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Information - Beginners Guide

By Alison Scott

This assumes that you have a two row melodeon in D/G. If you have a melodeon in G/C, C/F or so on, all this advice is fine except that any mention of actual notes will be wrong; if your two rows are tuned a semi-tone apart (eg B/C, C#/D, etc), then just use one row for now - these boxes work a bit differently than D/G boxes when you play both rows.

If you're not sure what melodeon you've got, if you post a message on our forums, we should be able to help you out. If you've got a one-row, that's fine too, and all this advice works for them too -- but they are harder to play well than the two-row. If you've got more than two rows (an extra half row of 'accidentals' perhaps, or an entire extra scale) then you're very lucky. Ignore the inside row for the moment.

So how do I hold it?

Your melodeon probably has eight or twelve buttons on one side, with a wrist strap. That's the bass side, and your left hand goes through the wrist strap. Take your watch off if you wear one, and push your hand through so that you can reach the lowest, furthest away bass button with your little finger. Your thumb should be resting on a button or bar just in front of you. That's the air button, and you need to use it to move the bellows when you're not playing a note.

It is likely to also have one or two shoulder straps; some people like to play with one strap, some with two - it's a matter of what feels most comfortable for you at this stage. Ideally, when you're playing the right hand side of the melodeon should be reasonably still - if you use two straps, keep them snug and this will pretty much happen anyway. If you prefer one strap and are sitting down, place the right hand side of the melodeon on your left thigh(so the bellows don't drag on the top of your thigh) and keep the strap tight. It may also have a thumb-strap for your right thumb. These have fallen out of favour rather, but lots of players used to use them. Orthodoxy now has the right thumb resting along the right-hand edge of the melodeon; lots of people have it curled behind though (this position was described to me this summer as 'morris-player's hook'.).

The right-hand side has the treble buttons; probably 21, but perhaps 19 or 23 or more.

I'm holding it! Now what do I do?

Play a tune! OK, perhaps not. Press the air button and pull the left hand side to fill the bellows and give yourself some air to play with (you should always use the air button if you want to move the bellows in or out but not play a note). Now try pressing some buttons and waggling the bellows and seeing what happens.

Now you need to find the home notes of your melodeon. If you've got 21 treble buttons (11 in the outside row and 10 in the inside row), it's pretty likely that the third button down from the top (as you look at it) on each row is the home note or 'doh'. You push the bellows in while pressing it down to get the note. By pulling out while pressing the same button, you get the next note up musically. The next button (fourth) provides the next two notes on push and pull respectively, and the next (fifth) provides the next two on push and pull. The sixth button provides the last two notes of the scale, but reversed; you first pull and then push. Try playing up and down this scale a few times on the inside (G) row, with your four fingers on those four buttons.

Amazingly, that's all you need to start playing tunes. Hundreds of tunes can be played without ever moving your four fingers off those four buttons. Start with nursery rhymes -- say Row, Row, Row Your Boat (starting on that third button, G), Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (again, starting on G), Jingl Bells (starting on push on the fourth button, B). The easiest way to get started is to think of easy tunes you know well and just try to reproduce them.

But I wanted to play English folk tunes!

What do you think nursery rhymes are, exactly? Oh, ok. Try Winster Gallop or Buttered Peas, still on those same four notes.

And those buttons on the left hand side?

Ah, the bass end. For D/G players, this provides accompaniment to the tune you've just played. Think of the melodeon's two rows - you have an inside row, and an outside row, right? Now, think of the bass end - on a 8 bass box, you have buttons like this:

-- left hand strap --
1 2 3 4

5 6 7 8
-- bellows --

A 12 bass box has buttons like this:

-- left hand strap --
9 10 1 2 3 4

11 12 5 6 7 8 (ignore buttons 9, 10, 11, 12 for now)
-- bellows --

Think of these as pairs (1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6), etc. Now think of these as pairs of pairs. ( 1 and 2 and 5 and 6 ), ( 3 and 4 and 7 and 8 ). If you play on the inside row, put your fingers on buttons 3 and 4. Press them - button 4, then button 3 one at a time, repeatedly, in time with the tune. It kind of accompanies it, doesn't it? You get a different bass when the bellows go in and go out, and they kind of fit. Get the hang of this for a while. If you're getting good at this, and there's a part of the tune where that doesn't sound right to you, try switching the bass to 8 and 7, rather than 4 and 3 for that bit of the tune. Any better?

If you play on the outside row, use buttons 2 and 1 to start, and 6 and 5 if the chord doesn't quite sound right (this won't work quite as well as 8 and 7 on the inside row, but hey.)

If you've got a B/C box, this section probably didn't make a lot of sense to you - that's the nature of your instrument. Don't worry about the basses at this stage.

Yes, but what notes does each button play?

You don't really need to know this to play, but if you already know a smattering of music theory, there's a whole bunch of keyboard layouts for you to look at here. All you have to do is figure out which one your melodeon is! If you're playing a typical D/G starter instrument, the chances are it's this one or something similar:

Keyboard Diagram

What next?

You'll probably want to get yourself a tutor book or DVD to help you develop some more tunes, get the sense of rhythm, learn to use the air button, and start to do 'proper' basses.

Tutors For D/G melodeon

Dave Mallinson's - a very popular book, and many people have learned from it. Some love it, some don't, but that's purely down to how people learn, and not down to the book. Even if the teaching style's not for you, you'll find useful fill-in information here.

Roger Watson's Handbook for Melodeon - again, a very popular book.

The Melodeon Tutor by Ed Rennie with CD and DVD. Ed has also recorded over 100 YouTube demonstration videos. Ed is a renowned player with The Bismarcks, Banquet of Boxes and as a soloist.

Maggie's Melodeon by Maggie Moore. This comes with a CD with all the exercises and tunes played slowly and to speed, so you can play along.

"A crash course for beginners" by George Garside; very much focused on learning by ear and assuming no prior knowledge. George is a regular here.

If books aren't your thing and you want to see the thing in action, try John Kirkpatrick's DVD 'How to play the English Melodeon'. It gets rather advanced towards the end, so don't expect to complete the whole thing in an afternoon - there's many months/years of work here! Any standard of player should find something of use here.

Tutors for G/C melodeon

Methode accordeon diatonique, by Norbert Pignol and Stephane Milleret. Actually, it's in English and French so don't be too worried! And it too comes with a CD.

Other Beginner's resources

Another great set of books for getting started are the Folkworks books by David Oliver. They're a set of three books with CDs (I paid £20 for all three at a festival). These aren't melodeon specific, but they're great for learning popular tunes; the CDs include the tunes at two different speeds. David suggested that it's better to leave the books closed and just practice playing along on 'slow'; but then use the books if you get stuck finding the odd note.

Try to play every day, or nearly every day, even if it's only for a little while. Don't underestimate the power of messing about on the box an getting a sense of what it can do. Leave your box where you can pick it up - e.g. near the kitchen for short "tea making" practices!

Find some other people to play with -- look online for sessions in your area, or ask at your local folk club. Folk festivals often have sessions or workshops, too. Sessions vary, but most are very welcoming and encouraging to beginners.

Join a morris side; my understanding is that no morris side ever turned away a musician.

Listen to melodeon players, live and on CD, as much as you possibly can. English: John Kirkpatrick, John Spiers, Andy Cutting, Tim van Eyken, Tufty Swift, Simon Care, Saul Rose, Mark Bazeley, Katie Howson, Roger Watson, Dave Whetstone. European: Bernard Loffet, Frederic Paris, Emmanuel Pariselle, Marc Perrone, Ricardo Tesi, Kepa Junkera, Stephane Delicq, Johannes Ulman, Wim Claes, Yann Fanch Perroches, and so many more.

Find tunes to play along to -- Lester Bailey (another regular here) has 50 or so tunes on his website to be going on with. The Lewes Favourites is a core set of 180 popular session tunes. You can download them in abc format, and hear them played on your abc reader.

At some point you'll want some tune books; Dave Mallinson's 'Easy Peasy Tunes' does exactly what it says on the tin (though note that his chord suggestions are not remotely 'easy peasy', especially not for the melodeon). Dave Townsend's 'English Dance Tunes' volume 1 and 2 are excellent overviews of the field.

But I don't read music!

You're in good company. Many of the people who play this instrument professionally don't read music at all, or not at all well. It's entirely optional. The 'dots' -- as they tend to get called round here -- are just the merest sketch of the tune that is played. Of course you can learn to read music if you like, and it's handy if you do for writing down tunes, sharing tunes, and so on. But don't worry if you don't.

How should I look after my melodeon?

Have a case for travel, though you may want to leave it out of the case if you're playing it all the time. Keep it out of the way of small children and pets. Don't spill beer on it or let it get wet; the bellows in particular are made of cardboard. Do not leave it in your car on a hot day or cold day; the reeds are fixed in place with a wax compound that can melt or shatter. It will need extra wrapping to be posted or shipped in an aircraft hold; get advice.

But I play for Morris and it always rains!

Nobody has ever adequately explained why the fundamental English folk instrument is not weatherproof. Get one of those great big clear plastic rain capes.

What do I do about tuning it?

On a day to day basis, you don't need to. Other people will tune to you (and the note you need to play for them is that 'home note' on the G row, but this time on the pull -- it's an A.) While your guitarist and fiddler are tuning up, you can crack jokes. Melodeons do need to be tuned occasionally [maybe each year, but it depends on the make of your box, how much you play it, and how you treat it], and it's a job for a professional or an enthusiast.

Any comments?

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