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NEW! Funny You Should Ask

June 1, 2005
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My Accordion Dreams by Gary Tetz

My accordion dreams What do accordion players have to do with long-term care? I'm glad you asked, but first let me start with a confession:

I play the accordion.

There, I said it-out loud and publicly. That's at least one small step out of 12, and next I'll be compiling a list of those I've hurt with this musical vice. It won't be a short list. I've wounded a lot of innocent people.

It all started harmlessly enough about five years ago, purely as a joke. One evening after enjoying a splendid dinner at the home of some friends, the man of the house hauled out a mysterious, beat-up carrying case and removed a peculiar instrument. He buckled himself into it and began to make rapid squeezing motions, producing a disturbing sound any passerby could reasonably have interpreted as Fran Drescher strangling a duck.

Frightening as it was, the performance caught my attention and fired my imagination. Like Mark Twain wrote of his own "accordeon" dalliance, "I suddenly acquired a disgusting and idolatrous affection for it." 1 My motive was simple: to make people laugh. Since in my experience everyone looked funny with an accordion and everything sounded funny on an accordion, and since I wasn't getting adequate laughs from my shiny scalp or arid wit, I felt I needed another comedic option.

In typical obsessive-compulsive fashion, I rushed right out and purchased a used accordion at an obscenely high price. Realistically, I knew I would need professional help to play it, and some sleuthing in the local music community led me to my first teacher, a cheerful and fleshy woman named Wilma who lived in a rapidly deteriorating circa-1900 home just across town. Within days I was lugging my new instrument up her decaying porch steps and rapping on the torn screen door. As a freckled 6-year-old finished his piano lesson, I sat by his younger, very nosy sister on the living room sofa, hands folded, waiting my turn.

It didn't work with Wilma. Let's just leave it at that. After two weeks, my own still-feeble abilities wildly exceeded hers, and I broke the news to her as gently as I could. Soon I was ringing the bell of yet another rumored expert, a guy named Horace, half expecting a goofy Bavarian in lederhosen to answer the door. Instead, he was a polite elderly gentleman, friendly but intense, a soft-spoken prodigy whom I learned had once been dubbed "Canada's boy wonder." In a moment of compassion or insanity, this classically trained accordion virtuoso agreed to tutor me. If he doubted the chances of a 40-year-old novice ever mastering this instrument, he kept it to himself. And I didn't tell him I was only doing it for giggles.

Soon, it didn't matter, because once Horace got involved, the game turned deadly serious-fast. Although soft-spoken and seemingly compassionate, he taught like an army officer conducting special-forces training. He shouted commands, pointed out every mistake and, in moments of particular frustration, would reach over and physically pull my fingers off the keyboard. Suddenly, the accordion wasn't funny anymore, and I wasn't looking for laughs. In the first ten minutes of the first lesson, I moved from amusement to obsession. This was about survival, preservation of self-esteem, and desperate humiliation avoidance.

For one thing, the instrument was difficult. Unbelievably so. The treble keyboard. The bellows. All those identical black protrusions, row on row. Even a minimal level of proficiency required a degree of coordination and ambidexterity with which I have never been blessed. While the fingers on my left hand twisted into unnatural positions and poked desperately at any of the 120 faceless bass buttons or seven reed-controlling switches, my left arm was expected to rhythmically pump the bellows-"Bellow accents!" Horace would bellow-and the right hand was tasked with playing the keyboard and stabbing at an unreachable row of 11 treble switches. It was like trying to simultaneously send Morse code with one hand and knit a cardigan with the other, all while holding a 20-pound badger on your lap.

Perhaps more surprising, the accordion was inspirational. Not when I played, of course-my attempts were just noisy and unpleasant and, as a neighbor informed me, also subject to community noise suppression ordinances. But when Horace picked up his $12,000 instrument, it was actual music. Classical masterworks came to life, and even took on new ones. His fingers flew across those keys, switches, and buttons in a feat of memory and nimbleness that was nothing short of incredible. I could think of no human explanation for what he was able to achieve. It had to be magic or witchcraft but, either way, it was art.

Saddest of all, in free, live performances for reluctant friends, family members, and pets, my new passion was scorned and disparaged by my public. I was the object of merciless mockery and became the target of endless bad accordion jokes, which I discovered almost everyone had in ready supply. "Y'know the definition of an optimist?" they'd say with a nudge and a wink. "It's an accordion player with a beeper." Another old favorite: "What's the difference between an accordion and an onion?" No idea, I'd say-please, tell me! "No one cries when you cut up an accordion!"

No, I got no respect, but neither did Horace, and he was a true artist. Watching him play note-perfect Rimsky-Korsakoff at an accordion festival in a mall food court was nothing but painful. When faced with the choice between listening to great music and noisily stuffing their faces, these people preferred Hot Dog on a Stick.