Interview with Brian Hayden, inventor of the Hayden Duet Concertina

by Jack Woehr
Copyright © 2003

Recently I heard from Brian Hayden regarding some material I had posted on the Web about his 1970's invention, the Hayden Duet Concertina , a particular form and system of the hand-held bellows-driven free-reed instrument the concertina. Mr. Hayden's novel variant of the venerable folk instrument is still a rare sight, but increasing in popularity all the time. In contrast to the concertina systems of the 1800's such as the English and Anglo-Irish systems which are optimal for playing the traditional tunes associated with the various regions of the United Kingdom, the Hayden Duet system allows up to eight-voiced harmony and a modern fingering system which is easy to learn and is as well-suited to classical music as it is to modern pop and jazz. In contrast to other Duet systems of concertina, such as the Crane, Maccann and Jeffries, the Hayden Duet arrangement of the notes to the hand of the player is the most rational chromatic concertina system yet devised, consisting of two rows of six whole steps each (repeated in octaves) where the second row commences a perfect fifth above the first. Bass is on the left side, treble to the right, and the sides overlap by about one octave, with a range approximating that of a viola.

The portion of our conversation which follows is more a dialog between an enthusiast (the interviewer) and the grandmaster than a journalistic exercise. Those looking for pertinent facts and figures about the life and career of the estimable Brian Hayden had best look elsewhere1 : our discussion is centered on a mutual love of music in general and of concertina playing in particular.

We spoke via transatlantic telephone on 23 October, 2003.

Brian Hayden: I just got back from a weekend of concertina playing at a place called Kilve in Somerset. The West Country Concertina Players, which are a medium-sized concertina club in this part of England, hold two do's a year. One is in March, which is the main one, where they usually have several professional players like Alistair Anderson and John Kirkpatrick, and the one in the autumn, which used to called the beginner's weekend. Now it's got a bit more general, but we specifically cater to people entirely new to concertina. I was taking the absolute beginners on the Duet, all systems of Duet.

Jack Woehr: So you play all the systems of Duet?

BH: No, no ... I know how all the other systems work. I can get a scale out of any system, but that's about it. At the beginner's level, you're just telling people where to put their fingers. I have complete diagrams, and then for the absolute beginners, I just work on six buttons on each side. Working out from a simple drumbeat on each side, I work up to tunes which only have four, five or six notes in them.

It's the best way to start them off. I particularly emphasize getting the hands on both sides right from the very beginning. A lot players pick up a Duet and are going away marvellously on the right-hand side and the left-hand side lags behind. Six months or a year later they're thinking, "What on earth can I do on this other side?" and trying to catch up the left-hand side with the right-hand side. I like to start off with just a few notes on each side to get people in the way of using the whole of the instrument all at once.

JW: When I first began Hayden Duet concertina, if I couldn't think of anything else to do, I played exactly the same thing on both sides.

BH: That's a very useful thing to do, actually. That's amongst the things we did. I introduce one note at a time, then a sort of thing with two notes, then old-fashioned street cries like "Hot Cross Buns" which have got about three notes to them. As soon as I introduce a new note, we play it on both hands and play up and down the one, two, three, up to six notes we got through this weekend on both hands, play them together. That is such a useful thing to do, and it's the kicking-off point for doing a harmony.

JW: If you are playing in an ensemble and you are the only free reed, playing octaves on the two sides can be very effective.

BH: It can increase the sound you put out if you are only provided with a melody and you aren't able to harmonize or the other players are a playing such an involved harmony that you aren't able to pick it up.

JW: As the Button Box and Marcus 2 are designing new Hayden Duet models, I have corresponded with them expressing a slight disagreement over the layout. I spoke with Richard Morse at the Button Box ... he was concerned about the extra Eb's on the left of the rows, etc. I said to him that I played some singers who sang in Eb and C# and F# and I had to learn where these buttons were, and that I don't care about wraparound buttons, I want a partial row below the low C row on both sides that has the C# and D# on it and I want the high Bb on the left side, etc., [ See diagram ]. I don't care that it's hard to finger an Eb Major chord, I've learned to finger it.

BH: When I have designed concertinas, I do actually like and use the enharmonic repeats. I've got a largish concertina made by that's got all the repeated D#/Eb's and G#/Ab's. I personally like those as having alternatives. Sometimes I'll use an alternative because it gets a better fingering. I use the whole of the buttons I've got.

Now, when I design concertinas - and there's only one maker I've persuaded to do it, though it's so obvious - I simply design them to link the enharmonic repeats, so you've got extra buttons but no extra reeds, which is where the cost is. It doesn't make the instrument any bigger. It's like the two repeated rows on the chromatic [button] accordion, simply linked on the levers.

The other thing that I've found in practice [on the Bastari 67 ] is that the low F# is where the Eb should be. I never use the F#, but am continually putting my finger on that button expecting an Eb.

JW: That's another case where I'd rather have a partial row.

BH: The F# should really have been put as an odd note or put by the thumb even.

JW: Well, in my case, I can't use that button anyway because it sticks! I've tried to fix it with no luck.

BH: The accordion-style action they used can be improved by bushing the buttons but it's not the most marvellous of actions. It was an experiment. When I was first getting concertinas from Bastari and wanted a larger size, he said, "Why don't you have some square ones?" He had produced a larger one with eight-sided bellows, but the bellows used to implode the moment you put it under any pressure pulling it out. And it had such an enormously great big lump on each end. It didn't look marvellous, and I thought those were never going to sell.

I was reasonably happy with the square instruments. I had ten of those made. What I [later] realized is that it fell between two stools. All the English people who play want something that looks like a concertina even if it's got accordion reeds. People who want an accordion say, "I want an accordion and not a square concertina." There's absolutely no tradition of square concertinas in this country. There's only one man I know who seriously plays, and that was Pat Robson. He encouraged me to pursue this idea, but in the end I lost a little money on that one.

I only had ten [square Bastari instruments] made, but from what I hear from people who say they've got them, there's more out there than I know of. I've retained one from myself; there's two I know where they are, and two others I've never sold, but I've heard of at least twenty, so they can't be all the same five going 'round and 'round.

JW: I have performed and recorded with a Bastari, and the dual reed sound is very sweet.

BH: That's not uncommon on the bandoneon-type instruments. I have a double reed in tremolo and one in octaves. I prefer the octaves, because a double reed in tremelo tends to sound a bit like a cheap melodeon.

JW: What I found over a couple of years of playing the Bastari is that it just too square and too heavy. I want a lighter instrument.

BH: I'm very sorry that the Russian instrument didn't continue, because that had a very good range of notes and was a lovely light instrument. You could hold it up in your hands and didn't have to hold it on your knee at all. They've run into problems of supplies and materials, but it's not totally a dead idea yet.

JW: That instrument uses Bayan-style reeds.

BH: The sound of the instrument was about half-way between an accordion reed and a concertina reed. I think with a few tweaks it could have sounded quite close to a concertina sound.

JW: Does there exist a fairly ideal Hayden Duet concertina that is light and concertina construction or is your 68 button one the only one in existence?

BH: No, another two were made, but the instrument to which you refer is not light, unfortunately. It's rested on the knee. It's light-ish for its 8 inch size, but any concertina once it goes over about 48 notes it's a rest-on-the-knee rather than a wave-it-around-your-head sort of instrument.

JW: I worked a lot on airborne playing technique. For a while I played exclusively airborne, but now I do a combination of airborne and knee.

BH: One of the things I try to do when designing a concertina is to put the buttons up as high as they go, because the nearer the hand is to the center of the instrument, the easier it is to play airborne. I can actually play the Bastari airborne for a while, because the hand is at dead center. Whereas my  68 button one, which is quite a bit lighter, I do find very awkward to play airborne. It's made in a more traditional manner with the buttons towards the center and the hand pushed towards the bottom edge.

Before I had this instrument I used to play a Wheatstone 46 at the concertina club. I'd be sitting down holding my hands up so it was much closer to my face than to my knees. That was the way I always played it, sitting or standing. With one or two exceptions, all the players of English concertinas were playing with the instrument on their knees. That's the common way with the English concertina because of the very funny way of holding the instrument.

JW: Can you identify any company other than Stagi that has Hayden instruments in stock?

BH: There is no other company than Stagi. Marcus was fairly close to making one, but unfortunately there has been a delay for the moment.

When I designed the Russian instrument, it was designed based on the size of Italian accordion reeds. I had no way of knowing exactly what size the Russians made their reeds. I designed the instrument to be seven inches across from one flat side to the other. I had in mind that it wants to be that size, otherwise it can run away and get too big. I spent three solid weeks designing it. I practically went off my head getting it right so I could get all the reeds to fit in that space with all the notes I want on that instrument. Eventually I came up with the design, and one part of the design was having links between the D#'s and Eb's and the G#'s and Ab's.

JW: Have you looked at Richard Morse's proposed 55-button instrument?

BH: I have seen it and talked to him about it. Obviously I can't control what people do. He's angling it mainly towards American folk music. The 46-key was obviously aimed towards English folk music with the majority of Scottish, Irish and American folk music thrown in as well.

JW: We call it "Trad" here, "UK Trad".

BH: I've never been to the United States.

JW: The level of technical expertise and musicological expertise exhibited by British concertina players is not generally matched in the USA because anybody who plays this stuff has to play a lot of popular music, too, or they starve. "UK Trad" is frequently a condiment, a spice added to the mix.

BH: What sort of music is played?

JW: It depends on who you are. Concertina is an extremely rare instrument in the United States. Every time I play, people come up and ask, "What is that? It's an interesting instrument. What is it?" You play what you can to move ahead, pop tunes, tunes from the 'sixties, tunes that live in people's emotional memory. Every small combo has to know how to play "Free Bird".

BH: Is classical ever played on the concertina?

JW: I've never seen anyone play classical on the concertina except myself. I've arranged Bach's C Major Prelude No. 1 for the Bastari 67 .

BH: That's interesting. I'm particularly keen on Baroque: Handel and Vivaldi and that sort of thing. Originally I was a folk player, but that's what I'm quite keen on playing now.

JW: I also play jazz, especially hits of the 'thirties and 'forties done to modern jazz tastes. Jazz is quite popular here.

BH: That's done quite a bit on the piano accordion, but I only know about a handful of jazz concertina players.

JW: One problem is that American bands play too loudly. So how do you amplify concertina adequately? I tried velcro-on pickups, but I didn't like wires hanging off the instrument. I suppose there's wireless, but it adds weight. I use microphones, but bands play so loud that feedback vibrates the instrument itself. So for loud music I play electric violin. But people like the concertina, they want to hear it, especially on the 'sixties standards.

BH: I tend to associate the 'sixties with the Beatles. I play one or two of their songs.

JW: How often do you perform?

BH: I don't really "perform" as such. It's years since I did an actual concert. I play at several concertina weekends, and I play at the West Country Concertina Club. I play mostly at home. I used to play folk concerts in the 1960's. At that time I was playing the Anglo concertina and I was playing for a folksong group. I really don't play for the general public.

JW: Do you consider yourself primarily a designer of concertinas, or a lover of concertinas ... ?

BH: Well, I'm a lover of concertinas. Not many days go by where I don't play the concertina. I just enjoy playing for my own benefit. And I have this rather notorious fact that I invented the system of Duet that I use. So I get invited to lecture about it or teach a concertina weekend ... I'm also expected to teach the other Duet systems as well. Most of these weekends are run by English concertina players who don't really understand Duet, and as far as they're concerned, all Duets are the same with maybe some minute variation. The point is, the result from a good Crane player, or a good Maccann player, or a good Hayden player to them is a similar sort of sound.

JW: Hayden Duet is a very different instrument from English.

BH: The old players [of English concertina] used to play absolutely marvellously, with all sorts of harmonies and things like that, but all of those old players have now died, the people I knew in the 'sixties and up to the 'seventies or 'eighties. The old school of English concertina playing has totally died out. It's been overtaken by two different streams:

One is the folk music stream, which plays purely melody, absolutely nothing else.

The other is part players who are playing in bands. It's mostly classical, at least, it's deliberately composed music. They all play parts and get together in little orchestras. This is the basis of the West Country Concertina Club. That's what the majority of the players do, they get together so they can all play together. It's a nice sound.

Whereas most of the Duet players tend to be independent and play their style by themselves because they can play all the parts.

JW: That's me, constitutionally unable to get along with other musicians for very long, I have to play solo a lot!

BH: You're a typical Duet player then, aren't you?

JW: I think I fit that psychological profile.

BH: I'm like that, too. When I come to play a Handel piece, if it's got four or five parts, I'll play all four or five parts. I don't need another concertina playing the lower part nor a third and fourth concertina playing the high parts.

JW: The tradeoff, the price we're paying for that, is that probably, in terms of pure melody, the English concertina can play faster.

BH: Well I dont entirely agree: with practice you can play just as fast as on other types of concertina. One of the features of English concertina, in this country, anyway, is that they all learn to play from music. If they haven't got a piece of music in front of them, most of them can't play at all. They sight-read the music. The leader arrives, dumps the various different parts in front of them. There's usually two treble parts like first and second violin, then there's a lower part which can for the most part be played on the standard treble concertina. That's off the treble stave. Then there's the baritone concertina, (which is not super low), and they'll play the viola parts and an adjusted cello part. If you're lucky, they might have a bass concertina which will play right down to the bottom of the cello and into the double bass range as well. So you've got a complete quartet or quintet of concertinas. When they join together a lot of them will take the higher parts and the fewer people who have got the bigger instruments will add to it so you have an orchestral sound. That sort of playing is quite popular. Any of the concertina weekends, the prime thing is that sort of orchestral get-together. They'll spend the whole of the weekend practicing in order to play the pieces in the concert at the end of the weekend.

Whereas I'm there actually teaching techniques and so on. Sometimes at the end we can sort of cobble together some kind of performance. But when I'm teaching, that's not my main aim. My main aim is to pass on techniques of concertina playing, literally how to harmonize, these sorts of things, so people can go away and practice.

JW: You're musically happy with richly voiced Duet playing, four or five voices at a time.

BH: If you look at music, it comes down to this: orchestral music is basically four-part harmony. An orchestral score is based effectively on a string quartet "writ large". You've got your first and second violins, your violas and your cellos, and that is your absolute basis of the orchestra. The other instruments are for the most part solos. Music comes down to being four or five parts, and you can play all these parts on the Hayden concertina.

One of the things I'm always pointing out to concertina players is the fact that you've got an instrument that can play any selection of notes from the whole range of the instrument. Most people think that the piano is the king instrument for being able to play all the parts. But when you look at the piano, because of the way it's laid out, although you've got seven and a quarter octaves in total, at any one moment you can only take selections out of two of those octaves, because you've got two handfuls each of which is about an octave. Whereas on the concertina, any kind of concertina, give or take a few notes, you can select any combination of notes from out of the whole range of the instrument.

Orchestral music does so. It selects notes from the whole compass of the orchestra. When you've got a piano arrangement, it's been adjusted to play what an ordinary pianist can get under two hands.

JW: One of the things that was most difficult for me was this: I was playing with a guitar and a bass, and I was playing essentially four voices. Then I got into a larger ensemble, which had not only guitar and bass, but also mandolin and banjo. One of the toughest thing was figuring out nice three-voice voicings to make room for the rest of the band.

BH: Three parts is really easy, because you're going to play the high part on the right-hand side, the lowest part on the left-hand side, and the middle part, a lot of it falls in the overlap, and you've got the alternative. I work out the best possible fingering, so that middle part tends to get thrown from one side to the other depending on which is the easiest to play.

When you're playing four parts, for classical music, I'll approach the instrument holistically rather than as higher and low parts and work out which is the best fingering. It can work out that on the right side you're playing the highest part and the next to lowest part, and on the left hand you're playing the lowest part and the next to highest part because that gives you the best fingering.

JW: Are you planning on publishing a book of your arrangements?

BH: No, I haven't at the moment. I don't know anyone else who'd want to play that sort of music.

JW: Have you arranged Haydn?

BH: That's one of the things I haven't tackled. He's no relation, as far as I know. Haydn is quite difficult, I really need a five-octave concertina to play Haydn quartets. I'm not really up to it yet. I hope I will. He wrote some fantastic music.

Handel is surprisingly straightforward. Handel had one of these magic ways of writing. He wrote music that from the very beginning to the present day ordinary people really like. With Haydn, you've got get into it more. To some extent Bach is that way, too. It's music for musicians, rather than music for the general public. There are odd bits of Haydn Quartettes which are very popular, for example, the "Serenade". But that particular piece is actually a melody accompanied by the rest of the quartet. Whereas it's not what I call quartet music as such. A lot of Haydn is quite difficult music. His symphonies are more popular pieces. But the quartets have to be studied before you can really enjoy them. You play a piece of Handel and it's popular immediately.

JW: How do you arrange?

BH: I hear a piece and I get a recording of it and listen to it and listen to it. If, after several months, I'm still enjoying it, then I probably will want to play it. At that stage I'll buy a piano edition of the music, which has got the music conveniently written on the treble side and the bass clef. However, I'm an slow music reader. I'm not a quick sight reader.

But I need to have the music all written on the page so I can get all the notes. Piano versions are altered so a piano player can play them. Then I'll borrow the full score from the local library. I'll go right through and alter all the alterations which have been made to make the piece playable on the piano back to where they originally were. I remove what I call the "pianisms".

You also find there are bits left out of a piano version. I first noticed this when I decided I'd learn some of Handel's "Firework Music". I got a piano version and started to learn to play it, starting at the end rather than the beginning. I'd learnt the finale, - Minuet II - right at the end. I noticed the piano version had an odd thing to it: the first stanza of the music had four parts to it, and the second part had only three parts to it. I thought, "This is odd. Surely it can't be like that." You'd expect to end with more music, rather than less. So I got the score and found that there were four parts to both stanzas. They'd had to adjust the second stanza because it would have been in places almost impossible to play on the piano, then for evenness they just dropped one of the parts the other phrases which could have been played in four parts.

Most orchestral music is, I find, four parts, with an occasional fifth part soloing. The double bass usually doubles up on the cello, and I have to lose that anyway.

On Handel's "Firework Music", it's basically string quartet music ... along with the first and second violins, you get oboes playing exactly the same thing. There's no woodwind playing along with the viola. On the bass part, there's a bassoon playing along with the 'cello. You've got the horn and trumpet parts, which, if you look at them, you'll find are the same as three or four of the string parts. Sometimes the trumpets and horns will play by themselves and sometimes they'll play with the violins and oboes. There's even little extra instructions, "First time through, violins, second time through, horns and trumpets, third time through, everybody (tutti)." It still ends up with only four different parts.

As far as possible, I keep music exactly the way the composer wrote it. Obviously, in some cases, there's notes that fall off the bottom of the instrument. Sometimes I play just the odd notes - if it's part of a harmony - an octave higher. If it's part of a phrase, I'll take the whole phrase, maybe a couple or three bars, up an octave.

JW: Do you ever arrange for, say, Hayden Duet and a bass?

BH: No, I never have on the concertina. Musically, I'm alone. Years ago, I had a band and we played for English barn dances. I played button accordion and there was a double bass player, a guitar and a piccolo. That was my almost ideal band. I'd have liked to have had a banjo player, but I could never find one.

JW: Come over to visit us here in the United States, where banjo players are a dime a dozen!


[ 1] E.g., "A Chat with Brian Hayden " by Wes Williams.
[ 2] Here's a link to a picture of Brian Hayden playing the Marcus prototype .

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