The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 5 — Apologia Pro Vita Sua

As of this spring, I have been playing accordion for two years.

Given my academic background and my Accordion Anniversary, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires I do an honest assessment of my progress. Dallas, my teacher, is too much of a gentleman (and teacher who wishes to retain his students) to tell me the horrid truth, so I will be as objective as I can and create my own report card.

I think I have progressed steadily. I’ve moved beyond total ineptitude and can honestly conclude that I now play poorly. Through assiduous practice, I hope to someday achieve mediocrity.

Let’s face facts, Steve. The best cumulative average you can give yourself is a 2.0 out of 4.0. A ‘C’ at the very best. And you thought you were a cinch for summa cum laude.

The thing is – with a half-century of piano under my belt I didn’t expect this to be so hard! Yeah, I know I’m an Old Dog, and new tricks are becoming increasingly more difficult to learn, but still….

My initial assumption – that 50+ years of piano would make learning the accordion easy — was just plain wrong. If anything, it’s the opposite.

So what follows are my self-assigned grades and my rationales for them. The truth shall set me free. But I’m not sure it will help me play much better.

Learning the Buttons: C-

I still have trouble finding the right bass button. It’s bad enough on the fundamental column; it’s even worse on the counterbass. But it’s not my fault. Really.

Before I bought my Verdi Ia, I was of the innocent opinion that there was a single instrument with bass buttons called an Accordion.

How very foolish of me.

Yes, the woman at Liberty Bellows did tell me there were different kinds of ‘cordeens out there, but I had no concept of the breadth of difference or the ramifications thereof.

I did not know, for example, that under the taxonomic order Accordiana there were multiple families, such as Accordianus Buttonis and Accordianus Keyboardus, and beneath Accordianus Keyboardus were the genuses Accordianus Stradella and Accordianus Freebassus, and that the latter included the species Freebassus Bassetti and Freebasus Moschino, each of them with different layouts of chromatic bass buttons — accordions without the ‘ccords. Nor was I aware of the ‘converter’ instrument, with both Stradella and Free Bass buttons: the accordianic equivalent of the platypus. [1] I didn’t even want to think about Accordianus Bisonoricus, that overgrown mutant harmonica a.k.a. D.B.A –  the diatonic button accordion.

No, I merely asked her which was most popular: and with utter faith in The Wisdom of Crowds, I went with Stradella.

Now when I first learned about the Stradella system, it sounded eminently logical: something that Spock himself might have designed: two columns of single note buttons to provide bass notes based on the Cycle of 5ths, and then pre-made chords for major, minor, seventh and diminished. Why make chords from scratch with a Free Bass ‘cordeen when I could get my chords take-out? I could get those left-hand patterns down, and everything else would be easy. I determined to appear at my first lesson with the bass buttons mastered….

Musical snob that I am, I decided to teach myself using the J.S. Bach “Two Part Inventions.” I had studied the “Inventions” on the piano years ago and remembered them well. I snorted with self-approval. How many people who’ve only just started accordion lessons walk in and play Bach?

Invention

First invention. C major. I already knew the treble part. Piece of cake.

I strapped on my ‘cordeen and groped for the ‘C’ button. (I admit to a certain amount of pride when I found it on only the third hand slide up and down the bass.)

Here we go: C-D-E- ….

Wait….

Where’s ‘F’?

On the piano – and even in the ‘cordeen right hand — ‘F’ is next to ‘E’, where God intended it to be. The two notes are so chummy there isn’t even a black key serving as bundling board between them. But in the bass buttons on a Stradella system accordion, ‘F’ sneaks up on you from beneath ‘C’.

This is against the Natural Order of Things.

Yeah, I guess I knew this, and it’s fine in the abstract. But it’s an entirely different thing when I’m playing. It makes no sense at all to my 50+ years of piano.

Let me make sure I understand this? I’m going down to go up? The next note up is four buttons down?

This was something I hadn’t bargained for. My reflexive knowledge of the piano keyboard wasn’t going to be any use to me at all with the buttons. I was going to need to remember where they were. I was going to have to think!

It was a depressing conclusion.

OK. I’ll play ‘F’ where it lies, if I can find the damn button.,,,

A little repetition, and it began to make a little awkward sense, even if I did have a few more failed synapses remembering to go up to go down to the ‘D’.

Well, at least the ‘D’-‘E’-‘C’ progression was in a logical direction — then I’ll play G and drop the octave that starts the second measure and have the first phrase down.

Wait….

Where’s my octave?

I can’t figure out how to play the octave. How am I going to play my Two-Part Invention as Bach wrote it?

Now this was something that never occurred to me – all those buttons, and I couldn’t get a crummy octave out of them. The Stradella system only has a bass range of a lousy major 7th!

The only way to get even an approximation of an octave was to use registers that played every note in unison octaves. Matteo Fachin’s excellent article on ‘cordeen basses in the Planet Accordion website very politely refers to this as “a simply [sic] escamotage.”[2]

And my Verdi offered no register choices, so I was escamotaging it blindly every time I played.

How could they have created an instrument with such an obvious limitation? Maybe I should have purchased a Free Bass ‘cordeen after all?

I went to my first lesson with Dallas, and he asked me if my goal for the accordion was to play classical music.

No, I have the piano for that.

He offered an ingenious solution for my Bach problem.

“Live with it,“ he said.

That worked.

Stradella would be fine for popular and folk music, Dallas told me. He confirmed Stradella’s design flaws, but assured me I had made the correct choice. What’s more, used Free Bass instruments were harder to find, weighed more (a big issue at my age), and tended to be more expensive (a big issue at my age).

So I began to learn the Stradella system with Dallas’ patient tutelage and the Richard Galliano Méthode Complète d’Accordéon. Dallas quotes Galliano as some people quote scripture. But the book is in French. I knew how to say “je suis perdu,” but that pretty well exhausted my French vocabulary, even if it was an accurate description.

The thing about the lesson book that drove me nuts wasn’t my inability with the language – it was the cockamamie way it notated music. If there was one thing I didn’t think I’d have to learn, it was how to read music again – but the Stradella system had its own system of notation that was unlike anything I’d seen before.

For example, self-respecting music notation might portray a simple vamp in a perfectly reasonable fashion:

Vamp

Accordion music, however, does the same thing in an odd combination of shorthand and graffiti:

AccordionNotation

It doesn’t matter what octave you had put the opening ‘C’ in when you used standard notation; stingy Signor Stradella only gives you one of them, whether you play it on the fundamental or counterbass. And he never writes out the chord. Hey, why bother? — you’re getting all your chords prefab.

And according to Wikipedia, “Single-note bass lines are often labeled “B.S.” (bass solo or bassi soli), especially when they extend above the middle of the staff.”[3]

I will let that stand without additional comment.

The ‘M’ over the 2nd ‘C’ tells you to play the C-Major chord button. A lower case ‘m’ would mean “play the minor chord”. And the line under the ‘E’, which ordinarily would be a tenuto instructing you to linger lovingly over the note in question, here merely serves as the composer’s opinion that if you use the fundamental, the next bass button will be over in another zip code, so you’d better hop over to the counterbass or you’re likely to sprain something. Sometimes you’ll see a number under the line. That means the composer is giving you the finger.

By the way, deciding to leap to the counterbass without the friendly advice of the composer requires intimidating mental and physical gymnastics – you have to remember where you are on the buttons right now, think of your next note, desperately calculate the Cycle of 5ths to determine how many buttons away the target is in each direction, decide instantaneously whether to play it on the fundamental or counterbass column, determine which finger to use to make the attempt, and then lunge for the correct one, all while staying in rhythm.

Don’t start congratulating yourself even if you land in the right place: you still probably screwed up if you didn’t factor the next note into your decision. If you chose the wrong column or used the wrong finger, to get to the next button you may be facing a leap like Evel Kneival over the Snake River Canyon …

Oh – there’s also this interesting tidbit. Sometimes, for the pure joy of confusing the hell out of you, a ‘cordeen composer will notate notes you simply can’t play. For example, a major scale, written with the smiling approval of the American Accordionists Association in 1938:

MajorScale

There, thumbing their noses at you impudently, are a couple of ‘C’s an octave apart. The ‘C’ at the top of the scale is there “to facilitate reading.” [4]

No, it’s not. It’s there to taunt me. Go play that ‘C’ up an octave, Kid. And when you’re done, find me a left-handed monkey wrench.

Now here’s the really frustrating thing. After spending quality time with Mr. Galliano’s instruction book, I plopped another piece of accordion music in front of me – and the notation was different! There’s no standardization!

As Mr. Fachin explains it, “We can find other attempts to standardise the notation for accordion … but the folk use and the lack of a homogeneity in the instruments let the notation, since now, remain miscellaneous and personalized.” [5]

Miscellaneous and personalized. Right. Is it any wonder I’ve been a slow learner?

The Bellows: C+

When I was a mere babe of six years, my father decided I should learn to play the violin as part of my religious education.

I do not recall having had any input in this decision.

My Dad was a competent fiddler, and he figured that since Leopold Mozart had turned young Wolfgang into a boffo violinist, he could do the same with me.

Bad idea. We battled constantly over the violin for six years until I wore him out and received a welcome paternal reprieve.

I did manage to learn a little bit about violin bowing, though. To wit: when you reached the end of the bow, you either ran out of sound or you shoved it back in the other direction.

You’d think I’d have made the analogy to the accordion bellows. You run out of air, you run out of sound…etc.

But I failed to make the connection. I guess I figured that the ‘cordeen was like that other flatulent reed instrument, the bagpipe – you just squeeze and stuff air into it and sound comes out the other end. And I was quite sure that when J.S. Bach taught C.P.E, W.F., and J.C. to play the organ, he just told one of his un-initialed progeny to pump the bellows and didn’t worry about how it affected the sound.

No, I didn’t worry about the bellows. I just squeezed, heedless of phrasing and musical line, just delighted with myself when I squoze to the end of a tune. It never crossed my mind that the way I used the bellows would control volume, articulation, phrasing, expression, and pain in my left shoulder.

Dallas tolerated my reckless habits for only a few lessons; then one day I reversed bellows direction in the middle of a haunting phrase in “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and he looked at me with such a profound mixture of sadness and disappointment that I wanted to crawl into my gig bag and close the zipper.

“We need to work on your bellowing,” he said.

It was an understatement. Like “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

From then on, every time I went to work on a lead sheet, Dallas had me plan my bellowing, marking the music every place I wanted the bellows to u-turn.

Trouble is, the first set of markings I made never worked the second time I played the tune. And just try concentrating on getting the bellows right and digit dancing to the correct buttons at the same time! Hopeless.

Now, let’s say I’ve marked all my bellows changes and practiced faithfully all week. I’m getting it right about 37% of the time, and I’m proud of myself. I almost play the tune correctly at my lesson, and my markings help me ensure I have enough air to reach the tune’s big climax …. and then Dallas points to the music and says, “you should really switch your register and play a crescendo right here.”

But the register he selects uses 3 reeds rather than two and requires more air to sustain the sound, and the crescendo requires me to push the bellows even harder, and suddenly, just a few agonizing feet from the peak of the tune my carefully planned trek to the summit perishes from lack of oxygen. One change, and my bellows markings amount to nothing. Back to the drawing board.

But with time and practice, I’m starting to improve. Dallas tells me I’m getting better. He says my bellowing is starting to make sense. Now, as long as I follow my most recent markings, I’m much more likely to get through the tune I’m working on with good phrasing and musicality and without finally running out of….

[sigh]

…air.

The Right Hand: B-

If there was any place I thought I wouldn’t have any troubles, it was in the right hand. After all, it was the same keyboard as the piano, right?

Well, not exactly.

I was surprised to discover that touch meant almost nothing on the ‘cordeen. Oh, yeah, I could still play legato when necessary, but all the years I spent learning to delicately fondle the piano keys bought me no advantage. The accordion keyboard does not respond like your prom date to your loving caresses; it is not touch sensitive, nor are the keys weighted as on a piano – press a key sharply or softly, the result is the same. Sure, as the quality of your ‘cordeen increases, the keyboard will react more quickly and allow your arthritic fingers more velocity, but its ability to express emotion will be no greater than that of the cheap plastic piano keyboard you bought your untalented nephew last Christmas.

This hasn’t sunk in. I find myself still trying to coax feeling out of the keyboard, usually accompanied by a dippy facial expression. Neither is effective. Emotion on an accordion depends entirely on your bellowing; you can “tickle the ivories” on your ‘cordeen as much as you want, but they’re never going to laugh.

Most important of all, I’ve come to the realization I need to choose my notes differently on the accordion than I do on the piano. If I’m playing a melody line with single notes, it’s pretty much the same – but once I start choosing right hand harmonies, everything changes. The art of ‘voicing’ right hand chords – how you arrange the notes in the chord – requires additional thought on the ‘cordeen. A nice, thick, close-harmony chord on a piano may sound lovely in one accordion register, but choose another, and you may have the equivalent of aural mud.

Dallas has been encouraging me to switch registers in mid-tune as a way to make my playing …well…less boring. That means taking my hand off the keyboard, quickly locating and stabbing the proper new register out of the eleven on my instrument, and then frantically trying to return my fingers to the next note, all without missing a beat. Just try that when you’re playing allegro con brio.

Putting it All Together: C-

It’s taken me two years, but I’m slowly beginning to realize that, far from being something simple, playing a tune on the accordion demands roughly the same amount of logistics and planning as a full-scale tank battle.

Despite my piano background, there’s still too damn much to coordinate – so much to think about. Registers, Voicing, Bellows, Buttons, Fundamental, Counterbass – I try to put it all together, and it all falls apart. It is any wonder I want to strangle the ten-year-old prodigy on YouTube who plays brilliantly after four months? This much maligned instrument I expected to learn in no time has turned out to be an exercise in musical humility.

Well, pride goeth before a fall. Two years into it, and I’m still a tyro.

But you know what? I’m having one hell of a good time. I thoroughly enjoy every maddening, frustrating, uncoordinated accordionated moment.

What’s more, Dallas assures me I will someday “internalize” everything. On that blessed morning, my fingers will fly instinctively to the proper buttons on the appropriate column, I will play with impeccable phrasing and voicing, and my bellowing will mirror the grace and expression of the tides. Verily, my ‘cordeen will sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra; I’ll dash off Bach, Berlin, and Basie with hardly a thought; and the ghost of Myron Florin will smile.

The very next day, I’ll wipe out world hunger and achieve peace in the Middle East.

Then I’ll have lunch.


[1] I always wondered why no one had ever invented an accordion with a piano keyboard on each side! Turns out there were a few, years back, but they never caught on. Not enough sensible people out there….

[2] http://www.planet-accordion.com/en/the-standard-basses-structure-and-notation/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stradella_bass_system

[4]http://www.zisman.ca/squeezebox/About%20Accordion%20Bass%20Notation.pdf

[5] http://www.planet-accordion.com/en/the-standard-basses-structure-and-notation/

Copyright©2017 Stephen A. Hirsch

5 thoughts on “The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 5 — Apologia Pro Vita Sua

  1. Ha ha ha …… That was great, Steve.

    I used to play Clarinet back in the 60’s, but it is nowhere near as complex as an accordion.

    You reach a point (or at least I did) at which no amount of instruction will help. (in fact it only served to confuse me more) It was at this point that I decided that only sheer bloody-mindedness was going to help.

    Now I make my own (non-musical) notations. No-one else would ever understand them, as I have written them only to jog my memory.

    This afternoon, Brenda & I were at one of our favourite beauty spots. I played about a dozen or so tunes from memory, never once looking at the keyboard or thinking about the bellows. I was able to hold or shorten notes for emphasis, thus altering the mood of whatever tune I was playing.

    This is not me being clever or boastful, it is simply the culmination of trial and lots of error. In the early days, whenever I played a bum note, I went to pieces. Now I recover so quickly that few people would notice when I go wrong.

    Something like “Le Colline Sono In Fiore” will take me about two to three weeks to learn. Once I have learned it properly, all that is required is to run through it a couple of times per week to keep it fresh in my mind. Then, like a rabbit from a hat, I can produce it at will.

    The most important thing, more important than bellows or chords, is that you enjoy playing your accordion.

    Thank you for your witty forum.

    Kind Regards,

    Stephen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I’m really glad you’re enjoying the blog.

    Yeah, there are times when I also can just play from “off the top of my head.” I wish they’d happen more often…

    More to come in June.

    Like

  3. Hello Stephen,

    I was wondering if you intend to expand this forum, as I am fairly sure it would attract more interest if it offered opportunities to address accordion related matters.

    I realise that this would create more work for you, but it could be very rewarding.

    Kind Regards,

    Stephen.

    Like

  4. Hello Stephen,

    My suggestion would be that you emulate The Accordionists Forum, but make it a bit more exciting.

    Every accordionist likes talking about music, so a discussion page on different musical genres would be appropriate. We obviously don’t all share the same musical tastes, which makes discussing a range of musical styles very appealing.

    Accordion makes & models would be a great feature, as we could all learn from the experiences of others.

    A section for non-accordion related stuff is, I believe, essential. It would provide an opportunity for members to get to know each other a little better. On the Accordionists Forum they call it “The Pub”, though the choice of page title is entirely in your domain.

    I hardly need mention the need for a “New On Here” page, where new or potential members can introduce themselves to the rest of the community.

    “Community” is the key word here, as it is a community you would be trying to establish. Regardless of nationality, this should be a forum inhabited by equals.

    Kind Regards,

    Stephen.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s