I'm Just A Squeeze-box in an All-Polka Band
You have probably seen the infamous cartoon: a robber invades a private home, ties up the woman of the house and begins to ransack the premises for valuables. The wife calls out in desperation: “Please, take my husband’s accordion!” Then there is a picture of a local music store, one that features multiple shelves of new accordions for purchase. The sign in the display reads as follows: “Only two to a customer.” No supply chain issues here, obviously….
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to play the accordion politely laugh along, but we also know the greater truth; inside this strange machine is a wonderful, sonorous universe, waiting to be explored. All it takes are some basic keyboard skills, some coordination, and a strange desire to play polkas and tangos at inappropriate times……..
Closets all over America are cluttered with these instruments 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 like I am, 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. 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 accordion; it had 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 this instrument. 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 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. Early in the going you will see a scene featuring an accordion salesman and a young child. This brief sequence, which takes places in Texas, is just like what I described in my own experience above – only I didn’t have to sit on the salesman’s lap, as you see in the film.
My parents rented an accordion through this salesman and sent me to the Cintioli Music Center, on Rising Sun Avenue in our Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. 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 books for accordion, and yes, this instructional resource is still around today, too. It is a fine method; I would recommend it to young musicians everywhere.
Life changed for me again one Sunday morning a couple years later. 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 interesting.
I was looking for something new but found myself at an impasse. So, I did what seemed to be a very natural thing. I composed my first piece.
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 technically correct, according to someone’s theory book. I made it work just the same! 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 encouragement. The DC Polka had revealed a new and interesting hobby. My catalogue expanded to include a waltz, a Spanish piece, and an eastern, gypsy-sounding character piece in a minor key, among others. 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……). This output continued through my senior year in high school.
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? Boring! 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.
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 on one occasion at the national level. Most of the local ones were in lovely downtown Newark, perhaps not the most scenic of locations at that time, but that is where I heard students play the instrument very well, better than me…. 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 during my free time.
By the time I was ready for college, I had a portfolio of original pieces for solo accordion. Russell told me to get that stuff down on paper before I went to school and he was right. 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 essentially said, “You’re not bringing that instrument in here.” They made me switch to piano, can you imagine? Actually, this was a good move for me, as budding composers of all stripes need strong keyboard skills to advance in the trade.
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 my fellow 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…..
Do I still write for the accordion? The answer is yes, here and there. Some years back, I worked with director Chris Tucci to bring a solo accordion score to a production of Picasso at the Lapin-Agile, by Steve Martin (yes, that is the comedian/actor/musician/author and overall Renaissance man that you know!) Most of this score was improvised during performances, but one piece in particular is in my permanent list of compositions (Pablo’s Waltz).
I have also created a piece that attempts to reconcile my classical training with my popular work on the accordion. The rather infamous work is known as the Toccata and Polka in D Minor, and yes, it DOES use material from a certain iconic work for the organ, much to my wife’s chagrin (she is an organist and church musician). The piece also uses certain unnamed popular elements, including snippets of The Beer BarrelPolka, 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 the point of this nonsense. I also improvise pieces under the generic title of The Anything Goes Polka. With these performances, I attempt to prove that many pieces of legitimate music can be turned into polkas; some of them might have been even more timely if they had started out that way……..
In the last year or so, I have provided a weekly mini concert on my Facebook site. It started in a seemingly innocent manner during the pandemic crisis. Each weekend, I would record a piece that Covid shut-ins could hopefully enjoy. Alas, the project attracted a bit of a following and now I am stuck with this monster that was created! I still produce these mini-concerts, at least for the time being, as my supporters would be disappointed if I stopped.
One day, unless someone responsible stops me, I will bring these various musings into a single collection of music that no one will want to buy. I already have the title for this publication……
I’m Just a Squeeze-box in an All-Polka Band
The late, great Bill Fahrenbruck; he was the man who convinced me that there is
nothing wrong with hearing The Beer Barrel Polka in the middle of a carol-sing!