#DreamBig2018 Round-Up Part 2: How I Developed My Own Melodeon Playing

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Enter: The Belgians

At the beginning of 2018, I resolved to make more time for my own learning, and develop my own skills.

I have already blogged separately about my time at Halsway Manor for the Euro weekend. But here I want to talk about the incredible Belgian players who I’ve met this year.

Naragonia: Toon van Mierlo & Pascale Rubens

When I heard earlier this year that Naragonia were going to be coming to UK in September, I immediately added myself to the Sheffield gig list.

I had been listening to their music for a number of years after hearing the phrase “oh, that’s a Naragonia tune” after lush tunes were played in sessions I’d attended.

If you aren’t familiar with their music, get your ears around this and the buy all their albums:

The Sheffield gig was a combination of music/melodeon workshops lead by Toon and Pascale, and dance workshops lead by members of Sheffield EuroSession. I attended Pascale’s melodeon workshop with DG and GC accordions in tow. It so happened that out of the 10 attendees exactly half the room were on GC boxes and half were DG. Pascale quickly decided to split the group into DG and GC and taught us the same thing separately, switching boxes as she went.

As a teacher, when I attend melodeon workshops I have half a brain on what it is I am supposed to be learning whilst the other half is on the lookout for new teaching ideas. Never had I seen a tutor split and teach a group with such mastery before. Hugely inspiring to witness!

A dream come true

Pascale took a simple tune of hers (C’est ne pas en Wals) and demonstrated it as a waltz, mazurka and 3/8 bourrée. I spent most of the workshop visually glued to her left hand and air button. For so long I had listened to her playing and watched it on YouTube, but seeing her play right in front of me was something else!

Something that I adore in both Toon and Pascale’s playing is their sensitivity to touch and control of air flow through the instrument. If you listen to enough of their music, you’ll hear how they craft an ebb and flow within the growing and dying of sound. It’s lyrical, sensual, emotive and entirely what I want to achieve in my own playing. (Listen to Les Deux Frères for one of the best examples of this style of playing).

I’m pretty good at picking these subtle details up by ear from recordings. However seeing Pascale play right in front of me filled the gaps in my physical understanding of these techniques with vibrant clarity and nuance. At the end of the workshop, I couldn’t help but allow myself fangirl a moment to thank her for Naragonia’s music.

Care to dance?

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THE most gorgeous evening of dance, music, friendship, conversation, atmosphere (and general existence beyond those criteria) at the Naragonia bal in Sheffield last night. Just took a moment out to absorb this stunning tune (Les Deux Frères) and to see the movement of a Gavotte de l'Aven — how graceful, gentle and elegant. There were so many moments last night where you could 'hear the floor' because of Toon and Pascale's signature poise, restraint and pause in their playing. I must admit, I allowed myself a few tears. This band's output has been exceptionally special to my self care over the last 3 years and it was the first time I had seen them live. An exceptionally memorable evening. . . . #naragonia #bal #frenchdance #toonvanmierlo #pascalereubens #sheffieldeurosessions #gavottedelaven #lesdeuxfreres

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The evening continued with a delicious meal and a transcendental evening of dance and music from the duo. Les Deux Frères played and the dancers danced so gracefully that it made me well up. The Universe allowed me a moment of release (at the side of the room so no one could see the crazy lady crying!). I do enjoy music you can cry to, but the crying in public thing? Yeah, not too sure about that!

After the gig I went up to Toon and Pascale to offer them a drink. Sadly the bar had closed, but Toon said “why not buy us one next weekend? We’re hosting a workshop at our house in Belgium and I think there’s a place left”.

Last minute adventure to Belgium, I hear you say?!

Workshop with Didier Laloy at Naragonia’s house in Belgium

I asked a few nerdy dance/accordion friends whether they’d heard about the workshop in Belgium. Turned out, they had and had already booked! After ruling out flights and the Eurostar (how much?!) I booked the same ferry as my mates. My first solo adventure driving on the continent! I was excited!

The trip started with a drive to Canterbury to meet with Anna and John. They invited me to stay with them at a hotel just outside of Dover. I drank gin and fixed the CF box with Blue-Tac. Bosh. The crossing was clear and steady. Ravi and I passed the time by playing some tunes out on deck in the sunshine. Marvellous!


When we arrived in Dunkirk, I slapped on my anti-dazzle headlight stickers, cranked up the old Google Maps (hooray for no EU roaming data charges!), and made my way off the ferry. I was delighted it only took me until the end of the ferry terminal to adjust my brain to driving on the wrong (right) side.

And there I was! Driving in France! Listening to RuPaul podcasts with my sunnies on! It felt amazing.

I got a bit caught up in Brussels city centre (OMG! TUNNELS!) but apart from that the drive was stress free and easy. We spent our first evening eating homegrown vegetable soup, local cheese, drinking beer, and sharing tunes and chats with new arrivals, some who had travelled all day across Germany!

Saturday: Workshop day 1

I feel I must confess, I had not heard of Didier Laloy. Anna informed me that he’s one of the big names in continental accordion. Tutored by Bruno Le Tron, they are a duo with a very physical performance style. She showed me this video and I remember thinking “okaaay, so they’re no shrinking violets…”

I also remember thinking:

  1. how are they managing all that getting up and down stuff with 5kg Handry 18s strapped on?!
  2. Bruno Le Tron looks like Pete Coe who’s taken something and forgotten he’s not actually that keen on Castagnaris
  3. it’s a bit like they’re making love to each other with their clothes on…

Over the top and just brilliant – diatonic box rock gods! So I guess I was expecting an ego to be sat in front of me for the next two days. Not my cup of tea, but I was here to learn new things so I kept an open mind.

Despite the crowd of fanboys gathered at his feet, he couldn’t have come across more humbly. He was quietly focused on communicating the tunes and techniques. And boy were there techniques!

Fried brains, anyone?

The French/continental style of playing and teaching is so removed from that of England. I’ve been used to having the tune taught to me and then if there’s time (usually there isn’t) some techniques will be thrown in at the end.

From the beginning Didier was hot on note shaping at the same time as learning the melody and right hand chords. The ebb and flow, growth and death of notes was intrinsic to his melodies. He had this lovely move with his foot to time the decrescendo (getting quieter) of a note, as if he were tracing a ripple on a pond.

I cranked up the brain power, toned down the swearing, and got on with the task in hand. I missed the very beginning of the workshop as I went to the wrong group so I was on the backfoot. But Didier would show us a bit and then break the group so we could find some space for noodling time. I wanted to do his melody justice, but my fingers struggled to find their feet. Feet? Clearly I was going about this all wrong!

I asked Didier for a recording of the melody so I could sit, listen and rewind as much as needed. I found peace out by the pond, noodling away whilst watching the donkeys grazing in the meadow. It also gave me a chance to breathe and deal with The Voices that told me I wasn’t getting this quick enough and I’m not good enough to be there. They were soon quietened when I occupied my focus on the tactile and aural qualities of playing my beautiful GC Trilly. It came soon enough, along with the headache!

Saturday night bal

Everyone went dancing on Saturday night as Bruno and Didier had a gig locally in Herk-de-Stad. I danced the whole evening and enjoyed learning new variations of balfolk dances I’ve done at home. But this seated mazurka (in the video) was simply THE most magical balfolk dance experience EVER! The atmosphere was pure magic! I had tears rolling down my cheeks — it was such a beautiful moment.

By the way, sitting down at the beginning of a balfolk dance isn’t usual! But it added an air of other-worldliness to the whole experience. And this gentle playing compared to the their high-octane playing in the video above?! These two really are such virtuoso players to go from such testosterone fuelled madness to this fragile, delicate way of playing. Notably, one of the guys in Didier’s workshop did the sound. Props to him for the reverb magic!

Sunday: Workshop day 2 and home

Still in a dream-like state from the night before, I approached the days workshops with a relaxed and calm mind. We worked on perfecting the first melody we sketched out on day one, but he also gave each of us a choice of another melody to work on.

He split us into 3 smaller groups to teach 3 different tunes in 7 minute sessions (he was quite specific about this!). It was impressive to see how he managed this what with the mental switching between the three melodies. (Something for the teaching bag, I thought!)

My Trilly is only a 2 row 8 bass, and I was in a room of 3 row Handry 18s (popular throughout France/Belgium). You might think I was at somewhat of a disadvantage! I’ve always tried to do the best with what I’ve got and playing in other keys isn’t something that phases me. I use what I’ve got and get round what I haven’t. However, Didier was certain he wanted to find me a tune that would fit on my instrument.

I asked, whilst welling up at the memory, if I could learn the seated mazurka tune which he told me is called ‘Dorothy’. It fits perfectly on my Trilly but still I work on getting the nuances right. It requires a super sensitive instrument, which Castagnari’s are, but I think the set of some of my reeds needs to be altered so they sing at much lower (quieter) pressure.

Belgian Takeaways

I learned how to use my upper arm to wobble my bellows to affect a tremolo in my decrescendos (Oo-err!). I learned how to mash the keyboard with my fist in a really show-offy way. And, rather coolly, I learned how to start a note below pitch and bend it up to pitch. I was told this isn’t good for the reed, but it’s quite an addictive technique to try and achieve.

So much of what I took away from Didier is to do with finely honed control of the instrument as a whole. Finely tuning the timing of a button press with a build and release of pressure from the left hand. Playing with greater sensitivity and emotion requires A LOT of mindful time in The Melodeon Zone. Things to work on, for sure.

I had to tear myself away from the workshop early in order to catch the 8pm ferry home. I’d thanked Toon and Pascale (who had catered the entire weekend!) earlier in the day. They are very lovely, warm hearted, down to earth people and I became very fond of them over the weekend. How cool to get to know the band you’ve loved for years!

About 10 days after this sojourn, I was on to the next adventure (with many of the same people!)

Anne Niepold Advanced Melodeon Week at Halsway Manor

I was looking forward to this week. I’d put my deposit down in April before leaving the Euro music Halsway weekend. Anne really took my breath away that weekend (as she does for many who see her teach and perform!) and I thought a week with her would do my playing the world of good. She has a lot to offer, and with her jazz background, mostly things I’ve never thought to try before.

Anne’s teaching usually revolves around an arrangement of one of her tunes or a melody she’s picked up on her travels. She had some nifty ones up her sleeve this time! One was a choral arrangement called ‘Melodicta’ – a dark, moody, melancholy piece. There were some epic chords produced between all 4 (sometimes 5) parts! It was nice to be part of an orchestra again.

This piece really challenged my sight reading skills. I learned to sight read at school when I learned the flute, but ever since getting into folk music, I have relied on by-ear skills for most things. It wasn’t until Moirai formed in 2013 that I started to reverse teach myself how to sight read for the melodeon.

I wasn’t as quick as if sight reading for flute but it was so much easier for me now. Especially with the upper octave notes that float above the stave! My fingers have a much better memory of where specific notes live on the keyboard now which gave me a sense of mastery.

Funky cross-rhythms, jazz chord structures and solo improvisation

Another piece, ‘Soweto Sorrow’, combined funky cross-rhythms, jazz chord structures and solo improvisation. This was probably my favourite piece of the week as it offered me the most amount of learning points. I made pages of notes about Anne’s explanations of chord theory and why the 6th, 7th and half diminished chords in the piece work.

Having done (limited!) theory whilst learning flute, I didn’t do anything on chords. Anne used the piano as a visual aid to explain how chords are constructed. Whilst not a pianist, I was able to build an image in my head that made sense to me. Being able to see all the notes laid out before me in an ordered pattern (unlike on the diatonic accordion!) made it easier to understand the formula for constructing chords.

Another lightbulb moment was “if you’re going to start working with more fancy chords, you really must learn your scales and modes”. Both hangovers from flute lessons that I never got on with or saw the importance of scales. If it had been explained to me that scales are the very foundation of musical structure, I reckon I would’ve worked harder at them!

Improv made easy easier!

The true moment of confidence came during Anne’s improvisation session. Once you understand all the chord and scale stuff, you’ve got yourself a framework around which to improvise. Having never known about this, I’d only ever improvised by pressing randomly and hoping for the best. Understanding which notes create tension and which resolve it give you a sense of power over another’s reaction to your improv playing.

Anne spent about a hour keeping the group chugging round the chords whilst individuals had a chance to improv. Unlike in April when I chickened out, this time I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and it was GLORIOUS! I was able to build upon my knowledge of what note is where on my keyboard to create an improvisation that wasn’t entirely spontaneous. There was some element of control over where I went with the melody.

Having the luxury of a week to spend basking in all this wonderful knowledge soon came to an end. Reflecting on this almost three months later I realise there hasn’t been much done on my scales learning over the last year despite both Halsway weeks pointing out to me that “this is essential”. Still, it’s a comfort to know I’m not alone in feeling resentment at learning scales!

#DreamBigger for 2019

This year I’ve spent many glorious hours with friends at workshops in some very beautiful parts of the world. I’ve been lucky to receive tuition from some of the most proficient Belgian musicians on the scene.

Going forward the work must be to make time for myself at home, not only after workshops but all year round. There is so much I feel I could achieve in my playing that I am not currently doing (ever the perfectionist). But without dedicating a significant amount of time to it, my abilities simply will not level up.

I feel much of what I want to achieve will come from playing more with talented friends. The Voices have been at play for a number of years deterring me from sessioning with high calibre musicians. Much of ‘how I got so good so quick’, was to do with dedicated daily practise and joining in LOTS at sessions. Even on tunes I don’t know.

This isn’t new advice!

I throw it about every day of the week to my students. However from talking to fellow pros, it seems I am not alone here! Our time is rarely spent on physically playing or practising but leans more towards admin and travelling. If I allow this pattern to persist then I know I’ll never improve. This year has been a balance of ‘pressure myself to get better’ and ‘accepting that you’re good enough as you are’. I find it a tricky one.

In 2019, I will take my own advice and make time for playing. Whether this be specifically private practice for a gig, writing or just polishing up on new techniques, I’ll make time to play more. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking the same thing? I’m sure if we push the diary round enough we can both squeeze 15 minutes out of some days and maybe more if we tried harder!

I also want to return to the continent for more of the good stuff. I just feel drawn to what I find there and the style of teaching stretches me. Hopefully Brexit won’t make it a ludicrous challenge to travel, but that is a real concern of mine. Let me know in the comments if there are workshops, events or festivals that I need to know about!

I hope by reading this essay (!) you’ve been inspired to reflect on your own learning journey this year, be it personal or musical. However busy life gets, I believe we make of it what we will and the only way to change it is to do exactly that! Take a leap of faith and try something you’ve never done before. I hope you find it a great source of enjoyment above and beyond your loftiest expectations.

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