Musical Director

Steve Houghton

The Magic of Musicality
   by Steve Houghton

My musical experience began at St Thomas’s Primary School in my home town of Kendal in 1968, where I passed a musical aptitude test at the age of 10 and began to learn the violin. I was upholding a family tradition as my Dad played at school and my Granny played in a chamber orchestra.

Starting Kendal Grammar School in 1969, I began private violin lessons and entered for the Westmorland Mary Wakefield festival in 1971. I placed well down the field in my first and only entry into a solo section of a music festival to date! After I progressed to a second teacher, who played in the local chamber orchestra, he suggested that I enter for my first music exam at grade 4. However, I got cold feet and, overwhelmed by the prospect of a scary exam, I stopped playing at age 14 after 4 years. However, Mum and Dad encouraged me to continue with music if I found interest in a different instrument.
My Eureka moment came whilst watching Yorkshire TV’s Junior Showtime series. I was intrigued by several young accordion players and thought I’d like to try the accordion as it looked easier than the violin (but then, what isn’t?). I’d love to know who my inspirational players were; 45 years on, they’re probably now amongst the accordion elite. My Dad tracked down a well-used gold-sparkled Settimio Soprani 80 bass with a single wrist coupler, and set about finding a teacher. After trying a few disappointing leads, a tip-off led him to contact Peter Barcock who played in a local dance band, the Hi-Lites, and coincidentally worked in the office block next to my Dad’s work. A deal was struck, and Peter graciously came to my house, free of charge, for a Tuesday night lesson every week for the next 4 years until I left for university in 1976. Armed with the Sedlon Accordion Method tutor books, from Mamelok’s in Manchester, Peter taught me the basics plus his own preferences for fancy bass runs, a light bass touch, and of course the classic 3, 2 fingered bass (not the trendy 4, 3, 2 fingers used today). Together we visited NAO festivals at Perth (1973) and Brighton (1974), plus several visits to the local Carlisle festival, where Peter himself entered the Entertainment section and was subsequently featured on Border TV local news.
Having an enthusiastic teacher listening, we now felt the Settimio Soprani sounded rather rough, so Dad set about learning how to improve it; replacing, tuning and sealing reeds with hot wax, plugging bellows leaks etc. Fortuitously a better quality Hohner Verdi V 120 bass came up for sale around that time, which we eagerly snapped up for £80 and which I still own. Dad then took over the Settimio and taught himself to play along with me.
My Grammar School celebrated its 450th anniversary in 1975 during my lower sixth year, and a student teacher who danced with the Kendal Morris Men hatched a plan to form a celebratory school Morris team of 6th form boys. I was roped in to learn a few tunes ranging from Bean Setting (Bampton) to Constant Billy (Adderbury). Our team duly performed at the school’s summer fete, the chairman of governors’ garden party (not as posh as it sounds!) and the 450th celebration Medieval Banquet in the school hall, complete with jesters, jugglers and serving maids.
I moved to work in Cheshire in 1983 and joined NSAC in 1989, after seeing an advert in Newcastle library. George Karklins invited me to join the recently formed band, where I played 3rds alongside Ron Slack, and later Roy Degg and Joan Bamford, still using my Hohner. If you were around in the 90’s, you may have heard Peter Barcock playing as an NSAC guest artist in 1991 and again in 1995. As the band developed I moved to 1sts, took over the MC role after Dennis Wakefield retired from the band, and became band MD in 2012 when Geoff Millward took a well-earned rest after 19 years at the baton.
My family had an interest in folk music and had taken me to ceilidh dances, which steered me towards dabbling with folk tunes and eventually forming a ceilidh band of musicians from my local church, in 1990. We were an 8-piece band called Fiddlestix, with ages from teens to middle aged, including my future wife Cathryn playing guitar. I trained up a couple of callers and we performed around 6 – 8 gigs per year, ranging from church events, to weddings, birthdays and WI meetings. The group slowly disbanded around 2001 as the younger members left for University or work elsewhere, and two older members moved to South Wales, where they formed their own ceilidh band. Cathryn, now my lovely wife, learnt to call a few dances to teach to her school pupils, which led on to the two of us forming a calling duo for more recent ceilidhs, but using recorded music only. I’m glad we have been able to pass on our English folk dance knowledge to several new players and callers, in true folk tradition.
I used the Hohner for many years while I saved for my first brand new instrument and bought a double cassotto Paolo Soprani Super Paolo 120 bass from Gina’s Accordion World in 1993. Although being a fine instrument it was straight tuned and didn’t sound right for ceilidhs, so another trip to Gina’s in 1995 added a double cassotto Guerrini Classic 96 bass with a sweet musette to my collection. I still play both instruments, depending on the style of music.
After taking the baton for the band I don’t find time to play very much at the moment, although I always have a burst of activity after being inspired by the young players at the annual NAO festival, currently held in Liverpool each Spring; if you’ve never been, I thoroughly recommend a visit. Cathryn and I continue to call for occasional ceilidhs, and sometimes convene an ad-hoc ceilidh band from talented musicians at our current church.
I am deeply indebted to Peter, without whom I would never have developed my current skills and understanding of accordion technique and the magic of musicality that have made all of this possible. Thanks Peter!
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