I’ve come back from Burwell Bash having had a hugely enjoyable week. I feel I engaged with things much more this year than I did last year. I’ve grown quite a bit over the last year, so coming back to Burwell is a good way of comparing things annually.
My playing still has a long way to go, and I know what things I want to work on over the coming year so that I’m still more prepared for next year and hopefully I’ll continue to develop musically. That sounds awfully pretentious doesn’t it? It’s not meant to be. I picked up on something of a theme at Burwell this year, something which I hadn’t picked up on last year, and something which I want to explain.
It struck me that our instrument comes with so much baggage. Even its name is controversial. Is it an accordion? Is it a melodeon? Even such a facile thing as deciding what to call it can spark furious rage! I’ve decided to move away from calling it a melodeon, and I call it an accordion. Sometimes I’ll call my D/G boxes English Accordions while my G/C is a French Accordion. Sometimes I’ll just call them diatonic accordions or maybe Dias. Why should this matter?
To my mind, the Melodeon is an instrument used by Morris Musicians. Here’s where I need to be careful… There are many exceptional musicians who play for Morris Dancing. They have their own style of playing and consider what they want to do with a tune. They are experienced at both leading the music and following the lead of others. They can play collaboratively and will do their best to give you a part in the music. They are sensitive to the strengths and subtleties of other instruments and will adapt their playing to the instruments they’re playing with and the abilities of the people they’re playing with. They’re flexible, open-minded and generous as musicians. Like I say – exceptional musicians. Sadly, many people don’t come into contact with these people because they are the exception.
The perception of the majority of Melodeon players is very different to those exceptional players. They may or may not have excellent technique, but there’s an arrogance, inflexibility and selfishness about them as musicians. The idea of not leading a tune is one that is alien to them, as is the idea of being sensitive to other instruments that they play with. So many times I’ve been around them when they gather in large numbers (say at Melodeons At Whitney) it’s like being in a room full of soloists. There is no attempt to play generously and share their music. This idea gets lost as the melodeon players play more obscure tunes faster and faster. Try to join in with some rhythmic chording or a countermelody and you get shot looks like daggers.
This is just a tiny part of the picture when I look at the perception of melodeon players. How do I, as a diatonic accordion player, begin to show other musicians that I’m not like that? That I actually care about sharing music? That I can adapt my playing to be as sympathetic as possible to the other instruments in the group? That I’m not going to stomp all over the tune? How do I show other musicians that there are other accordionists who can do the same? And how do I fit what I can do as an accordionist into the wider culture of folk musicians in a way that is not just as an accompanist, but that I am happy to fulfil that role too?
This is the baggage that we, as diatonic accordion players, have to deal with. I’m not sure how to approach getting away from the perceptions of melodeonists, but I suspect that the old adage “show, don’t tell” is going to be my first route. I’m fairly sure that the Melodeon Stasi will be livid at me for criticising them. That’s fine and I’ll just leave them be. I’m not after reassurance or acceptance from them. Authenticity has always been an important thing for me, and I can’t be authentic if I’m not free to explore different ideas or ways of playing.
Anyway, lots of things to think about. Maybe I’ll have a chance to reflect and see if anything presents itself as a solution…