In search of a soundproof practice booth.

practice blog post pic

My typical expression when I’m learning a new song and no chocolate is available.

I loathe envy those people who sit in front of sheet music they’ve never seen before and whiz right through the song, seamlessly sight-reading every note. You guys suck are impressive. Sure, you might slow down during a few tricky measures or hit a clunker every now and then, but at least you play a recognizable tune. When I’m learning a new song, the music sounds about as enjoyable as the soundtrack from Eraserhead.

I hate learning a new song. Truth be told, my husband and dog aren’t wild about it either. What I do love is the part when I can finally play it without people and pets fleeing the room. Thankfully, there is a way to get from the craptastic part to the kick-ass great part–it’s called practice. It ain’t fun, but it works. In fact, it works really really really well. Almost like magic. Well, if magic were boring and tedious and repetitious and painful to your brain and required endless quantities of chocolate.

Recently, I learned to play that beautiful old Neopolitan song, “Santa Lucia.” Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly a quick study. My fingers felt flabby and awkward. For a very long time the sounds I was making didn’t sound even remotely like a song. Fortunately, on the night I was about to chuck the music (and the accordion) across the room, I was chatting with some accordion pals of mine who reminded me to take it slow. Really slow. As in one or two measures at a time.

That was really good advice. Rather than playing the song from the beginning (which I already sort of knew) to the end, and just replaying the bad parts over and over, they told me to skip the parts I already knew and jump right to the crappy spots. I did that. And sometimes that meant playing two measures for 20 minutes. Once I could play them flawlessly, I was able to add another measure and try playing all three of them together. Then when I could play those flawlessly, I could add another one. And so on, and so on, and so on. I thought it would never end but eventually it did. And eventually the song didn’t suck.

I decided to tape my suffering and humiliation for the blog, in hopes that it might inspire even one poor schmuck like me out there to keep on plugging. Practice really does work. Here’s proof. Warning: the early part of this video is slightly less painful than a root canal. By a dentist looking to determine whether it’s safe.

Keep the faith.

What is it about accordions and Massachusetts?

Ole'

Performance by the accordion orchestra during Open Mic Night
Photo by Stewart Dean

Well, damned if I didn’t have another amazing time at another freaking accordion camp in the great state of Massachusetts. What are the odds? Apparently they are pretty effing good.

Just when I thought my musical week at the Cape last year couldn’t be topped, I experienced the Northeast Squeeze-in, a relatively undiscovered gem of accordion get-togethers known as NESI.

Picture a mid-September weekend in a rustic campground in Western Massachusetts. Add some great grub, a plentiful supply of BYOB, endless jamming, an open-mic night, a contra dance, a late-night pub sing, an accordion orchestra—the list is endless. Throw in 80 or so of some of the nicest, smartest, quirkiest, most talented, and humble humans I’ve ever met, and that should give you a slight idea of what made this far-too-short weekend so unforgettable. I was positively over the moon.

NESI scheduleThe workshop part of the weekend was spontaneous. There was something for everyone, regardless of their skill level. The attendees are also the instructors, so if you want to teach something, you simply write it on a Post-It note and add it to the board.

The hard part was deciding which workshops to attend. You had your pick of topics like French musette folk songs, accordion repair, jazz improvisation, Klezmer, even French folk dancing (that was a freaking blast; the folks who weren’t dancing were making the music for us to dance to).

I have to mention again how talented and kind these attendees were. It wasn’t enough for most of them to play just one instrument. They had to play two, three, or even four. Uhm…seriously? That’s just showing off. But here’s the rub. They made people like me, someone who is still struggling to play just one instrument, feel welcome.

I glommed on to some of those talented people during my performance at the open-mic night, which was a bit of a turning point for me. I never enjoy performing on stage with an accordion–it brings on Asian flu-like symptoms and unrelenting hot flashes. But this time I had a freaking blast. Here me and my wicked-cool pals Dave, James and Meredith perform Tico Tico. And, yes, James is playing four instruments—accordion, clarinet, a foot-pedal cabasa, and a samba whistle. If I didn’t dig him so much, I’d want to punch him.

Here’s a bit more of open-mic night.

Hours of Contra dancing followed the performances and after getting ridiculously sweaty I ventured into the main cabin for a cold beer (or two) and the late-night pub sing. Hot damn, this was fun.

I felt like I was reuniting with old friends instead of hanging out with a bunch of strangers. The entire experience also reminded me  of how lucky I am to be hopelessly devoted to the accordion. This beautiful but largely under-appreciated and misunderstood instrument has exposed me to so much delight in this world. I suppose there might be some accordion-playing dirtbags out there, but I haven’t met one.

Accordions rule.

P.S. Stewart Dean took some amazing photos of the event. You can find them on his Flickr page. 

Not a Bad Moon but Accordions Rising

Accordions rising photo

Dr. William Schimmel is featured in the documentary, Accordions Rising. Photo credit: Linda Rosier; originally appeared in the New York Times

“Once Accordions Rising is released, people everywhere can come to understand that accordions have returned, not only with amusement, but with a beautiful, eloquent, haunting, and downright exciting vengeance!

Just imagine all those who are not “in the know,” and are missing out on so much interesting music. Together we can fix that.”

- Roberta Cantow, Filmmaker

By reading this blog, you are already hip to the fact that accordions rule. Not everyone, however, possesses as much keen insight and good taste as you. Lucky for us, Roberta Cantow does. She gets it. She totally gets it. And she digs accordions–so much so that she made a movie about them. A really kick-ass good movie.

Check out the three minute trailer on her website to see what you have to look forward to once her documentary, Accordions Rising, gets released. Nice, huh? The website also lists the film’s impressive cast of characters, which includes, among many others, Guy Klucevsek, Will Holshouser, and, much to my delight, Walter Kuhr, the beloved former owner of New York City’s Main Squeeze Accordion shop who died earlier this year from lymphoma. He was only 59. I bought my latest accordion from Walter and was completely smitten by his charm whenever I was in his presence. I miss him. I’m awfully glad that a bit of his indelible spirit will live on through this film.

When I spoke to Roberta on the phone last week, she shared lots of stories with me…one involving the hot tip she was grateful to receive from a NYC friend about an event called Angels and Accordions (yes, it’s in the movie, along with lots of other awesome stuff). Think dancers, accordion players, funky flowing costumes, and the oldest cemetery in Brooklyn. Oh em gee. How cool is that? Seriously, that’s reason enough to contribute to the fundraising campaign needed to bring this film to fruition.

This brings me to her fundraising site on IndieGoGo. Up to now, Roberta has funded the research, film production, and editing entirely on her own. She hesitated to ask others for money until she knew it would be a film worth seeing. She realizes now that it is–and after talking with her, I realize that too. With our help she can broadly share this gem of a film, not only with musicians and accordion lovers like yourself, but with those confused and misinformed people out there who still think of the accordion as a punchline to a bad joke. They don’t get it, but they will…after they see the film.

Go to her site and make a contribution. I did. You can contribute any amount–even as little as a dollar. And if you aren’t able to contribute, please at least share the site with your friends on social media so that they might contribute $1 or $5 or $10 or $20, whatever. It takes a village…of accordion players and devotees.

We can do this. With apologies to Creedence Clearwater Revival, I see a bad accordion rising!

 

Mood Music

accordion and dogsOn Easter Sunday, my friend Sara Adduci snapped this kick-ass pic. It is, without a doubt, my favorite picture of me playing the accordion ever. Thank you, Sara. :-)

She subsequently posted it on Facebook. Some of the comments were as funny as the picture, so I figured I should share the love (so to speak). Enjoy.

 

 

“Damn accordion will do it every time.”

“Lady and the Tramp, after the spaghetti dinner?”

“Were you playing Teddy Pendergrass?”

Now there’s a polka!”

“Putting the poke in polka.”

“This may be the best pic of anyone playing the accordion ever.”

“You totally made my day!”

Bahahahahahahahahahaha. What were you playing to inspire such behavior?!”

“Wait, you know how to play Beyonce’s Drunk in Love!?”

“The dogs must have thought you were playing a poke-ya instead of a polka!”

“Or maybe they thought you were playing Hope You Poke Me instead of the Hokey Pokey.

Ha! Now go out and enjoy some accordion music. But please, behave responsibly.

Accordions rule.

Grand Fatilla–the real deal.

I realize that with most readers of my blog, I’m preaching to the converted. The rest of you sad, stupid people out there who think the accordion is nothing more than the butt of a bad joke? Get over yourselves.

The accordion is a serious, sophisticated instrument, and to watch someone like Roberto Cassan play it so masterfully is to witness a thing of beauty. A few months ago (yes, a few months–I’m ridiculously behind on blog posts) I was lucky enough to be invited to Grand Fatilla’s CD release party–thank you, James Gerke! They played to a private audience of their adoring Kickstarter supporters at the oh-so-cool Regatta Bar in Cambridge, MA, and they were spectacular.

A 1992 Los Lobos concert I attended at the now-defunct Flood Zone in Richmond, VA, remains at the top of my list of favorite live music experiences, but watching Grand Fatilla in the Regatta Bar that warm August evening rivaled that rockin’ show. I was positively giddy.

In Cambridge, this quartet of masterful musicians (accordion, electric mandolin, stand-up bass, and percussion/vocals) played a wonderfully funky blend of world music. Think Argentine tangos and Italian tarantellas with some Irish reels and Bulgarian folk tunes thrown in. Oh, and let’s not forget the original tunes, like the song Roberto wrote for his daughter called “Milonga para Lucia.” It made me cry.

Here’s another Roberto original that I caught on tape that night. It’s called “Domenie,” and you need to check out the bellows shake at the beginning. Wow.

Here they are playing another song, in another Cambridge venue, over a year ago. My friend James, who gets major kudos for introducing me to this incredible band, captured this one.

Go to their website to learn more about these first-rate musicians. Then do yourself a favor and click the shop button and buy their CD for everyone on your Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza list. You’ll be glad you did.

Accordions rule. So does Roberto.