3rd-5th February 2023
Melodeon Playgroup – a personal history.
Melodeon Playgroup 1– 2012
The original Melodeon Playgroup was the brainchild of Penny Bryant. Melnet history shows that Penny first mooted the idea of a get-together for beginner melodeonists on 22nd June 2012, appropriately, the very first reply she received was from Lester. He offered, among other things, to ‘share my bad habits’ something he’s happily been doing ever since in various guises. Melnet’s Lady de Temps assisted Penny, acting as class prefect.
A number of venues were suggested with the Fleece being put forward by Melnetter Chappie86. Fellow local Dunny joined the party some six weeks later – he chatted with the pub landlord and suddenly we had an evening session and the offer of camping – maybe even some morris dancing on the Sunday. Penny booked The Fleece for Saturday 24th November and suddenly we had an event of sorts.
It took quite a bit of courage for me to even turn up – I was pretty terrified, but not for long. Aside from Lester and a couple of other ‘big kids’ in attendance everyone else was in pretty much the same boat as me and some of them looked equally terrified which sort of helped. Mutual support through mutual fear is definitely a thing. We fumbled through our chosen tune, ‘Donkey Riding’ and wobbled through our party pieces. The more confident went in the pub to play tunes – I was not among them, preferring the safety of the barn where Lester was gently and patiently leading us through some beginner tunes.
Over in the pub Penny organised some fundraising as part of the Busking Cancer initiative and raised £50 – the first of many charitable donations made on behalf of Playgroupers over the years.
That first year was memorable for the weather with heavy rain most of the day and into the evening. Eventually the roads between Bretforton and Evesham were partly closed due to floods. Later that evening, departing Plagroupers partly re-opened them. It was the only way to get back to the Premier Inn, already established as Melodeon Playgroup base camp.
I’d guess that there were around 20 of us in attendance that first weekend including Penny, Lester, Dunny, Jules, Malcolm and me. At that point we didn’t all know each other, nor did we have the faintest idea of what we’d just let ourselves in for.
Melodeon Playgroup 2 – 2013
Playgroup 2 took place on 23-24th November with Penny back in the chair as organiser-in-chief but with LDT unable to make it I volunteered to be class prefect. Playgroup was still completely informal with a single group in the barn. Disaster struck when Lester was hit by a nasty winter cold in the days before to Playgroup. I remember a very nervous emergency meeting with Penny and Dunny on the Friday night in the pub and I certainly remember going to bed worried about how it would all work out.
Melodeon teacher extraordinaire, Mel Biggs was the at the start of her teaching career. I’d been her first Skype pupil and as she lived reasonably near she’d popped over to see a few pupils and take a look at Playgroup. Melanie stepped up totally – and saved the day in the process, delivering her first ever melodeon workshop with no preparation. It went swimmingly and the beginners had a great learning experience. Later in the day, Penny and I improvised the session on ABC notation and we were fortunate to discover a fettler in our midst, playgrouper Will Nesbit, who provided the afternoon session exploring the workings of a melodeon. Melodeon Playgroup 2 was not only saved, it was a triumph.
The Fallow Year – 2014
There was no playgroup in 2014 despite much discussion on Melnet, initiated by Malcolm. With Penny stepping back completely from organising no one actually realised we were really going to do this thing again and by the time we did we’d sort of run out of year.
Melodeon Playgroup 3 – 2015
February 21st was the date selected, and this time Playgroup grew up just a tiny bit. We found that we were getting lots of lovely new beginners joining us but the toddler alumni kept turning up too. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we love ‘em but there’s only so much room in the barn and there was a real risk that the beginners would get pushed out by the bigger kids. We took the plunge and hired the village hall, ably organised by Jules with her local connections. Mel Biggs returned to teach the beginners with Bob Ellis taking Improvers. 2015 saw the first Absolute Beginner class led by Lester. I still remember that, Lester had them bashing through ‘Donkey Riding by the end of the day.
I stepped up a bit more in 2015 as Penny moved on. I created the first Melodeon Playgroup website and got much more involved in the detail and logistics. Lester devised the first of many Melodeon Playgroup spreadsheets but booking remained totally informal with Playgroupers able to sign up via Melnet, Facebook, the website or just turn up without any notice.
The informal model we operated back then involved adding up our base costs and dividing the total by the number of people turning up. Then we’d round it up to the nearest quid and split the remainder between a tip to the bar staff and a charitable donation.
Melodeon Playgroup 4 – 2016
This was the year the existing crew of elves were definitely, absolutely not going to do it again. We said we’d be happy for someone else to take it on and even stared really quite hard at a few likely suspects but nothing really happened until someone did offer to take it on. We were really quite cool with that bit – but the suggestion was to move it away from our lovely Fleece. That did it, the elves were galvanised into action and we were off again, Melodeon Playgroup 4 was swiftly scheduled for February 6-7th with Bob Ellis (Improvers), Mel Biggs (Beginners) and Lester Bailey (Absolute Beginners) leading workshops.
Looking through the message archives I can see that I offered to help out but said that I would not be able to take on as much organising as the previous year – and then proceeded to take on more. I clearly remember a week of sleepless nights leading up to the event. I’d put forward some changes and felt the responsibility to make sure it worked. Luckily it all paid off, the elves pulled it all together, the tutors were fabulous and lots of lovely Playgroupers turned up so we weren’t left all on our own sobbing a darkened barn.
Melodeon Playgroup 5 – 2017
We were getting in to the swing of things now and MP5 ran pretty much as MP4 had done with Bob Ellis (Improvers), Melanie Biggs (Beginners) & Lester Bailey (Absolute Beginners) joining us again to impart their squeezy wisdom. A new sign-up form was added to the website and I created the current logo to give the event some proper branding.
It was another fabulous year and but the existing crew really felt we’d done our bit. This time Lester, Malcolm, Dunny, Jules and I decided we definitely weren’t going to do it again.
And then we did.
Melodeon Playgroup 6 – 2018
The formula for Melodeon Playgroup 6 remained relatively unchanged – Melanie and Lester returned as tutors for Improvers and Beginners respectively. I volunteered to take on Absolute Beginners and then wondered why I had. Cue more sleepless nights and ‘what have l let myself in for’ moments.
I contacted my first workshop tutor and now good friend, Ed Rennie. I’d found his teaching system far and away the best I’d come across among the various tutor books and methods. With Ed’s blessing I based my workshops around his method and despite last-minute nerves the night before my first Absolute Beginners workshop was a blast.
The big change for 2018 was the addition of a Fettler’s Day, run by Lester and taking place at the village hall on the Sunday after Playgroup. Lester provided a full day of hands-on instruction for wannabe fettlers. It was over-subscribed and hugely successful - a real triumph, but by the end of the weekend Lester and I were both completely wrung out. Clearly something had to give.
2019 – Melodeon Playgroup 7
This was another will-we-or-won’t-we year. The numbers were getting out of hand and we just couldn’t accommodate the totally informal sign-up (or not) model. In a good year we were in danger of being overrun but if it all went wrong the elves would be out of pocket. We needed more certainty.
I remember pondering the problem while out walking one day. How could we accommodate the improvers while preserving the all-important Playgroup ethos for our beginners?
I had an idea, did the calculations and then put my plan to others. We’d set a fixed cost for improvers and require them to book while leaving beginners and absolute beginners running on the former model of splitting the costs by the number of attendees. By raising the charge for improvers workshops to a very modest £25 we could also afford to book professional tutors to teach Improvers and pay them properly – something I felt it was really important to do as Playgroup grew up a bit. The volunteer-led model needed a bit of tweaking.
To manage numbers and preserve our sanity this year the website form became the only sign-up channel. The booking spreadsheet was ably presided over by Malcolm and Jules and suddenly we had a better handle on numbers, contact details for Playgroupers and some ability to make meaningful financial projections, projections which thankfully paid off. Melodeon Playgroup 7 was another bumper year with Mel Biggs back at the helm leading Improvers while Lester and I returned to Beginners and Absolute Beginners respectively.
Melodeon Playgroup 8 – 2020
Dunny, Jules and Malcolm took over the organisation. I handed my precious ‘how to pull Playgroup together’ spreadsheet to Dunny and skipped off to concentrate on preparing the Absolute Beginners workshops.
Ringing the changes with the Improvers class, Dunny booked Paul Scourfield who delivered two thought-provoking workshops, prompting excellent feedback. Lester and I returned to lead the Beginner and Absolute Beginner groups respectively and the lovely Playgroup magic all came together once more.
If 2012 was the year of the great flood then 2020 was the year of the great storm. Storm Dennis was (apparently) one of the most intense extratropical cyclones ever recorded. Whatever that actually is, it certainly messed up our plans. After a fabulous day of teaching and playing on the Saturday I remember hastily packing up the camper van, fleeing the Fleece orchard and driving home before the storm. I think not a van, caravan or tent remained at the Fleece that night, many left early with the remainder retreating to the safety of the Premier Inn where doubtless a fabulous breakfast was had the following day but unfortunately the planned session with Belle D’Vain was blown away by the storm.
Melodeon Playgroup 9 – 2021
Following the 2020 event Nigel and Jules have taken the event to a new level, forming a Community Interest Company to future-proof the event. Jules has build the new website and taken on the social media promotion. Dunny & Jules are currently pulling together this year’s event, ably assisted by Malcolm so I will leave it to them to reveal this year’s programme.
For me it is both the end of an era and also a return to the beginning. This year’s Improvers tutor is Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, a fabulous singer as well as a master of both melodeon and Anglo concertina. Cohen is a fabulous teacher and I am so pleased Dunny has booked him for Playgroup. I’ve been having lessons with Cohen myself recently, attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Anglo concertina and so, nine years after it all started I find myself right back at the start, a beginner all over again.
Here’s to old friends and new beginnings.