Following on from a successful workshop on Session Survival Skills at Melodeons in Wensleydale, I decided for my improvers workshop at NE Melodeon Playgroup to hone in on what I consider to be one of the most the important skills in learning to play-by-ear: mimicry.
What do you mean by ‘mimicry’?
In my teaching approach, mimicry is the act of imitating the bellows, body and finger movements of another player on your own instrument in order to ‘fast track’ learning something new.
The ‘Melodeon Zone’
Developing useful mimicry skills requires close observation and listening. But the challenge most importantly is to clear your mind of all other distractions as if it were just you and the other player in the room. This skill is part of my ‘mindful’ approach to playing the melodeon. By simply allowing your full consciousness to focus on the movements and sound of the other player (‘The Guru’, as we’ll call them), your own mind and body will begin to slip into the control of the subconscious; or what I refer to as ‘The Melodeon Zone’.
In my interpretation, The Melodeon Zone is a light, white space where only you and The Guru are present. Your whole conscious focus is fixed on them with nothing else around to distract you. After a while, you might notice the consciously uncontrolled feeling of your own body beginning to respond to their movement. This is your subconscious taking over. Allow it to happen! Witness, as if hovering above The Zone, how it feels to have The Guru control your body like a marionette puppet on strings. Allow them to become the boss of you. What they do, you follow. When their bellows go out, your bellows go out. When their left hand changes to a C chord, your left hand changes to a C chord. I think you get the picture!
When you find this place, and it might take several attempts at it, you are well and truly deep within The Melodeon Zone. A meditative place where your own body responds to the movements of another. For me this can happen when playing on my own in peaceful solitude, in a noisy group session or when playing for dance. Particularly when playing for Cotswold Morris.
A ‘Mindful Approach’
When you’ve found The Melodeon Zone, whatever you do DON’T THINK! Does this sound familiar?
“I can do [this thing] until I think about what I’m doing and then it all goes wrong!”
We’ve all been there! It’s a funny part of the melodeon learning process. Your subconscious is very good at cottoning on to patterns of repetition and just getting on with things. But as soon as the conscious part of your brain turns up to the party, with it’s big eager feet stomping around, demanding answers as to what on earth is going on here so it can analyse and process – The Zone bubble is burst and the beautiful little learning space that the subconscious created is lost.
With some training on controlling your focus, and application of the 3 P’s (patience, practise and persistence!), you can learn to overcome this flip-flop scenario between the conscious and subconscious parts of your brain. You will learn to split your subconscious focus to rest on the tactile sensations of your own fingers touching the buttons, and the way they move through the air between notes. You’ll be able to better appreciate the tonal quality of your reeds, and the vibrations at the various contact points between you and the instrument with which you’ve been blind to. You’ll notice how your wrists, arms, shoulders and back move with the bellows at different points throughout a tune and start to build muscle memories in wider areas of your whole body. I find this practise is an overwhelmingly centering, relaxing and calming experience on its own merit, let alone the learning benefits it provides! It is an opportunity to become better acquainted with your instrument(s) and is therefore hugely beneficial to the music you make with them.
The Whittonstall Girlguiding Campsite was our home for the weekend — boy was it beautiful!
North East Melodeon Playgroup
I spent the day leading the improvers group in playing a simple English Morris dance jig by ear. The tune I like to use for this workshop is The Willow Tree – a simple and repetitive melody with some slightly out of the ordinary left hand accompaniment techniques arranged by yours truly.
In advance of the day I had asked for participants to prepare simply by listening to the tune in order to build a mental ‘blueprint’ of the tune. Repetitive listening is always the best way to go about learning by ear. I created some exercises where participants watched me and just silently followed my bellows movements as I played the full tune with both hands. The great thing about this approach is that there is far less for your brain to focus on so you can concentrate on just the bellows movements alone. Not only is this method great for discerning basic ins and outs, but you can also pick up the subtlety in air button use and how to shape notes using the bellows.
By the end of the day, every participant had the tune with both hands down pat and most had attempted to put some shape into their sound. Check out this video to hear how they did in the workshop showcase at the end of the day: