By Accordionist J. Ryan Beardall
(Originally written and submitted for my High School Junior English Research Paper)
The accordion is one of the most widely known and most misunderstood instruments in America. Ask almost anyone about the accordion, and they will usually drum up painful childhood memories of a relative who played it at a family reunion, or a TV show they saw while flipping past a public television channel. Many people do not give the accordion a chance to be heard. They immediately dismiss it as a nerd status symbol. Where did this social atrocity come from? The accordion is actually a very complex, very peculiar instrument with an unusual and surprising history.
The accordion started as the Chinese sheng, first introduced into Europe in 1777 by Pere Amiot (Romani 6). It simulated the use of the free reed principle commonly found in organs. From this, the aura was developed in 1821 by Christian Friedreich Lugwig Buchman (Romani 6). It was mouth blown, and it added to the Sheng a button keyboard and hand operated bellows. Then eventually the accordion evolved, which was patented and named in Vienna by Cyrillus Demain, in 1829 (Romani 6) (Burnbaum 86).
Today the accordion is made mostly of wood, with leather bellows. Inside an accordion are steel reeds (Conrad). As the player stretches and compresses the bellows, air is forced past these reeds, thus producing the sound (Berger 20). There are four different qualities of reeds. Number 1 quality reeds are machine made, and are of the lowest value. Two and three quality reeds are also machine made, but with better care and stronger materials. Number 4 reeds are hand made to provide the most accurate sound and the most expensive professional quality accordions (Conrad). The quality of reed used is the major determination of the price. Accordions range in price from $500 for a beginner, to $2500 for a pro, and up to $9000 for a professional accordion (Conrad). For the majority of the accordion playing population, a $2500 accordion will suit a person’s needs just fine.
Accordions are made in many different sizes and weights, to comfortably fit people of all heights. Its keys come in different sizes for fat and skinny fingers (Conrad). This makes the accordion appealing because small children can learn to play on an instrument their own size, rather than an adult sized piano or organ on which they are two short to reach all the high or low notes and pedals.
An accordion is played with both hands. The right hand plays the treble keyboard, a piano type keyboard featuring three octaves of 44 notes. With only 44 notes, the accordion has one of the greatest ranges of sound of any instrument. This is accomplished by switching reeds to simulate different instrument sounds. Through this, the accordion can range as high as a piccolo, or as low as a bassoon (Conrad). To accompany this range of sounds, the bass hand is included.
The bass hand of the standard accordion has 120 buttons, in six rows. The top two rows have all of the fundamental notes which can be found on the piano hand. The bottom four rows feature cords and counter cords to complement those notes. An air release valve is also located on the base hand side, so that the player may close the bellows silently (Romani 6). Although the number of bass buttons makes the instrument appear difficult to learn to play, the accordion is as easy to learn as any other instrument. It only requires patience and practice (Conrad).
Accordion music can been heard in many different places. Accordions back singing groups, fashion shows, weddings, dinners, and even funerals (Conrad). The accordion is a very versatile instrument. It can adapt to play solo, or along with any other instrument(s). Accordions are portable, whereas pianos are not (Conrad). A choir group who sings to accordion music rather than to a piano does not have to worry that the piano will be out of tune when they travel.
“Many people think the accordion is only designed for polkas,” says Darel Conrad, who has played the accordion since 1952 and taught it since 1959. “I play any kind of music that you want to hear me play. I can do any kind of music on the accordion because it’s so versatile” (Conrad). Latin, European, Country, Western, Modern, Jazz, and anything that can be played on a piano can be adapted to be heard on an accordion (Conrad).
The accordion was very popular during the early twentieth century. During those times, dance music was in demand (Conrad). Many people played the accordion. To help meet this popularity, the Music School for Accordion Teachers was established in Trassingen in 1931, which later became a state academy in 1949 (Romani 8 ). The British College of Accordionists was founded in 1936, which proved to be a vital factor in the musical development of this country (Romani 8 ).
Then in the 1960’s, the Beatles took over the popular sounds, as rock & roll and piercing guitars became the fashion. The accordion was too mellow to compete, and therefore people quickly lost interest (Conrad).
In the 1990’s, the popularity of accordions is again rising. “It’s how music goes in the world,” said Darel Conrad. “It’s the way people feel. They want something they can sing to, to hold on to, to sit back and relax.”
Mr. Conrad’s schedule is tight, too. He averages 60 to 100 students per week, and now teaches many children of his now grown former students, and also adults looking for the adventure of learning something different and exciting (Conrad).
As for the popularity of the accordion today, it has been designated as the official instrument of San Francisco (Burnbaum 85). Yet it is continuously marred by a “Steve Urkel” and “Weird Al” Yankovic nerd image.
Perhaps the best known American accordionist was Lawrence Welk. Growing up on a farm, in a farming community, Lawrence was naturally expected to become a farmer. But he had another dream.
One day Father came home from town to tell us that a traveling musician named Tom Gutenberg was coming to Stasburg to play a series of accordion concerts and dances….I went into town the first night Mr. Gutenberg appeared, and from that moment on my life was changed. He had the first piano type accordion I had ever seen, and I was overcome with admiration for its beauty and the clarity and brilliance of its tone….Once he left his accordion on stage while he went behind the curtain for a moment…I moved up to the platform as though I were hypnotized and ran my hands over the keys….
For days after that I could think of nothing else. I wanted that accordion! (Welk 1920)
Welk did get his accordion, but soon found that life as a musician was much harder than he had expected. After a life of much trouble and poverty, Welk was able to get a fast break and a nationwide television show for his band (Welk 258).
The thrill of those who play the accordion is best described by Mr. Conrad in this: “I like to see an audience come alive when I’m entertaining. It’s so fun to see people’s hand, or their head bopping, their foot bopping with the rhythm” (Conrad).
Such greats as Lawrence Welk, Myron Florence, and Dick Cantino have made the accordion what it is (Conrad). They, along with countless small accordionists throughout the past few centuries have given the squeeze box a magical air that fascinates any who give an ear in which it can sound its spell.
The accordion is here to stay. Its influence on musical history has been vast and great. Although many people will continue to make cheap jokes and ignore its beauty, its history and presence will continue to be felt for years to come.
Berger, Melvin. “Accordion.” The World Book Encyclopedia. 1984 ed.
Birnbaum, Jesse. “Lady of Spain, I Abhor You.” Time Magazine 28 May 1990.
Conrad, Darel. “Interview about Accordions.” Conrad’s Music. 22 Jan 1994.
Romani, G., and Ivor Beynen. “Accordion” The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. 1984 ed.
Welk, Lawrence. Wunderful, Wunderful! Englewood Cliffs: Pretice Hall, 1971.
(C) 1994 J. Ryan Beardall