Category: Instruments

The Accordion Adventure: Acquisition

Sometime last summer, around July of 2011, I developed an acute interest in accordions.

It might have come from working in an Italian restaurant for nine months. Excepting one month for Christmas, the background music never changes from day-to-day. Because of this daily playlist, I got to hear the same three accordion-centric songs nearly every shift I worked. I eventually realized what instrument it was, and that I hated those songs less than some of the others. Maybe my interest came from all the time spent listening to the local Mexi-pop radio stations in my abortive attempts to learn Spanish. Those songs are pretty catchy, even if I only caught one word in several hundred. Perhaps it was because some of my favorite songs and bands have featured accordions in some fashion. Or maybe I just watched too much Lawrence Welk as a child. Whatever the catalyst was, I suddenly thought accordions were cool. Yes, my definition of “cool” is unusual, but an accordion so versatile! You can sing along with it! You can play melody and harmony! It has a piano keyboard for melody and buttons for chords! You can walk around with it! It has a distinctive sound! And honestly everyone plays guitar, and everyone plays keyboard (at least, everyone thinks he can). But accordion? That is something far more unique.

I know that I sometimes have the attention span of a goldfish when it comes to interests. I tend to become completely absorbed by some subject for whatever period of time it takes for me to satisfy my curiosity, and then I drop it. Random whims bring me to the strangest subjects, and, when the obsession passes, I focus on the next project and the next opportunity to learn and grow. Buying books and supplies for each experiment gets expensive in a hurry. With this in mind, I set out to find a rental accordion.

This quest started as a spur-of-the-moment search between shifts at my job. I had three hours to kill that afternoon, so I thought I would check out the music store near my place of employment. I knew they rented out most stringed and band instruments, as well as offered lessons on all of them, and repaired all kinds. The very pleasant employee seemed understandably surprised that I was after an accordion. All he could offer was, “The boss’s husband plays the accordion.” That was not too helpful, so off I went to the next-nearest place, which I knew focused on guitars. While they had an abundance of guitars, along with assorted drum and keyboard bits — plus ukuleles and an upright bass — they had no love for such a strange instrument as an accordion. I expanded my search to the little music shop near the college. Again, mostly guitars, with the owner bemused that I was the second person that afternoon asking about accordions. I then got a pensive story about how he also had two people from Wisconsin in the other day. His actually helpful advice was that I check around at a nearby town with a significant population of first- and second-generation Mexican immigrants. Aha! I thought. Off I went to the library to use their internet, so I could look up the phone number of Campus Music. If anyone would have an accordion, it would be them. Apparently they had one used accordion for sale, not rent, and far out my price range. By this point it was time to go back to the job, and I had made no definite progress.

My next plan was to search online for accordion stores (or music stores that might sell accordions) in the area. “In the area,” quickly came to mean, “anything within a one-state radius”. Aside from one accordion-making company with new, pricy toys scattered in several stores a couple of hours away, I had nothing around. My car was acting strangely enough that driving around the city to test instruments for something I was only doing for fun seemed wasteful, not to mention likely to end up with me sitting by the highway with a dead car. Perhaps a pawn shop would have one, but I had nowhere where I could walk in and try out multiple styles, sizes, tunings, or brands of accordions in one store or area. Really, most of the accordion stores seem to be concentrated on the coasts, in the New York area or somewhere in California, with the occasional store in Texas or Louisiana (for the Cajun style ones). If you, like me, are in the middle of the United States, you are out of luck. I had a vague desire to take a trip to the East Coast just to check out various accordion stores — see what I mean about random obsessions?

So, knowing I would not be able to follow my ideal plan to try many accordions, get the advice of an experienced accordionist, and then rent a decent instrument, I gave up “plan A” and moved directly to “Plan Q”. Every piece of online advice I had found — which was the only advice I had, since I had no one to give advice — said to be certain to inspect an accordion in person. You should check the instrument for sticky keys and air leaks. Make sure it does not smell musty. Plus, they are fragile, the articles said, so they should not be shipped except by someone who really knows what he is doing. All sound advice that went right out the window. Since I could not rent my temporary toy, I would buy the cheapest functional one I could from the most reputable dealer on ebay. The best I would be able to do, I figured, was get my hands on a reasonably decent instrument and see if I still liked it once I finally got to play one.

I watched the auctions for a few days and I found one. It was fairly basic, but it had all 120 basses (the standard number of bass buttons in the most common configuration), with a piano keyboard on the right side. It was within my price range, just $200 for the instrument itself, with shipping another $30. Pricy for a toy, but it seemed a fair price for the chance to try one out. I purchased the instrument 29 August 2011, and began to wait.

Aug. 31 2011, the package shipped. I was so very excited. I checked the package tracking every time I went online. (Relevant xkcd comic). Finally, around eight in the evening of 6 September, several hours after I expected the postal service to deliver a package that day, my accordion arrived on my doorstep! YAY! One box, many layers of bubble wrap, and some temporary confusion about how to open the case later, I held my new accordion!

(Click the pictures to see full-sized.)

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The Accordion Adventure

Real life has an annoying habit of obstructing such fun things as blogging. In addition to such things as housing considerations, a job, social things, and finishing late birthday gifts, I have actually been working on something musical lately.

You may have noticed that my Gravatar (that little picture next to my comments on WordPress) is an accordion. If you have noticed this, congratulations! You are impressively observant. Anyway, I thought it time that I finally share the story of my adventures with my accordion.

Yes, I do own an accordion. No, I cannot play it very well yet. Why do I own an accordion? That is what I hope to explain.

Starting next week.

The Bongo Blunder

I have a problem, my friends: I love instruments.  Any and all, I think they are beautiful and valuable, and I want to own one of everything.  This itself is not a problem.  The problem arises when I find an instrument I do not own for sale at a price I can afford, because I tend to buy it on impulse.  This has happened several times: it’s how I bought my accordion, a jaw harp, an electric guitar, and my newest acquisition: a set of bongos.

A few days ago I decided to stop by the thrift store on my way to work.  First I laid down the law in my pre-shopping pep talk.  “OK,” I told myself, “you are going to look for a cheap, destroyable piece of wall art for a project, and maybe some yellowed music.  That’s all.”

The expedition started well.  Of course, there was an upright piano just to my left as I walked through the doors.  Someone had arranged new sheet music in a basket on top, encouraging people to play, to buy the music, or maybe even to buy the piano.  I leafed through the music, idly considering how I would love to have a real piano in my home.  None of the music caught my eye, so I walked among the bookshelves and found the sheet music.  Success!  A yellowed book of organ music hid on the bottom shelf.  On I went to the electronics to see if there were a small cassette player, CD player, or record player available.  I found several huge tape decks and multi-disc players, but nothing compact enough or cheap enough for my taste.  The first wall art I found mostly looked like it belonged on the walls of a dentist’s office: large, nondescript, and slightly sun-faded.  Finally I found the small, cheap stuff.  99 cents later, I made my way to the checkout through the bric-à-brac wood section, when, suddenly, my internal monologue became distracted:

“Congratulations, you will be spending only five dollars today!  Now to check out and go to work, where…”
“Oooo, look, bongos!”
“You do not need bongos.  These are not in good condition, either.  What the…Why are you buying those?”
“Bongos!”
“…Ok, fine, but you do not need the broken trumpet.”

A little beat upThese poor little drums are not in the best shape.  They have what looks like ballpoint pen scribbled on the side, the bottom rim on both drums is missing, and, most obviously, the heads look like they have had coffee and Kool-Aid spilled all over them.  From what I can tell, this was a cheap beginner set of drums in the first place — plastic bridge and all.  Not exactly a prime instrument, but, then again, a thrift store is not the best place to look for quality instruments.  The upshot is I now own some beat-up, crappy bongos.

I think someone's kid set a juice cup on topI spent most of that night researching bongos, drum heads, and how one might re-skin a bongo or similar drum oneself.  A couple days ago, I sat in a coffee shop for two hours and read Making Drums by Dennis Waring, which I picked up from the public library before I bought my drums.  Now I am all inspired to re-skin the bongos myself, and maybe build my own drums!  I enjoy and have some experience with do-it-yourself projects, so it would not be unreasonable.  With no previous experience, no assistance, and only the internet as my guide,  I have repaired an accordion; I could totally re-skin a drum.  (Aside: Actually, I would love to get into building my own instruments.  I would need some woodworking skills and tools, though, and those do not work well in an apartment, meaning I will probably want a workshop somewhere.  I may have to look into that.)

Today I stopped by the local music shop and bought a drum key so I could actually tune my new toys to something other than “thud”.  After successfully demonstrating that I have the social skills of an autistic wolverine and coordination of an inebriated newborn giraffe (I somehow accidentally threw the drum key at the clerk while we were discussing webcomics.  He then yelled to his coworker about how I had thrown a drum key at him, while I turned beet red and stammered apologies), I came home and tuned up the bongos.  They actually sound ok, considering both that I have never tuned a drum before and that they are not in prime condition.  Not stunning, but not bad.  I found a couple YouTube videos about how to hold the bongos and play basic rhythms and proceeded to spend an hour happily tapping away.

This part completely surprised me: I got into the Flow, that wonderful trance-like state of just doing, just playing, not even thinking about anything, just practicing the patterns over and over and over.  I was not expecting this at all, since — confession time! — I have usually regarded percussionists as musicians who couldn’t handle both notes and rhythm, so they picked an instrument class that only used one.  Har har har, let’s all laugh at the percussionists.  Or rather, let’s all laugh at Liz for having such an incorrect mindset.  (Let’s not send Liz angry comments, though, please.)  This view was generally reinforced, or maybe caused, by my time in Middle and High School concert band.  We either had far too many n00b drummers pounding at full volume on snares with minimal regard to rhythm and none to musicality (Middle School), or we had a tiny, pitiful band of only seven members and our lone drummer still was too quiet to hear (Freshman year in High School).  My low opinion of percussionists was second only to my near-hatred of electric guitarists (but that is another story).  Though I have learned more through the years as I met percussionists who could march circles around me while simultaneously pwning the glockenspiel, I still could not understand the draw of melody-less instruments whose playing style consists primarily of, “bang on the thing”.

Well, consider my horizons broadened.  Lesson learned, at least a little.  Percussion was probably man’s first foray into music, and is still the most primal.  I do see the appeal, now.  Also, considering what I have seen online, I can appreciate a little of the skill involved.  I have taken my first steps into the wonderful world of percussion instruments, and I am quite happy.

It occurs to me as I write this that I have not yet named my bongos.  Any suggestions?  Two names, one each of male and female would be my thought, but any suggestions are appreciated.