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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.

And I guess that’s when it struck me, then and there, as I sipped my Orange Julius and watched his masterful performance: If I wish to pursue an ambition of baffling complexity, requiring heroic energy and perpetual multitasking, all for no thanks or respect in an environment of high public contempt, why don’t I just become a nursing home administrator?

It’s not a bad plan. After all, the inscrutable inner complexities of the accordion are no more mysterious than the dark, unexplored hinterlands of PPS, MDS, HIPAA, or any of those other perplexing acronyms. Or what if I combined the two for an extra helping of disdain and persecution? As an administrator, the only way I can imagine being more unpopular and unacknowledged would be if I worked an accordion performance into each survey visit, or took one to court to defend myself against frivolous litigation.

I’m really warming up to this idea. After all, nursing home administrators are already doing the equivalent of playing the accordion in the nation’s food court, performing demanding, noble work for a distracted, ungrateful, and uninformed audience. The only downside I can see is in dealing with politicians who merely pay lip service to the needs of the elderly. At least the accordion has a button I can press to let out the hot air.

On further reflection, maybe I’ll have to give this whole thing some more thought. In the meantime, I’m not sure how long I’ll pursue my musical dream. The hours of practice are daunting and tedious, and I think I might be developing accordion-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. Fortunately, long after I’ve consigned this obsession to the dusty closet under the stairs, Horace and the nursing home administrators of America will still be making difficult, demanding, unappreciated, and beautiful music together.

Gary Tetz is the former editor of and, and writes from Walla Walla, Washington. For further information, call (503) 860-8522. To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail To order reprints in quantities of 100 or more, call (866) 377-6454.

1.Twain M. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, 1867.

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