Brian Berlin: Using Accordion to Teach Music in Elementary School - USA

Brian Berlin: Using Accordion to Teach Music in Elementary School - USA

Author: Joan Grauman, AAA Historian

Published 17 June 2016.

My husband Dan and I heard about a young music teacher at Carleston Elementary School near Houston, Texas, who was teaching his young students the piano keyboard, music theory and music appreciation using piano accordions. Imagine how happy we two "accordion geeks" were to hear this!

Imagine how thrilled we were when we realized that the school's spring music assembly was on the very day that we were flying into Texas to visit our grandchildren!! At this point, I got in touch with the teacher, Brian Berlin (picture below left). I was very impressed with his warmth, his creative vision and endless enthusiasm. Soon, we were on our way to Texas where we would watch the music assembly and then I would give presentations to two of Brian's music classes.

We entered the cheerful school and were escorted to the assembly by the school's counselor. She told me that her seven year old son, who was in the second grade, could not wait until the third grade so he could begin studying the accordion. This was "music to my ears!"

Then, we entered the gym and saw the large, happy group of third and fourth grade musicians. The first two rows of children were all holding small 12 bass accordions! In the back, the children had melodicas. I was delighted to be approached unexpectedly by an old friend, accordionist Shelia Lee. "Soon, Brian hopes to replace the melodicas with accordions," said Shelia. "The donations keep coming and more and more accordions are purchased."

Brian Berlin accordionists Assembly

Parents and students were everywhere, and the large gymnasium was filled with excitement. Shelia sat with us and the program began. Brian came out to conduct, sometimes accompanying the students using the bass side of his accordion. We were delighted with what we were hearing! The children played together, sometimes in harmony, and it was obvious that they were totally enjoying the experience, as did the audience.

After the assembly, the bell rang and it was time to give my first presentation. The third graders ran in and were jumping for joy because I was going to play for them. They LOVE the accordion. I demonstrated the switches, spoke to them about the types of music that can be played on accordions (and demonstrated classical, folk and jazz), and presented the class with the book I illustrated, "An Accordion! What is That?" by Karen Malan-Uribe and narrated by Mary Tokarski.

I gave the presentation to the fourth graders as well. They eagerly asked questions, one after another, and it was so heart-warming. Brian Berlin has succeeded in making an entire school fall in love with the piano accordion.

A trombonist, Brian learned to play the piano as well as band instruments while studying music education in college. "What made you choose the accordion?" I asked Brian. "I realized that, when I was accompanying children singing in my classroom, I did not want a piano coming between the students and me. I decided to learn the accordion as an accompanying instrument."

Brian met Shelia Lee, who gave him a "crash course" on the accordion, and she made a comment that Brian couldn't forget: "How exciting would it be to put an accordion in the hands of each of the children!" Whether or not it was meant to be a serious comment, Brian saw the merit of it and, with Shelia's encouragement and assistance, began working to make it a reality.

Brian approached the school administrator with his plan. "I've never heard of anybody doing that before," she said. "While she couldn't give me any financial support beyond my regular annual budget, she DID give me permission to try."

With Shelia's tireless assistance and help from the local accordion community, the accordion donations started coming in. Excitement for the program grew and "many just started writing checks" This past year, Brian was able to teach with 36 accordions, 36 melodicas, and 8 synthesizers. "It was an amazing feeling the first few times I stood in front of the large group and heard them all playing together!", said Brian proudly. "In the beginning, all I had was permission. Now, the program has become a shining example of innovative teaching that the district likes to tout."

Joan Grauman
Joan Grauman performing and talking to the children.

Since the day of the assembly, 3 more accordions were donated by a gentleman in the community who read about the program in the newspaper, 12 more new electronic keyboards and stands were given to the program, AND, the school district's education foundation awarded Brian a $2,000 grant to buy more accordions!

Brian is working toward a master's degree and is writing his thesis on Accordion Pedagogy. He has been documenting the process of developing his classroom program. "My goal, or hope, is that I can find another school that wants to duplicate the program - and perhaps make improvements!"

I was very impressed with Brian's program. The looks on the children's faces, and their ability to play songs together really says it all. "When I started," Brian said, "I asked myself: regardless of cost or other obstructions, if I could do ANYTHING I wanted as a music educator, what would I do? I had a desire to enable my students to be musically expressive from the first lesson, while setting them up for a lifetime of musical growth. Of all the options I could imagine in my wildest dreams, the accordion continues to be the best choice tool to accomplish this."

I couldn't agree more, Brian!!!

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