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.)
When you start something new, it is usually best to begin at the beginning. When you are learning a new instrument, start with the basics.
Of course, the beginning is not always in the same place.
I am no stranger to learning new instruments. At age seven I started learning piano. I was doing Suzuki method, which is primarily based on playing by ear. Being my inquisitive little self, one of the first things I asked was when I would get to learn to read music. Keep this in mind a moment.
At age ten I started learning to play the flute. I had a head start, as I could already read music from my years of piano and choir. I was learning fingering, breath control, posture, and various other flute-specific details that were not covered by my previous lessons, but I was not going in blind.
At thirteen I started learning guitar. Hand position was new, but scales and intervals were old hat. Reading and playing chords and tabs came of my second attempt five years later, but built on the last one.
And now, age twenty-three, I am teaching myself accordion, and I have identified a very irritating characteristic of music instruction materials made for students beginning on an instrument:
They are designed for beginners.
Straight-up n00bs. Aside from the relatively easily-ignored point that most of the material is designed for children — adorable cartoon characters and smiling star stickers included — the material is all written for people completely unfamiliar with music. This is a reasonable assumption, at some level. Everyone in music had to start somewhere. All musicians had a first instrument. However, not everyone who is starting on an instrument has had zero musical training. I have been reading music since that first piano lesson sixteen years ago; I think I know how long to hold a half note, thank you very much.
Know how, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”? A little learning under one’s belt also makes for an expensive thing. When each beginner book is fifteen dollars for a thin book with large print, with only one-third of the information useful, that can burn through cash in a hurry. Books also tend to combine new and old material in one lesson, so it is nigh-impossible to skip over the boring bits, and absurd to try skipping entire books. If you try it anyway, something like this happens:
BOOK: “This is a harmonic minor scale! Can you play a harmonic minor scale on the treble side of your accordion?”
ME: “Since it is just a piano keyboard turned vertically, I could probably do it in my sleep.”
BOOK: “You did it! Hooray! Now play it on the bass side.”
ME: “Uh, this side isn’t quite the same. In fact, it is not chromatic, and I really don’t know what the fingering should be…”
BOOK: “Oh, we covered that back in book two.”
ME: “I knew everything else in that book! Do I really have to go buy it one page of useful information?”
BOOK: “Of course! Be sure to check out the rest of our helpful learning guides, available for just $14.95 each!”
It gets discouraging in a hurry.
True, the less common elements of music theory are not in everyone’s repertoire. The musical journey has many paths — what one person grasps at a month may not be taught to another for a year, and vice versa. My idea, which has probably been done (though I cannot find it): I think it would be fantastic to have a series of books for each instrument. One series for learning all the musical basics, and individual series for each instrument. That way, if you already know what a half note is, you do not have to have your experience ignored when learning a new instrument. Just start on the instrument’s basics and go from there. Need a refresher? Your instrument-specific book will tell you where to find the relevant bit in the theory books and you can look it up on your own time. If finding a wise and flexible teacher is not an option for whatever reason, a decent series of books like that could be helpful.
Have you experienced similar insults to your knowledge (and pocketbook)? Any recommendations for intelligent teaching material for acquiring skills on a new instrument?