||How did you begin your music
||My first experience with music involved going to a neighbor's
house and trying to read piano music at the age of 5 or 6. As long
as I live I will never forget trying to play the tune "For Me
and My Gal" by ear.
Then, in the first or second grade when I was 6 or 7, our small town
began music education in the elementary schools through the use of
the plastic instrument called a Tonette. I remember making a rack
out of a coat hanger on which to hold my music and learning to read
||What methods were used when
you began studying the accordion, did you always like the accordion
and was your family musical?
|| My family then moved to Independence, Missouri (where
Harry Truman lived) and at the age of 9 the accordion was introduced
to my brother and me. I am not sure I had ever seen or heard an accordion
before then. I took almost all of my early lessons using the old Zordan
method book in a class with about 3 or 4 others. In addition to the
class lesson, I began attending an accordion band rehearsal every
week. From these very beginning experiences with the accordion I soon
knew how much I loved it! In these days (that almost seem pre-historic
now) many students were only learning to read treble clef. I was taught
to read both clefs from the very beginning, however, and by relating
this to my early experiences with the piano I never had problems with
the "middle C concept" which is so valuable to accordionists.
Even today there are really fine accordion players who come to me
for lessons and still do not know this relationship between bass and
treble clef and how the accordion relates, more especially when the
free bass system is involved, of course.
Both my mother and my father encouraged my efforts. My mother had
been a pianist of sorts during her high school days and played in
the orchestra; my father didn't know one note from another but he
would gladly pay me a $1 to play certain pieces for him and family
friends. One of his favorites was the old hymn "Whispering Hope."
Some of my earliest experiences playing popular music involved the
tune "Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer" and playing by ear
"Peg of my Heart" as an assignment. It also gives you some
idea of my early training and how my teacher enforced the idea of
playing music that people wanted to hear. He always said you could
play any kind of music either well or badly. I believe I learned from
him not to say no to my students. Instead, say yes and encourage them
to learn any kind of music they want to learn as long as they also
practice the music assigned in lessons.
||Who was your first accordion
teacher, what other teachers have influenced you and what aspects
of your early training, in addition to your teachers, influenced you?
|| My first teacher, Cecil Cochran, was primarily a trumpet
player. When I graduated from high school we were married until his
death thirteen years later. He brought Anthony Galla-Rini to Kansas
City to give a concert after which some of my fellow students and
I performed solos. As a result of my audition, Mr. Cochran paid all
expenses for my mother and me to travel to New York City and be in
a two-week Master Class with Mr. Galla-Rini. The catch was that I
had to learn a large amount of repertoire. Believe me, it was a magnificent
challenge, one, which I relished since Mr. Galla-Rini suggested much
new solo material for this endeavor. Included in these stacks of music
were the fantastic arrangements by the incomparable Galla-Rini of
well-known symphonic pieces! Thus, perhaps, I began listening to symphony
orchestra recordings and developed my still unquenched thirst for
the magnificent sounds of a full orchestra. Perhaps from my earliest
student days, both of my primary teachers always insisted upon going
to the original source of the music when trying to play the accordion.
It has been my pleasure and honor to be close to Anthony Galla-Rini
since those first meetings and through all these many years. He has
had a tremendous influence on my musical life.
At a time in American accordion history when most accordion teachers
were certainly not concerned with such pedagogy, Mr. Cochran wanted
me to listen to the size and quality of the sounds produced by the
various instruments. Mr. Galla-Rini reinforced those ideas along with
the need for actually studying the original scores. Both men drew
upon their own instrumental experiences, I am sure, when they talked
of the kinds of attacks, releases and what happens during the sound.
Mr. Cochran had us drawing pictures of these effects long before I
ever saw anyone else doing this in the accordion field. He also insisted
we know the importance of correct counting. Also at this time there
seemed to be a great debate raging over the full-chord and single-note
notation issue in the United States. I can say we crossed out every
chord symbol, wrote in the notes of the full chord, and then began
learning what actually happened when we played a certain button on
the bass side of the accordion. I was asked to write all types of
scales, chords, and arpeggios as well as play them. Some of this occurred
after it was determined I was reading the notes but not learning what
I was playing. Maybe that is why I encourage students learning scale
patterns first by playing them and, secondly, by reading the notes.
I would be remiss if I did not say Dr. Willard Palmer had a lasting
influence on me and my teaching. Of course, to those of us in the
accordion field, he was just Mr. Palmer or Bill
the famous Palmer and Hughes Duo and the Concert Trio or the co-author
of the very popular Palmer and Hughes Accordion Method books. (Joan
is pictured here with the late Bill Palmer - left, and Tony Galla-Rini
- right during an A.T.G. Festival in Chicago.) He introduced me to
poetry, literature and musical scores I had never visited. He also
gave all his students great courage to persevere. It was because I
wanted to impress him when I played one of his solo arrangements of
an organ piece that I began studying the organ. Those early lessons
on the organ have benefited me all the subsequent years since. Mr.
Palmer was just that kind of teacher; his students wanted to please
him, thereby learning so much more on their own initiative.
||What are your thoughts regarding
|| I believe music competitions are very valuable for
many reasons. The only real problem arises when a competitor does
not earn the desired placement and loses confidence in future performances.
I try to make students aware of the value of the competition rather
than the winning. One must be prepared to win something other than
first place. If they truly believe that, they will never lose. All
of us need a reason for learning and perfecting a skill, whether it
is sewing or playing a musical instrument. Music competitions provide
that impetus for many young players. Competitions offer a stage on
which new artists become better known to a larger group of listeners.
In my own case and in many others, competitions, particularly at the
international level, offered the opportunity to hear not only a whole
new standard of performance but, also, a greatly enlarged repertoire.
Even today, in this age of recordings and instant communication throughout
the world, most of the truly global accordion efforts are fueled by
the presence of a competition. It is through these that the accordion
world is insisting upon more standardization, better instruments,
increased and more available repertoire of all kinds for soloists
and groups, as well as discovering, introducing and nurturing an increasingly
more well-schooled performer. Everyone is benefiting! It is only too
sad that we cannot offer more monetary prizes to these young musicians
who often make great personal sacrifices in order to become winners.
A way must be found to support accordion artists, especially those
younger ones who have not yet earned a worldwide reputation. The instrument
needs a world-class artist who is known outside of the accordion world.
||What are some of the pluses
and minuses of playing the accordion?
|| Unfortunately, many musicians in all areas of music
cannot earn an equitable salary today. This includes many very talented
accordionists who elect to earn a better living than music sometimes
guarantees and, thereby, choose to leave the accordion field. Many
of them, however, do continue their involvement with the accordion
without depending upon it for their primary source of income. One
of the encouraging aspects of teaching a child to play the accordion
is the fact one can play the accordion for the rest of one's life!
The accordion offers lifetime opportunities to enjoy performing, and
the performer does not necessarily have to be extremely gifted to
Peer pressure for young people, even more so today than in the past,
is always great. During this period of time where else is better for
a young person to be than with a group of musicians? With the breakdown
of family life, membership in a musical group provides a safe and
caring atmosphere with stability, friendship, and common goals for
learning about the art of music. An accordion orchestra is an activity
in which to exhibit dependability, truthfulness, and expressions of
life's emotions among peers and with more experienced adults who often
provide models of real leadership qualities. These are all desirable
traits we wish to instill in our youth.
||Tell us about some of the most
satisfying things you've done in Kansas City
Kansas City, at least, there are far more people involved with the
accordion as adults simply because they play in our UMKC Accordion
Orchestra. There are many reasons why adults do not continue to perform
as soloists, but these same adults, however, will continue to play
the accordion well and enjoy it in an accordion orchestra. I must
say I am proud of these Kansas City accordionists and their accomplishments
in the UMKC Accordion Orchestra. Very few of the players are professionals,
yet the combined efforts of both professional and amateur players
have been highly successful over a very long period of time.
I am also quite proud of the fact that there have been so many very
fine accordionists at the Conservatory of Music. Many teachers have
only had the privilege of working with one or two good students, but
it has been my great joy to work with not one but many such players.
Some have remained active as players, others have turned to other
musical areas, but all of them were absolutely wonderful and remarkable
during their time for recitals and competitions.
||What do you do at the University
of Missouri-Kansas City?
|| The accordion was approved for degree work in the Conservatory
of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 1, 1961.
I have been head of the accordion activities since that time. At the
present time I hold the academic rank of Full Professor and the administrative
title of Assistant Dean. I am directly responsible for some 40 teaching
assistants who teach about 450 students per week in the Conservatory's
Division of Continuing Education. In addition I have been involved
with the planning and implementation of many workshops, clinics, symposiums,
special education courses and other similar classes, both non-credit
and credit, offered as outreach programs within the greater metropolitan
area and general four-state area.
||Do university people treat
the accordionists differently from other musicians?
|| During my time as accordion chair, credit courses offered
accordionists for degree study have grown from those of private lessons
in applied accordion to include accordion orchestra, accordion chamber
music, accordion pedagogy, accordion history, and accordion arranging.
Also offered is a class in accordion techniques for music therapists
and music education majors. Students are treated no differently than
other music students in other disciplines. Accordionists must earn
respect for their instrument in the same manner as a saxophonist or
a violinist must. I, personally, have always been treated with respect
and have been chosen and elected to a great many positions over my
years at the university. It would be foolish, however, for me to believe
there are not some people, both professors and students, who question
the importance of the accordion and its future. There are many who
simply do not like the sound of the instrument but there are many
who do not like those of the harpsichord or the guitar either. It
is a fact that not every person likes every instrument. Accordionists
just need to accept this and then go on about making music!
||Have you always liked to teach?
has been one of my joys in life. I have been fortunate to have many
good students and quite a number of extremely gifted students who
have won innumerable top positions in important music competitions.
Some who did not choose to compete or to remain in the field of music
have had important successes in their selected careers; I am confident
the study of music and the accordion helped them. My students have
become my life-long friends and are important to me. The personal
growth of each individual student has been paramount, although not
always readily and immediately discernible.
The accordion orchestras under my direction have always been of great
importance to me! In addition to some of the reasons mentioned earlier,
I feel the orchestral setting is perhaps the one place a performer
is often better than he could ever be as a soloist; it is the only
way some performers can perform. Indeed, it offers the opportunity
to perform some of the world's really great music in some cases never
available to a soloist.
||You have become well known
for your accordion orchestra work. How do you feel about using amplification
and MIDI, for example, also, what accordion arrangements do you use
in addition to your own?
|| I have never liked the sound of amplified accordions
very much, except for those of the bass and tenor instruments; therefore,
we do not amplify. However, I do like the special sounds afforded
the orchestra through the use of the Hohner Elektroniums, for example,
or accordions incorporating MIDI and have used such instruments since
back in the '50s. I believe they give great color and contrast to
the non-amplified accordions and, if used properly, just the right
boost in dynamics when needed. There are several arrangers and composers
of music for accordion orchestra that I admire profusely. Of all the
arrangers for accordion orchestra, however, Anthony Galla-Rini, in
my experience, has held first place forever when speaking of full
symphonic arrangements. His solo arrangements have always been recognized
as incomparable, too. One never finds mistakes in his arrangements!
He doesn't leave out important musical necessities and he always produces
a big, full sound. There are many Germans, particularly, who have
provided a veritable treasure of wonderful music, both arranged and
original, for the accordion orchestra. Personally, I am extremely
and perpetually grateful to them for their contributions. Today there
are many really fine composers of original accordion music for both
solo and ensembles of all kinds. I cannot point to any one person
as a favorite. The score I am studying and preparing at the moment
is always my favorite!
||What are your views on the
various accordion systems?
|| The advancement of the accordion's left hand technique
has been closely allied with the perfecting of the left hand mechanisms
and systems; I believe this accomplishment is one of the most important
reasons why the accordion will continue to evolve and grow in importance.
The left hand of the accordionist must be free to develop equally
along with the right hand. It is the one area, however, where I feel
Americans are neglecting half of their instrument and continuing in
blissful unawareness of most of the music being composed for the instrument
We have had free-bass left-hand systems in the USA for many years
now and yet very few teachers are teaching their students how to use
them. In fact, most people who own such systems cannot play them and
students are not being encouraged to do so. It is one of the mysteries
of the American accordion scene, in my opinion, and I feel American
accordionists will never equal those of most other countries until
this changes. In this period of accordion development, accordionists
cannot claim to be musicians unless they play both stradella and free-bass.
There is a need for both systems and the true artist uses each to
the fullest extent possible, depending on the music being played.
||You have been active in several
accordion associations. Do you have any views regarding them?
|| The accordion associations throughout the world serve
a great many purposes, one of which is to unite members in general
and specific causes relating to the instrument, whatever that might
be. These local, national and international associations need to be
more united in and informed of the global accordion endeavors, perhaps
through sporadic if not frequent international meetings. There does
not need to be total agreement on all issues but there should be shared
information and discussion. In numbers there is strength; the accordion
community could advance its causes much faster with common goals that
could evolve with time. Past efforts should be applauded, broadened
and continued in the future. It is in this area that the young people
of today must step forward and accept a role of leadership and responsibility.
Like their predecessors, they must also be willing to forgo financial
remuneration for every contribution. Sacrifices must continue to be
made on behalf of the accordion.
||Your daughter recently won
the ATG competition and competed in the Coupe Mondiale; has she always
been interested in music?
of the greatest surprises in my life occurred within the last year
and I simply must tell you about it since I believe it demonstrates
the power the accordion has over our lives. My daughter Cathy, in
and out of the womb, has been around music all her life. My husband
and her father, Paul, holds an earned Doctorate of Music; he sang
professionally and served as Chairman of the UMKC voice division for
many years. We have always heard opera, lied, and art song along with
all other kinds of music in our house. Cathy learned to play some
violin, piano, clarinet and a lot of accordion. She chose not to play
it as a profession, however, and earned a baccalaureate degree in
a totally different area when it came time for university work. After
graduation and several successful years of work in her own professional
field, she announced she wanted to quit her job, practice, and try
to compete, eventually in the Coupe Mondiale. And, of course, she
accomplished her goals! I cannot tell in words how proud I am of her
efforts and dedication to the accordion. Along the way she gave immeasurable
encouragement to others to follow their dreams. She is a real winner!
||Did you compete in competitions
as a young person?
have mentioned the value of competitions earlier. My two efforts as
a competitor in the Coupe Mondiale did not result in a first place,
but they did encourage me to be a musician and remain in the accordion
field for the rest of my life. I met people I would never have met
any other way; I saw and heard instruments I had never seen or heard.
And the music, oh, the beautiful, exciting, demanding music I heard
for the first time just captured my imagination and instilled a desire
to improve that might never have happened had I not been in such a
competition! Never, ever, have I regretted taking part in such a competition!
||What is the future of the accordion?
|| The accordion is a great musical instrument. I am forever
thankful that it is my instrument and I love it. Even so, I am greatly
aware of existing problems in the accordion field. We need literally
thousands of young people to begin studying the instrument in order
to discover the artist accordionist of the future and to provide an
audience for this person. We need even more music, both serious and
commercial, both for solo and ensembles of all kinds, composed for
the accordion. We need still better instruments that will withstand
the rigors of a modern world where people move and travel constantly,
instruments that can be repaired and kept in a satisfactory playing
condition with musically acceptable reeds producing beautiful sounds.
We need people outside the accordion field to become acquainted with
the accordion and its wide potential.
What other musical instrument has such a prospect for active development?
Not many, if any, can look forward to and claim such an intriguing
anticipation for the future! The possibilities in the accordion field
are endless and, as for me, I hope to be a part of this great and
busy future growth! Yes, I truly believe in the accordion. It is a
great and still unknown force for the art of music.
To contact Joan Sommers:
UMKC Center for the Performing Arts
4949 Cherry, Kansas City, MO 64110 USA
Phone: (816) 235-2955