The Instrument Page

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These are just some of my instruments - the ones that I actually play in public!

Left to right: Neapolitan mandolin; 5-string banjo; OS chromatic autoharp; Clarke tin whistles; Spanish guitar

Front: Anglo concertina

And here are my genuine antiques:

Left to right: Thüringer Waldzither; 5-string banjo; German guitar-lute; early Zimmermann autoharp

Front: Neapolitan mandolin; German Bandoneon  

Eventually, I hope to have a niche in my "Music Room" for each of them.

How did I, as a singer, come to have so many instruments - of which the above are only a selection?

Well, they say that the first three years of your life are decisive for your further development, and I spent those years in a family that had quite a variety of musical instruments. There was a piano in the drawing-room, for a start, and my mother played it regularly. Then there was that cache behind the sofa, too...

There was a black case with my father's mandolin in it. Before he married my mother, Dad had had a button accordion, or melodion, and when my mother said, "That thing or me!" (or words to that effect), he went to a Dublin pawn-shop to sell it. But then he saw that beautiful mandolin (the one in the "Antiques" photo above), and did an exchange rather than a sale!

There was a mock-crocodile violin case there, too. This was apparently on permanent loan from some less musical member of the family. My father had learned fiddling as a youth (which was why he was able to play the mandolin) so we had the fiddle.

Then there was a rectangular, mock-crocodile case with Mum's autoharp. She had bought this some time around 1930 to accompany her Gospel singing in venues where there was no piano. It was an old German one, tuned in G, with 6 chord bars.

In a drawer in the sideboard were further treasures - my father's two harmonicas (or mouth organs, as he invariably called them.) There was a long, single-key one and a short, two-sided one in C and G. He played them regularly until his trigeminal neuralgia made it impossible for him to do so. I don't know whether his ability to play the mouth organ was a spin-off from his melodion playing - the instruments are related - or whether he just picked it up along the way. Quite possibly, it was the latter, because I seem to have inherited the propensity from somewhere!

In addition to the instruments my parents owned, there were other stimuli. My parents were Christians, and I was taken to Sunday morning service at an early age. Now, Church services are cruelty to children under 7, as many will be able to testify.
My parents knew this, so I was not taken to Church as such. There was a Salvation Army Citadel just round the corner, and that was where I was taken. There was so much joyful noise there that a fidgety child was not noticed. But I didn't fidget. There was so much lively music going on! I adored the silver band. I was fascinated at the way the Sally Army Lassies wielded those tambourines while the Songsters sang.
And then there was the Captain with his concertina. For a quiet, meditative song, there was just nothing to match it! That timbre, hard yet evocative! It left me with a lifelong hankering to make sounds like that...

But the next instrument to enter my life was to be the 5-string banjo. For details, see The Banjo Page. It was first my father's old mandolin, then the banjo, that got me oriented towards fretted stringed instruments right from the start, and these were the first instruments that I played in public with a 3-person folk group (with another boy and a girl - sort of like Peter, Paul and Mary, only Irish).

I long resisted the temptation to take up the guitar, because that was what everybody played back in the 1960s, and for solo singing, I had the banjo. Then, as a student in Germany, I came across an old German guitar-lute in a Düsseldorf junk shop (see the "antiques" photo). I bought it (for 60 Marks!) and tried applying the chord diagrams in the back of my song-book to it - with success!  Later, I brought back a guitar as as souvenir from a holiday in Spain, and used it quite a lot when I seriously started solo folk singing.

However, the concertina was not for gotten, and for my 18th birthday I wished for and got a simple, East German-made 20-button instrument of the type that is nowadays referred to as a "German concertina". It is hexagonal in shape, like the English, but has large buttons, like the older German Konzertina. The fingering is identical to that of a 20-button Anglo concertina.

This cheap instrument went out of tune rather quickly, but slowly enough to give me a lot of fun and the groundings in concertina playing technique.

When I came to Germany in the early 1970s, a business trip took me to West Berlin, with its many antique shops. In one of these I found a square object with many buttons, some of which were arranged like a concertina's (see the "Antiques" photo). So I bought it for, I think, 60 Marks. It turned out that I could play all my concertina pieces on it, but that the 54 buttons gave me a lot of interesting harmony variations. Only much later did I have it positively identified as a Bandoneon, dating from about 1900. More information on the Concertina Page!

The irony of it all was that I could play a passable mandolin, banjo, guitar and concertina without having taken lessons on any of them - but my childhood piano lessons seemed to have been totally in vain!