What I Learned from Accordion Lessons—besides how to play the accordion

Although I guess I've never admitted it to my parents, I have to say that I'm very grateful to have taken lessons all through childhood. Yes, I learned to play the accordion. But I learned a whole lot more, as well.

I was four and a half when my parents told me I was going to take accordion lessons. The way I remember it, they handed me an accordion, dropped me off at Mern Reitler's accordion studio in downtown La Junta, Colorado, and left. I had no feelings about it either way. I just knew that when my parents told me to do things, I did them. "Brush your teeth . . . Eat your vegetables . . . Take accordion lessons." It was all the same to me.

For six months I had a tiny accordion. We colored the keys with crayons—red for C, blue for D, black for E, orange for F, green for G, brown for A, purple for B. My fingernails were then colored with corresponding colors, as was the music. To play a song, I would match the color on a note to the color of my fingernail to the color on an accordion key.

When I was five, I was invited to play at a Rural Electric Company banquet. All I remember about the whole thing is crying and pitching a fit. I was so little they wanted me to put my chair on top of a table, so they could see me better. For some reason, I was appalled by that idea. I guess I thought it was undignified. At any rate, I carried on until they gave up and let me sit in a proper chair on the floor, where chairs are supposed to be.

In six months I had graduated to a 120-bass accordion. For the next seven years, I took lessons from Mern Reitler. I don't remember liking them or disliking them. It was something I did. It was part of my life. When Mern retired, my parents found another teacher for me for a couple of years, and then I took lessons from my wonderful uncle, Joe Fazio, until I graduated from high school.

I am so grateful for all those years of lessons. Yes, I'm glad I learned to play the accordion. I'm also glad I learned to read music. But I learned so much more. Here are some of the things that come to mind: 

I learned discipline. Every day I came home from school and practiced for a half hour or so. It was part of my routine. I don't think I hated doing it. I don't think I loved doing it. I just did it because I needed to practice in order to learn what I needed to learn that week.

Later in life, as I was practicing to become a writer, I disciplined myself every summer to work on my writing for four hours every day. It was hard to do sometimes, but I did it. More important, I knew that it was possible to practice something every day and get better at it. I had spent two-thirds of my childhood doing just that. There was no question in my mind that I could discipline myself to practice and improve. 

I learned that I didn't have to have immediate gratification for everything I did. Learning can take place in spurts or giant leaps or slow, steady baby steps. I learned to feel satisfaction in achieving long-term goals like learning to play difficult pieces of music. 

I learned to be responsible. I had weekly lessons to prepare for. My parents were paying for those lessons and also expecting me to succeed. So I did. I truly believe the seeds of responsibility were planted with those earlier music lessons. The responsibility I learned then transferred to my schoolwork when I turned six. 

I learned the reward of inner satisfaction. I didn't need someone to tell me when I had mastered a piece. I knew when I had it, and I could feel good about it—whether or not anyone praised me. (My parents weren't real "praisers," and neither was Mern, so that didn't happen a lot.) 

I learned to fake it. I was always being asked to play the accordion for local functions, and my parents insisted that I enter contests like the Farm Bureau talent contest or the Kiwanis Stars of Tomorrow contest. I hated to perform. I was painfully shy and always terrified. "Smile!" everyone would say, though the last thing I felt like doing was smiling. I longed to play an instrument like the piano, which would let me play without facing the audience head-on.

Still, I smiled. My brothers and sister would sit in the front row and make faces at me, to remind me. I learned to smile and act like I was having the best time in the world, and the judges would always make comments like, "You look like you were having such a wonderful time!"

I wasn't.

The ability to fake it turned out to be one of the most useful skills I have ever learned. For example, when I was a small, 22-year-old teacher facing, for the first time, a class of 32 hostile 8th grade remedial students, I was terrified. I reached back and summoned up that ability to fake it. This time, instead of smiling, I acted like I was brave and strong and knew exactly what I was doing. The kids bought it.

I have used the same skill in so many situations in my life. In fact, I believe "faking it" is one of the most valuable things I ever learned. I owe it all to years of accordion lessons. 

I learned not to announce my mistakes. If I was performing and hit a wrong note, the thing to do was not stop, wince, sigh, grimace or start over. I learned to keep going, to recover quickly. Often, I found, people didn't even notice a mistake that was huge to my own ears, if I just went on.


And that's true about life, I think. We all make mistakes. We all goof up. The trick is to keep going. The trick is not to make our mistakes worse by dwelling on them, pointing them out to one and all. It's a lot better to just deal with them and go on as smoothly as possible. 

I learned that "thank you" is often all you need to say. I remember playing the accordion at a dinner and then standing, an embarrassed an awkward thirteen-year-old, as people complimented me afterwards. I had no idea what to say. I turned red, looked down, was at a loss for words. My mother took me aside later and told me how to be more gracious. "Just say thank you," she said.

"Won't that mean I agree with them?" I asked, very afraid that I might appear conceited.

"No," she said. "It means you are thanking them for the compliment, not that you agree. That's all you need to say."

I remember being absurdly grateful for this advice. Maybe my mom did know a thing or two after all, I thought.

Actually, she turned out to know a lot more than a thing or two. But of course it took me years to recognize that fact. 

Read on for responses to this article.

Reaction to What I Learned from Accordion Lessons

 

•     Tom Collins, Missoula Montana, wrote:

            When I was a studio operator years ago, two of my students were our young sons. They were both devoted students and we had a trio that performed together quite regularly. As their lives progressed, the accordion went into the closet and they went on to college and their chosen careers.

            Recently, there was a warm and grateful letter from our son Patrick, who is now a very successful oral surgeon. He was reflecting on his youthful years as an accordionist and wanted to let me know how much this has meant in his life, especially in his professional career. He always felt the discipline of learning music not only enhanced his mental capabilities but his youthful years playing the accordion gave him manual dexterity which enabled him to perform delicate operations, which none of his associates could duplicate.

            His brother is a senior VP with Merrill-Lynch in Spokane, and he has recently expressed similar appreciation for his formulated years with the accordion. Both sons are anticipating later years in semi-retirement and expressed an interest in returning to their accordion studies. So, I recently got new instruments for them both and someday soon we hope to be back playing on the retirement home circuit.

•     Wendy Stafford wrote:

            My first thought on ‘What I learned from accordion lessons’ is that playing the accordion just for fun and keeping it easy and simple will still reward you with more education in theory and listening skills. It’s always a step in the right direction. With the bass arrangement of the circle of fifths (on a piano accordion), you pick up a good foundation for more advanced music.

            I found a niche for my own endeavors, after taking stock of my abilities, wishes and faults, and created some simple puppets. I write for them and write accordion/vocal songs for them. In October, at a family gathering, The Spoonville Opera House will perform The Four Seasons.

            The puppets are basically large wooden spoons, in combination with other materials. Kids and adults find them entertaining, though I keep it all very simple and easy enough for a preschooler to enjoy. There are 10 puppets in all. Some show titles have been Pie in the Sky, Bye-Bye, The Carnival Hero, and The Baked Sale. Each show is about 20 minutes long. Some of the skits have been Lilah’s Art Show, and Spoonies on the Moon. I crochet my own scenery.

            I put everything on tape so my daughter and I don’t have to worry about making mistakes during the show. Everything is short-short songs, short shows, etc. My needs were to be removed from an audience since I don’t like to perform. All I have to do is hide behind my staging. However, I can still share my accordion explorations with the audience and my uneven abilities (I am better in some areas than others) are at my command.

            It is also a way to encourage my 14 year-old daughter to value and stay in touch with caring for and nurturing younger kids.

            The ‘Spoonies’ are not exciting or competitive in the field of puppetry but they have become my family!

•     Pat Hodges, Lake, Michigan, wrote:

            I learned to have an inordinate amount of patience, which lately has come in handy. We are in the process of building a house and it’s been like working with a combination of Bob Vila, Dr. Hyde and Tim Allen on Prozac! So you can see where patience has come into play.

            I’ve learned that anywhere can be a place of inspiration for a piece of music, from walking the beaches of Cape Breton Island to Louisiana Cajun country to Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains. I never know when the muse will hit.

                        I’ve become a lot more in tune with different pieces of music. It has taught me to pay attention to music more, the harmonies as well as the melodies, the accompaniments as well as the lead •           instruments. From Mozart to Dougie McLean, Tom Petty to Beausoliel, if I like it, I’ll take a stab at playing it. If I learn it, cool. If not, at least I tried.

Referring to Cheri Thurston’s article, “What I Learned from Accordion Lessons, besides Playing the Accordion, Donald Kozak wrote:   “Your observations about how the accordion has helped you in life was interesting. The part about ‘faking it’ I found amusing. During a competition in my junior year, I made a mistake and failed to keep from wincing. It cost me first place and was a shame. I was probably at the peak of my ability and dropped the ball in front of hundreds of people. I have since learned to ‘fake it’ better, either while playing the accordion or some other facet in my life. Anyway, just thought I’d share a couple of words from a fellow accordion player who remembers a time when his fingers could do triplets without (continually) stumbling.”