How To Play The Concertina Like Noel Hill
Published: March 2, 2021
Noel Hill is the master of the modern concertina. He singlehandedly revolutionised traditional Irish concertina playing, forever changing the musical landscape.
The concertina owes much of its popularity today to Noel’s innovative and inspirational playing and his virtuoso technical brilliance.
Hill is an other-worldly player: the ornamentations and variations he brings to the dance tunes are imaginative and thrilling, his air playing is arresting, and the rhythm and lift in his music in general is as good as there is. – The Irish Echo
Noel’s playing style is not only iconic but unique. He has inspired generations of players yet who strive to replicate his sound, yet his playing is instantly recognisable, right from the first note. There is only one Noel Hill.
What is it that makes his playing stand out from the crowd? Keep reading and together we’ll explore his iconic concertina playing style, as well as his approach to traditional Irish music.
I’ll show you how you too can follow in the footsteps of this concertina master and take your playing to the next level.
Noel has previously stated that he would rather be an uilleann piper. Luckily for us, he was born into a family of concertina players, and followed in their footsteps.
His love of the pipes is evident in his playing however, and has contributed hugely to the evolution of his unique musical style. Noel has spent many years studying and attempting to emulate the great pipers.
Legendary Irish uilleann pipers Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis have had the strongest influence on both Noel’s concertina playing style and his approach to the music.
I was fascinated by the pipes. I hear Clancy playing in my head all the time and there’s a very strong influence of piping on my playing. After moving to Dublin I spent a lot of time in the company of Séamus Ennis who often stayed with us and talked about music and piping – he was a remarkable man. – Noel Hill
The piping influence can be heard to this day, remaining a fundamental element of Noel’s playing.
While the concertina’s reedy tone is already reminiscent of that produced by the uilleann pipes, Noel incorporates further elements of the piping tradition.
This can be heard in the phrasing he uses, the bass notes and chords he chooses, and his heavy use of ornamentation – particularly the ornamented low D’s which mirror the use of crans on the pipes.
Hit play, close your eyes and listen to the video below. It’s not difficult to conjure the image of a master piper in action:
Listen to any of Noel’s albums or catch him live and you’ll soon become aware of the way he uses certain bass buttons on the concertina to recreate the timbre of the uilleann pipes’ drones and regulators, providing the subtlest of backdrops for his eloquent melodic expressions. – Irish Music Review
Some might marvel that such a virtuoso of the concertina could possibly lament his choice of instrument. I would argue however that this sense of longing and, to an extent, envy, largely contributed to Noel’s in depth exploration of the concertina’s potential. His exploration of style and sound transformed the landscape of modern Irish concertina playing.
If you want to play the concertina like Noel Hill then you need to get busy listening to the great musicians who first inspired him. This includes Mrs. Crotty, Paddy Murphy, Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis to name but a few.
It’s important to understand the inspiration behind Noel’s own playing, and the rich musical tradition he tries to honour with each performance.
In addition to this plethora of brilliant music, Noel’s own discography is mandatory listening not just for budding concert players, but for anyone with an interest in traditional Irish music.
The Irish Concertina
Noel’s debut album, The Irish Concertina was released in 1988 and won Folk Album of the Year that same year.
This humble album remains to this day a masterful showcase of both Noel’s technical brilliance and the concertina’s capabilities.
One of my favourite tracks from this iconic album is Noel’s haunting rendition of the slow air Táimse im’ Chodladh.
Noel’s iconic album has become difficult to source in recent times, particularly online. So while I’d love to share a recording of this inspiring interpretation, alas we must settle for an alternative, which showcases his talent in equal measure. Hear his exquisite musicality on display in his stunning performance of the Irish slow air, The Lament for Limerick below:
Noel is one of the greatest slow air players of our time. His deep connection to the music is evident at all times yes, but it’s particularly palpable when he plays an air. You can hear a tenderness in each note, carefully selected and played and a deep sense of vulnerability.
In Noel’s own words:
When I play music, it is like a prayer to God…the story of my life is told through music and whatever suffering I endured is reflected in my music. It lifts whatever burdens you are carrying. Without music I think I would have lost my mind.
Prior to Noel’s influence, the concertina was still largely seen as an instrument to provide music for dancers. Dance tunes were played in a rhythmic, punchy style with little thought given to musical interpretation.
Noel’s unique approach however transformed the concertina before our very eyes into an instrument capable of depth, feeling and highly emotive musical performance.
The Irish Concertina 2
Noel’s follow up solo album didn’t emerge until 2005.
Other concertina players, inspired by Noel, had risen to prominence since, but none had succeeded, in my opinion, in rivaling Noel Hill.
This album features not only the masterful playing of Ireland’s greatest concertina player, but also a dream team of accompanists – Alec Finn, Steve Cooney and Brian McGrath – whose playing perfectly complements Noel’s sleek concertina stylings.
Technically, The Irish Concertina 2 is a wondrous affair, a panoply of rapid-fingered twists and turns which reinvigorates… More crucially, however, our doyen has retained his ability (and agility) to do things with the concertina of which other exponents can barely dream (and some remain illegal in parts of Mayo). – Irish Music Review
You can hear Noel in action below, accompanied by the mighty Brian McGrath and fiddle legend Frankie Gavin:
The Irish Concertina 3 – Live in New York
Noel’s third solo album is a slightly different offering. Recorded live in New York, it gives a different insight into his playing.
It is filled with an electrifying energy that only live performance can bring and is nigh impossible to replicate in a studio.
A dozen years after the release of last recording, Hill is emerging from the silence, the void, with this lightning rod of a live recording. The sound is bright, and Hill’s creative energies coarse through his richly eclectic tune choices…
His soulful feel for the slow air is inimitable, so that ‘Ó Rathaille’s Grave’ traces its lonesome path into the listener’s subconscious to echo long after the final note has sounded. – Siobhan Long, The Irish Times
It’s not just Noel’s solo material that’s worth a listen. Hill has performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in the tradition.
There are two collaborations however that, in my opinion, stand head and shoulders above the rest.
In 1979, Noel recorded a duet album with Clare fiddle player, Tony Linnane. This recording was revolutionary in its own subtle way. It was the first time I recall a concertina player perfectly matching the phrasing of a fiddle player.
While the concertina retained its distinct and iconic change, there was something different about how Noel was shaping the music. There was no doubt that he was perfectly in sync with his duet partner. No easy feat on two such differing instruments.
Noel has also recorded two beautiful albums with fellow Clareman, Tony MacMahon.
It’s this collaboration that has left the most lasting impression on me, perhaps because these albums feel like the meeting of two kindred spirits.
The first album, I gCnoc Na Graí (In Knocknagree) was recorded live in a Sliabh Luachra pub in 1985 and features a selection of lively duets and solos, interspersed with the exquisite slow air playing for which both musicians have become known.
The second, Aislingí Ceoil (Music Of Dreams) was also recorded live in Dublin in 1993. This time, the pair were joined by the stunning vocals of Iarla Ó Lionard.
Again, the simplicity allows each performer to shine. There are no complex arrangements, no unnecessary bells and whistles – just each doing what he does best.
Each note is played with intent, as a tribute to all those great players who have gone before them and in whose footsteps they have followed. Yet still, the music is electrifying!
If ever a recording could capture the sheer enjoyment of performing Irish music and dance then this is it! – The Living Tradition
MacMahon and Hill have become lifelong friends since with a shared reverence not just for the music, but also for each other. You’ll never hear anyone speak more highly of Noel Hill’s playing than the magical Tony Mac Mahon himself:
As a musician, he is a soul tonic, the true master of the Irish concertina. He has absorbed everything that makes this music special and reflects it back to us.
His soulful playing of the old song-airs of Ireland is the perfect introduction to his art; from the life affirming detail of his dance music to the plaintive long notes of the slow airs, and all created on a musical instrument – smaller than a shoe-box, between his hands. – Tony MacMahon
Noel Hill is in fierce demand as a teacher and it’s easy to understand why. While other master musicians are more focused on solo careers, Noel has great reverence for the ‘noble art of teaching’.
He has previously expressed that he feels a sense of responsibility to pass on the music and assist with the preservation of the tradition. He is a firm believer that musicians must give back to the tradition which has provided for them so richly. It is this deep love for traditional Irish music that Noel wishes to carry on in his legacy.
While strong technique is vital for good concertina playing, Noel doesn’t just teach technique. He also encourages his students to develop their own playing style and learn to create and express their own musical soundworld.
Despite learning from the great masters himself, Noel has succeeded in carving out a sound and that style that is uniquely personal and he encourages his students to do the same.
Noel preaches the importance of making the music your own, while remaining true to the traditions.
Each year, hundreds of concertina players flock to the Noel Hill Concertina Schools which take place in both Ireland and the US. It’s a great place to learn from the master himself and become immersed in his unique playing style.
Those who’ve attended typically rave about the experience and leave as converts to Noel’s playing method, ready to preach his musical gospel to the world.
Unique Playing Method
Noel learned much of his concertina playing from his uncle, but perhaps the most significant influence on his playing method came from legendary Clare concertina player, Paddy Murphy. Paddy Murphy is considered a pioneer of the concertina. He deviated from the older two-octave playing style of Mrs. Crotty and the previous generation and began to explore the potential of the instrument.
He borrowed ornamentation from other instruments, particularly pipes and fiddle, and developed a system of alternative scales to facilitate smooth, flowing phrases, while playing in new, often unused keys. It’s his unique system of cross-row fingering for which he is best remembered today.
Noel Hill learned this cross-fingering playing method from Paddy and has continued to develop it, adapting it to suit the needs of his own playing.
What is Cross Row Fingering?
Cross row fingering is intended to reduce bellows movement. This allows for smoother, more flowing musical phrases.
It also aims to reduce the potential for chopping. Chopping is when a player uses the same finger to play two buttons one after the other. This is something all styles of concertina players aim to avoid.
How Does it Work?
The Anglo concertina is, as you already know, a diatonic instrument. The Anglo concertinas used to play traditional Irish music are typically tuned to C/G. This means that the middle row of buttons on the concertina contains all the notes needed to play the scale of C major. The innermost row contains all the notes to play the scale of G major. This versatile instrument is also bisonoric, meaning each button plays two different notes depending on whether you push or pull the bellows.
Many notes feature more than once on the concertina, and can be played by playing alternate buttons. Whether the note is produced by pushing or pulling the bellows depends on which button you choose to play.
So, if a certain phrase or melody is creating an unnecessarily choppy sound with too much bellows movement, you can simply replace one of the notes by playing it on an alternative button.
Let’s take the note G2 for example.
You can play G using three separate buttons in the left hand:
- Two of these buttons require that you push the bellows to produce the note.
- The third option however is produced by pulling the bellows.
So, if you have a phrase that would achieve a smoother sound by being played entirely on the pull/draw for example, you can use the G on the outer row (which is played by pulling the bellows).
Most concertina players will do this intuitively to some level or another, but Noel Hill really thinks about each note and phrase he plays. His attention to detail is unrivalled.
Watch his performance below and see if you can identify any of the places where he opts for alternative fingerings:
Why Does Noel Hill Favour Cross-Fingering?
By reducing the frequency of the push/pull change of direction of the bellows, the player can shape the phrases differently, changing the emphasis on certain notes and allowing the tune to flow more freely, in a less choppy manner than traditional, older style concertina playing.
While the idea itself is simple, it can require a lot of thought to execute well. Most concertina players are grounded in home row fingering and can struggle with the change.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to either system of playing however. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Much like with the differing systems of playing the button accordion, it comes down to personal preference.
Cross-fingering requires a lot of foresight and preparation. You really have to think ahead and it can take some time before it becomes instinctive. In the early stages you may have to map out a tune to plan where your fingers should be placed.
As I’ve mentioned however, it allows great scope for shaping musical phrases. It also frees up certain fingers for playing chords and certain embellishments.
Noel’s Iconic Sound
Noel’s sound is truly unique and instantly identifiable. His cross-fingering method is one of the biggest contributing factors.
It allows him to explore the full potential of the music and to shape tunes in a way that reflects his own vision.
When it comes to phrasing, Noel is hugely influenced not only by the sound of the uilleann pipes but of the fiddle. He succeeds in replicating both the smooth, flowing sound of these instruments and the rhythmic bark of which they are capable.
While his unique cross-fingering method allows him to do this, it is also his unrivalled musical ear which helps him achieve this impressive feat.
Another contributing factor to Noel’s iconic sound is his use of chords.
Noel typically plays chords which omit the third. The third dictates whether a chord is major (happy) or minor (moody/sad). These open chords, without the third, are neither major nor minor and create a more ambiguous modal sound.
This gives more freedom to the tonality of the tune. Noel is not dictating the sound according to the rules of a major or minor key, but instead creating a free, more open sound, shaped by the tune itself. This is essentially the musical meaning of the word modal.
The Coveted Instruments
Like most masters of their chosen instrument, Noel does not limit himself to owning or playing just one instrument. He instead owns an array of exquisite concertinas including models by Wheatstone, Lachenal and John Dipper.
Noel has previously stated that he owns three Wheatstone Linota concertinas (as though owning one wasn’t enviable enough!). In addition to these three beauties he also plays a Lachenal Anglo Concertina and a County Clare miniature by concertina maker John Dipper.
Noel plays concertinas in a variety of keys including the standard C/G but also in A/D and Ab/Eb. The Ab/Eb model in particular produces great clarity and sweetness. You can hear him play it in the video below:
For those looking to pick up one of Noel’s coveted instruments I have good news and bad.
Let’s start with the good. These vintage concertinas do occasionally come up for sale – in fact, we’re even lucky enough to have some of these beautiful vintage concertinas for sale in our shop right now!
If you’d like to know more about any of our concertinas, especially those in our vintage range, please contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to talk concertinas!
The bad news for some is that some of these vintage concertinas come with a hefty price tag. If they’re out of your price range however, don’t despair. There are many high quality affordable alternatives available.
Find Your Own Magic Concertina
You’ll see I’ve listed the Phoenix Concertina as a suitable alternative for intermediate players. This 30 key concertina comes in C/G tuning with the option of either a matt black or natural wood finish. It comes with either Wheatstone or Jeffries layout – though, if you’re looking to emulate Noel Hill and his cross-fingering method, you should opt for the Wheatstone layout.
This is a well-crafted instrument that promises to bring your playing to the next stage. It’s ideal for those who might not be at quite the same level as the concertina master himself and want to improve their skills on a durable, highly responsive instrument.
Then, you can slowly build your own concertina collection before investing in the concertina of your dreams. Which, let’s face it, for us concertina lovers is pretty much every concertina out there!