The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 3 — Death by Accordion.

You could hurt yourself with this thing.

Seriously, your ‘cordeen should come with a federally mandated warning label:

WARNING: Accordion playing can lead to serious side effects, among which are low back, neck, and thoracic conditions; headache; shoulder pain; tendonitis; ligament strain of elbow; tennis elbow; golfers elbow; wrist and finger injury and pain; numbness and\or tingling in arms, fingers, or down the leg; disc injuries (neck and back); and hip, knee , and ankle pain. Women who are pregnant, who wish to become pregnant, or who know anyone who once was pregnant should refrain from accordion playing before consulting their physicians.

 I’m not making this up (well, maybe the last part). This is an actual list of accordion-injury topics listed by one John Bonica, author of Play Your Accordion Without Pain — a book he proclaims is “ exclusively for accordionists, written by an accordionist, about accordion related problems and injuries, based on 50 years of professional clinical experience.” [1] His book even helps you recognize the dreaded “early warning signs.”

Mr. Bonica is a physical therapist, and there have been so many accordion-related injuries out there that they’ve kept him in business for half a century.

And here you thought the only accordion-related health problems occurred in the people listening to it.

Mr. Bonica isn’t alone writing about the Accordionitis scourge – Lynda Griffith – a Doctor of Physical Therapy, no less – addresses the perils of ‘cordeen addiction in a weighty tome with an equally weighty title: Playing Well: Prevention and Biomechanics of Musician Injuries with a Focus on Accordionists, Concertinists, and Bandoneonists. Three-hundred-and fifty pages of squeezebox terror, with 75 illustrations.

Damn. If I had known all this, I might have thought twice about fooling with such a dangerous device. I’m 67– I have enough early warning signs keeping me awake already.

But when you stop and think of it, it’s not at all surprising. First of all, the thing weighs a ton. If you look at Liberty Bellows’ offerings for full-sized instruments, you’ll see that they generally weigh from between 24 and 30 pounds. A Hohner Morino VI N weighs in at a whopping 35.49 pounds: you could pull something just hauling it out of its case. At 25 pounds, mine is on the lighter side – but every time I remove it from its coffin, I still need to remember to keep my back straight, push up from my heels, look straight ahead, and follow the umpteen other rules they give senior citizens for picking up a heavy object. And if you’re buying a used instrument, odds are it will come with a case that weighs as much as the instrument itself; back in the ‘Cordeen Golden Age, those cases were built to withstand Nuclear Holocaust. Buy a gig bag: at least they have shoulder straps.

Speaking of straps, every accordion comes with at least two of them: they hold the Beast to your body, and they’re expressly designed to be uncomfortable and impossible to adjust properly.

Here’s the issue: you can’t just plop the ‘cordeen on your lap and start playing. You have to position it just so, and the straps need to keep it there. If you’re sitting, the body of the Beast needs to rest on your left thigh, allowing enough room for the bellows hang off your leg like an old Slinky. As the wonderfully named Rod Stradling points out on his website The Accordion Pages [2], “if, from the side, people can see more than a slight glimmer of light between you and the accordion, it is not on tight enough.” The keyboard needs to snuggle obscenely into your right thigh, perilously close to your crotch and posing a unique danger to male accordionists. The process for avoiding injury is known as rod straddling.

If you’re standing, adjust the straps so the instrument is high enough on your chest to make reaching the keyboards and buttons easy and reaching anything else impossible. You should also position it in such fashion that you don’t pitch over and slam on the floor when you try and stand.

Tinker with your harness such that when you strap in next time, the instrument will be in perfect position, which is impossible. The straps will fall off your shoulder, dig into your back, and restrict your movement. The ‘cordeen will be so tightly bound to your chest that it will come close to asphyxiating you. The clothing you choose; last night’s beer and pizza; the brassiere you’re wearing — all will all lead to poor fit and finicky adjustments. But once you’re satisfied, everything will fit just fine next time: I promise.

The standard set of accordion straps is nothing more than two loops of vinyl (cheap model) or leather (fancy model) that attach to the top and bottom of the instrument. They feature adjustable buckles designed to dig into your shoulder when you slip them on.

Fortunately, however, the intrepid researchers at NASA[3] have come up with clever alternatives to the traditional design. For example, you can buy straps of lightweight Neoprene with plastic connectors. Many of these feature one or more backstraps connecting the two loops and “non-skid” shoulder pads stuffed with “anti-microbial memory foam”, just in case you’re worried about microbes. These give you the impression you’re wearing a full U.S. Army rucksack on the wrong side of your body, but actually do provide much better back support. According to the manufacturer, they “transform the accordion into a joy to play, not a burden!”[4]

If joy isn’t sufficient for you, you can try the MurlStrap, developed by ‘cordeen virtuoso Murl Allen Sanders, which instead of a backstrap features a wide support belt reminiscent of those used by weight lifters and attaches to the shoulder straps via Velcro. It’s orderable in blue, red, pink, and neon[5].

You can be both comfortable and luxurious with the “Custom Professional Jumbo” from the Accordion Factory. They’re made with the “finest Italian leather and velvet padding”, and run about $125.00. Most accordion players may shy away from them, however, as their website proclaims they’re “suitable for the normal adult.[6]”.

If you’re rolling in dough and looking for more than just back relief, you might want to consider a pair of high-class Western-style leather straps: hand-tooled, lined, and padded by Seelye Leather Works in Louisville. A set of these beauties could cost you over $500[7] (including backstrap), depending on how gaudy you want to make them.

Seelye also produces Roy Rogers-worthy gunbelts and the “Flames of Hell” pistol holster, which could prove useful if you show up in that Saturday Morning Cowboy ‘cordeen rig. Or the MurlStrap in neon.

Now here’s the bad news: while all these backstraps may make it easier to coddle your ‘cordeen, they may not actually be accomplishing much in the way of preventing injury. According to Dr. Griffith’s study:

Of piano, button chromatic and button diatonic players who experienced any kind of upper extremity injury, 64% use a backstrap. Among those with a back injury, 65% use a backstrap, and with a neck injury, 64% use a backstrap.[8]

…which kind of means that a back strap is about as effective as a jock strap. Which is not very.

Now, with all this concern about messing up your back with your accordion, you might think that the solution would be to ditch your 120 bass anvil-weight instrument and go with something smaller and lighter. What’s the loss of half an octave and a few measly chords in the hard keys?

Not so fast. We return again to Mr. Bonica, who is a fount of wisdom on accorthopedics:

It matters not a hoot that your accordion weighs thirty pounds or twenty pounds …. The actual weight of the instrument has absolutely nothing to do with the ease of playing the instrument or getting injured. Provided, however, that you play the instrument in its proper playing position which is sitting down. What most people don’t realize (obviously doctors and some manufacturers), is that in the sitting position the accordion weight rests on the thigh or thighs, thereby relieving all the actual weight from the shoulders or neck. There is absolutely no additional strain or compromise placed on the neck, shoulders or the spine when played in an energy efficient upright position.[9]

Well, there you go. If you’re whining about ‘cordeen-induced back problems, just shut up and sit down. Unless, of course, you need to add some choreography to the act and prance around the stage like a rock star with thirty pounds of squeezebox strapped to your chest.

There is one last-resort back-saving option, but to me, it’s a surrender to age, flagging muscles, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: the accordion stand. Let’s face it, folks — it’s the accordion equivalent of a walker. It holds the accordion up chest high while you stand there like an automaton pulling and pushing on the rigid instrument and trying to bond with the music. No straps at all. None. I guess you should use it if you need it.

But even those people who have used one don’t seem to like it: posts on the AccordionForum speak of how you just can’t feel what you’re playing when you’re merely standing behind the thing.

Damn the back pain. Take an Advil or ‘cordeen codeine. Accordion Joy comes from hugging the Beast to your chest until the music becomes a physical part of you. The Zen of Accordion Playing mandates you achieve Oneness With Your Instrument.

Namaste.

That’s your back. But then there’s your hands and shoulders to worry about. Dr. Griffith reports that “twenty one percent of all players reported injury to their wrists and hands, the highest number of players who described injury by location in the author’s study. ”[10]

Let’s get technical: you probably didn’t think you had to worry about abduction when you picked up the accordion, but you do. I don’t mean that Martians are going to snatch you up and poke long-needled probes into you, but that the elevated ‘arm abduction’ (the degree at which you can move your arm away from the center plane of your body) you use while playing “increases the mechanical load and decreases muscle blood flow in the supra and infraspinatus muscles of the rotator cuff.”[11] You’re working all sorts of arm, shoulder, and hand muscles with impressive Latin names every time you pull the bellows out, and even more when you shove it back, and the more you do, the more you risk repetitive stress injuries. And here’s the kicker: every time your abduction goes above 30 degrees, you’re contributing to eventual shoulder injury and pain. And that’s exactly the abduction you need to hold your right hand properly at the keyboard.[12]

Ah, the things we do for Art. Or Polkas.

And your left hand? Consider the bellows strap. This particular bondage device keeps lefty close enough to the buttons to prevent him from escaping, while still allowing him room to search frantically for the proper chords. There’s usually a little ‘tightening wheel’ at the top of the button box that lets you adjust the pressure of the strap against your hand so you can play whack-a-mole with the buttons, but make it too tight and you restrict motion and increase the stress on your fingers. The helpful website WikiBooks also recommends you don’t make it so tight that you cut off your circulation[13]. This is good advice.

It’s a fact: serious accordionists tempt the gods every time they strap in. Respondents to the Accordionist’s Forum site complain about accordion elbow, frozen shoulder, bursitis, thumb joint pain, tendonitis, sore wrist, big knuckles, and, most disturbing of all, a “tender side.” So far I’ve managed to avoid developing a tender side myself, and have remained tough, abrupt, and dismissive.

So what can you do? Not much. You can stretch and warm up before and after you play. Our friend Mr. Bonica offers a set of appropriate calisthenics at http://www.ksanti.net/free-reed/essays/back5.html which may help you ward off injury. And Dr. Griffith has a whole chapter called “Self Help Now!” with lots of helpful bends and stretches that might work. You can stop practicing obsessively, and limit yourself to five or six hours a day. Or you can hire a gruff ex-Army drill instructor, tell him you need to get in shape for accordion playing, and record his reaction for YouTube.

But mostly, folks, you need to know what you’re getting into. Play at Your Own Risk. And buy one of my t-shirts. Under an image of a 35.49 pound Hohner, it reads “Love Hurts. So Does the Accordion.”

 

Copyright ©2017 Stephen A. Hirsch

[1] http://www.musicforaccordion.com/ebooks/bonica/index.htm

[2] http://www.rodstradling.co.uk/accordionpages/holding.html

[3] National Accordion Safety Administration

[4] https://neotechstraps.com/accordion-harness.html

[5] http://www.petosa.com/product/murlstrap-small/

[6] https://www.accordionfactory.com/Products/tabid/370/rvdsfcatid/accordion-straps-9/rvdsfpvn/2/Default.aspx

[7] https://www.facebook.com/SeelyeLeatherWorks/posts/390180654494517

[8] Lynda Griffith, Playing Well: Prevention and Biomechanics of Musician Injuries With a Focus on Accordionists, Concertinists, and Bandoneonists. Grand Rapids: Areté Healing Arts, 2012, p.74. Dr. Griffith says more study is need on this.

[9] http://www.ksanti.net/free-reed/essays/back7.html

[10] Griffith, p. 64.

[11] Griffith, p. 69.

[12] Griffith, p. 69.

[13] https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Accordion/Body_Position

3 thoughts on “The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 3 — Death by Accordion.

  1. It’s worrying that so many innocent accordionists acquired injuries while “located in the author’s [Dr Griffiths’] study”. Here in Australia we are wary of cramming large numbers of people into a study (of those fortunate enough to have a study). On the other hand, in Japan they employ people to shove passengers into commuter trains, but of course those folk are not accordionists. Or, if accordionists, they place their instruments safely in the stationmaster’s care before venturing forth to shove or be shoved.

    I bought my accordion from a fellow who was learning from YouTube videos and two tutor books. His learning seemed to me to be glacial and arduous. I chose a teacher instead, and I’m very glad of that.

    Like

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