I’m Just a Squeeze-Box in an All-Polka Band……..
Admit it; you have laughed at cartoons like the one above. My wife Joan thinks that this cartoon is hilarious. Those of us who have been fortunate to play this unique instrument know the truth; inside this strange machine is an entire universe, waiting to be explored. Now you understand why there are pictures of accordions on this website.
Closets all over America are cluttered with accordions from days gone by. How did they get there? Where did they come from? Why won’t we let them out of the closet? If you are a baby boomer, your story may be something like this……
It was a Saturday morning, about 10:30 AM. I was busy watching Saturday morning cartoons on television. Actually, it was a syndicated magic show with some guy named Merlin the Magnificent, or something like that, who was trying hard to impress me.
And then, fate intervened. There was a knock on the door…….
My mother opened the door, and a salesman entered our living room. An accordion salesman. Yes, there were such things in the innocent days of my youth (the early 60s, when I was growing up.)
I was asked to turn the television off, which I did of course, polite child that I was. The salesman was carrying an old, worn suitcase. He pulled out a small, red accordion. It wasn’t very large; only two octaves or so on the keyboard, and a dozen buttons on the left hand side. He asked me if I would like to play. It didn’t seem proper to say no, so I let him strap the accordion on to my tiny shoulders.
The salesman sat me down on the couch and proceeded to guide my fingers over the keyboard. Together, we cranked out a deeply moving rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb in less time than it takes one to read a chapter or two from a Dick and Jane reader. With this miracle accomplished, the salesman turned to my mother, and said (with a sense of hucksterism that would rival Dr. Harold Hill in The Music Man,) “Madam, your son is a genius! He was born to play the accordion!”
My mother looked at her son and said, “Well, Douglas. Would you like to take some lessons on the accordion?”
I said yes. (Actually, I was just hoping to get back to watching Saturday morning cartoons).
Don’t laugh at this story (at least, not too much!) It really did happen. I have a dear colleague in Ohio who tells the exact same story. She and her brother started out on accordion through the efforts of an accordion salesman who came to their door in Minnesota. Actor Vera Fermiga’s first film as a director is a fine production, called Higher Ground. Take a look at her film; early in the going you will see the story of the accordion salesman and a young child on the screen. The scene, which takes places in Texas, is just like what I described in my own experience above – only I didn’t sit on the salesman’s lap, as you see in the film. Such were the times…….
My parents rented an accordion and sent me to the Cintioli Music Center, on Rising Sun Avenue, in our Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. Cintioli’s still exists, by the way, I am happy to report, but at a different address in Philly. Benny Cintioli is still at the helm, last I looked, just as he was when I first showed up at their door in 1962; you can check him out online!
I had a few lessons from Benny, here and there, but my primary teacher was Henry Mudruck, a kindly and knowledgeable man, who seemed to know just what to show me and when. With his help, I navigated my way through the Palmer-Hughes method for accordion, and yes, that instructional resource is still around today, too. Are you getting the impression that things don’t change to quickly in accordion-land? No wonder there are so many instruments in the closets of America……
Life changed for me one Sunday morning. It was after church, and I was home with nothing to do, or so I thought. I strapped on my accordion and played every piece that I had learned so far, from two years of lessons. When I finished, I still wanted to play, but I had run out of music. Now what? I could have gone back and started over, but the prospect did not seem all that entertaining.
I was looking for something new but found myself at an impasse. So, I did what seemed to be a very natural thing. I wrote my first piece. Yes, boredom was my inspiration…..
This first creation was nothing fancy, mind you. It was a polka, what else? I called it The DC Polka, because the first section of the piece was in D Major, while the contrasting section was in C Major. Never you mind that the key relationships were not correct, according to someone’s theory book. I made it work! Breaking the rules at an early age is good training for a budding artist, after all.
I played my new piece for family and friends, who gave me all sorts of attention. I appreciated their applause, but didn’t think that writing music was any big deal. If I could do this, everyone could, or so I believed. I had discovered a new and interesting pastime, so my catalogue expanded to include a waltz, a Spanish piece, a eastern, gypsy-sounding invention in a minor key. All of them were imitations of pieces that I had played in my accordion study. Each piece got a little bit longer, as I started to develop my ideas (well, some of the ideas were kind of developed, once in a while, here and there……)
In later years, when teachers discovered that I had a good ear, they encouraged me to take up more challenging instruments like the French horn. What? Play an instrument that only produces only one pitch at a time? Exasperating! I’d rather be the entire orchestra, thank you very much. Use the reeds, low, middle and high to create contrasting timbres in all sorts of ranges. There was just too much to do to walk away from such an opportunity and settle for a mere orchestral instrument. This was a mistake, as I later discovered…..
When the family moved to New Jersey, I became a part of the Russell Cerminara School of Music This was my introduction to serious playing, solos, duets, quartets, and yes, even accordion orchestras. My first introduction to Bach, Mozart and the like came through the accordion. There is no greater sugar-high than playing the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro as an accordion duet. Faster! Faster! Accordionists and saxophone players; we live for the challenge……
Russell sent me to competitions, mostly at the state level, but at one occasion at the national level. Most of the local ones were in lovely downtown Newark, perhaps not the most scenic (or safe) of locations, but that is where I heard students play the instrument very well, better than me, etc. A national competition in NYC gave me the experience of having my first hotel room, all to myself, not to mention the chance to walk the streets of the Big Apple in my free time.
I also attended Saturday morning classes at the Neupauer Conservatory of Music, on the fifth floor of the Schubert Theater building, right next door to the famed Academy of Music, which the Philadelphia Orchestra called home at that time. This made me feel one step closer to the real world of music. I studied theory and sight-singing with Joe Soprani, who is still active as a professional accordionist and composer in the Philly area and had master classes in accordion with Bill Schimmel. Today, Bill continues to enjoy a reputation as “Mr. Accordion” in the Big Apple, with performance and premieres, CD recordings and New York Times features articles written about his work as a composer and performer. Bill said that I sometimes played too fast and needed to slow down, breathe, etc. He was right. I no longer play quite so fast. Instead, I write fast music……
By the time I was ready for college, I had a “portfolio” of pieces for solo accordion. Russell told me to get that stuff down on paper. I took those manuscripts to The School of Music at Wittenberg University in my freshman year and gave them to Dr. Robert Dolbeer for his review. He looked briefly at the music, looked down at me through his glasses and promptly said, “You’re not bringing that instrument in here.” They made me switch to piano. Actually, this was a good move for me, as budding composers of all stripes need good keyboard skills, preferably with a slightly more socially-acceptable instrument.
Switching to piano was a bit of a problem at first. My right hand was ready to travel up and down the keyboard at great speeds. But my poor left hand was spastic by comparison. It was used to pushing buttons, not keys. Some adjusting was necessary. And the touch of the piano keyboard, that was different, too. I could not for the life of me figure out how all of those “real” piano majors could get so much sound out of a Steinway D, while my attempts were so puny by comparison. With time (and a good teacher, thank you, Stephen Siek!) I closed the gap, but it probably cost me a career as a concert pianist. Good thing I didn’t want that job…..
Every now and then, I play the accordion for friends, church, events in town; volunteerism in your community is a good thing. The heyday for the accordion was already over when I started my lessons; now I hear the stories of accordions in closets, just like you do. Rock music did awful things to the popularity of the accordion, but such is life….. Once in a while, I give a lesson to someone who is curious. If they are older, they fret about all the “coordination” that it takes to play this instrument. Play keys with one hands, buttons with another, while you pull bellows in and out at the right times? Who wants to work that hard? But for the ones that do, there are great rewards, even ecstasy!
Try it sometime, and you can join the secret society of closet accordionists. Explore the literature written by guys with names like Deiro, Frosini, Magnante, Galla-Rini, and so forth……..play The 1812 Overture with 40 other squeeze-box artists, a performance that I once observed at a competition. Face it, there are certain things in life you should not pass up.
Do I still write for the accordion? The answer is yes, but only a little here and there. I wrote a piece some time back that attempted to reconcile my classical training with my popular work on the accordion. The work is called Toccata and Polka in D Minor, and yes, it DOES use material from that iconic work for the organ, to my wife’s chagrin. It also uses elements of the Beer Barrel Polka, just for spice. My magnum opus for the accordion doesn’t always get the respect that it truly deserves, but it does make people laugh which is sometimes better. I also improvise pieces under the generic title of The Anything Goes Polka. With these performances, I attempt to prove that many pieces of music can be turned into polkas; some of them might have been even more effective if they had started out that way……..
Someday, unless someone responsible stops me, I will bring all of these musings into a single collection that no one will buy. I already have the title for this publication……
I’m Just a Squeeze Box in an All-Polka Band