My first instrument for Irish music was the whistle. Ok, wait. Lemme start over.
My first instrument for Irish music was the bodhrán. But that doesn’t count for the LVISS because we don’t do the accompaniment thing. That isn’t to say I won’t be spotlighting the instrument here on the blog though. It does take a good deal of skill to play, and requires a sensitivity to play well with others that many who try the instrument do not properly comprehend.
But I digress…
After bodhrán I tried the whistle. Finally I came around to the concertina–and it stuck!
It’s a beautiful little instrument, both in terms of sound and appearance. It is small, portable, and the tuning is fixed, so you never have to tune up. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time a fluter or fiddler or piper asked me for an A or G, I’d have enough for a new fiddle bow.
Concertinas come in different flavors. The type used in Irish music is the 30 button Anglo type. It plays a different note on each button, depending on whether you’re pushing the bellows or pulling it. This is in contrast to the English system, which plays the same note regardless of bellows direction. Many feel that the need to change bellows direction makes the Anglo more suited to the “bouncy” rhythm of Irish music. There are other concertina types as well, but they are almost never used in Irish music. So I’ll leave them out. No offense.
In the Anglo concertina category (and possibly in the others, I don’t know,) you will find that entry level instruments often have mass-produced accordion reeds installed for sound production. Higher level ones will have authentic concertina reeds. The thing is, concertina reeds are made by hand, which makes them a good deal more expensive, so anyone looking for a starter instrument will likely end up with them. They sound great, and they don’t make concertinas sound like accordions at all, as accordions usually have at least two or more reeds per note, tuned slightly off each other, giving the accordion that fatter sound. Concertina reeds tend to sound more “soulful,” for lack of a better word. A former co-worker of mine once said that she enjoyed hearing me play my “harmonica” at lunch time. She couldn’t actually see me playing, so she thought my accordion reeds sounded harmonica-like, apparently! Whatevs.
All that said, a fine player can make either either type of reed sound amazing. My concertina is a Morse “Céilí” 30 button Anglo. If you go to the Céilí page on the Button box website, you can hear Christian Stevens playing one under the video tab on the right.
I love Chris Stevens’ playing. There are many fine concertina players, indeed both past and present. Many players today find inspiration in the playing of some of the old greats from County Clare in Ireland, where there was, and is still, a great tradition of concertina playing. Mrs. Elizabeth Crotty is one name you’ll hear often, Chris Droney another. The Irish musicologist Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin has written extenslively on the subject of Clare County concertina playing (and Irish music in general, actually.) Since he’s done so much of the work for me, I’ll just share this link to his essay entitled “Clare: the Heartland of the Irish Concertina.”
Go HERE for a sampling of Clare concertina playing, compiled by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
One can’t talk about concertina playing in general without mentioning Noel Hill, Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh, Edel Fox, and Caitlín Nic Gabhainn, at the very least, and there are so many more–Páidrag Rynne, Mary MacNamara, and Kitty Hayes, just to scratch the surface. Really there’s an astonishing number of great players out there today, just poke around in the Google place and you’ll find them.