I played accordion for approximately seven years and practiced every day for exactly one hour. By exactly one hour, I don't mean 61 minutes - a clock was always nearby to insure I played for the time required - never more, never less. I never wanted to play the accordion but was corralled into it - I had a childhood best friend who played the instrument, so I was destined to follow suit.
My joyless experience was fueled by my instructor, who groomed me in a repertoire of the grim and joyless. I worked diligently on songs like the Marine Corps Hymn, the Beer Barrel Polka, and Song of the Volga Boatmen. I still recall the illustration on the music of a man along side a river, pulling a boat - an apt metaphor for my musical experience.
Lawrence Welk did nothing to endear me to the instrument. His schmaltzy polka extravaganzas only further cemented the feelings I had, adding to the perspective of the accordion as an instrument of torture and embarrassment for all.
At family gatherings, somehow it became de rigueur for me to play, even for an entire afternoon. No one really listened, and only when I stopped did someone bark, "Don't stop, Brian, keep playing." I never understood why. Recently, my cousin caught me off guard by chiding, "Hey Brian, take out your accordion." A good laugh for both of us, but I still felt a twang of pain on a raw nerve.
Later, things began to change. In my first cello lesson as an adult, my instructor asked if I had ever played a musical instrument. I replied, yes, kind of, but it was an instrument that did not really count. Rather annoyed, she asked, "What instrument would that be?" When I told her the accordion, she said that it was a fine instrument and spoke of the world of serious players and organizations. My mind opened briefly, only to be closed again by the famous Farside cartoon.*
As time passed, my exposure to the instrument in New York City was invariably positive. Innovative styles and players and traditional music all began to sound better and better.
This was the 3rd performance of this summer's Washington Square Music Festival, in its 52nd year (their website here). The repertoire for this festival ranges widely (typically classical), and not knowing what to expect, I was surprised to find that every piece on the program included accordionist William Schimmel.
I was riveted from the first piece. It was everything that great music should be. I later learned in my reading that Schimmel, a New Yorker, is a major heavyweight in the world of accordion. With a doctorate from Juilliard School of Music, Schimmel is credited as being one of the principal architects in the resurgence of the accordion. Regarded as the world's greatest accordionist by National Public Radio, he has performed with virtually every major symphony orchestra in America (and the Kirov). Schimmel is a virtuoso accordionist, author, philosopher, teacher and composer. The accolades for his playing are seemingly endless. You can visit his website here.
I do not typically enjoy music that bills itself as inventive or innovative. But I found William Schimmel's interpretations and quirky style not only refreshing but also purely enjoyable.
I need no further evangelical exposure to the instrument, because in every sense of the word, when it comes to accordion, I have been saved and William Schimmel is truly the Redeemer...
*A classic Far Side cartoon shows a split panel, one side showing St. Peter greeting people entering the pearly gates, saying "Welcome to Heaven, here's your harp." On the other panel, the Devil greets at the gates of Hell, saying "Welcome to Hell, here's your accordion."