits of playing slowly separately, but for now, practise it! Okay? Good. Moving on…

One of the main survival skills I wanted to get across was the ability to learn by watching others, or specifically ‘mimicking’ one competent player that you’ve clocked in the room. One of things we’re all pretty good at is ranking ourselves based on ability where we fit in to a group.

“Who’s better than me?” “Who’s not as good as I am?”

If we focus all of our attention to the fingers, buttons and bellows of that player, and allow all other distractions to dissolve into the ether, we find what I call ‘The Melodeon Zone’. A white space where it’s just you and them and they become the puppet master of your fingers, your buttons and your bellows. Give over to your subconscious every now and again and witness all the good stuff that can happen! By getting the direction of the bellows right and the rest will follow.

One of the things you might notice happening is that you start to grow ‘nuggets’ around parts of the trunk tune. Nuggets are clumps of notes that form around certain phrases of the trunk tune and lead you towards ‘growing the tune out’ into playing the whole melody (branches, leaves, the LOT!). It might start out as just one or two notes here, or a bit of a scale or arpeggio there, but keep working at it with each repeat of the tune. With enough repetitions (more than 3 if you’re lucky!) you might find you end up with some fairly hefty chunks of the whole tune under your fingers. You might even nail it all together! How about that?!



Yes. That’s right. We all thought the end of school meant the end of homework! But seriously, putting a little bit of effort into these exercises at the beginning of each practise session will significantly improve your confidence in sessions.

You could try:

  • learning some scales and arpeggios (including working these out across the rows),
  • working out where you have the same note but in a different direction (reversals) on the right hand,
  • learning the names of the basses and chords on the bass end,
  • training yourself to play at different speeds using a metronome.

Survival Skills in Action: Out in the Wild

A week or so after leading this workshop, I had an email from one of the beginners in my group:

“Your workshop in Hawes was brilliant, the Friday night was such a disaster for me and by Saturday morning my morale and confidence were zero. By Saturday afternoon I felt I could play anything anywhere, I was on top of the world. 
Thank you so much!”
I have just seen her again for North East Melodeon Playgroup / Thinking Outside The Box II and I could not get over the progress she had made in the month since Melodeons In Wensleydale! During the Friday night Playgroup session she started several tunes and held her own whilst others joined in. There were a couple that were unfamiliar to the group and so became solo pieces – which unfazed her! A couple of false starts but again, her nerves were nowhere to be seen. It was a completely different player in front of me. Oh the confidence!
She told me afterwards how she had struggled on for so long in sessions before attending my Session Survival Skills workshop. But she has been to several since and has been so much more relaxed about joining in. It’s stories like this that inspire me to keep doing what I’m doing! I’ve never been so bowled over by one person’s personal progress.
Keep on keeping on. We all get to where we want to be eventually. For some of us the journey is more convoluted than others.
Keep going to sessions. Keep playing with others. Keep surviving out in the wild!
[:]||| Mel |||[:]

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