Randy Stein - English Concertina
5 min readNov 22, 2021

One of my favorite classes during my senior year of high school was literature with Mrs. Faulks. She was a small graying woman who always wore colorful but matronly dresses and if she had not taught from the front of the room next to her desk you would not have known she was there. She never yelled or raised her voice above conversational level. This in contrast to my chemistry teacher whose name I cannot remember. He wore dark suits and spoke loudly and emphatically in the front of a large class in a lecture hall. I learned nothing in chemistry, barely making a passing grade, but have a vivid memory of Mrs. Faulks' class, the books we read and her discussions.

Grade 3 of Elementary School is when we had the opportunity to sign up for band or orchestra. I wanted to play trumpet. But because we went in alphabetical order, I was toward the end and told there were already too many kids who were assigned to the trumpet section. So, I picked the trombone. Why not? I would get to learn music in the bass clef.

As a 9-year-old in a large group of 9–11-year-old novice budding musicians, it is very loud and usually out of tune. Our band teacher, Mr. Farmer, was just happy that we could hit the correct notes, play in unison, and not damage our instruments or his reputation. Somehow I stayed with it playing throughout the rest of elementary and high school. By the time I was seventeen I was playing some paid gigs in my own Dixieland band and later as a part time sideman in a Salsa band. My career as a professional trombone player was cut short by a bar fight and losing a few front teeth and dislocating my jaw. That’s another story for another time.

I took private lessons on the trombone from a young professional musician in the symphony orchestra. He immediately started me on the basics of scales, arpeggios, etudes, etc. He also taught me the value of practicing and playing slowly. He offered advice about my posture and developing my embouchure. “Relax and use only as much air as you need. Don’t tire yourself by playing loud all the time.” I wish my chemistry teacher had listened to him. I was always exhausted after that class.

Julliard School of Music. NYC

The Julliard School of Music is where only the most talented musicians go to study. Located west of Broadway in the 60s in NYC, it is a beautiful, amazing place and one cannot help but be awed by it. I would often walk over there after a lesson with Boris and later Sergei Matueswitch and have an espresso at one of the nearby outdoor cafes. One day I walked into the rehearsal halls listening to the closed-door muffled practicing of the musical mavens of the future. I sat on a folding chair in one of the hallways. It was a dreamlike mesmerizing experience. The spell was abruptly broken when one of the doors opened, a woman walked out leaving a young man playing his cello, loudly and with forceful intent. As quickly as it opened the door closed but I could not return to that magical moment of soft musical cacophony.

I remember one of the very first Irish traditional music jam sessions I attended. It was an overwhelming experience. I was under the drinking age but decided to try anyway. Though I looked extremely young, I was let into the pub because I was carrying the case containing my EC. I moved unassumingly to a table behind but near a couple other younger players where I thought I would be safely out of the way. Prior to this I readied myself and spent a few months learning several reels and jigs from a couple of cassettes of traditional music and from the O’Neill’s compilation. As people started to play I listened and joined in when I could, slowly learning a few measures on each turn of the tune. A couple of other players arrived and sat at my table where we all laughed and played. Someone poured me a beer even though I was not of age. Then another.

I left after playing for more than 4 hours . That night I realized I was able to hold my own as a musician. Beer, however, not so much. When I got outside my ears were still ringing with the sound of the music. Playing in a pub session required me to play louder and faster than I had ever before. It was exhilarating and later when I finally got to bed, I realized, exhausting. The next day my hands were numb.

Now for those who don’t know, the Concertina is a small bellowed instrument with a pan of metal reeds on the inside.

An English Concertina Inside and Out

Depressing one of many buttons as you move the bellows in and out allows air to flow through the reeds to play one or more notes. The louder one plays the harder you need to need to push/pull the bellows.

One of my students asked me if violinists had such difficulty with controlling the dynamics of their instrument. So, I asked my friend and accomplished musician, Julia Moline, how the bowing of her viola might compare. “Less bow and slower bow usually mean less sound. And vice versa.” Makes sense.

Learning bellow control and dynamics on a Concertina is difficult. Teaching someone is equally difficult if not more so. Most people usually just play. And often loud. In so doing they run out of air moving the bellows in or out. They are working too hard and after a while can easily tire. I know players who develop neck, shoulder, or back strain. The subtleties of the playing of one’s instrument is, in my opinion, the most difficult thing to learn and teach.

A violinist onstage with an orchestra understands the dynamics of his or her solo amid entire string, brass, and reed sections. Yet they are heard. Even when playing pianissimo (extremely soft), it may be when we listen the closest. The loudest instrument playing may be the one you hear, but not necessarily the one we listen to. It is the musician who plays with a delicate effortlessness we should listen for.

At least that is what I heard from Mrs. Faulks.



Randy Stein - English Concertina

Randy Stein is a classically trained musician and recording artist who plays and performs internationally on the English Concertina. Website: randysteinec.com