Göran Rahm has thought long and hard about the ergonomics of the concertina. His ideas are sometimes drastic, sometimes controversial, but always worth listening to. What follows are two articles written by Göran for the magazine Concertina World. The first considers the ergonomics of the English concertina and how it might be improved. The second does the same for Anglo and Duet concertinas.
The English concertina has not changed much during 150 years. Does this prove it was perfect from the beginning? You can look on that from many viewpoints but the variety of concertina models is one example of attempts to satisfy different needs, so let us start with some comparison.
As I see it the Anglo is the most user-friendly of the common concertina models. It can be held and worked in a relatively natural relaxed way. It feels rather balanced when holding it and the buttons are located in suitable positions for the fingers. Midsize Duets are fairly comfortable too, but what about the English? Compare figures (1,2).
It is easy to see that it is not possible to hold the English steady with just the thumb and little finger, which is very unlucky since efficient bellows control is essential for all squeezebox playing.
SITTING OR STANDING. The English concertina no doubt likes best being played standing. It is symmetrical, held between the hands similarly, relatively light, and its dynamics is best performed while standing. Tutors however mostly recommend that it be played sitting. (Maybe in despair due to a few droppings or aching thumbs?). They often suggest that the bellows are worked with one hand while the other end of the instrument is resting on the knee. This will often unnecessarily wear out both the clothes and the bellows. What could be done to make it possible to play standing?
Some tutors suggest hanging the instrument from a cord around the neck. Anything hanging around the neck is liable to cause tensions, and if the cord is not elastic the elbows will be kept in a static angle, which is unsuitable. A better idea would be hanging it from the front ends of elastic braces. This would relieve some of the weight of the instrument but you still can not grip it safely.
HOLDING THE INSTRUMENT. You are supposed to do this by means of a thumbstrap and a little finger rest, two sophisticated implements of torture. The thumbstrap, if set tight enough for full control of the instrument will first make your thumbs ache, then getting numb and if not released threatened by gangrene. If set loose, the instrument will try to fracture the thumbs by twisting to and fro. The little finger rest is provided with a sharp edge right where the little finger wants to stay which will cut a wound on the fingertip unless moved to some safe place beside.The thumbstrap is located eccentric on the end which will cause the instrument to flap with pushing and pulling (4,5), a disadvantage that could be cured by a central location (6).
If you put your thumbs through the straps you will probably find yourself in the position (7) with the upper arms alongside and the forearms parallel. A more open and relaxed position (8) however would be preferred, reducing the awkward extension (backward bending) of the wrist. Trying to achieve this some players put only the thumbnail into the straps (9) thus loosing a great deal of the bellows control. Another variant in order to reach the lower buttons is angling the instrument like (10) while sitting, a desperate method too.
These disadvantages could be cured in some extent by a sunken keyboard (11) or sloping ends, raised at the lower end of the instrument (12) but the contact between the palm/wrist and the endplate still is unsatisfactory.
This gives impulses for a MODIFIED DESIGN. The traditional English treble endplate offers very poor contact between the palm and the instrument (2,13). If the thumbstrap and keyboard is relocated more towards the top end (14) jamming of mechanism will make it necessary either to make the instrument larger (15) or elongated (16). If elongated you could consider making it 4-sided (17) as well as 6,8,10 or 12-sided if other arguments do not speak against that. A better-balanced instrument with the keyboard dislocated to the top and sloping ends is suggested (18,19,20).
BUTTONS. One of the first puzzles the concertina presented. Why did the concertina have metal needles digging tender holes in the fingertips while the piano had smooth ivory and ebony keys? I still don't know. I see no obstacle against a tighter keyboard similar to button accordions with say 13mm buttons (3). 48 keys would still be manoeuvrable. I would also prefer a lighter button resistance but there is a limit due to the force needed for safe tightness of the pads. A problem that might be solvable.
WRIST STRAPS. This is a debated subject. Negative opinions about them I think mainly depend on the imperfect instrument design. If you put the thumbs through the thumbstraps and set the wrist strap tight on a traditional treble you will end up like (28) with extended wrist, which will be exaggerated when the knuckles are raised to reach the lower keys (28 left hand) and you will be locked in an awkward position. If you set the wrist strap looser with just the thumbnail in the thumbstrap (29) the finger movability is ok and the wriststrap assists on pulling but gets loose on pushing. A lower end support about 30mm high (30 left hand) would offer contact between the palm/wrist on pushing and combined with the wrist strap (30 right hand) a cuff is formed securing the contact both on pushing and pulling. This also relieves the thumbs from greater part of the load and liberates the fingers for their precision work on the buttons. Playing standing will be much facilitated too. Further improvement would be reached by the modified design of the end (31).
Disadvantages? The more fixed attachment of course will limit the compass depending on the size of the hands and the measures of the keyboard. A 48-button keyboard would be manoeuvrable mostly and myself I willingly do abandon some music for the benefit of better bellows control and the ability to play standing.
PRACTICAL TRIALS. So far mainly theory. What could be done in practice?
I have tried the wrist support on the 48 key Aeola tenor/treble (21,22,23), chosen because the thumbstrap is more centrally located and there is more space at the lower end. Instrument models and sizes differ in this respect (32,33). When playing standing with the instrument low the conventional little finger rest (24) is of no use so I have changed it for a higher model with the curved support at the other end (25). I also use much broader individually cut wriststraps (27) compared to the usual ones (26) and I have changed the 5mm diam buttons to 6mm ones resulting in better comfort and ability to press 2,3 or 4 buttons with the same finger.
In my opinion the attachment of the anglo and the duet could be improved likewise using the combination of thumbstrap, wristsupport and broader individually cut wriststrap (34,35). Particularly with the anglo a r eally fixed position could be beneficial maybe like a part-glove made from an individual cast of the hand?
CONCLUSIONS. The attachment of the English concertina could be improved by simple means offering better bellows control and possibilities to play standing. A more favourable arrangement from ergonomic points of view might reduce problems with muscular strain. Finally I want you to bear in mind that much of this is highly depending on individual constitution and preference. I do hope first of all that these ideas will stimulate a constructive discussion and further development.
In Concertina World No 410 I described disadvantages of the English Concertina and suggested improvements in the design and ways of holding the instrument. Some further comments appeared in No 414 with a few corrections in No 415.
First a couple of additional remarks. In No 414 I said that it would hardly be possible to practice the suggested modifications on a treble. With a slightly enlarged wrist-support (figure 1) however, fingering and stability will be good enough. Bellows-work will be unbalanced, but depending on individual technique maybe sometimes acceptable. For players with small hands, and particularly children, the distance "a" (figure 2) will be long enough to admit the original concept to be used. After finding that the little finger, if not taking active part in playing, should be 'resting' in the air, and not on the end of the instrument, I have removed the finger rests not to be in the way of the fingers.
I also assumed that the exhibited ideas might have been presented before. Last winter I have learnt that in the 1861 Patent No 2289 William Wheatstone did present a principally similar design as the figure 14 of my first article with the keyboard and thumb-strap located further to the top end and a wrist- support added at the lower end (figure 3). The patent seems not to have been realised in any production, maybe depending on the death of William Wheatstone in 1862 and consequent re-entry of Charles Wheatstone in the concertina business, but maybe also on the other novelties of the same patent. Instead of making the instrument slightly larger or elongated as I suggested, an extra internal reed-pan with a complicated mechanism and even an increase to 62 buttons was introduced which made the whole concept obviously unpractical and understandingly abortive.
In the first article I assumed that the attachment of the Anglo and Duet could be improved likewise using the combination of thumb-strap, wrist support and broader wrist-straps. (The term "wrist-strap" is not quite adequate here since this strap rather supports the back of the hand. I use it for both cases all the same). The motive as with the English being better balance in holding the instrument and more satisfactory bellows control. The original wrist-strap arrangement of these models however (unlike the thumb-strap of the English) better allows playing standing, and could be expected to cause less strain problems than the English. Both the Anglo and the Duet (like the English) still suffer from the attachment being located eccentric on the endplate. Bigger Duet models may be better in this respect.
German six-sided 20 button concertinas (figure 4) mostly have a more favourable arrangement than Anglos (figure 5) and on some German models (figure 6) the wrist-strap is located at the very centre of the instrument which is where it ought to be, unless centre of gravity differs from that. It is noteworthy that the bigger German Konzertinas/Bandoneons have a centric attachment too.
The eccentric attachment will make the instrument rotate (figure 7) within the allowance of the strap and some players will adjust to this by a rotation in the wrist. The resulting position (figure 8) is uncomfortable and inefficient. The eccentricity will also cause the same unstable flopping of the ends on push/pull as with the English but it may be partly compensated by the better contact with the palm of the hand.
THE ANGLO. Firstly, the standard instrument, 160mm across, like the English treble is a little bit too small for best solutions but a lot easier than both the English and the Duet to adjust near to ideal. I first tried to elongate and broaden the end a little like figure 1, but found that the wrist support favoured a position of the hand closer to the buttons, and with a slight rotation like figure 7 the elongation was unnecessary (figure 9). Still - an orientation of the keyboard like figure 6 might offer a better stability for the palm, and so would an eight-sided design. The only problem now being that the right hand thumb-strap interferes with the vent button. This could easily be treated by changing the vent push-button to a pin lever with suitable location and sideways action.
THE DUET is more complex because there are several systems and sizes to deal with.
A. The smallest ones, 160mm across (like the standard Anglo and Treble English) may be treated according to figure 1 but the thumb-strap causes more problems than with the Anglo and the English and they can not be rotated as done with the Anglo. I regard them as "lost cases" except for children.
B. Mid size ones, 180mm across, may differ quite a bit in practical measures, but most of them suffer greatly from the eccentricity due to their weight and tend to rotate according to figure 7. I have only tried the complete attachment on a 55 key six-sided Wheatstone Crane and it worked fairly well mounted straight just like I have done on the English (figure 10).
C. Big models, 200mm across and more, mostly are better balanced with the original strap more centrally located and with plenty of room for the wrist support. I have tried the complete concept on a 55 key baritone Aeola Crane and this turned out quite comfortable.
Finally it must be said that a perfect attachment requires careful individual adaptation and all traditional models sadly lack means for this. For best results it must be possible to move the thumb-straps and the fixation points for the wrist-straps, and the length of the straps must be well adjustable. The wrist straps for example usually have one fixed screw and one adjustment screw and holes at 8mm interspace. With 6mm interspace at one end and 8mm at the other, length adjustments can be made with an accuracy of 2mm instead of 8mm. The suitable height of the wrist support depends on the size of the instrument, the hands of the player and individual playing technique. I have used 35-40mm at the top myself but a lower support may be compensated by angling the bellows a little more which may be facilitated with flexible bellows or some extra folds, which is not entirely positive however since the bellows may become more floppy.
To compensate for the rotation of midsize Duets and weight of the big ones I recommend hanging the instrument in elastic braces if the clothing allows it. A rigid neck-strap is not a good solution.
Concerning buttons I prefer 6mm ones on the Duet and on the Anglo there is room enough for at least 8mm ones, used for example on some German six-sided 20 button models.
The conclusion is that the attachment of the Anglo and Duet may be improved by adding the thumb-strap idea from the English which helps to stabilize the hand and counteracts the rotation of the instrument. As with the English a wrist support combined with a steady wrist-strap offers improved bellows control and better fingering positions. To achieve ideal conditions a complete redesigning of the instruments remains necessary, which however leads to a need for changes of the internal construction as well. A challenge for the instrument maker…
Göran Rahm Uppsala 970831 Bruksvägen 11 B 752 41 Uppsala Sweden