Learning to Play the Concertina by Martina Bourke

Last October, I started to learn to play the concertina. Just as a chance remark brought me to Jole’s art course, one summer, years ago; a chance comment started me on this journey.

The Stage is Set

A recent ad campaign for a certain beer featured the deep booming catchphrase “if Carlsberg did…..” before showing an idyllic situation. If Carlsberg did music lessons…. they would be set in a pub in the Burren, with moonlight reflecting on the turlough below, with children and adults alike learning to play music together. I brought my son to this very place one Friday night; to Cassidy’s pub in Carron, to learn the tin whistle with Frank Custy. While watching the lesson unfold, a chance remark by another mother struck a chord -“would you not learn to play something while you’re here”. And so, I borrowed my niece’s concertina.

The Journey Begins

That night, armed with my niece’s concertina and a fingering chart, printed from the internet by my ever patient and amused husband, I set to it. The bug bit! Oblivious to time passing and the heat dying, I played with this odd little creature. Eventually, at 3 am, thrilled and frozen to the bone, I went to bed, the proud player of three very dodgy tunes.

The Search

Looking for a concertina proved to be a minor quest. I was told that an instrument needs to become an extension of your arm; you need to find the one that suits you; the only way is to play lots of them. So it was.

I found myself sitting on a stool in Custy’s shop; children warned and bribed, bag and coat stashed; playing a (very) few tunes, as people came and went about their business. The surreal moment; seeing myself and wondering ‘how did this happen?’

The search brought me into a music shop that I had passed every day of my school life. The windows had always held a fascination for me. There were always curious and varied things on display and it was not possible to see inside. I never had an excuse or opportunity to enter the shop. I now had the excuse; so my sister and I went in for a snoop. No concertina for me, but we had a peek into the often passed Aladdin’s cave.

The dilemma of the quest; to love the look of one instrument, the price of another, the sound of yet another. As is often the case; after the looking, the listening, the researching, the conversations, the playing and glimpsing into a parallel universe; ultimately it was easy. I fell for the sound of one. I had found my concertina.

My Family

My husband had a minor reservation about music lessons and our household. The memories of his sister learning to play the fiddle still resonated. Surprisingly the concertina has been less painful. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the patience and endurance learned from life’s experience; the forgiving sound of a concertina; a lately found advantage of mild industrial hearing loss.

Learning to play has lightened my day. It has lightened a few others’ too. My concertina and I have provided some humour. My hubby is much amused, bemused and bewildered to find his ‘non-trad-fan’ wife humming ‘the geese in the bog’. It’ll be the ‘pigeon on the gate’ next he grins. Apparently there is a whole menagerie waiting for me.

My children have had their fun. My daughter’s excited ‘Mammy, Mammy there’s a concertina on the tele’ brought me into the living room, to hysterical laughter and a screen filled by a snake. I have a life-long snake phobia. Sometimes it is not wise to share your fears with your children.

The Connections

Learning can bring you forward and backward at the same time. I have heard new stories and met new people. I read and heardstories of the concertina makers; composers; players; savers; repairers; teachers and learners.

So many people, even family, are only known through the stories told by those who come after. My father told me about his grandfather who used to play a wooden flute outside their house if the day was fine. On a calm day, the sound of his music was carried and could be heard by Dad on his way home.

My mother’s advice echoes: “learn to take a compliment; smile and say ‘thank you”. So I am learning to play the concertina. I can play some tunes (not particularly well, not very fast and not many by heart……but that’s all right ).

The Many Gifts

Lightening the day. I have my daily fix of tuning in; turning off and tuning out. Being ‘in the moment’; it is impossible to figure out how to play a tune and fret about something else at the same time. This is all to the good; all towards happiness. As with everything else that I enjoy, it has turned up the colour in my life.

A weekly date with my son. On Friday evening we both set out, armed with a tin whistle and a concertina. We play some tunes, have a fizzy drink, a bag of crisps and a chat before heading home. This is how my weekend begins.

Claiming my mind back. Instead eating itself up, latching onto work and the report not finished, the phone call not returned and an endless list of tasks; my poor head has had a break. My mind chews over the whole learning process; the illogical layout of buttons, the notes, the tunes. When I go back to work; work is more enjoyable. I have had a break.

Stretching my brain. When I’m playing, my fingers and ears need to learn how to play the tune. I can feel my mind switch off and another part of my brain engage. Fingers and ears have been given a chance and my poor head has been given a break.

Revisiting the enjoyments of childhood; art, music and now, after many years, writing. I aim to “let all your pleasures become habits”, as painted on a cafe wall in my hometown.

As art has changed how I see; playing music (although not very well and not very fast) has changed how I hear.

The Secret

Setting off on this little adventure, I was armed with a valuable lesson learned from Jole; “do not worry about doing it right”. I have practised this spell at every art class with Jole and in the intervals in between. This magic spell opens the world. You can give anything a try when you don’t need to do it right. Amazing things can happen when you play like a child. The joy and wonder is in doing it at all; not in doing it right.

Now I Find Myself Writing

My hubby is now much amused to see me writing. “The new Agatha Christie” he offers. Not likely. However, the perfect murder has unfolded in my mind. A poisonous substance is injected into a concertina, which when activated by the action of the bellows, releases a fatal gas which envelopes the hapless victim. The motive? Possibly revenge. Revenge for endless playing; neglect of her children; desecration of beautiful tunes. Now what random co-incidence would have Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple visit Clare at that exact time….?