Why I didn’t give up melodeon

I came very close to giving up box this year. For those that know me (or have bothered to read the rest of this blog), that may seem inconceivable. But I did come very close to giving up.

There are a couple of reasons why I lost heart. The most straightforward is that I have reached a standard which, though admittedly relatively high, is proving difficult to improve upon. My playing has plateaued slightly and I feel that I am making much less progress than I have done over the last four or five years. That isn’t a nice place to be, but it isn’t unusual. Whenever you are learning, your progression is never linear. You always progress alternately in leaps, bounds and stagnant period of ill-tempered underachievement. But it wasn’t just that my playing wasn’t improving, it was that my ideas on what I wanted to do on box were moving on and my playing couldn’t keep up. Which isn’t pleasant. And it didn’t help that I was at the same time outgrowing my principle instrument, the Saltarelle (which is as of yet unresolved).

The second thing is that I was bored. Not bored of the instrument, but bored of where and for what purpose I was playing it. Since going up to Cambridge in 2008, most of my playing has been with the Cambridge University Ceilidh Band, which has been an enormously positive force on my development as a player. But after over 80 gigs with them (!), CUCB ceilidhs have rather lost their appeal. I’ve played so many of them that I know exactly what to expect and so I won’t sign up for a gig unless I know that it will be something special. I still love playing for dance and so I’ve tried to seek out other places to play, such as other ceilidh bands, reeling evenings, morris and so on. But what had been my bread and butter musically for four years is no longer something which inspires me.

The third (and most crucial) thing is that for a long time, music was a therapy for me. My box would permanently live out of its case by my desk and every time I was frustrated, unhappy or bored I would take a break by playing it. I played every day. My degree was tough but my box got me through it. But once I’d graduated I was unemployed and I crashed somewhat. Suddenly the box wasn’t a good enough therapy for the apathy that I felt. At university things are relentless, you are surfing the wave the whole way. After university I felt that the wave had landed me in Slough. Not hugely unpleasant, but not where you want to be after years of effort.

That apathy is to a certain extent still with me. I now have a job, and a good one. I work in an office in a nice location with nice people with work that I find interesting. But some spark of motivation, of life has gone out of me and I don’t know how to get it back. The next 45 years stretch in front of me and I am struck by the thought that whatever I do now, those 45 years will still be there.

And so what I have done is not play much music. And that has made things worse. For now when I see my friends develop musically I feel wistful, when I see friends achieve I feel jealous and when I see friends joyful in their music making it makes me sad. I feel like that path is shut to me now and I don’t know how to get it back. But the more time that goes by with me not playing, the wider that divide feels. The more time that goes by, the more difficult I find the idea of playing and the more frustrated I am with my own inability to play and to play well.

I went to a CUCB rehearsal and session last week. It was the second rehearsal and the third session that I’d been to since January I think. I was out of practice; my fingers had forgotten where to go and my bellows control was weak. This made me sad. But the upside to that was that because I didn’t have the energy, enthusiasm or seemingly ability to play the fast tunes that I once loved, I was doing other things. Playing rhythm, riffs, RH chords and harmony, that sort of thing. This was a small consolation prize. The session was much the same, except that the session repertoire (which of course constantly changes) had progressed such that many of the tunes I didn’t know and wasn’t sufficiently on the ball to pick up. I felt very cut off, both from the music and those around me – my friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in some time. So I left in a melancholy frame of mind.

But I am going back there tonight. And this is the answer to my question in the title of this post. I didn’t give up the melodeon because I remember what a huge part of my life it once fulfilled and how happy it made me. I remember the catharsis of a gig gone well and the adrenalin of a good session. I remember the quiet pleasure in doodling alone and the satisfaction in getting better. I remember this because it wasn’t long ago. And I can get it back. How, I don’t know, but I will try.


20 thoughts on “Why I didn’t give up melodeon

  1. Really glad you haven’t given it up…..sounds like you’re in the midst of a pretty momentous transition….promise you it will get better, and you’ll find a way through it to a more contended place!

  2. Plateaus are tough and they do occur. Transitions are also tough. If a somewhat longer perspective is of any help (I’m early 50s): I have found that my life as a player goes through peaks and troughs: periods of high motivation and/or progress and/or effort followed by other periods without For example, as a university professor, my time is limited but my summers are comparatively unstructured. So the academic year is a time to rehearse, work up repertoire, maintain on my principle instruments (banjo & bouzouki). Summers in contrast are a time to work on secondary and tertiary instruments (box, 5-string banjo, etc). Having done this for 10-12 years now, I’m no longer quite so freaked out when I hit February and feel I’ve made no progress since the previous October–at this point, I know that when May & June roll around, I will feel a burst of energy & self-encouragement. Here’s hoping you make the same discovery–your dedication and thoughtful musicianship are obvious and commendable.

  3. This might not be the thing to say, but I was in the same position once, and I did quit, and it was okay. In 1999 I was a staunch green Irish wooden flute player … I loved Irish music … but then, I just lost the spark for it. I hit a plateau, yeah, but I also stopped listening to Irish music, and I became indifferent to the reels and the jigs. At the time, I had been given an A/D box, and I stumbled on Sylvain Piron’s website (tradfrance.com) … and I went through a massive life change (divorce) … and none of it felt like direct cause and effect, but I stopped playing flute and Irish music completely.

    Since I’ve started box, I’ve gone through waves of activity. Certain cycles of my graduate work force me to leave the box unplayed. Sometimes, the indifference surges. I noticed it last year. I just wasn’t interested in bringing out the box. I realized it was because I didn’t have a “reason” to. I approached a local cafe and asked if they would mind it I played a solo gig there for their Sunday brunch. That went extremely well, and they asked me back once a month, and that (unpaid) gig gave me a sense of purpose. I developed a set list, worked tunes into shape in the way that you only do when you’ve got gigs (solo!) … now, I’ve been approached about playing in a dance group (I will sometimes, but not sure of commitment), and about joining a trio with a French singer (absolutely), and I’ve recorded all the tracks for a CD (currently being mastered).

    I guess my point is that a sort of Buddhist (or Pragmatic) calm. These things pass, and if they don’t, that’s okay.

    Great post, Owen.

  4. The other response to your question, presumably, is “Because the Atzarin accordion is just too alien to make me want to switch” :-P

    • Heh, that may well be. My initial experiments with that instrument have proved that a) it isn’t the easiest system to initially get to grips with and b) it has huge potential.

  5. Hi Owen,

    Been there – done that many times – have several scruffy T-shirts as a result!

    It is something you will have to learn to live with more and more I’m afraid – as you get better technically you just can’t keep on the same upward curve and you will plateau from a technical achievement point of view. The first time it happened to me was very upsetting as it felt like I wanted to give it all up – but couldn’t as it was my first love. It will happen with increasing frequency and you learn to rely on finding great new music to play, writing tunes and collaborating with inspiring new musicians to get that sort of kick again.

    What I’ve come to realise is that getting it back is more to do with state of mind, enthusiasm for what you’re playing and removal of stress – not something you probably want to hear as those 3 things are generally out of one’s control! Another thing which drives me back to an upward curve is having another, completely unrelated, deadline or job that needs doing urgently which is when I procrastinate on the box yielding some great practice but not getting the job in hand done! One last thing that has worked for me in the past is becoming the owner of a new and fantastically good box which just demands to be played (not because of some fancy new system of keyboard – but because it is a better balance, weight, action or reed response than I had before)

    The other thing is that it’s also completely fine to give it a rest for a bit … you can always get back in trim if you’ve not practiced for ages – most of it will stay with you – just look at the comeback of Joe Derranne after not playing the box for decades!

    A final point is that you have been achieving levels of playing and imagination in what you do on the box that are quite simply beyond what anyone else is doing as well as pushing the boundaries of keyboard design and experimentation. It would be a very great shame to see you not go any further – but that should not be felt as pressure – just that you’ve been giving us nerds a lot of pleasure … and when you get back on the melodeon train – you’ll probably find a way to convert all the work already done on the box in to some music which will have a lot to offer the musical community as a whole for which we’ll all be very grateful!



  6. Been there mate. An episode of depression left me unable to play anything (or function at all really) for about 5 years. It derailed my career and left me living somewhere I hated. Thankfully, things change, as Gary says. Now I’m very happy and starting to perform properly again, but it’s taken a while to get it back. “If life is giving you lemons, make lemonade”, they say. This is, of course, complete bollocks. If life is giving you lemons take a good look at Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs and identify what changes you need to make. Playing the box is top tier stuff – self actualisation. Get the lower level infrastructure in place first! email me if you want. This stuff sucks and blows, (much like a diatonic.)

    • I would class myself as “miserable” rather than “depressed”, but what you say is very true. Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (which I learned about in Marketing [got a first in the module]) is remarkably elucidating. And yes, I do have to get the lower down stuff sorted first. The question is how…

  7. Owen – You’ll be glad to know (imho) that you don’t really give anything up, musically. You just park it whilst you explore other avenues, and the experiences with one instrument gives you the fire (and the skill) to learn another one quite quickly – there’s so much more to it than just the physical act of playing one instrument… I know that’s a rubbish explanation, but maybe that’s why I prefer music to words ?
    Here speaks a man who gave up the mechanical complexity of saxophones, to play bits of wood with holes in… But now I appreciate (and can finally play !) the older woodwinds with just a few very useful keys, so you never know where it all leads. There’ll always be something to interest you.

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  9. Hang on in there. I did give up the box…sold my lovely Loffet Pro to concentrate on guitar because, although only a poor amateur player, I felt the melodeon was too limited. What a fool! The limitations were in my mind, not the box! So now I’m planning to buy a new box; it will be a simple 2 row, 2 voice 8 bass & I will give it the respect & love this beautiful, infuriating instrument deserves. One wave may well have deposited you in Slough…but another will come & take you to Bali!

  10. Hi Owen

    I’m an oldie (68) and newcomer to melodeon (March 2013). I have hooked up with Wickham Morris in the hope I can improve while my mistakes are covered by other, louder, players.

    You say you have reached a plateau and losing interest. May I suggest that as you have all this talent and knowledge that you share it. Find a beginner, offer help and rejoice in the simple slow progress that is made under your tutelage. There are many, many desperate beginners who may also give up due to lack of guidance and encouragement.

    So, rather than sink slowly into the abyss of self pity (been there, done that) analyze what it is you have to give – and give it. It is wonderful therapy and brings back the interest and enjoyment that was there. I did it with amateur radio and model engineering.

    Hope this doesn’t offend. Alun


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