Making the most of your Limitations

A perennially popular topic of discussion amongst melodeon players is on the merits and disadvantages of different kinds of box, in particular whether altering boxes in certain ways diminishes the appeal. Gary Chapin recently wrote a very well written post on the relationship between boxes and their music. This is my take on the limitations of instruments and how that relates to the melodeon.

I am someone who by habit and training seeks to improve things. I am an innovator. Not a terribly effective one, it may be true, but an innovator. Such a life when applied to say high technology is fine, but when applied to musical instruments can be difficult. Musicians are notoriously conservative about their instruments, for quite understandable reasons. They have spent their lives mastering something and to be told that it can be improved devalues their effort in some ways. Folk musicians are no exception to this and melodeon players doubly so, as we play an instrument which is hugely limited in what it can do. The upshot is that people like me get into many arguments with other (often better) musicians.

You often hear melodeon players defend their instruments by saying that it is the limitations of the system which give the box its charm, even its soul. And they defend their conservatism by saying that by removing these limitations you destroy that which makes the instrument unique and special.

I do not dispute this, I agree entirely. But I think that there is one thing that people tend to forget, namely that melodeons are not alone in this regard. Every instrument, however big or small, is defined by the limitations of playing it. It is these limitations that make instruments distinct and every instrument has them. There is no perfect instrument which is limitation-less, not even the piano. I must admit here to being under the impression that the piano is the greatest instrument ever invented, but even that has huge limitations – specifically there is no control over the note once the key has been depressed. Every other instrument that I can think of off the top of my head has the ability to change the volume and tone of a note once it has started to sound. But the piano doesn’t and it is one of the things that makes it distinctive. It is also something which has contributed hugely to why piano music is written how it is (see Gary’s post).

The melodeon is no different. It has enormous limitations in what you can do with it. It has a limited range of keys (although you can push the boat out), it has a very restrictive amount of bass and these do not always match up with the treble end. It is an utterly discrete instrument, the user has little control over the pitch of the note unless they delve inside with a file and a determined expression.

Does this make it a bad instrument? No. There are trade-offs. The limited range of keys means that it is small, light and compact. It also means that you can do huge amounts of harmony in the right hand, far more than you can do on a semitone box or on a piano accordion. The stretches are much less than on any other type of accordion, meaning that counter-melodies are a lot more possible. The bisonoric nature means that rhythm and bounce comes easily and the limited bass end means that you are forced to do interesting things with normal chords, which is a skill worth pursuing.

The mistake that people make is to assume that by changing this instrument in any way, you are removing all of the limitations. You may be removing some of the limitations of a D/G box, but you are imposing a whole lot more, just different ones. A 60 bass stradella system is limited just the same as an 8 bass melodeon system. You can’t do everything that you can with stradella bass on an 8 bass, but neither can you do everything that you can do on an 8 bass on a stradella. I’ve tried! Working your way around the limitations of any instrument is the only way to play it to its full potential. It so happens that the limitations of a melodeon lead to a very satisfying sound, but this does not mean that a different system will lead to a less satisfying sound.

Let’s take the current fad for enormous, heavy and complicated 3 voice, 3 row (quint plus accidentals), 18 bass melodeons, currently popular on the continent and with some highly respected players this side of the channel. There are some that will say that this system destroys the beauty of the two row melodeon, that the increased reversals destroy the bounce, that the increased bass make the lines less interesting, that the big size reduces the ability of the player to throw it around, that you end up with long smoochy melodic lines that could just as easily have been played on a piano accordion. This may all be true, it depends on your point of view (mine is that they are brilliant at some things and rubbish at others. I tend to want to play the latter). But I would just say that the same was doubtless said when some bright spark thought of adding an extra row to a one row box, and when someone thought of adding a half row, or adding a few more bass buttons.

Instruments do not have to stay the same for centuries and our free-reed instruments haven’t been around that long. So when someone thinks up a clever way to increase the scope of the melodeon, don’t dismiss it out of hand because of its advantages. Work out what the limitations will be and see whether they are worth what you gain.

Sometimes new instruments are better than old ones. Sometimes designs can improve over time. Sometimes, innovation does make a better instrument. Otherwise we would all be still thwacking at logs.

NOTE: Several people have pointed out that 3 row 18 bass instruments are not necessarily enormous and heavy. I wasn’t criticising 3 row 18 bass instruments as being enormous and heavy, I was criticising <enormous and heavy 3 row 18 bass instruments>! Besides, what doesn’t appeal to me will appeal to others and this is the point.

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16 thoughts on “Making the most of your Limitations

  1. I’m currently mucking about with at least four assorted guitar tunings, scale lengths and string tensions…. I’m really only swapping one set of limitations for another in every case, but each one has it’s own sound, feel and joy.

    I dislike the Piano as an instrument, I think it is underdeveloped, simplistic, extremely limiting in dynamics, tone, scale and and also deliberately parochial in terms of fingering and also teaching methods ;-) It’s a pet hate of mine, having spent four years of degree learning about how people and devices, musical instruments and computers relate. It violates even the fundamentals of an instrument that is designed to be quick to learn, yet allows for high attainment (see research on how cross coupling of parameters of input and output provides lower initial success but provides for a gentler learning curve with much higher possible attainment).

    The piano also discourages experimentation. It’s not portable (really), which means it is almost always a shared instrument, it’s interface directly defines its internal mechanics.

    Least ways, experimentation is always to be encouraged, regardless of accepted wisdom or even sanity ;-) and finding the limitations and removing, circumventing or trading them to find what you want is the core of much musicality.

    Innate conservatism wrt instruments is often related to having seen others seemingly break all those limitations without changing the instrument. I have to admit that I admire this, but in most cases, I’d rather find an easier way of doing something than labour for four yearsHi there, it seems I may need to update grinah, and this includes a new boot env: It looks as if you are busy on it at the moment, could you possibly mail me if there is a safe time to do the reboot/update? learning it the hard way :-)

    • Hi Edwin, I think that you have misplaced the end of this post and replaced it with some Compsci jargon :P

      In response to your claim that the piano is limited in dynamics and tone then you haven’t listened to enough piano playing. Period. Despite the limitations (or perhaps because of them), it is the most expressive instrument that I know and I can’t get enough of it.

      I do however agree that the fingering system is bizarre and parochial (nice word). This is why I would always discourage people from learning the PA, as the sheer number of different fingering patterns that you must learn is insane. Compare that to a 5 row CBA, which has a very effective fingering system. I think that people have tried to build pianos with similar systems but they have never caught on (and now never will – such a step change is now pretty much impossible). I will say that although the piano is not portable, ergonomically it is pretty sound, arguably much better than violin, guitar or accordion.

      And I agree with your last point as well. Better to innovate so that you can play what you want rather than spend years battling with your instrument. And I realise that I have done just this! But I don’t have the money to have millions of boxes, I must make do with what I have.

  2. I thoroughly agree with you that you need to accept the limitations of your instrument and find what it will do, that maybe you can’t do on anything else. I play recorders and get very frustrated with people who ask me why I have “never learnt to play a proper instrument”. (Odd that no-one seems to say that to whistle players?) In fact, in the past I have played piano, violin and pipes and have recently been playing around with a trombone, but I keep coming back to my recorders. I like to play the instrument that that I can hear in my head when thinking about a tune.

    • Nicely put. I am a recorder-admirer rather than a player, I love the sound of the instrument and it angers me that they are so ill thought of. I think that this is changing – nowadays the ukulele is replacing the recorder as the instrument of choice for tiddlers, which is a welcome change. Hopefully this means that the recorder can reclaim it’s noble pedigree!

  3. Thanks for the kind words in re my own post, Owen.

    I think you can guess that I agree with you on all points. I find the link between the “limitations” of the instrument and the repertoire that emerges a very interesting thing. But it isn’t always a matter of … more complex instrument leads to more complex music. CBAs were de riguer for bal musette, but recordings, to me, seem remarkably non-chromatic until the “Hot Club” influence seeps in. What I do notice is that the ease-of-play on the CBA leads to Auvergnate music being played VERY QUICKLY!

    I think there’s something about me that likes “limited” instruments because they “make decisions for you,” and have a sort of “solve the puzzle” thing going. I also play (and obsess about) recorder, Susan, but I’ve come to think of it as my least limited instrument, because it really is fully chromatic and functional. Playing Bach on it … that’s not a folk instrument.

    FYI, Owen, 22 folks have linked through to my page from your link.

    • I agree about the limited instruments thing. I love fiddling with the box, getting the tune just right within what the box will do. Which is why I don’t like playing CBA, because the limitations aren’t with the fingering, they are with the style, which requires quite a different skill to exploit.

      And you are more than welcome!

    • A major limitation of the recorder (for me) is the difficulty of continuing to play when there is a plate of fish and chips, or something equally deliciously fragrant, brought out to another sessioner. Cue taste-bud and salivary gland overdrive!

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