The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 2 — Teaching Little Fingers to Play

There it was, in my house. A Genuine Hohner Verdi IA. Or a 1A. I never quite got sure about that. I guess it didn’t matter whether or not the “I” was a Roman numeral. I opened the beat-up case and lifted it gingerly on to my lap.

“OK, this is it, “ I said to my wife, who looked at it doubtfully.

I threaded my arms through the straps and stood up proudly.

“I’ll show you how it sounds.”

I moved my hands lightly over the buttons, feeling around for the button with the depression on it.  I couldn’t find it anywhere.

“What are you doing?” my wife asked.

“Feeling for the ‘C’ button.”

“Why don’t you just look?”

“You’re not supposed to look.”

She rolled her eyes, an expression I have given her ample opportunity to repeat over the last forty years.

“OK, OK, I’ll look “ I said. “Just this once.”

I tilted it upward, found the button, and anchored a finger on it. Then over on the keyboard I used my ace piano skills to form a C-major chord. I moved the bellows. The Verdi sang. I was immensely pleased with myself.

“Haven’t we already got enough noise?” she asked.

I ignored that slur on my artistic integrity and decided I’d play her a little tune. I fumbled across the buttons, seeking a depression, the irony of which did not escape me.

I decided to start with something easy, with just a few chords. How about that old Yiddish lullaby my Mother used to sing me, “Tum Balalaika”? Simple: C minor chord, F minor chord. G chord. Nothing to it.  “Tum ba-la, Tum ba-la, Tum ba-la-lai-ka….”

I got as far as “ba.” Where was the button for the C-minor chord? I moved my fingers to where I thought it should be, but a different button had obviously snuck in and taken its place.

“Do me a favor,” my wife said, “and play when I’m not here.”

Yes, Dear.

After some furtive grumbling, I reluctantly concluded I would not achieve virtuosity through divine inspiration; I was going have to learn how to play. Nevertheless, I was confident:  how hard could it be? Experienced educator and musician that I was, I would learn on my own. A month or two….

I hopped on to Amazon.com and found a promising sounding DVD: “Professor Louie’s Rock and Blues Accordion.”

Professor Louie looked kind of spaced-out on the DVD jacket, and I took that as a positive sign. The blurb on Amazon bragged, “It’s especially good for pianists who want to get into different sounds and grooves.”

Well, what more did I need? I even ordered next day delivery. Professor Louie and I were going to sound and groove together.

The UPS guy was later than usual, but Professor Louie finally showed up around 4:00pm. I shredded the package, spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to remove the plastic wrap covering the case, and eagerly read the cover.

Prof. Louie has an entirely respectable pedigree – he produced and played on the last three CDs made by ‘The Band’ and worked with a number of name-brand rockers. He operates out of Woodstock! And the back of the DVD case promises me that “this fabulous lesson is filled with invaluable information and great fun as you rock out right along with Louie and his band.”

My wife is out of the house! Liberty! I shove the DVD in the slot on my computer and prepare to rock out with Professor Louie. He appears! He needs a shave and sounds like he lives on bourbon and Marlboros. This is a good thing. But wait…the menu says there are 33 recorded lessons.

Thirty-three lessons? How hard can this be?

I listen eagerly as Prof. Louie recommends I put my arms through the straps and explains that I should count the buttons so I’d know how many there are. Hey, I’m way ahead…. but he takes an awfully long time with things. Thirty minutes into the video, he’s still pointing out the parts of instrument – stuff I learned in a few moments at Liberty Bellows. Skip this, skip that…,,,hit the Play button.

OK – now he’s getting into something useful: moving up in fifths on the fundamental row and naming the notes. He blasts through that in a minute. “Play scales and name the notes,” he says. And then he moves on – he doesn’t say “stop here and practice this” – and a short while later I realize I am receiving a Massive Accordianic Brain Dump, and the brain’s owner is not going to slow down to see if I process any of it.

OK. Stop arbitrarily. Just stop here. Play the scales and name the notes.

I try it for a week, sitting in front of my computer and fast forwarding and rewinding the DVD with an accordion strapped to my chest. Am I practicing enough material? Too much? How long should it take me to learn this? Am I ready to move on? Am I pressing the buttons properly?  Do I use the same fingers all the time? What finger do I start on? Should it be so difficult to stretch around the accordion to operate the DVD? I have all these questions…how do I find the answers? Wade through this whole damn disc and see if he gets to them? About the only thing I’ve accomplished is fumble through a scale and drive the mice out of the house.

It does not take very long for me to realize that if I stick with Professor Louie I am going to spend a good part of my practice time cursing the DVD, rewinding and searching, pressing “Start” and “Stop”, and not knowing when I’m ready to progress to the next brain dump.

This is not going to work. At least not for me. It’s not Professor Louie’s fault – it’s the format & the student. Professor Louie is obviously a dynamite musician and font of wisdom for the patient learner. But he can’t tell me what I’m doing wrong or compliment me fawningly on the odd chance I’m doing something right. I’m going to need to find a real in-the-flesh teacher.

This is a concern: I have to choose wisely. I still haven’t recovered from grumpy Mrs. Kistner’s piano lessons back in 1960. She wrestled me through John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” method book (I still remember how to play ‘Swans on the Lake’), taught me Protestant hymns, and filled me with bad pianistic habits I retain more than half a century later.

But finding any accordion teacher – let alone a good one — isn’t easy. Our struggling local music store offered no ‘cordeen lessons at all and wondered why I wouldn’t rather learn guitar.  The lady I phoned at The Snotty Music School suppressed a chuckle when I asked.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, America reacted to the threat of Sputnik by giving our kids accordion lessons. According to Joan Graumann, who bears the lofty title of Historian for the American Accordionists Society, some towns “had as many as four accordion schools in a couple of blocks.” Parents succumbed to the carefully orchestrated racket of the local ‘cordeen ‘cademy, and bought increasingly costly instruments from the smiling teacher, who lied encouragingly about little Johnny’s talents. Ghastly pre-pubescent accordion orchestras gave recitals Sunday afternoons, and parents squirmed and smiled. Across the great wet musette in England, another little Johnny took accordion lessons before he ever picked up a guitar, and Mrs. Lennon apparently approved.

But by the early 60s, Rock n’ Roll had landed on the beaches and was pushing inexorably inland. The revolution was underway, and the accordion was an early and nearly fatal victim. In 1955, Americans had purchased 120,000 accordions. By 1964, ‘cordeen sales had plummeted to 50, 000, all while guitar sales skyrocketed. Playing the guitar was cool. Playing the accordion was like driving an Edsel. Go ahead – find a teacher now.

Well, I wasn’t about to get discouraged: I could find anything on-line, even accordion lessons.  I went to my browser, typed in “accordion teacher”, added the name of my home town, and pressed the search button.

The first site I saw joyfully proclaimed that Yes! there were lessons available in my area, and the simple act of supplying my email address would reveal them to me.

I typed it in, the screen resolved, and the headline confessed “On Line Lessons are the Best Option for You.”

In other words, there were no teachers in my area, or at least none who had purchased a listing. Damn lying website.

I backed out, muttered dark oaths, and scrolled down the other search results – none of them indicated any teacher close by. But then there was Liberty Bellows again. Of course! I’ll call them and ask if they can recommend someone!

I called, reminded them I was a customer, and asked if they knew a teacher in my area. They quickly responded that they had a guy who taught right there at the shop. But a weekly hour-long drive to Philly was out of the question for me. “Well, you know,” they said, “he also teaches on line, with Skype or FaceTime…”

There was that option again. On-line instruction. Hmmm. Maybe that first website was right – perhaps on-line was the best option? The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was possible. I had done FaceTime calls with my older son in Kentucky and my brother in New Hampshire and my younger son downstairs in the basement. It could work. The guy could see me and hear me, right? And Liberty Bellows endorses him! OK – maybe I’d give it a try after all.

“What’s his name?”

“Dallas Vietty.”

I get his email address: Dallas@RebelReed.com

“RebelReed”.  I don’t normally think of an accordion as a reed instrument – that’s reserved for clarinets and oboes and contrabassoons. But I guess it’s accurate – the bellows does push air through reeds. Never really thought much about that. And I like the “rebel” part. Maybe this guy understands….

We exchange a few emails.  Yeah, he does lots of lessons with Skype and FaceTime.  Sure, it works just fine. “Are you OK with computers?” he asks.

Am I OK with computers? Damn straight I am. Thirty years in IT – even a pioneer in e-Learning back in the 1990s.  Yeah, live lessons on the computer. Cool. Let’s do it.

The day arrived.  I started up my Mac, clicked on FaceTime, and waited for the little “connecting” noise.  I figured Dallas would look kind of like Professor Louie, or maybe the big-bellied bald guy who pumped the ‘cordeen for The Polka Dots.

A face appeared on screen.

“Hi, are you Steve?”

Time Travel.

I stared. He’s skinny and friendly looking, and his hair is all over the place, despite the futile efforts of a rubber band. He’s wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and a big grin, and I get a funny feeling I’ve been transported back to the Sixties.

He looks to be in his early 30s: younger than my older son.

“Yeah, I’m Steve. Are you Dallas?”

And indeed he is. We exchange pleasantries. He asks me my goals, and I tell him the same thing I told the woman at Liberty Bellows: folk music, klezmer, and old rock n’ roll. I add that I want to be able to play from a lead sheet.

“What about jazz?” Dallas asks me – for as it turns out, Dallas is a terrific jazzman, and one of the leaders of the accordion jazz renaissance – and yes, there is such a thing.

Here I stop to make confession.  While I enjoy jazz and I like going to jazz cafes, I have utterly no talent for playing it.  Yes, I can improvise…but it always sounds constrained, square, boring: mostly because when I try to play it, it is.  Something in me won’t “let go” when I play.  I tell Dallas that, and he thinks there’s a cure.

Well, he’s young.

Throughout the conversation, though, I’m distracted by what’s behind him. It looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.

“Are you in a studio?” I ask him.

“Oh, no. I’m in my house. “ A brief pause.  “Well, I guess it’s not really a house. My wife and I are restoring a school bus, and we’re going to live here.”

“In the school bus?”

“Yeah. I wired the electricity to it this week, so I can use the Internet …”

Breathtaking.  It is the most perfect, least self-conscious expression of 60s counter-culture I’ve seen since 1968, when Sanjay Patel and Elaine Moskowitz married by the campus lake and invited the whole university.

He lives in a school bus and he teaches accordion. I am going to like this guy.

And so my lessons begin. Start up that Edsel….

Footnotes

  1. Golden, Hallie, “Accordions: So Hot Right Now”, The Atlantic, January 4, 2014.
  2. Jacobson, Marion, Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, University of Illinois:2012.

Copyright 2017 Stephen A. Hirsch

12 thoughts on “The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 2 — Teaching Little Fingers to Play

  1. A classic pianist will soon pick up the right hand, the left hand will come eventually, bellows expression is most difficult

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  2. It’s getting there — but I’m finding that I have to approach the right hand differently on the accordion than I do on the piano! More difference than I expected — not the least of which is the inability to modify touch for expression on the accordion — though my teacher can create a blues note that way!

    Thanks for reading the post!

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  3. Just a little question: Why is the accordion in the photograph being played left-handed?

    Supplementary question: Are you the accordionist, Stephen?

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  4. Thank you for clearing that matter up, Stephen. As a former detective, I do tend to notice things which are slightly out of the ordinary.
    I have been practicing rather a lot today, as my aspiration is to achieve mediocrity in the future.
    Brenda & I drive out into the countryside most days, where I can practice to my heart’s content. We visit a number of isolated places, and I play my accordion to the Sheep, Cattle and Horses.
    I also play at Folk Clubs and at pensioner’s events, including a regular event organised for dementia sufferers and their carers. It is, I assure you, more fun than it sounds.
    Kind Regards,
    Stephen.

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  5. APPROACHES:
    Everyone approaches learning in a slightly different way, especially when it comes to musical instruments. I have always found that sheer bloody-mindedness works best for me.
    I usually have a few “practice pieces” on the go at any one time, which I absolutely batter until I can play them from memory.
    It is only then that I add them to my “public” repertoire, and select a few more interesting tunes for my practice regime.
    This may not suit everyone, but I never consider that I really know a tune until I can play it from memory.
    Kind Regards,
    Stephen.

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  6. Thanks, Stephen. I agree with you. Once I have the piece memorized, it vastly increases my confidence. Although I must say, I’m not far enough along yet to have an actual public repertoire

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  7. Stephen,
    Please don’t run away with the idea that I am a polished performer …. I am just used to performing in public. It holds no fears for me.
    Anyway, the venues I play are not exactly challenging. My Folk Club is attended by some of the loveliest and kindest people on earth, all of whom contribute to the best of their abilities.
    I also perform at pensioner’s groups, where any contribution, however poor, is appreciated.
    Occasionally I play whilst awaiting my turn in the Barber’s chair. The same man has been cutting my hair since 1965 (when we were both young men, and I still had some hair, ). It is one of those really traditional one chair barber’s shops, so I don’t mind entertaining the customers while I wait my turn.
    Most days (weather permitting) Brenda and I drive out into the countryside. We have our favourite places, and have become quite well known to local horse riders, dog walkers and cyclists. They often stop to listen for a while, after which they have a little chat with us before resuming their activities.
    We are both long retired, having had very busy professional lives. Upon our retirement, we made a pact to do only what we want to do. This has worked out very well for us, and we have made many new friends around our region. The accordion is a big part of that.
    Kind Regards,
    Stephen.

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  8. Stephen,
    Do you have any nice little Folk Clubs in your area?
    Folk Clubs in the UK are very welcoming, with new and inexperienced members being treated with great kindness and understanding. No pressure is placed on new members to play, though they are encouraged to have a go.
    The simplest tune from a novice will receive genuine appreciation from older members and, very soon, all thoughts of inadequacy will be banished.
    In my own Folk Club, every care is taken to put new members at their ease. We have had a few new people join us over the last six months or so, all of whom now wonder why they were so scared in the first place.
    Older members will sometimes provide a light bass-line in order to keep a tune on track, whilst still following the principle player’s lead.
    We employ a “sing around” or “play around” format, where each member plays or sings a tune of their own choice in their turn.
    I hope that you can find (or found) something similar in your region, as I believe you would love it.
    Kind Regards,
    Stephen.

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  9. Stephen,
    Thank you for your kind words. I really hope that my contributions are helpful and supportive.

    A few people I have known leave their instruments at home when visiting a new Folk Club. The rationale being that they can get to know a few people and assess their abilities before committing to play themselves.

    Good luck with all that you do.
    Stephen.

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