Joan Sommers Celebrity Interview

Kansas City, Missouri - 10 May 2000, moderated by Wallace Liggett
Accordions Worldwide Celebrity Interview | Joan Sommers Internet Site

How did you begin your music study?

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 music!

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…Bill Palmer…of 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 competitions?

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 do so.

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

In 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?

Teaching 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 today.

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?

One 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?

I 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
E-mail: SommersJ@umkc.edu
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