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Just a woman and her accordion

June 22, 2012

To play the accordion as a woman is to transgress one’s gender norms.

The accordion demands to be heard, which is probably why it’s the most hated instrument after the bagpipes.  Played as quietly as possible, it’s about as loud as a flute; played with subtlety, it’s easily as loud as a fiddle.  A determined accordionist can put out a wall of sound which was surely a boon in the days before amplification.  It’s a stark departure from the frequently interrupted, talked-over, and ignored soft-spoken and nonconfrontational communications that women in our society are generally expected to be satisfied with. You cannot silence the accordionist by overpowering her.

An accordionist takes up space. Never mind diets and the onslaught of media images which tell me I should be smaller: I’ve got fifteen pounds of reeds and levers sitting in my lap and strapped to my chest. My right elbow pokes out to give me a comfortable angle on the keyboard; I need space on my left side too, so I can work the bellows.  My feet are firmly planted, my knees apart, providing a solid base for playing. This is basically the opposite of the way you see women sitting on the subway – knees together, elbows in, while the men sprawl all over the place and take up a seat and a half.

Accordion-playing takes strength.  Even if you aren’t so foolish as to routinely play standing up (totally unnecessary and bad for your back), you acquire some core muscles from balancing and stabilizing it.  Working the bellows once isn’t very hard, but working them over and over again, as is necessary over the course of a song or a jam, takes a certain amount of endurance – I have the tricep to prove it.  And then there’s the grip and upper-body strength gained from schlepping the instrument around, if you’re a sociable sort of musician and don’t have a car.

Accordionists need good spatial visualization skills – something we women are supposedly bad at (tell that to my structural geology grades!).  This is especially true if you play a chromatic button accordion like I do, but holds for piano accordions as well. My left hand controls 80 tiny buttons of bass notes and chords, none of which I can see.  79 of them feel the same under my fingers; the C-bass button has a little indentation on it to mark a reference point.  Complicating matters, the orientation of the left hand constantly changes as the bellows close and open – meaning that the left hand navigates in the dark, on a rotating plane, based on dead reckoning from a single reference point. The right hand keyboard is a bit better, in that it doesn’t move and I can see it if I want to, but looking at it all or most of the time is pretty uncomfortable. My right hand has three unique rows of buttons and two more repeated rows at its disposal, so I’m not just navigating across 87 keys, I’m also choosing between two alternate fingerings depending on the tune – all the while moving between keys based on the angle and radius formed by my hand, since my layout has, in practical terms, one more dimension than a piano keyboard. Between both hands, there are a lot of things to keep track of all at once.

(Sometimes it feels like a mad scientist must have invented this wondrous instrument – this contraption full of wires and levers, valves and flaps, buckles, snaps, and switches, with an unlabelled, utterly logical control panel that looks impenetrable unless you’re used to it.)

There are many right ways to be an accordion.  You can sing from one treble reed rank or five, no register switches or many.  You can have five or three or four rows of buttons, or piano keys.  You can have a Stradella-bass or free-bass setup at the left hand, or even switch between the two. You can be any or all of the colors of the rainbow, bedazzled with rhinestones, or raven-plain. You can be giant or tiny, heavy or light; you can let your voice out of your body through cutouts, grills, grates, or pre-wired mics. Whatever your choice, you can still be considered an accordion.

There are many right ways to play an accordion.  The best accordionists in the world all play their instruments in wildly different ways.  You can play melody or back-up, notes or chords on the treble side, notes or chords on the bass side, or everything at once if you’re so inclined. It’s a complete instrument, a one-woman band, but also plays wonderfully with others in the right hands – Accordion Tribe, one of the best ensembles ever on the face of this earth, created complex, multilayered songs with five accordions. Members of the accordion family have found or made a space for themselves all over the planet, from Scandinavia to Africa and Argentina to Russia, crossing genres and rhythms and always sounding at home.

Many of these things are also true of other instruments.  But the accordion owns a little bit of my soul now.  I find myself taking up my allotted space in subways and airplanes, speaking a little more loudly when I want to be heard, refusing to let men interrupt me. I express my needs instead of just working around other people’s.  I ask for things I’m not sure I’ll get and let other people worry about saying no. I wear my eccentricities more proudly.

I make music that makes hearts soar and feet dance. I also make train and ambulance noises when the mood strikes me.  I am an accordionist, I am happy with who I am, and I will not be silenced.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 24, 2012 5:50 pm

    And this was marvelous. Hear, hear!

    I’ve always liked accordion music, but you make the instrument (as well as its players!) really intriguing!

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