The English Fingering System

The English Fingering System


The English Concertina

This started as a response to a question in the usenet rec.music.makers.squeezebox newsgroup. I'll leave it pretty much as I wrote it there, with the additional suggestion that if you want a *full* layout of the buttons, you should print the end drawings of the typical English on my "Tour" pages, and use the information contained here to start filling out the note names. In particular, if you have a PostScript capable printer, you probably should download and print the PostScript versions, since they will look nicer.

If you have a tenor, start what I show one set of buttons up from the bottom, and then fill in backwards to the bottom. If you have a tenor-treble, or an extended treble, you will have to draw one more button in each row prior to starting to fill out the chart. If you have a baritone-treble, you'll need to add two extra buttons to each rwo.

Here are the images:

Now -- to the article:

Joseph Kesselman, yclept Keshlam wrote:

I've seen the claim in this newsgroup that "the English concertina is so logically laid out that normal sheet music _is_ tablature for this instrument." I don't think I've seen anyone explain this, though... and as someone who has never played English, I wonder if there's less to it than meets the eye. Please don't take this as a challenge; I just want to understand what's meant by the phrase...

[ ... ]

Is there anything else going on here that supports the statement, such as "spaces on one hand, lines on the other"? Or does it really mean only and exactly "one note per key"? If the latter, it's really not that profound a statement.

The fact that the left hand is all lines, and the right hand is all spaces is part of it, but only part. I think that I will attempt to do some ASCII art of part of the keyboard. (I'll be leaving out the *many* ledger lines above the staff, and drawing only the treble (the tenor, baritone, and bass go well below that.)

Also, in another followup was mentioned that the accidentals are adjacent to the notes of which they are sharps or flats. Since there is room for only one, a choice had to be made, and the choices made are good in key signatures up through four sharps, and down through three flats. There are two notes which are present under *both* names. D#/Eb and G#/Ab.

Imagine the fingers pointing *up* in the drawing below. (They will be closer to horizontal when you are playing, unless you are lying down. :-)

                L E F T              |         R I G H T
                                     | 
                                     | 
                                     |   ( Bb)   ( B )
                    -( A )- -( Ab )- |   -----   -----
                                     |                   ( G )   ( G# )
 ----( F#)---( F )------------------ | ---------------------------------
                                     |   ( Eb)   ( E )
 --------------------( D )---( D# )- | ---------------------------------
                                     |                   ( C )   ( C# ) 
 ----( Bb)---( B )------------------ | ---------------------------------
                                     |   ( Ab)   ( A )
 --------------------( G )---( G# )- | ---------------------------------
                                     |                   ( F )   ( F#)
 ----( Eb)---( E )------------------ |----------------------------------
                                     |   ( D#)   ( D )
                    -( C )- -( C# )- |   -----   -----   -----   -----  
                                     |                   ( B )   ( Bb)
    -( Ab)- -( A )-                  |   -----   -----
                                     |   ( G#)   ( G )

The thumbs will be adjacent to the vertical line separating the hands in this drawing.

I've put in the first three notes above the staff, and you can see that the next note pair on the left hand is C# and C. The standard treble goes on up for another octave from that, so it ends on the right hand with a C 3 octaves above middle C (which is that first left-hand ledger line).

So -- as you can see, the first glance at the note on the page tells you which hand (left for lines, right for spaces), and gives you a graphical location for the button. The only remaining part is the key signature. When learning -- especially if it is a key signature which I haven't used before, I will go through and circle in red (on a photocopy of the music) the notes which need to be sharped or flatted. This helps deal with the fact that the signature only marks the upper occurance of the note on the staff, and *I'm* more often playing below that area.

Now that you have this relatively easy roadmap (not really what I would call tablature, but very close, since sir Charles Wheatstone made the design of the buttons fall so neatly on the staff), and once you have learned a tune in whatever key it is written, it is easy to transpose it in fifths by simply moving up or down one pattern of buttons. At that point, one note (perhaps in two places, if you are spanning more than an octave), will sound wrong, and all you have to do is move that finger from the inner row to the outer, or vice versa (depending on where it was already).

Once you go beyond four sharps, or three flats, you will have to hunt the note under its alternate name, and you will find that it is on the other hand at this point. Still -- it is not at all bad for developing sight reading. If I learned more tunes in a year, I could probably get to the point where I could do it at reasonable speed direct from the page. However, I like to keep playing something which I have recently learned, until it adapts itself to whatever my subconcious expects of it. :-)

So -- it is now up to you -- will *you* call standard written music "Tablature for the English", or not? It is close enough to make no real difference in my mind.

Oh yes -- fingering! Normally, the index finger takes the two rows closest to the thumb, the middle finger takes the next row down (out?), and the ring finger takes the row closest to the pinky (which normally lives in a rest bracket beside the keys. At need, it can be called into use, but it normally stays in place, steadying the instrument.

There will be cases in which a deviation from this pattern is desirable. You'll know you've found one when you have to lift a finger and press it down immediately on the next note. Then, it is a case of develop a pattern which does not interfere with the next notes until you can fall back to normal patterns. In one case, I find that I play a note with the left middle finger, then use the index finger to play the note above it in the same row, and then play the next one (in the row normally handled by the middle finger) with the ring finger. After that sequence, things fall back into normal fingering until the next time through the tune.

Note that this is more often the case when there are two notes in succession going from the lower to the upper in the same row. If the other direction is called for, I usually simply slide the finger down to the next button, letting the other pop up as the finger slides off it. (But all of this is something done by individuals to generate their own style. You do what feels right to you.) I might use more variant fingering if I were in the habit of playing fast triplets, but since I favor a legato style, I don't find myself in that position.

	Squeeze On,
		DoN.

Copyright Donald Nichols - June 1998