The Story of My Days as a Piano Accordionist - A Musical Quest
The day the music came to town
When I was eight years old, a blitz of door-to-door salesmen came through our town, signing up children for piano accordion lessons. They were handsome young men, and I suspect they didn't know much more about the instrument than they needed to make the sale. Somehow, the musical, The Music Man comes to mind.
They talked with our parents first and then we were called into the room. "Put this strap over one shoulder. Put this strap over the other shoulder. Slide your left hand under the side strap and place your fingers on the buttons. Good! Now put your right hand on this keyboard. Each finger has a number. I'll say the number and you press the key. Remember to pull out with your left hand. Now push in."
"There, see. She's a natural at this. You must be a very musical family." We weren't.
But I was fascinated with the idea of making music, and when my parents asked me if I wanted to take lessons, my answer was an enthusiastic "Yes!"
The world of music opened up
My class was on Saturdays. For the first three months, we used small, twelve-bass beginner accordions provided by the conservatory. We sat in a row and tried to master the equivalent of patting our heads, rubbing our tummies, and blowing up a balloon at the same time. The right hand played the treble notes on a piano-like keyboard. The left hand played the bass notes on buttons that had to be pushed in, and hitting the right ones was a challenge because you weren't able to see them. Meanwhile, the sound only came out if you remembered to pull the bellows - all the way open, all the way closed. Keep pumping the bellows! There's no sound if you stop pumping!
Those of us who were considered to have an aptitude then purchased a full-sized 120-bass accordion with three reed-shifts. The years that followed were full of wonderful music. Mostly I remember the classical pieces, but there were also marches, folk melodies, traditional airs, and the exciting Spanish and Italian songs that stirred the blood. I experienced the thrill of performing in recitals. On warm summer days, I practiced outside on my front porch for the sheer joy of it.
By the time I was a teenager, I had completed most of the conservatory exams. Now I owned a beautiful Titano Royal with seven bass switches, eleven treble shifts and a palm master switch. It was a stunning instrument - the bass buttons were translucent gold, the sharp keys were glittery gold and the trim was chrome and gold glitter. Against the white Italian marble look of the casing and the white bellows with the gold diamond, it was a work of art.
A group of advanced students were invited to form an accordion orchestra and compete in Toronto. We worked hard, and finally the day came to go to the music competition, held at the famous Royal York Hotel where we stayed for two nights. The competition was a whirlwind, and although we didn't win, we had a wonderful time.
But the times, they were a-changin
The big band era of Lawrence Welk was on its way out, giving place to a new generation of folk music and rock. The Beatles did not play accordions. In Grade 11, some boys asked me to join their band as the keyboardist. Yes, on my accordion. But I couldn't improvise (jam, they called it) a la Iron Butterfly; it was doomed from the start.
Meanwhile, I was preparing for my Grade 10 conservatory exam. I'd done well all the way through, but I had a bad feeling about this one. My instructor's knowledge of the requirements seemed sketchy, to say the least. So I entered the test room to face two adjudicators who began asking me to play pieces I had never heard of. And sing the major and minor scales to prove I knew the difference. It was a disaster. The conservatory admitted that I had been ill prepared and offered to let me test again for no additional cost, but that really marked the end of my accordion training. Fortunately, musical skills are transferable. Next challenge - electric keyboard and acoustic guitar.