Friday, October 7, 2011

A Breton tune, played on a G/C/F box

Here is one that I learned from the Yann Dour collection. Played on my GCF Castagnari Jacky.

The Lumberjack and the Carder

Here are two tunes, strung together for no particular reason, played on a one-row Melodie in D, all stops open.  I haven't had the opportunity to play for a while and thought that a new recording for the blog was a reasonable excuse to play some tunes!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What every diatonic accordion listener should hear...

... is the music of Renato Borghetti.  He is simply spectacular.  Here is just one sample that I found on YouTube.
(And yes: that is a kind of "mixte" system diatonic accordion he is playing!)

(Video on/from YouTube.)

Accordeon mixte, revisited

While I only joke about my attraction to playing chromatic button accordion, my interest in the accordeon mixte system has been increasing.  I would define the mixte system as having a bisonoric right hand (treble) and a unisonoric left hand (bass/chords). This could take many forms, including a standard 3-row layout for the treble with stradella basses.

Here's an example that I found on YouTube.  (Are the bombarde and binou koz actually mic'd? Yikes!)

(Video on/from YouTube.)

On the option not listed...

(Photo from the Button Box)

The Button Box now lists a Castagnari one-row melodeon in natural mahogany on its in-stock instruments page.
It's a new instrument.  And it's lovely, isn't it?
It's also interesting that Castagnari's current catalogue does not detail 'mahogany' as an option for the one-row melodeon: it is only available in black ("nero").
It really makes you wonder -- what can you get if you are willing to ask, rather than just choosing options from a list?
A friend told me a story about how he went to Castagnari to order his box in person.  One of the brothers spent time with him and let him choose what he wanted -- wood, inlays, grille pattern.  A few months later, he returned and picked up the instrument, which doesn't exactly correspond to any available model.

Those who aren't in driving distance to Recanati are perhaps within a day's travel to Sunderland, Massachusetts, where, apparently, rare instruments await you!

The melodeon in mahogany looks great, and if it plays like the other 3 or 4 one-row Castagnaris that I've played, its a wonderful instrument.  I still think that its the nicest keyboard of any one-row that I've tried.  As of today, I notice that Button Box currently states that this particular box is "on hold" -- but if it strikes your fancy, you know where to call to order another.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thank you, merci, danke!

Thanks to my readers, Melodeon Minutes enjoyed its largest readership to date this month.  Thank you for stopping by, and please contact me (via the comment feature) with suggestions for future topics or FAQs.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Standard-tuned 3-row played to the fullest!

Eric Bonneau posted some videos on the Facebook tribute to Philippe Bruneau.

In this video, Bonneau's camera captures Monsieur Bruneau playing some amazing music on a G/C/F. 

(Note: You may have to "join" the group in order to view Eric Bonneau's videos of Philippe Bruneau.)

Low-and-lonesome hornpipes

For months, I've been meaning to record an audio tribute to Accordeonaire's observations on the "low lonesome" reed.  Here are a couple of hornpipes recorded on a one-row Melodeon in D with only the "bassoon" voice turned on.

Slowing down a tune's theme of the month for August is to take a quick tune and slow it down.  Not only does this make it possible for someone else to play along and learn it by ear, it's also an opportunity to hear something in the tune that you haven't noticed before.

This is the "Valcartier Set," played slowly on a Melodie in D.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Castagnari releases new 3-row "Mas"

Castagnari has released a new model in its lineup of full-sized 3-row melodeons, dubbed the "Mas."  How does it differ from other currently available 3-row Castagnaris?
      -- the Mas has two treble voices, with a lever behind the keyboard that presumably turns one voice off.  This would lend itself nicely to an LM ("bandonion") reed setup. (The other 2 voice 3 rows, the Rik, the Evo, the Benny, and the Big 18 lack this feature.)
     -- the Mas has a different left-side design than the other 3 rows in Castagnaris line.  The openings on the face of the left side should result in different acoustic properties -- most likely, greater projection of left-hand sound.
     -- the Mas features a flat ("sinking keys") keyboard.  This is a matter of personal taste and habit.  Its nice that Castagnari is offering this option, since all their other 3 row boxes come with closed/stepped keyboards.
     -- the Mas bass layout is different in that the 18 bass buttons are 'skewed' or offset rather than lined up in a grid.  Some players may find that this facilitates bass runs and combining bass and chord buttons across the bass rows.
     -- the Mas setup includes two bass switches for its 2 voice bass.  I assume that the switches operate the "low" bass notes.
     -- on a purely aesthetic note, the Mas is constructed out of wenge, an exotic wood.  Using a different wood (or finish) than their standard (yet beautiful!) walnut and cherry tends to be a way that the Castagnaris distinguish a 'special' box (like the Wielly, the Montmartre, the Handry 2000 series, and the Sonu).

Bravo to Castagnari for keeping the harvest fresh!

(Photo from the Castagnari website.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Craftsmanship -- Part I

     I believe that a well-played traditional tune and an expertly handcrafted object have much in common.

     The handcrafted object has a dual purpose -- it awakens a sense of beauty for the beholder, and it performs a function.  Form and function are intermingled.  A tune is a delight to hear -- and perhaps to watch as a musicians plays it -- but it also serves a social function by providing a rhythm required for a specific dance.

     In a handcrafted object, the beholder can perceive the maker's expression of individuality.  Likewise, a tune conveys the individual touch of the musician.

     Conversely, the marks of the maker of a handcrafted object bear the indirect imprint of the maker's master, and the master's master, and so on.  In some cases, this lineage extends back for hundreds of years.  I know a baker whose loaves seem to carry that kind of weight, in juxtaposition to the lightness of his own touch.  I've heard musicians play a tune in which it seemed that generations of ancestors were touching the strings.

     When an artisan crafts an object to bring it into the world, its physical presence resonates with the consciousness and focus of the processes that created it.  I cherish the memories of two fiddlers who played tune after tune, delving into memories of places and friends to bring each melody forth like a glowing jewel.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The passing of a master

Philippe Bruneau died on August 8, 2011.  His daughter, Joanne Bruneau, wrote an obituary on the Centre Mnemo website. (In French.)  (Note that the original date of his death as announced was August 7, which his family has now corrected to August 8, hence the discrepancy in some earlier obituaries.)

There is a Facebook tribute page here. (Mostly in French.)

His rhythmical style of playing dance tunes on the melodeon will always be remembered. I'll never forget the first time I heard a recording of Monsieur Bruneau playing a 3/2 brandy -- it still takes my breath away.  Please use the comment feature below to post memories of Philippe Bruneau and his music. 

(Video from Youtube.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Extraordinary three-row playing

     For those who are delving into a specific musical tradition from afar, it can be a revelation to find that some of the greatest traditional musicians are not announced to the world with slick websites and major recordings.  Denis Pepin is such a living, cultural treasure.
     There is very little evidence of Denis outside of Quebec, but he is, in my estimation, to be counted among the greatest accordionists.  So it was a joy to have found several newly posted videos of Denis on YouTube.  To "Tiroir44," who posted them -- merci milles fois! (P.S., "Tiroir" is a video production firm, so I tip my chapeau to them, and you can visit them here.)

And: even more fantastique:

Quebecois tunes on the harmonica: where to start?

In response to an inquiry, here is some information that may be helpful to those harmonica players who are seeking in-roads into the traditions of Quebec:

1. A good place to start is to listen to what harmonica players in Quebec have done. There is harmonica playing on the early Bottine Souriante recordings, Les Epousailles and Y a ben du changementGabriel Labbe, who passed away in 2008, was the quintessential Quebecois mouth harp player and tune collector, and there is a Smithsonian Folkways recording featuring him. These a just a few places to start listening -- although Quebecois music seems to be dominated first by fiddlers, then by accordionists, there is actually a LOT of harmonica playing.  Seek and ye shall find.

2. Which tunes to start with? The tune collection Danse ce Soir contains loads of standards.

Left to right: Gabriel Labbe, Rejean Lizotte, and Denis Pepin at the Ste-Louise gathering, 2002.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Kimmel rises again!

Christian Maes and Emmanuel Pariselle playing Kimmel tunes. (Video by Chas Clark on YouTube.)

(P.S. These are apparently boxes that Chas Clark made in two of Monsieur Pariselle's workshops!)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Marche du St-Laurent

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hearing Raz-de-Maree at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival.  Not only was it wonderful to hear Sabin Jacques -- one of the accordionists who inspired me to learn to play the box -- but I also got to bring my son, who patiently listened to the whole set!
Raz-de-Maree are playing a mix of new tunes and classics.  They actually played the "Marche du St-Laurent," which was one of the first tunes that I learned on the melodeon. Here's my own medium-tempo rendition:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Four-voice Gaillard -- available again

The purchaser of my four-voice Gaillard D/G has decided to sell it -- it's at the Button Box now. What a box! If you anywhere near Sunderland, stop by and give it a squeeze -- Gaillards are rare enough in the U.S., and since Monsieur Gaillard no longer offers a four-voice model, this one is extra special.

P.S. I'm not connected to this sale in any way -- just interested in seeing this great box find its way to the right box player.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Extensive photo-documentation of melodeon building

(Photo by Lester Bailey)

     Emmanuel Pariselle has been teaching melodeon-building workshops in which he guides the participants through the construction of one-row or 2.6 row melodeons.  Recently, Lester Bailey attended one of these workshops and build a gorgeous 2.6 row, 14-bass box.  And on top of that, Lester took dozens of photographs in which the process -- as well as some silliness -- is thoroughly documented.

     Lester's photos can be viewed here.

     There have been previous postings of Emmanuel Pariselle's courses, but I believe that Lester's photos are the most extensive and useful photo-documentation of multi-row melodeon-building that is viewable by the general public on the internet -- 9 day's worth of photos.

     These pictures are inspiring --- inspiring to those of us who wish to build a multi-row melodeon someday, and also, very likely, inspiring envy in those box-players in North America who have never experienced such a workshop on these soils!  Could we organize such a thing? I believe there are a number of venues in here in Vermont that could host a workshop like this. Please contact me if you would be interested, and let me know what times of year you would be available to attend a 7 or 9-day workshop.

     And before I forget to mention it: Lester Bailey puts his skills to work as a repairer -- read more here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Chords and rhythms on the melodeon

Here is a video (from YouTube) of one of my favorite accordions, Emmanuel Pariselle, teaching a workshop on chords/rhythm/accompaniment on the diatonic accordion.  As I watched this, I marveled at the subtle -- and drastic -- changes in effect that he can accomplish on the melodeon.  Simply wonderful!

And while I'm at it, here is another video (from YouTube) featuring Emmanuel Pariselle playing his Dipper "Franglo" concertina/melodeon.  I love it!!! Again, his great accompaniment style!!! Bravo! Bravissimo! More, please!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

One-row tunes for beginners?

    Years ago, Denis Pepin made a video for beginning one-row box players.  It featured about eight tunes from the repertoire of French Canadian classics -- old fashioned tunes that could be found on recordings of Montmarquette, Philippe Bruneau, Adelard Thomassin, and others. Denis carefully chose tunes that build skills -- different time signatures/tune types, minor keys, basses/chords, and possibilities for ornamentation.  I initially learned from this video and then continued to learn from Denis when I had the opportunity to take lessons from him in person.

     Unfortunately, this video is now out of print, and it does not look like the publisher has any plans to make it available again.

     There are other videos available for beginners in different stylistic directions -- Cajun (Dirk Powell) and English (Kirkpatrick).  I would like to get a sense of whether there is interest for a new video with a half-dozen beginner tunes and perhaps another half-dozen intermediate tunes.  Please contact me if you are interested.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Monday, June 6, 2011

FAQ #2: Three-row boxes

Question: A lot of French players seem to be using G/C boxes with a third row that makes the box chromatic.  What is the layout, and is this the most common layout for three-row accordions?

Answer: These are sometimes labeled G/C/alt, G/C/acc, or G/C/# (I believe you'll see them listed on French classified ads as "G/C alterations" or sometimes as G/C trois rangees).

     The brief answer is that the layout for these boxes is not standardized.  They all involve an outer row in G, a middle row in C, and an inside row that includes notes that are not found on the outer 2 rows, as well as duplicated notes in the reversed bellows direction.

     There are some websites where these layouts are posted.  The layouts are often named after the (French) player who uses or promotes the system. Examples here and here.

Q: Do most three-row diatonic accordions have a layout like that?

A: No. The vast majority of three-row diatonic accordions have what I would call the "standard three-row layout."  There are also an enormous number of three- and four-row "Steirische" accordions, which have what I would call a modified standard layout, but let's not get into that now.  Most Hohner three-row boxes, as well as Weltmeisters, as well as Gabbanellis and other boxes made for Tex-Mex, Norteno, Cojunto, and other Latin markets, have the "standard layout."

Q: Which is...

A: The middle row is a fourth higher than the outer row.  The inside row is a fourth higher than the middle row.  The convention is to list the outer/middle/inside row, such as G/C/F, A/D/G, and F/Bb/Eb.

Q: Are you sure about this?  There seems to be a lot more talk on the internet about G/C/acc boxes.
A: Yes, that's true. But by sheer numbers (as opposed to internet participation), the "standard three-row boxes" probably outnumber all the other three-row layouts combined.

Q: What about C#/D/G?
A: By numbers, this is probably one of the rarer three-row layouts.  You can play C#/D (which is a two-row layout that is typical for Irish music) and D/G (which is a two-row layout that is typical for English music), and you can reach out into the C# row for many of the accidentals that you might need to play tunes that modulate, like a tune in G that modulates to G minor, etc.

Q: Can you play tunes for G/C on a G/C/F accordion?
A: Yes.  But keep something in mind.  A G/C two row box usually has 8 basses/chords, with an F bass/chord that works in both bellows directions.  On a two-row box, this dual-direction bass/chord is a B-flat, and the F bass/chord (press) is paired with a C bass/chord (draw).
     A three-row G/C/F with 12 basses/chords has the same basses as a C/F box, with the G press/D draw and E press/A draw of the G/C box.  In other words, a G/C/F doesn't have the F bass/chord on the draw.
     Therefore, if you want to play "G/C tunes" (like those in French tunebooks) on a G/C/F, you have two choices:
     1. Play them according to the tablature (same bellows directions etc.) except play them on the C/F row, as if those two rows were the G/C rows.
OR, if you must keep the tunes in the same keys as the sheet music,
     2.  Play the tunes on the G/C rows, except that whenever the bass/chord F is indicated, you will play it entirely on the press, crossing on the inside (F) row.

Too complicated? Remember, one of the reasons that you play melodeon/diatonic accordion is to stave off Alzheimer's, right?

Q: You are advocating the "standard 3-row system," aren't you?
A: Actually, no.  I just think that potential diatonic accordion players, who are interested in exploring the three-row versions of the diatonic accordion, should be informed about the "standard" layout.  I think that many players are served very well by the options that the various French third-row layouts offer, especially if the player has really mastered the 2-row box -- the French 3-row layouts are, after all, extensions of the standard 2-row layout.

Q: Will I be able to play chromatically on a "standard 3-row" in G/C/F?
A: Yes and no. Let's talk about that in a future Melodeon Minute.

Q: One more question, is a "standard 3-row" kind of like three one-row melodeons, combined?
A: Yes, in the same way that an airplane is kind of like two wings, combined.  Seriously, it is true that a single row player will find that the three rows are like separate one-row boxes.  But one of the challenging -- and fun -- aspects of the three-row system is to find ways to combine all three rows to make the music sound the way you want it to sound!!!

Q: Which three-row boxes do you recommend?
A: I think that a well-tuned Hohner Corona is an excellent box.  And the newer Hohner XTreme line is wonderful.
     I play a Castagnari Jacky in G/C/F (pictured above), which is essentially a limited edition Handry. The Jacky differs from the Handry cosmetically, but it also has a different grill, which is curved in a way that, I believe, allows the sound to project in a different way than the Handry.  I have tried several Handrys and always experienced a more "muffled" sound than the Jacky.
     I have tried several Saltarelle "Laurentides" and find that it is an especially versatile box, especially in the LM tuning (with a stop).  However, several exemplars that I've tried have had oddly different spring pressure from button to button, which feels odd to play, as well as inconsistent tuning.  I also played the two Laurentides that Normand Miron (one of my favorite accordionists) plays, and he has them set up beautifully and they are wonderful.  So what I take from this is that the Laurentides is an excellent box, as long as you are prepared to have someone (like Normand, who does this kind of work) fine-tune the reeds and work on the action as well.
     The Gaillard Saphir is of course an amazing pinnacle of 3-row melodeon enjoyability.  Play one at your own risk -- you may never be satisfied with anything less!
   There are many makes and models of three-rows that are sold in France -- accordions which I have not yet had a chance to try.  Among them, several that are on the top of my list for test-drives are any three-rows made by Serafini, as well as the Beltuna (one is currently for sale at Button Box) and the Stelvio three-row models.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Old waltzes

     I never get tired of old waltzes. I learned the first one from Rejean Simard, who taught it at La Grande Rencontre in Montreal in 2004.  Monsieur Simard is from Chutes-aux-Outardes or Sept-Iles, I believe, in any case way up in the North.  He builds one-row accordions and plays in a solid, forceful style.  Several years ago I played this tune for Pete Sutherland, who said, "Oh, yeah, that's the 'Old Timer's Waltz.'"

     The second waltz is "Valse des bébés," which was recorded by Alfred Montmarquette.  I got my version from Denis Pepin.

A modern take on an old method to learn tunes

     When I learned to play diatonic accordion, after about a year of self-teaching, I found myself taking a series of lessons from a master player near Quebec City.  His teaching method was simple.  We sat in chairs facing each other and he played a tune (on a one-row box in D).  He then turned the low and high reeds off on his box, and I did the same.

     He played the first phrase of the tune slowly.  I repeated it.  If I made errors, he isolated the part and repeated it, slowly, again and again, until I got it.  Then we returned to the first phrase.  When I played it error-free, we moved on to the next phrase, and so on. At the end of the lesson, we recorded him playing the tune, full speed, medium speed, slow speed.  When I returned for the next lesson, he checked my (full-speed) playing of the tune before we moved on. We usually covered two tunes per one-hour lesson.

     In the absence of a master teacher, you can use a computer with some readily available software and a recording (a CD).
     For years, I used Seventh String Software's "Transcribe!"  You can download a demo and try it out for a month before deciding whether this method works for you.  The software allows you to slow down the playback of a tune without substantially sacrificing sound quality, and it allows you to shift the pitch of the playback.  This makes it an excellent tool for someone with a C one-row wanting to learn a tune played on a D one-row.  You can also "fine-tune" a recording to your box, which is helpful if you are working from historical recordings like John Kimmel or Alfred Montmarquette.
     Audacity is another piece of software that you can use to emulate the master teacher's "slow-down" playing, but the software is not specifically designed for this, so I have found it less user-friendly than Transcribe.  Still, it is available gratis, so it is an option for those who do not wish to invest in Transcribe.

     For one-row players wishing to learning French Canadian tunes, I recommend starting with recordings that feature solo accordion, or accordion with piano accompaniment.  A good place to start is Philippe Bruneau's album, Hommages.
     This computer-based method lacks the element of human contact, of course.  However, it has some very pedigreed lineage -- in a documentary about Philippe Bruneau, he is shown to use a reel-to-reel tape player to slow down historical recordings, repeat phrases, and learn from them!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Grumbling, grumbling

Here is a "crooked tune" that I learned in Quebec City during the summer of 2002.  It is one of several tunes bearing the name "La Grondeuse" ("The Grumbling Woman"?).  I'm playing 3 parts of it, varying the length of the middle part.  I've heard fiddlers play a fourth part. It's a fun tune to play in a session but there needs to be some agreement how many times to repeat the parts!

An odd tune -- and a favorite!

This is my rendition of "Le Talencourt," which I learned from Laura Sadowsky and Guy Bouchard in Val-Belair, near Quebec City, in the summer of 2002. To get the "full" tune, I need to be accompanying a fiddle or other instrument -- I'm substituting some notes on my one-row in D. (This is a typical one-row practice.) Also, my kids are playing (and sneezing, apparently) in the background. (This is a typical practice in my house.)
An old recording of the tune can be found on "Virtual Gramophone."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some Canadian tunes

Here we have Guy Loyer's "Hommage a Philippe Bruneau" as well as a standard, "Valse du Coq," which is one of the first tunes that I ever learned on the melodeon. (There is an early recording of Joseph Allard playing "Valse du Coq," but I am not sure whether he composed it.)
It's also the first time I've managed to post an MP3 of my playing -- hat tip to Accordeonaire for "bailing me out" of my hopeless ignorance when it comes to computers!
P.S. almost forgot to mention, played on a Melodie in D, LMH. I'm not sure why I had the M+ reed turned off, but it happened to be that way when I recorded these tunes!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Improv on standard 3-row

Again, Joel Guzman (from YouTube).  Notice how easy he makes it seem?

"Standard" 3-row emulating chromatic accordion

Here's a clip (from YouTube) of virtuoso Joel Guzman proving that a standard three-row box (G/C/F, A/D/G, F/Bb/Eb etc.) is certainly more than just three one row boxes.  Note the fluent use of the "accidentals" buttons, this time using the thumb (as opposed to the "crab walk" technique using the index finger).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nice interpretation of two tunes

This clip (from YouTube) features melodeon.netter Owen offering a very nice interpretation of two tunes, both involving the use of the tricky-to-reach accidentals at the chin-end of the keyboard.
I found it interesting that he combined an English tune with a French Canadian "crooked" tune -- I've always felt that there was a kind of underwater connection between the two!  The latter tune is traditionally a fiddle tune, and I find Owen's interpretation for 2-row diatonic box remarkable -- bravo!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The One-Row Diatonic Accordion: Pandora's Box!

There is so much that can be done on one row!

Here is a clip of Frank Sears, one of the finest diatonic box players in Quebec! (Video from YouTube.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gorgeous playing on standard 3-row

Here is a clip of Gaston Nolet (video from YouTube.), one of the masters of 3-row diatonic accordion playing in Quebec.  Watch carefully for his use of the "inconvenient" accidentals at the end of the keyboard closest to the chin.

I have heard Gaston Nolet in a variety of contexts over the years and have always appreciated the variety of tunes that he presents.  Gaston manages to preserve the jewel-like quality of each piece, yet commands a repertoire of staggering proportions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Marc Perrone's 3-row layout

OK, folks, by popular demand, I've located a diagram of Marc Perrone's 3-row layout.  I remembered seeing this on a French trad music website that has since disappeared, so I delved into the internet archives and pulled this picture from beyond the grave.

Thanks to Simon on, now we have an image of the layout (above).
Enjoy. Also: If Laurent wishes, I will gladly remove this image from the blog; thank you for the valuable information that was contained on! It is my understanding that this layout is a standard that can be ordered from Castagnari.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Now, that's what I'm talking about!

     If I find myself daydreaming about learning to play the chromatic button accordion, I'm going to watch this again.  (Video from YouTube.) It's causing my kids to giggle quite a bit!
     I wonder how many hours of Marc Perrone it will take to flush this out of my system?
     Note for the uninitiated: No, that is not a melodeon.  But his audience doesn't seem to mind!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Getting the most out of a 3-row box

This clip is amazing -- I could watch it a thousand more times! (Video from YouTube.)

     I am not sure what kind of treble layout Marc Perrone is using in this clip.  My understanding is that he had eventually made it easier to play chromatically on the 3-row diatonic (which is already actually chromatic, just not "easily" played chromatically) by replacing redundant notes on the inner rows with "accidentals."  Thus, on a G/C/F box, where there are 'pressed' G's on the G row and the C row, one can replaced the C row's G's with G#, and likewise replace the F row's C's with C#.  There are also some redundant 'pulled' notes, which can be similarly substituted.  For instance, subbing Eb for some of the pulled E's, perhaps on the F row? (Addendum: indeed, the inside (F) row contains Eb's instead of E's!)
     At one point, someone (probably in France) had this layout posted on a website, and now I can't find it and am clearly forgetting the details.  If anyone finds it, please let me know and I will edit this post, or create a new post about le maitre, Marc Perrone.
     In the meanwhile, enjoy this old clip of some truly marvelous box playing!

Friday, April 8, 2011

FAQ #1: I want to play diatonic accordion, what kind should I get?

Q: I want to learn to play the diatonic accordion, what kind should I get?

A: It's really impossible to answer this question until you become somewhat clearer about what kind of music you would like to play.  We will have to figure out what keys are commonly played by diato players in a given tradition, and what kind of "system" is typically used.  

Q: Okay, let's say that I want to play French Canadian tunes and some New England contra dance tunes -- what kind of box should I get?

A: Good, now that narrows it down.  A one-row box would make a good starting point, and the best key to choose would be D.  Alternatively, a D/G two row box, with eight bass/chord buttons would also work, although in that case, my suggestion would be to start by playing tunes on the D row only.  Finally, an A/D/G box would be fine, as long as you don't get bogged down early on with all the possibilities -- again, stick to the D row at first.

Q: Don't I need a one-row box in D with four stops for French Canadian music?
A: No.  It is an illusion created by distance and the internet, although it is true that one-row, four-stop boxes are now popular with many of the higher profile, advanced players in Québec.  Up close (i.e. in Quebec), one will see beginning players starting out on lots of different boxes.  Typically, the Hohner HA-series one-row boxes, whether they have two, three, or four stops are used, or other inexpensive one-row boxes.  If you want to buy a used one, you could call one of two shops where many players trade-in their beginner boxes when they upgrade: Messervier in Montmagny and Gagné in Québec City.  You could also give Mélodie a call.

Q: Do I absolutely need a one-row in D?
A: No.  It does seem like one-row boxes in C are more readily available.  You can learn all the techniques, and you can learn to play many tunes on a C box.  Just remember that you are essentially "tuned down" a whole step, so you'll learn tunes in C that are commonly played by other musicians in D.  If you plan to play with others, you should really try to find a D box.

Q: Would you make the same suggestion for Cajun music?
A: No.  Er, non.

Q: Care to elaborate?
A: Okay, but I don't play that kind of music.  You need a one-row in C.  Some Cajun players add other keys (starting with D) later, but it is entirely possible to learn all the techniques on a single box, a one-row in C, preferably with four stops.  Really, you should call Marc Savoy and ask him what he recommends for a beginner.

Q: I just changed my mind and want to learn "French" music and maybe some Breton tunes.  What now?
A: There is a very active culture of diatonic box "pedagogy" in France and Brittany, and there are several excellent book series dedicated to helping people learn to play multi-row diatonic boxes.  Beginners typically learn on G/C two row boxes (usually, 21 buttons) with 8 bass/chord buttons on the left side. I recommend the Pignol/Milleret books that are sold here.

Q: I just got a D/G box (see above) and now I want to play French music, do I need a G/C box?
A: You can actually keep the D/G and "pretend" that it is in G/C for purposes of using one of the French  books.  Each book features tablatures, so the fingering pattern is the same, it's just that the music that comes out of your D/G box will be a fifth higher in pitch.  Yes, that's quite a bit higher in pitch -- you will eventually want to get a G/C box, but try to learn the techniques first and see if you like it, then get the new box later.

Q: What if I come up with more questions?
A: Don't be afraid to ask!

Perspectives on "Frequented Asked Questions" about Melodeons

     I plan to write a series of posts about "frequently asked questions" concerning melodeons -- any suggestions?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gabbanelli's 2 tone box

     Apropos my post below about a key-switching 3-row melodeon, I would like to point out that they do already exist, as sold by Gabbanelli of Texas.
     A few notes on Gabbanelli's two-tone:
     1. The treble side is 2-voice MM in each key, as far as I know.
     2. It features Gabbanelli's special look in celluloid.
     3. It features the special feel and sound of Gabbanelli's reedwork.
     4. I hope that someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but the bass/chords do not switch.

     I have never tried a "two-tone" Gabbanelli, just about a dozen other Gabbanellis.  I would love for Gabbanelli to send me a "two-tone" for review on this blog.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A versatile session box

     I just got home from a really wonderful session -- there are so many tunes!

     Anyhow, the elbow-to-elbow crowded space made me more aware of how much space I'm taking up with multiple boxes.  I had my D one-row and three-row GCF.  There were two other accordionists who had multiple boxes.  A mandolin player and a banjo player also each had a melodeon.  At any given time, there were 3 to 5 boxes on the floor.

     Then there are fiddlers, who of course manage to play every tune that comes up with just one instrument.  So at times like this, I envy the simplicity.
     It would be nice if there was a handy three-row melodeon that "switched" keys -- with one set of reeds (single voice) in A/D/G and one set in G/C/F.  Single voice bass with bass fifths (instead of chords) that also switched.  Compact size.  Dark wood so as not to frighten the fiddlers.

     This would not be an accordion to suit all needs.  But it would fill a gap, and it would solve the problem of too many instruments on the floor.

    Alternatively, I could take up the fiddle.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

This just made my day! (Melodeon-wise, at least!)

What a gem:

(Video from YouTube.)

What a classic box!

I wish they still made them like this...

"Recording King" (link to listing on eBay)

I have no connection to this auction, and have never played one of these... I'm just saying that I like the looks of this box, especially the grille.  Understated glitz! 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two of my favorite melodeonists...

... playing a handful of my favorite tunes? What more could I ask for? Perhaps a glimpse of Benoit Bourque clacking away enthusiastically on the bones? Oh, what do you know, there he is at the 2 minute mark!

(Video from YouTube.)
Marcel Messervier, Sr. (the melodeonist with the pompadour) is a legend, and it is a special treat to be able to view this recording.  Despite being a prolific composer and dance band musician, there are very few recordings of Monsieur Messervier.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Meanwhile, with under 1,000 hits...

... there is some (rare) footage of THE Master, Monsieur Bruneau.  (Video from YouTube.) Enjoy:

No, this isn't me!

... but I'm am very curious about this video. (Video from YouTube.)  Not only do I wonder what effect it has had on the world, since it has been viewed over 80,000 times (!), but I am also really unclear about what is going on.  Is this guys accordion (a seemingly innocent Melodie) really controlling the MIDI?  Can anyone figure this out?  He sure does seem to enjoy all that music that he is making!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

One Solution to "Melodeon Face"

Gilles Poutoux has come up with a nice solution to the well-known phenomenon of "melodeon face":

(Video from YouTube.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Cajun one-row accordions for non-Cajun music

If you want to play Cajun music on a diatonic accordion, there is no question: even if you learn on a Hohner, you'll eventually want to upgrade to a Cajun-made accordion.

However, there are other types of music played on one-row accordions: English, French Canadian, and Irish trad have historically featured one-row accordions (along with other squeezable instruments).  So, if you play one (or more) of these types of music, is a Cajun-made accordion the right choice for you?

There are several points to consider:

1. Tuning: Cajuns tune their accordions in a manner that is not ideal for French Canadian, English, or Irish traditional music.  Without getting into details here, you will either need to find a Cajun builder who understands this and can adjust his tuning accordingly, or you will have to have a tuner work on the accordion after you buy it (this will likely cost between $100-$300 depending on the tuner).  Marc Savoy and Tina Pilione ("Acadian Accordions") have made accordions for French Canadian players and they have developed a tuning for these customers.  I used to have one of these boxes and can say that it is a suitable tuning for the music; however, it is not the manner in which Mélodie and Messervier (in Montmagny) tune their accordions.

2. Action and responsiveness: Not all Cajun accordions are created equally. Glowing references found on the internet are not necessarily written by people who really play the music. Caveat emptor!

3. Action, again: I've noticed that the rods connecting the button levers to the pallets, on many Cajun-made accordions, are rather flexible.  With time, the rods flex under pressure as the springs hold the pallets to the action board.  Eventually the button action becomes higher!  Note that the rods on a French Canadian accordion (such as Melodie) or an Italian made accordion are less flexible and will not develop this issue.  If it happens, it can be corrected.  But how far are you from Louisiana, and how much with the shipping cost? What will the builder charge to make this adjustment?

4. Overall build quality: I am a big fan of autodidacts -- people who teach themselves to do something.  At the same time, I recognize that self-taught accordion builders do not necessarily understand the consequences of their choices of material, joinery, finishes, glues, etc.  When you choose a Cajun accordion, keep this in mind.  It's a good reason to choose a builder who has been making a lot of boxes for a long time, i.e. Marc Savoy. Or, if you feel up to assessing the talent of a newer builder, try out one of his or her boxes before you decide to buy one.

5. Those four stops: I've heard that some Cajun builders tell their customers not to use the stops -- just keep them in the on position. According to those builders, the stops are only to be used by a person in the process of tuning the reeds.  In my estimation, this indicates that the builder lacks confidence in his ability to construct the stops in a mechanically durable, airtight manner.  In Cajun music, the four-voice sound is pretty much the standard, with rare exceptions.  However, in French Canadian, Irish, and English music, you will find occasion to use the stops to alter the sound of the accordion.  Seek out a builder who expresses confidence that you can raise and lower the stops on a daily basis without problem!

6. I have often been asked which one-row accordions I prefer.  I can only recommend the makers whose instruments I have tried and cannot speak to the quality of accordions that I have never played.  I have played many different Cajun boxes, and the ones that I have found to be the best, for non-Cajun music, were "Cajun" brand made by John Roger as well as "Acadian" brand made by Marc Savoy and Tina Pilione. That said, I would still encourage non-Cajun players to seek out Melodies (made by Sylvain Vezina) and Messerviers (made by Marcel Messervier Sr. and Marcel Messervier Jr.), as well as the Castagnari one-row melodeon, in order to establish some base-lines for comparison.  Try as many as you can.  Accordions from the same maker can differ widely in quality.

In the end, it will be your skills that contribute the most to your ability to capture the right "sound" for the type of music that you play. However, it has been my experience that the technical demands of French Canadian and Irish music are such that having a competent instrument should be your starting point, rather than an instrument that works against you.  And remember that a lot of great players play Hohners!

Postscript: If any Cajun builders would like me to review their boxes for use in French Canadian music, if you cover postage both ways I'll be more than happy to review your box. (If the review is negative (zero stars), I'll send you the review comments without publishing them; if the review is postive (one to three stars), I'll publish it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the "quickness" of a melodeon

     In assessing the playability of a diatonic button accordion, I consider the accordion's "quickness" to be one of the most important factors.

     Years ago, I believed that the speed of the keyboard's action was the key element that determined the instrument's quickness.  Some buttons feel hard to press down, but have a quick return; others can be pressed effortlessly, but seem slow to return the pallets to the action board.  It seemed to me that a well-fettled accordion would achieve a balance in spring strength that would render the box "quick."

     Now I believe that the keyboard's action is important, but not the most crucial contributor to the impression of a box's quickness.

     Reed response is critical. An accordion with reeds that respond instantly to small amounts of airflow will render an accordion fast enough to play, say, a French Canadian reel, regardless of how sluggish the keyboard action feels.

     The quality of the reeds plays a huge role in reed response, but even lower quality reeds can be adjusted by a skilled accordion tech to achieve a very high level of performance.  I met French Canadian accordion builder Marcel Messervier in 2002, and he told me that he spends a lot of time adjusting the set of each reed in order to achieve the "nervous" (his word!) response that Quebecois players demand.  Depending on the players preferences, builder Sylvain Vezina (Accordeons Melodie) will choose longer scale (quicker but quieter) or shorter scale (slower but louder) reeds.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A simple flutina

This is a picture of an "accordéon français," now commonly called a "flutina" -- just a very simple one, without fancy abalone or mother-of-pearl, without intricate marquetry or purfling. (I found this picture on the internet in 2003 -- perhaps on eBay -- and saved it for my reference.  If it belongs to you and you would like me to remove it, please send me a note and I will remove it promptly!)
These instruments were imported from France, en masse, to the United States in the late 19th century.  They are single-voice instruments, often with "drone" bass notes or tonic/dominant accompaniment notes.  Like melodeons, each bellows direction yields a different set of notes.
Their modern successors, if they have any, seem to be Castagnari's Lilly, Saltarelle's Epsilon, Loffet's Touptit, and of course, Stormy Hyde's Shantym'n.
However, all of the above feature eight bass/chord buttons on the left hand.  The old French flutinas, to the best of my knowledge, never had more than a few bass drones on the left hand.
I'm intrigued by these instruments, and although I've seen several, I've never had a functional/playable flutina in my hands!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some nice, old Hohners for sale

There are two older Hohners in great condition for sale by two friends of mine.

The first is a Preciosa, which was originally in Bb/Eb but retuned to A/D by the Button Box.  In case you are unfamiliar with the Preciosa, it is probably the smallest 2 1/2 row diatonic that has ever been produced, but its sound is BIG!  Great sounding basses and a really nice keyboard action. My friend Robert is selling this box; send your contact info to me and he will be in touch with you.

The second is a Corso in G/C.  I played this box at the Squeeze-In some years ago, and with its three sets of musette-tuned reeds, its sound is very classic.  This would make a great box for anyone interested in learning to play French and Breton music, playing tunes in French tablature books, etc.  The Corso is being sold by Gary; here is a link to his excellent blog. While you are there, check out the miniature Castagnari that he is selling.

(Other than helping friends, I am not connected to the sale of either of these boxes.)

Friday, February 25, 2011


Top left: Before planing. Top right: after.
Bottom center: which of the three would make the nicest box?
(Note: the walnut board was planed by hand, the maple boards have only been rough-planed on a machine -- none of the three has been planed to a "finished" degree!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Big things in small packages

Castagnari's Lilly: This is a super small box that is great for some very specific applications.  Obviously, it makes a great travel box. But it also has a very specific sound.

With 21 treble buttons and 8 bass/chords, it is a "full size" melodeon from the perspective of tonal range -- at least, for a two-row player!  However, the Lilly is a single-voice box, which means that for each treble note, only one reed sounds.  

Despite this limitation, the advantage is that it allows Castagnari to mount the reeds on a flat "pan" rather than in stand-up blocks.  This heightens the responsiveness of the reeds and makes for a very loud box.

Theoretically, it should be possible to make a similar box, slightly larger, with 2 1/2 (or 3) rows and 12 bass/chords.  Ahem ahem.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A melodeon destination in the Northeast U.S.

I imagine that there are some readers who have wandered to this blog in search of information about how someone can start to play the melodeon. I'll write a future post about methods of learning. This entry pertains to the question of where to acquire an instrument...

After an initial, somewhat bizarre encounter with an accordion store in NY, I found The Button Box, which was then in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is now located in Sunderland. What a breath of fresh air. The Button Box stocks loads of diatonic accordions (as well as concertinas and some piano accordions), and it is a pleasure to visit. Founder Rich Morse succeeded in building a great place for people interested in melodeons and concertinas -- you can get books, learn about the various options, and try out every instrument.

I vowed to guide prospective melodeonistas to the Button Box!

One of the fun things about visiting the Button Box is that you can try out all sorts of instruments in different tunings and button layouts. Right now, their listing of instruments in stock includes a Saltarelle Tramontane -- a three-row box in G/C with accidentals on the inside row and a very unusual 14-bass layout. They also have a three-row Castagnari Handry in G/C/F with 18-bass buttons.

Another great thing is that each staff member is a joy to chat with, and they are committed to guiding their customers to instruments that are the right match.

The Button Box co-founded an annual event called the Northeast Squeeze-In, which is also a great place for a beginner or prospective player to learn about lots of instruments, meet some really great people (including the current owners of the Button Box), and enjoy hearing all the lovely music that button boxes can play.

Learn about the Northeast Squeeze-In, now run by an independent group, here.

Denis Pépin

I wrote the following review several years ago and attempted to publish it on RootsWorld. The "editor" said that he could not publish my review, because the fact that I actually learned to play the accordion from Denis gives the review the appearance of bias. Never mind the fact that this fellow's website links reviews to his other site, which sells CDs -- so I guess his own positive descriptions of recordings are not subject to the same standards of "journalistic integrity" as unsolicited reviews of CDs that he does not sell...
Needless to say, eventually I posted the review to the "old" Here it is again for your reading pleasure:

Review of "Denis Pépin" (2003)
Fans of French Canadian music recognize the name Denis Pépin as belonging to one of Québec's foremost accordionists, an outstanding player whose recordings are notoriously difficult to track down. His earlier cassettes, two of which featured Pépin playing marvelously synchronized duets with fiddler Lisa Ornstein, have been out of print for years, and there is no sign that his much sought after instructional video will become available again any time soon. Therefore it was a moment of great pleasure for me when I discovered that Pépin is now offering a new independent release of his phenomenal music.

Originally from a region in which the three-row diatonic accordion is favored, Denis Pépin pursued the one-row accordion after encountering Philippe Bruneau, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. Along with Bruneau, Pépin pioneered the technique of crossing all three rows of the otherwise unwieldy three-row accordion - many three-row players in Québec still play along each row individually! His musical exchanges with the Irish melodeon player Keith Corrigan of Valcartier and fabled accordion builder and player Marcel Messervier of Montmagny shaped his interpretations of tunes for the one-row accordion. More recently, Pépin found himself drawn to the unique style and accordion mastery of American Irish box player Joe Derrane, whom Pépin accompanied on piano while Derrane was performing in Québec. This encounter led him eventually to commission a special 25-button two-row D/C# accordion from Marcel Messervier, an instrument that would allow him to mimic the range of the fiddle needed to emulate Irish and Cape Breton fiddle styles. (See photo)

This CD release offers the listener the unique opportunity to hear Pépin's expertise on all of his instruments. The first five tracks feature the three-row accordion; here, one listens as Pépin defies the stuffy convention that dictates that the three-row accordion in A/D/G is not suitable for Irish tunes. Next come six tracks played on one-row melodeons in C and A. At times, the listener will be shocked to realize that these petite instruments, with only ten buttons in a major diatonic scale, can fleetingly conjure the illusion of chromaticism when touched by the magic of the master's fingers. The listener is truly treated to a showcase of the outermost limits of the petit accordéon. The final three tracks showcase his D/C# Messervier ("Le Pépin III") and offer unique interpretations of fiddle tunes.

Throughout the recording, the listener will hear Pépin's own piano accompaniment, which is tasteful and full of joy for the music. Stylistically, one hears echoes of John Kimmel, the German-American who made the earliest recordings of Irish accordion music. Kimmel's influence on Pépin is particularly apparent on the track "La Patrouille Internationale," in which Pépin links several recognizable melodies, including "La Marseillaise." While the impact of Philippe Bruneau, Marcel Messervier, and Joe Derrane's playing is felt, Pépin's style is unique. He has a light, smooth touch, and his ornamentation, while technically breathtaking, never distracts from the melody. His choice of tunes reflects his vast and carefully acquired repertoire, drawing on historical recordings as well as his musician-friends. The album is sure to delight lovers of French Canadian accordion music and to pleasantly surprise listeners of Irish music and fans of melodeon music in general. Given the fate of previous independent releases of Quebecois artists, I recommend that you track down this recording before it, too, goes out of print! (review written May 31, 2004)

The recording is now available through Trente Sous Zero. (By the way, Guy is also a friend -- and Thirty Below Zero is a great source for French Canadian recordings and other learning materials!)
If anyone listens to this recording and finds that I was simply blinded by the fact that Denis is my friend and teacher, I'd be interested in hearing from you! Otherwise, I stand by my recommendation: Listen to this CD, it is an amazing -- and rare -- treat!

As good as it gets...

Ah yes, if there ever was a melodeon that exuded the essence of everything that I love about diatonic accordion, it was this one: "The Box." It was a Gaillard, 4-voice -- yes, 4-voice -- in D/G, tuned LM-MM+, with two switches behind the keyboard. What a pleasure for the senses!
Kind of like apples from this place: Shelburne Orchards.
Luckily, I still have access to the apples!

(I forgot to mention something in this post originally: If you call M. Gaillard today and ask him to build this box for you, he will decline.  Why?  Because he is actually not a "custom" builder -- he offers a fixed line of models and configurations, and if what you want is outside of his current parameters, he will not make it for you, even though he obviously made this accordion in the past!)

Friday, February 11, 2011

In praise of Max

Ah, the Castagnari one-row "Melodeon," often (apparently incorrectly) dubbed "Max."

Among one-row Italian boxes, perhaps not such a strange beast. Among one-row boxes typically used in North America, Ireland, and the U.K., perhaps an odd bird.

What makes it odd? Is it the blazingly fast response of the reeds? The wonderfully light touch of the keyboard? The choice of oak and a unique and lovely intarsia for the meticulously constructed cabinet?

No, it is the placement of the air button.

My advice to players who find the air button difficult to use: get used to it. Adapt, just like you did when you started to play the accordion to begin with. If you really like this amazing little box for all kinds of reasons, get used to the air button.

I used to play one of these boxes -- I think that I had it for about a year. It was a wonderful box. If you are interested in accordion construction, take it apart and admire the evidence of the Castagnaris doing what the Castagnaris do so well.

There are several construction details that differ from most of Cajun and French Canadian boxes, which are all, to some degree, modern versions of German accordions that were manufactured about 100 years ago.

First, the reedblocks: there are two "stand up" treble blocks, and the bass/chord reeds on the left hand side are also mounted on a stand-up block. This differs from typical North American (i.e. Cajun and Québécois) accordions, in which two banks of treble reeds, and all the bass/chord reeds are mounted "flat." Castagnari has done something really unique, in the several of the highest reeds on the piccolo bank are also mounted flat.

Second, the bass "grip": Without going into more detail, the construction of this component differs greatly from anything made by a Cajun or Québécois builder. There is a different feel to the action and of course the air button is in a different position. Depending on how much cognitive and kinesthetic evolution has occurred between prehistoric man and the player of this box, it will take anywhere from one hour to six months for him to adapt his left hand to this difference.

Third, the reeds: The Voci Armoniche reeds are simply different critters than the Bincis that are typically (although not exclusively) installed in North American boxes.

Fourth, the keyboard: the "hidden" action in the keyboard is entirely different. The lever dimensions are also different (resulting in buttons that are much closer to the pallets -- a narrow keyboard).

I passed this box around to various box players in Quebec, and their responses can easily be summed up: "What a fast little box! Best keyboard I've ever played. Too bad it doesn't have the right sound for the music that I play!" On the other hand, one fiddler that I played with proclaimed that he "loved" the sound of this Castagnari, perhaps because the dry tuning appealed to him, perhaps because the sound was simply not as assertive as the typical Messervier box.

Eventually, I sold this box when my Mélodie arrived. If it had been in a different key (than D), I would have kept it. Ultimately, I wanted the more gravely, bassy sound of the Mélodie. However, I wanted to tip my hat to Castagnari for making such a unique melodeon -- which is wondeful to play.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Big boxes

The three-row diatonic in G/C/F has turned out to be an amazingly versatile box. This one has three voices and three registers to change the combinations of voices. With the low voice engaged, the low notes of the G row are growly, bassy, profound. With only the two middle voices engaged (slight tremolo, almost "dry"), those same notes are expressive and have quality that reminds me of a human voice; the high notes of the C and F rows become flutes and piccolos!
I initially considered the G/C/F to be a G/C box with an added F row, but because of the bass arrangement, it is more like a C/F box with the added G row, if the comparison to two-row boxes makes sense at all. To learn tunes typically played on G/C, in which a pulled F bass/chord figures importantly, I need to either learn the tune on the C/F rows, or learn the tune in G/C, utilizing the F row and crossing all three rows on the press to hit the F bass/chord.
The major advantage is that there are "reversals" of many notes, allowing the player to choose the bellows direction (and thus, the bass/chord) for most runs of notes in the central keys in which the box is played. There are also reversals for several of the bass/chord combinations, especially when the thirds in the chords are not sounding.
The most crucial disadvantage is that there is a steep learning curve for using the "accidentals" buttons -- the buttons with G#, C# etc. (these are the buttons closest to the chin on each row).

The size of this box has not proven to be as much of a problem as one would be led to believe by some of the predominant "wisdom" that has been posted on the internet. I primarily play one-row, Quebecois-style melodeon, and I am able to play everything from my one-row repertoire on this box. It doesn't sound the same, of course, because it is tuned in a very different way, and lacks the piccolo reeds that the Mélodie has, but the weight of the box is not an issue in relation to speed.

The only time when I wish it was lighter or smaller is when I'm transporting 2 or 3 different boxes to a rehearsal or gig!