I’ve always liked the accordion. You can play just a little and still make a lot of fun. And I’ve always wanted to play to entertain people and enjoy myself in company. How to do that? What do you need for an accordionist’s coming out? Pull at the bellows, keep pace, play the basses with your left, sing, play the melody with your right hand, and most importantly – pretend it’s nothing all the time!
Before I get to the necessary skills themselves, I’ll begin with a few words about the instrument itself, as it would d be just theory otherwise. It doesn’t matter much what type or brand you choose, but the instrument shouldn’t be too heavy. It would be more difficult to carry around, you’d have to sit while playing – and thus lose contact with the audience. You couldn’t have a peek into the songbook, you couldn’t get closer to the singers… That’s why I have one extra instrument at home for practising and another old, lighter one when I go out. People want to have fun, not to admire your instrument.
To become a good popular musician, you have to master these skills:
Pull at the bellows
The essential skill, simply a must. You have to change the direction (ie. from pulling to pushing) at the end of a measure to avoid jerking. This way, you can also control the volume –an ability that’ll prove useful when you need to quiet down while singing, play louder in solos, add drama here and there… Your audience will find it easier to keep pace, too.
The good thing is that once you learn all this, you never forget it. A good teacher will make you pay attention to the bellows in a few weeks’ time.
This can sometimes be a problem. You have to practise purposefully, otherwise you lose the skill. Believe me, a metronome is your friend. If you don’t listen to it, your colleagues will complain that you get faster in the refrain; the more quickly you play the difficult parts, the more difficult they get. It does more harm than good, really.
Play the basses with your left
Another basic skill. Only a few weeks of practising and you’ll be able to play the basses in most songs. That’s just great. The chords are played with the left hand, some chords get on together well and others don’t – and the bass buttons are organised in such a way that you can find those “friendly” close to each other. It looks complicated, but it isn’t.
The basics are a piece of cake, and soon you can begin with various effects (most of them are based on scales, so it’s more than useful to learn the scales by heart.) When you get bolder, you may try longer passages. It’s also good to use the rhythm. Some songs have such a specific rhythm that you need to listen to the original first and then try to emulate it.
If you play with someone else, they can tell you the key (or the first chord, which is the same), and with a bit of experience and practice, it’ll be easy to join in.
Take care, this is absolutely crucial. If you don’t sing, you fail. The audience will run away or fall asleep (or, even worse, call you names). There can be a good singer with a strong voice, for sure, but most probably you’ll have to heat them up all the same. As soon as you master the basses, start singing, loudly enough and with confidence. Then you can go out and wait what your performance does to the audience; someone will join you soon enough, be sure. So sing, sing, sing.
Play the melody with your right
This offers great opportunities for self-fulfillment, as well as many pitfalls. With the right hand, you can play the melody, chords, various embellishments, spice your music up. However, players tend to attribute greater significance to it than it deserves; playing with the right hand certainly isn’t more important than singing. While singing, you can get on without the right hand quite well, but it doesn’t work the other way round. Singing is essential and the right hand can be added once you’ve mastered it. The chords as accompaniment are usually enough. Sometimes, the melody can come in handy when the audience is rather tired and gets lost.
And what are the pitfalls? If you don’t have musical education (or aren’t a musical genius), you’ll find it terribly difficult to transpose a melody. It can even happen that you’ll never learn this, which means that you can play a certain song just in one key, and that’s it. Then you meet other musicians, they play it in a different key – and you’re doomed… No, you definitely aren’t! You can still try to transpose the basses (which is much easier) and sing (this comes naturally). You’re saved!
Another pitfall is that your audience can start singing in a different key – you’ve just finished a song in Amin, so they begin the next one in Amin as well, but you know it in Emin… In such circumstances, you need to be ready: as soon as someone calls “Let’s sing this and that”, play a few tones from the melody, start singing and get them on the right track. Easy.
So you’ve learned the melody, and since it has taken a lot of effort, you have to show it off! Or rather you shouldn’t? Almost everyone makes this mistake. If you play too loudly, your singing has to be even louder, and that can be really demanding. Another reason to let your right hand rest a leave it for interludes.
Once again, just to make sure – don’t add the right hand if you can’t play its part perfectly. There’s always the risk that you’ll get lost and the resulting effect will be dubious, and you may forget even what you knew well (such as the lyrics), because you have to concentrate too much.
Most importantly: pretend it’s nothing
This skill is the most difficult to master. Nothing is more annoying than everybody around asking why you pull such faces and don’t laugh with the company. Forget about a chair or a note stand, leave all this at home. You must know the song so well that you don’t have to concentrate on playing. You have to know in which key you play it, how the stanzas begin, how to accompany them. Be aware that when you play in front of other people, you usually forget half of what you knew at home. This means you must practise twice as much! The less you concentrate on the playing itself, the more you can respond to the audience, adjust the dynamics or pace, listen to other musicians (when you play with others, you have to listen more than play, don’t forget that), think about what to play next… and enjoy your performance! This is when a popular accordionist gets real satisfaction from playing.
It may seem complicated now, but it isn’t. You’ll get over the first four points quickly enough, and the rest will come to you slowly, but steadily with experience. Practise dutifully until it works really well. If you know a song “a bit”, it’s useless.
I have a list of all songs that I can play, together with notes regarding the key and the page where to find them in my songbook. It would be a pity to learn something and then forget you know it. Sometimes I play for two hours, and when I look at the list, there’s always another one I haven’t brought forward yet.
article by | Ondra Preclík
published on 11/09/2016