Rob Harbron - Finger on the Button

Mon, 04/20/2020 - 17:13
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Recent articles on Andy Cutting and Sam Sweeney have prompted Paul Walker to take a look at Leveret’s third member, Rob Harbron...  Rob Harbron is best known as a player of the English concertina, but this wasn’t his first instrument. 

Recent articles on Andy Cutting and Sam Sweeney have prompted Paul Walker to take a look at Leveret’s third member, Rob Harbron...  Rob Harbron is best known as a player of the English concertina, but this wasn’t his first instrument. “No, I played several instruments before I discovered the concertina - piano briefly aged about five, then guitar and recorder at school, then the violin/fiddle, which I wasn't that keen on until I discovered folk music."

"That led me to go to some of the Folkworks workshops where I saw Alistair Anderson playing. Shortly afterwards, while I should have been practising for a violin exam, I investigated the intriguing hexagonal box in my parents' dining room, which contained the Lachenal English concertina that my great-grandfather had played. After that, the fiddle dropped by the wayside, although I've returned to it in recent years. I also had a brief, but intensive phase of playing the bassoon and got my Grade VIII. These days the concertina is definitely my first instrument, but I do also play fiddle, guitar, harmonium, banjo and so on.”

Nowadays it is quite common for folk musicians to have been to university, and Rob is no exception, although the esteemed course at Newcastle University didn’t exist when he was 18. “I went to The University of Westminster to do a Commercial Music degree. The course was great because it gave students training in a wide range of useful skills for a professional musician: composition, arrangement, studio skills, music law, how the music business works, and lots more. It was the studio facilities that I was most interested in as I was already using as much studio and live sound kit as I could get my hands on. I'm glad the Newcastle course exists now, but I’m not sure it would have been the right course for me. I've always been interested in finding my own style and sound and in working in different genres, and the Westminster course, really encouraged that.”

I have followed Rob’s career for some time, and have seen him playing with many different performers, but rarely on his own, and I wondered why this was the case. “It was always collaboration and playing with other people that I was most interested in. My main interest is instrumental music and, as a tune player, it can be pretty hard to make a convincing sound playing solo. I do have repertoire I want to play and things I want to say as an individual musician, and I feel like I have a far greater range of techniques and ideas for playing by myself now than I once had. It’s partly as a result of all the work I’ve done alongside other musicians - playing with Sam Sweeney and Andy Cutting in Leveret, there is is a really intense interaction among the three of us, in which the listening is as important as the playing, if not more important, and it's that sort of music-making that really excites me. I also enjoy doing multi-instrumentalist gigs where I have to keep on my toes! Jon Boden's band, The Remnant Kings, is great fun, because I do so many different things in it - concertina, guitar, keyboard, backing vocals, and so on!”

Rob and Jon Boden also collaborated in a rather different production a few years ago at Stratford-on-Avon.... “I was Musical Director for an RSC production of A Winter’s Tale, and played the concertina both on stage and off during the run in Stratford. Jon was the composer and recommended me for the gig, and then Tim Laycock took over from me as MD when it toured, as I had other commitments.” Although on-stage for a lot of the time, Rob wasn’t allowed to speak, and I wondered if this was RSC prejudice against his Cumbrian accent! “I was more than happy not to speak, in fact I'm not sure I'd have agreed to do the show if they'd offered me a speaking part! It was amazing to see how the theatre world really works at that level and great to do something that combined working by ear and doing written arrangements - and the theatre in Stratford is a really beautiful room to play in.

I got to work with the company all the way through the seven-week rehearsal process, exploring and experimenting with the play, and working with the cast on songs and dances (we even got a clog dance in there!). That experience was very important when we came to create the Made In The Great War show.” (see LT126)

It’s confession time: I have been known to wander around shopping precincts with flowers in my bowler hat, so I get really fed up with the bad press that Morris dancing receives. It can be a very creative and vibrant activity, I think, and British in the best sense. For example, I wondered if Rob had seen the Moulton lads’ side? “I haven't seen them, but there are some great sides out there. I did quite a lot of work with Morris Offspring a few years ago, where the aim was to find a way of putting Morris on the stage while retaining the essence of it, and I've seen lots of other great stuff over the years.I think it's often the case that the sneering comes from the self-appointed arbiters of style in the media, while the general public are much more open-minded. I do think, though, that there are also sides doing it in a way which, though enjoyable for them, isn't particularly compelling to the casual observer. A big part of that is the music which I think often lets even good sides down. I'm not convinced that bigger is necessarily better when it comes to dance music, whether it be for Morris or ceilidhs.”

Rob plays the English concertina, and has a very recognisable style of playing involving the frequent use of chords, a playing style usually associated with the Anglo concertina, so I asked him how that style had come about - and why he didn’t just play the Anglo? “I only took up the English because that's the instrument that was on hand! In my early days of playing it, a chap in the village copied me a couple of tapes of concertina playing that I listened to a lot - the Morris On album, and the Noel Hill and Tony Linnane album. So, although I'd seen Alistair Anderson play the English concertina before I picked one up, the first concertina players I had the chance to listen to closely and repeatedly were both Anglo players, in two completely different styles! I remember learning reels off the Noel Hill album and incorporating the bellows changes I could hear him doing, and I also learnt the William Kimber-inspired Getting Upstairs that John Kirkpatrick plays on the Morris On album, fitting it onto the English and never thinking for a moment that it shouldn't work on that instrument! I’ve tried other systems, but, for me, the English is the perfect compromise between being able to play fast and fluent single-line melodies, and also building big chordal pieces. Increasingly I'm playing in every key the instrument has to offer, which again feels more natural on the English than it seems to on other systems.”

It hardly needs to be said that musicians depend on their fingers, yet I recently saw a picture of Rob high up on scaffolding mending the roof of his cottage, and I needed to know that he had those golden fingers of his insured for several million pounds. “I've been doing a lot of work on our house over the last few years, and I did a lot of work on the narrowboat I lived on before that too. I'm careful of my hands, but not paranoid, and I actually think that physical work and tool use - whether it's sawing, splitting, sanding, repointing the house (which I did recently), or a host of other things - is really complementary to playing music. They're the same muscles, and the process of finding a feel for an activity and relaxing into it is very much the same as playing any number of instruments. Muscles work better when they're relaxed, whether you're holding a chisel or a plectrum, a hammer or a bow. I did decide against going to play cricket with the village team when we moved here, as the chances of breaking a finger seemed too high. Also, my hand-brain interface works extremely well for playing music, and pretty well for tool use, but shockingly badly for catching, throwing or anything where a ball is involved!”

Although best known as a performer, Rob is just as at home composing and directing, and I wondered which activity he enjoyed most. “I think the music making I enjoy most is a composite of all three elements. If you're playing music that includes elements of improvisation or interpretation then performance is also real-time composition! Working up new repertoire with a band, where I get to contribute creatively, is one of the things I particularly enjoy; I also really enjoy producing other people's music, but they are really very similar processes in how they involve listening to and thinking about music and the people who are making it. In general, I enjoy any aspect of the music-making process that involves creating and developing ideas, whether it’s in collaboration or by myself, but I don’t like just repeating old repertoire the same way many times. I am also happy to sit behind the sound-desk, and enjoyed doing sound recently for Peggy Seeger when she was on tour in the UK.”

Although I haven’t been on it myself, I have heard positive reports about the English Acoustic Collective Summer School which Rob now runs. “The Summer School was originally set up by Chris Wood, initially as a fiddle course and then for strings. I started teaching on it with Chris when we were doing a lot of work together, so it seemed natural to open it up to other instruments. Then when Chris started doing a lot of song-writing and playing the guitar more, he handed the course on to me and my partner Miranda Rutter to run. Although it is technically open to all instruments, it's still quite built around the fiddle, and the number of other instruments we take each year is limited. The point of the course is to help musicians - from all genres, but especially traditional musicians - develop their own sound and style and tell their own story through their music. It's open to a maximum of 17 students each year and there's an application form that prospective students fill in. There's no strict ability level, but students need to be familiar enough with their instrument to be comfortable experimenting, applying new techniques and learning new tunes (the course is run almost entirely by ear), so it's really aimed more at fairly advanced players.”

(Full details of the course are at

I was intrigued to read that Rob had spent a couple of weeks working in India, and wondered what they made of the English concertina! “Yes, I was part of a British Council project called Folk Nations in 2013. Our project took place in Nagaland, in the far north-east of India, which is quite far removed from what they call 'the mainland', and the musicians we were working with were from the tribes of that region, playing music that was very different from the Indian music that people might be familiar with. I don't think anyone had ever seen an English concertina! It was a fascinating project to be part of. I ended up writing a four-note Morris jig to play with a player of a one-string fiddle (which I think he called a Been). In the end, he lent me one of his instruments to play it on and we ended up doing a duet of it, and it's not a bad tune even though it only uses four notes!”

Rob is a busy man, and I have only scratched the surface of what he gets up to. Amongst many other things, he plays in a duo with fiddler Emma Reid, and also with traditional singer Emily Portman. Rob has also been closely involved with the development of the National Youth Folk Ensemble (see LT118). Leveret has launched a new CD, Diversions, and toured in March to promote it, and whilst on the subject of CDs, Rob has just recorded a completely solo concertina CD, entitled Meanders. “I have been thinking about it for a while, and, having been cautious about doing it, I suddenly realised I was feeling ready for the challenge and eager to make it happen. So I booked a couple of days in the studio with Andy Bell and got it done - I actually walked away with finished mixes in the space of two days. It’s mostly my compositions with a few traditional tunes too. It is coming out this summer as a self-release, with an official launch at Sidmouth, and so far, at least four people have said they will buy a copy!”

Well, I will certainly be the fifth one! Having listened to Rob’s playing for well over 20 years, and, as a time-served player of the English concertina, I find his combination of technical skill and emotive performance unique.

Photo:  Camilla Greenwell

Many thanks to the International Concertina Association for their agreement in letting me re-cast this article which first appeared in Concertina World.

Published in Issue 130 of The Living Tradition - August 2019. Buy the printed version of this issue from our online shop