Faithe Deffner is famous throughout the accordion world in her capacity as Director of several of prestigious accordion businesses and also in her role as President of the American Accordionists' Association. This Celebrity Interview will to focus on her business career and the AAA will be the subject of a future Celebrity Interview.
Q: Your late husband, Ernest Deffner, founded the business. Tell us a little about him?
A: My husband was born in Munich, Germany on September 24, 1904. He studied business administration and took a job with a shipping brokerage firm in Innsbruck, Austria for a few years prior to emigrating to the US. In this country, he worked for a musical instrument jobber, Progressive Music in New York City, where he quickly rose to a management position. In 1933 his employer cut all salaries by 10% and Ernest decided that this was the ideal moment to start his own business because the economic situation could only improve.
Q: What aspects of the music business was Ernest involved with?
A: He dealt with all musical instruments and developed a loyal clientele among music stores and schools throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. He introduced new lines and popularized them in the market. Among his exclusive products were Thomastik Strings for bowed instruments, Augustine guitar strings, SML (Strasser, Marigaux and Lemaire) woodwinds and brasses, Alexandre woodwinds and brasses and Woodwind Co. mouthpieces (a firm founded by Walter Gemeinhardt in 1918 which Ernest bought).
Q: How did the accordion involvement begin for the firm?
A: I remember an amusing story Ernest told me years later about his first encounter with accordions. In 1936, while in Europe on a buying trip, he went to Castelfidardo and purchased a substantial number of accordions in a cash transaction. The wooden packing cases which arrived in New York all contained sacks of bricks. This disaster was matched in the 1960's when the Andrea Doria sank at sea, taking to the bottom of the ocean our shipment containing a few hundred accordions. After that, all our shipments came by air.
Q: At what point did accordions become an important segment of the Ernest Deffner firm?
A: The business grew rapidly and Ernest developed many close European connections which enabled him to get merchandise during the war (WWII). He had twelve salesmen traveling across the country and the firm grew to be a very important source of every kind of musical instrument and accessory.
Ernest was a client of the Robert Holly Advertising Agency which also represented a budding accordion manufacturing firm -- Pancordion, Inc. It was Holly who brought these two clients together, merging their individual expertise into a very popular brand of accordions.
Q: What can you tell our readers about the early Pancordion years?
A: I will quote from the "Golden Age of the Accordion" in which accordionist-educator Dr. Salvadore M. Febbraio wrote an interesting account of Pancordion's history:
"Deffner joined forces with Robert Pancotti, who left his family-owned Excelsior Accordion Company to develop and patent a series of accordion innovations which had profound effect upon the instrument's constructional development. Their newly founded firm had purchased the old Selmer plant in Long Island City, New York. Here, they built hand-made Pancordions ......
Pancordions quickly found acceptance among professional accordionists, many of whom offered new ideas for further development. Lawrence Welk, Myron Floren, Frankie Yankovic, Don Lipovac, Billy Costa, Milt DeLugg, Bobby Creach, Maddalena Belfiore, Dick Metko, Paul Norback and other noted professionals chose Pancordion to further their careers.
"The new, modernized Pancordion factory occupied a full floor in a large commercial building, where more than 40 craftsmen were employed in an effort to meet America's seemingly insatiable desire for fine hand-made accordions during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Among Pancordion's craftsmen were John and Angelo Magnante (Charles Magnante's brothers), Natale Frosini (Pietro Frosini's brother), the Pancotti brothers (Roberto and Archimedes) and others whose names bear historical importance in the accordion world.
"When it became necessary to develop an Italian-made line, Deffner dispatched a top contingent of Pancordion craftsmen to the factory of Cav. Sante Crucianelli, to set up for the high quality production which the growing American market demanded. Crucianelli became Pancordion's Italian affiliate and Ernest Deffner's sales network began distribution of the growing production. Under the brand names of Panitalia, Crucianelli, and Video (named for Montevideo long before TV became a national pastime), the firm satisfied the needs of emerging accordion schools and dealerships during the instrument's post-war heyday"
Q: What is your background and how did you come to join the firm?
A: My education was in the fields of journalism and advertising. I owned a small advertising agency in Manhattan. The Ernest Deffner firm engaged us to do a musical instrument and accessory catalog. It turned into a 380-page book containing thousands of items which required detailed descriptions and illustrations. Ernest and I spent endless hours together on this project and eventually we became inseparable. After we married, I gave up my business to create an in-house agency for Ernest Deffner Affiliates. I became executive vice president in addition to advertising manager.
Q: How significant was the firm's accordion involvement when you joined the business?
A: Although we were in all musical instruments, our accordion commitment was very important. We owned the Pancordion factory in the US and had exclusive contractual arrangements with factories in Italy. To satisfy our accordion requirements, Crucianelli built a huge factory on Via Donizetti in Castelfidardo (which later became the four-star Hotel Parco when Crucianelli relocated). I can recall one time when Phillipo Crucianelli, who headed the firm, visited us in New York and went home with an order for 4,000 accordions.
Our accordion commitment was multi-faceted. We worked with top musicians in our quest to improve design, componentry and workmanship. It was always our conviction that a fine accordion could unleash creativity through its increased musical capacity. We also recognized that the accordion was a relatively new musical instrument caught up in an evolutionary process which encompassed instrument development, advancing teaching procedures and encouraging new and serious literature.
Q: The accordion's popularity began to wane in the 60s. Did your advertising background provide any insights which you can share with our readers?
A: That's a very interesting question. Almost from the beginning, I was struck by the accordion world's isolationism and apparent unwillingness to move out of its own shadow. What do I mean?
Well, we all agree that the accordion is a magnificent vehicle for young people because it helps to establish focus, self-esteem and discipline; it lends itself to group activities, thus teaching teamwork and responsibility to others. Therefore, the accordion community's advertising thrust should be directed at capturing a fair share of the "leisure-market dollar." Instead, we constantly address our efforts to those who already play accordion (usually to tell them that they need a different accordion).
Why do accordion firms feel compelled to compete with each other when our real competition is other leisure activities and products such as bowling balls, karate lessons, computer games, etc.? We need to convince those who do not play the accordion that they are missing out on a great activity, one of the few which provides lifelong enjoyment.
Instead, advertising efforts and resources are spent to tell accordionists, by implication, that the instrument they play is the wrong model, brand, system for success and legitimacy. Wouldn't it be more productive to put our efforts into inviting new people to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of accordion playing?
Q: How would you propose to do that?
A: By identifying objectives we could create a meaningful concept. If it were possible to approach the future as an industry rather than a series of brands, much could be done to popularize the wonderful instrument we have come to love. Yes, the accordion is a formidable musical instrument, but it is also a catalyst for personal growth and development in young people.
Ours is an instrument which is designed to entertain as well as instruct the young child. At a time when parents are groping for wholesome activities for their youngsters, the accordion community isn't conveying the instrument's powerful qualifications.
Q: When did the Deffner firm become involved with Titano Accordion Co., International? (www.accordions.com/titano)
A: In the 1960s, when Ernest heard that Titano was for sale, he decided to expand our accordion interests by acquiring the firm which was founded by Edward and Dorothy Traficante, in Minneapolis, USA. The Traficantes originally developed their line for use in their chain of accordion schools. Theirs was a quality line which complimented the Pancordion instruments. It was a time of exclusive dealer franchises and the acquisition enabled Deffner to serve more than one franchised dealership in a community.
Q: What direction did the development of Titano take?
A: We worked closely with leading accordion classists such as Bill Palmer and Bill Hughes (famed for their Palmer-Hughes Accordion Course and educational materials), Robert Davine, Pauline Oliveros, Joan Cochran Sommers, William Schimmel, Donald Balestrieri, Anthony Galla-Rini, Frank Marocco, Carmelo Pino, Harley Jones, Frank Busso, Yuan Fang, Carl Elmer, Lloyd LaVaux and others.
The firm pioneered the development of free bass as an adjunct to the stradella bass system (the free bass disengages the pre-set bass chords, permitting the player to form desired chords or play single notes, as the music may require). While other free bass systems did not relate to the standard stradella basses, Titano's convertor accordions used the very same note sequence that accordionists already knew from their stradella basses, without adding size or weight and at very little cost.
By 1975, 70% of our sales were accordions with stradella and quint convertor free bass. When convertor chromatic free bass systems were perfected, Titano offered those as well, because it is our policy to offer the accordionist that with which he or she is most comfortable.
Q: What led to the development of the Tiger Combo'Cordion?
A: In the mid-60s, we recognized the changing dynamic in music as rock'n'roll captured the interest of youngsters. Working with Bill Palmer, we designed and introduced the Tiger Combo'Cordion.
This was a line of compact and colorful accordions (in a choice of three Fiat car colors: fire, sun and blue moon), featuring quint treble tuning for "piercing lead or swinging chords in audio colors to flip the crowds" according to Hullabaloo magazine's description. Electronic pickups provided a spectacular "biting" sound and a voice microphone was fixed onto the top of the Combo'Cordion ready for song.
The instrument's keyboard angle followed the slanted grille so that flying fingers could easily be seen by the audience.
The program didn't succeed because accordion teachers saw rock as a passing fad. They disliked the music and refused to teach it to their students. Consequently, students drifted away from accordion to electric guitars and keyboards on which they could learn the music they wanted to play.
Below is a photograph of the press conference in New York City, where the famous Tiger Combo 'Cordion was introduced. It's development was a collaboration between Bill Palmer and the Titano Accordion Co. Pictured left to right: the late Ernest Deffner, then president of Titano, Faithe Deffner, the firm's executive vice-president and Willard "Bill" Palmer introducing the instrument.
Q: What direction did the firms take after Ernest Deffner died?
A: After a lengthy illness, Ernest passed away at the beginning of 1971 and I became president of the firm. Accordion volume was declining as music tastes changed. Choices had to be made.
We decided that the accordion needed all our energies. Thus, at a time when accordion firms were diversifying into other musical instruments, our firm went from all instruments to accordions exclusively.
We intensified our staunch support for accordion programs of an institutional nature and took on a greater role within the international accordion community. We participated in national and international accordion events and worked closely with many accordion organizations.
Q: When did Ernest Deffner Publications develop and why?
A: As accordion popularity declined so did the sales of accordion music. Publishing firms diverted their resources to music for other, more popular instruments which were profitable. Sources for accordion music became fewer and fewer. Old time accordion publishing stalwarts closed because overheads exceeded profits. Firms like O. Pagani & Bro. and Pietro Deiro Headquarters were no more.
We felt that it was urgent for us to enter the publishing arena and sustain the existing literature even if it was not profitable. We decided to use accordion profits to subsidize music publishing simply because the accordion could not exist without literature.
Today, Ernest Deffner Publications are distributed worldwide. We publish works by many famous composers such as Jindrich Feld, John Franceschina, Carmelo Pino, Ernst Krenek, William Schimmel, Palmer and Hughes, Otto Leuning, Douglas Mews, Gary Daverne, Karen Fremar, Anders Grothe, Anthony Galla-Rini, Addie Cere, Andrezej Krzanowski, Alan Leichtling and others.
We have absorbed what was left of the most venerated music publishing firms of the US, O. Pagani and Pietro Deiro, in addition to firms like Highland and Aretta. Music is not profit making for us. Our catalog offers about 8,000 publications and can be found on web at www.accordions.com/deffnermusic
Q: What music background do you have?
A: My early music training was on violin. I later studied accordion with Billy Costa at his studio on 48th Street in New York. Although I have always been limited in practice time required for performance, I am fully familiar with both the musical and mechanical aspects of the accordion. My teacher was a great accordionist who played with the foremost orchestras. He was a studio musician and a noted recording artist.
Q: Who were the significant people in the firm's earlier years?
A: Of course, my husband Ernest Deffner taught me many things which have served me well through the years. His principles of integrity, personalized service, old-world craftsmanship and genuine values remain as cornerstones of our business. Our daughter, Verne Deffner, has been an invaluable asset to the firm. Our early staff deserves recognition -- they are Jacques Van de Genachte; Angelica Bargou, Alfred Becker, Mario Coletta and Frances Margliss.
Q: Who are the accordion greats whom you have known personally during your career in this field?
A: It has been my good fortune to know many of the most celebrated people in accordion circles and to enjoy warm friendships with a good number of them. My dearest friend and mentor was, of course, Willard (Bill) Palmer who together with Bill Hughes launched that phenomenon known as Palmer-Hughes and who distinguished himself as a performer, composer and educator.
Years of cordial association served to increase my esteem for Charles Magnante, Eugene Ettore, Frank Gaviani, Joseph Biviano, Pietro (Lee) Deiro, Jr. and Aldo DeRossi. Myron Floren and Lawrence Welk were very special people who greatly endeared themselves to me. It isnt possible to enumerate the many wonderful accordion personalities whose friendship and confidence I have enjoyed . There are so many whose warmth and inspiration I will always treasure.
Q: What do you see as the accordions future in the United States and elsewhere?
A: The accordion will find its niche in the music world by connecting with other instruments and musicians. It is already happening in the pop field where name groups are beginning to use our instrument, thus propelling it into mainstream music activity.
Its amazing to note how many contemporary musicians have already tapped into the hippness associated with the accordion. Among them are Peter Catera of Chicago, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Benny Anderson if ABBA, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Peter Holsapple of Hootie & the Blowfish, Krist Novoselic formerly of Nirvana. Cindy Lauper, Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows, Bruce Hornsby, John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, Garth Hudson of the Band, Los Lobos, Steve Jordan, Phoebe Legere, Cheryl Crowe and more.
The same is happening in the classical arena. More and more serious accordionists are being featured with orchestras throughout the world. The accordionists musical and emotional legitimacy is heightened by these satisfying associations.
Folk music, once frowned upon by accordionists themselves, is enjoying a great renaissance which has fueled accordion popularity within ethnic groups of every musical persuasion. All things points to greater accordion enthusiasm and appreciation. More people are picking up the instrument and learning on their own later in life.
Unfortunately however, fewer young people are studying at accordion schools. We desperately need a young role model to bring the accordion into the lives of children. There is no doubt that this will happen. When exposed to the accordion, in a positive climate, young people love the instrument because it is both exciting and rewarding.
Q: Do you think accordion popularity will ever return to what it was in the 50s and 60s?
A: Do you think anything will ever be as it was in the 50s and 60s? It cant be. There are so many activities vying for our attention today. Family life is not what it was at that time. Never-the-less, the accordion has a meaningful place in the world of today.
Not too long ago I worked with Michal Shapiro, the producer of that wonderful three-CD compilation Planet Squeezebox (Ellipsis Arts). These recordings represent 40 international traditions on accordion, from Madagascar to Russia, from Turkey to Brazil and every corner of the world. It may be that the accordion is the most widely played instrument on earth.
There are well over a million accordionists in the US and these are supplemented by a much larger number of accordion aficionados. US numbers are small compared to countries such as Germany which boasts nearly a thousand all-accordion orchestras in addition to soloists, France where the musette accordion is a national past-time, the Nordic countries where the accordion is adored in all of its many folk forms, Russia where it is not only an art form practiced by exemplary musicians but also a vivid folk voice, and China where it is common to see a couple of hundred youngsters playing together in an accordion youth orchestra -- to name a few of the lands where the accordion flourishes.
The accordion is a relatively new instrument which has found its way into so many cultures (and so many hearts) in a very short time span. As we approach the millennium, we all share the excitement and the dream of accelerating the achievements of the accordion world in the coming years.
Editor: You can read more about Faithe Deffner at www.accordions.com/fdeffner