For the Love of Accordions

“The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul.” – Beethoven 

I grew up listening to my father play the accordion, an instrument he learned in high school in late 1930’s New Hampshire. He was a taciturn man, but music brought out the best in him and gave me a glimpse of the smiling charmer who snagged my mother’s heart. Especially when he played her song: “Juanita.”

He could be fierce about it. No one dared make a sound or interrupt him while The Lawrence Welk Show aired, especially when Myron Floren, Joann Castle or the maestro himself took center stage with their keyboards and bellows. Half our hi-fi cabinet boasted albums by accordionists. (The other half was filled with salsa artists, but that’s another story.)

They’re fascinating instruments, beautiful and complex. The process of making one is incredibly precise. With up to 600 reeds, the final tuning alone can take up to 16 hours.

You can perform just about any kind of music with an accordion. Folk, blues, rock, pop, Latin, Tex-Mex, Italian, Irish, French, Celtic, Cajun/Zydeco, even classical. A lot of people associate the accordion with Weird Al Yankovic and the polka. Its range is far wider. Musicians you might not expect have embraced it. Julieta Venegas, the Mexican singer. John Lennon. Sheryl Crow. Jimi Hendrix. Billy Joel. Danny Federici (who played with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Bank). Stevie Wonder.

Elvis could play one—badly, if you believe the rumors.

My first piano accordion, a bare-bones model for beginners, cost less than $100, far less than the $40,000 the exquisite Pigini Mythos commands. It was tiny but allowed me to learn the basics of posture and playing while seated. What looks easy involves quite a bit of work.

Before you begin

Keep the keyboard aligned with your chin.

Rest the middle of the accordion on your left thigh.

Hold out your right elbow.

Tuck in your left elbow.

Remember to work the bellows smoothly. Accordions need air.

To play

Practice the melody alone until mastered.

Do the same with bass notes/chords.

Put both parts together.

And then you’ll have … music?

I’ll be honest. The air in my room turned blue when I practiced. My partner complimented me on the variety of curses I knew. In different languages, no less. A metronome helped to keep the tempo regular, but my first songs sounded like dirges. I played everything s…l…o…w…l…y and gained a new respect for the pros.

That first accordion ended up in my second-grade classroom, where the kids happily embraced a budding musician and sang along to pieces from my early Palmer-Hughes instruction books. Its replacement was a vintage De La Rosa I picked up at the Cotati Accordion Festival, an annual event in northern California (link below). Made in Italy, mid-size, mother-of-pearl keys, gorgeous sound.

Did I get better with a more refined instrument? Yes. A well-made, well-tuned accordion inspired me to work harder. I remember how happy it made me to tell my teacher that I’d reached a point where I felt one with the music.

It’s an intensely personal experience. Notes seem to play themselves, your body and mind transport to another dimension. When you finish, there’s hushed silence as the vibrations fade.

You don’t have to believe in God to understand what Beethoven meant. Music has spirit. Music has soul.

The benefits go beyond the divine. According to research, learning any kind of instrument sharpens your brain by utilizing higher cognitive functions. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Playing music improves mental and physical well-being at any age. These days, that’s a bonus I’ll gladly accept.

If you want to learn more, or glimpse the pin-up calendar featuring women who love their accordions, here are a few links to get you started:

How Accordions are Made https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcMHiAxB-jQ

Accordion Babes https://accordionpinupcalendar.com/pin-up-galleries/2018_calendar/

Cotati Accordion Festival https://cotatifest.com/

The Brains of Musicians  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMYQHTbPTVA

Could Playing Music Drastically Alter Your Brain? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-Zl1oFjezI

Thanks for reading. Images:

Photo of Viola Turpeinen https://accordionuprising.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/viola-turpeinen-the-first-recorded-woman-accordionist/

Photo of Julieta Venegas: http://wnyaccordions.org/noted_accordion_players

Photo of Elvis: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/532902568395344050/

 

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS

Seems like every time I pick up a magazine, there’s an article extolling the virtues of crossword puzzles. I call them my brain food, as necessary as vitamins. No day is complete without at least one grid solved. I crave the stimulation and I’m grouchy when deprived. You’ll find one in most magazines and newspapers. The very best are from the New York Times.

I began my first NYT puzzle with military precision, answering the clues in numerical order: across, down and then back again, a loop that eventually filled in the puzzle but took a long time. Seemed like there had to be a better way.

Bit by bit, I learned little tricks that helped. Completing corner boxes first often makes solving the rest of the puzzle easier. If the subtitle refers to a numbered clue, start there and build around it. Read clues with different inflections. Sewer can be a person who sews or a city’s waste system. Consider whether the clue is a verb or a noun. Is it bait as in “to lure” or bait as in “fishhook food?” Clues with question marks are often puns (be prepared for groaners).

With the New York Times, crossword puzzles become more difficult as the week progresses. Mondays through Thursdays are easy-to-medium. Fridays are notoriously hard. Saturdays can leave you stumped and cursing the devious minds that create them.

And then there’s the Sunday puzzle, guaranteed to challenge but never overwhelm. There’s always a theme, the most significant answers will connect to it. The grid is bigger, much bigger, than the daily versions, and meant to be savored with a cup of tea on the most comfortable chair you’ve got, preferably by a sunny window.

The only drawback to NYT puzzles is they’ve turned me into a crossword snob. I dropped the local newspaper that carried them—too many times where the carrier didn’t deliver.  A regular NYT subscription is expensive, not to mention that it can take up to a week after publication before I get it in the mail. There are paid online versions available but they’re not the same. I need to move freely around the grid, not click and type.

I’ve bought just about every NYT puzzle book collection available, so getting my crossword fix means settling for less. Nothing quite matches the NYT’s wit, although the Wall Street Journal is a real contender. Merl Reagle used to create some wonderfully clever puzzles, but, sadly, he’s gone. Simon and Schuster publishes bargain mega-collections—300 puzzles per book—but they’re not as challenging. I tend to go through them quickly, four puzzles a day.

But all is not lost. The NYT puts out a Crossword Page-A-Day Calendar. (Buying link sent to partner, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Don’t ask why I took this long to find it. Either I was oblivious, or I knew about it but thought the print size looked absurdly small.

So this Christmas morning, I look forward to continuing a tradition that began during WWII as a way to entertain war-weary readers. I’ll put on holiday music and then settle under a cozy throw in the sunroom, pen and puzzle in hand, with a mug of ginger tea and a box of See’s candies—dark chocolates, of course—close by.

Heaven.

For an intriguing look at the world of cruciverbalism, check out WORDPLAY, a 2006 documentary by Patrick Creadon. The film features Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, crossword constructor Merl Reagle, and various celebrity crossword lovers.

Thanks for reading.