Accordion Articles - Popular Music in Today's Society


Written by: Gary Dahl
Publication: General
Date written: September 1998

Today's popular music is a group of various styles...jazz, swing, country, blues, rock, cajun, zydeco, and others. The accordionist of today must gather together the knowledge of the melodic and harmonic flow of music to play in various genres and improvise/arrange skillfully. One cannot simply sit down to improvise successfully over 12 bar blues without having first studied how; similarly one cannot simply play a Beethoven sonata wihout first having studied how to play Beethoven.

What is needed, then, to accomplish professional-level playing in various genres? The answer is thorough knowledge of harmony, chord structure, rhythm, and melody (including melodic improvisation). Don't be afraid by that statement; qualified instruction can provide useful tools toward this end. Along with this every accordionist needs to remember the basic rule of switch selection: use good taste appropriate to the style in which you are playing. Play polkas with a dry switch, play jazz with the bassoon switch, use musette tuned middle reeds for French musette, etc. (don't mix wet middle reeds with the bassoon and or piccolo reeds because it irritates the non accordion public and also just sounds horrible...this is similar to an orchestra badly out of tune).

To play popular music skillfully one needs to use all the aforementioned skills together to develop a good playing technique. Once that has been accomplished tricky passages will be easier and open chords can be smoothly executed even in awkward positions. A popular accordionist in most cases can certainly play Dizzy Fingers etc.; this develops good technical skills which are applicable to any style. I know of several accordion soloists who perform primarily from music arranged by others. These same soloists would dearly love to be able to read lead sheets and improvise appropriately (lead sheets are melodies written on a single staff line with chord symbols written above the staff).

A fully accomplished accordionist, possessing all the previously mentioned skills, can take a seemingly simple tune and play it with symphonic sophistication. Having this ability is similar to comparing skills required for kindergarten arithmetic to the skills required for a doctorate in mathematics! It raises the accordionist to an entirely new level. Why did Mozart, who could compose new melodies at will, write several variations on his older melodies? Why does a competent accordionist write, arrange, and improvise? A drawing from a 5 year child, while possessing artistic qualities, lacks the development and refinement of a trained visual artist.

The first place to begin is listening: all of the great musicians of the world listened to music with an attentive ear. Listen closely for the movement of harnony and the way instruments are used in an arrangement. Listen also to the variety of tempos and rhythms, keeping in mind that tempo refers only to speed and rhythm refers to the organization of the notes. The accordion is a very sophisticated instrument, encompassing the equivalent of a melodic instrument (right-hand keyboard) with it's own backup combo (left-hand keyboard).

Everything present in music today has evolved from something previous-new styles have their own idiosyncrasies which must be learned individually (jazz, rock, cajun, polka, etc.), they all depend on the same core elements...functional harmony, rhythm, and melody. Every style is accessible if one only has a grasp of those central elements. Remember, merely buying paints and brushes doesn't make one the next Rembrandt; similarly, merely buying an accordion doesn't make one the next great accordionist.
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