The artistic development of Accordion playing has been a gradual process. First generation accordion artists such as Deiro, Frosini, Pihlajamaa and numerous others wished to play Classical Music on their chosen instrument. They composed a large body of ‘serious music’ which, if I may be excused for saying, was firmly fixed on the level of that of an high level Amateur. However, the next generation of Accordionists realised that serious collaboration with composers was necessary in order to have the Accordion accepted in to institutions of higher learning such as Universities and Conservatoires. This generation of Accordion Artists included such names as Ellegaard, Noth, Lips and Rantanen. The pioneering work of these artists resulted in the acceptance of the accordion in the general society of music. The result of this can be seen in our adaption of playing techniques from other instruments, which have been developed through history to the present time. Contemporary composers challenge not only our understanding of music, but also demand that our technical proficiency is constantly moving to that of a completely new level.
It is my belief that the least profoundly studied subject in relation to the accordion is in fact that of its technical principles. Today we can find many so called ‘methods’, the creators of which have no deep understanding in the art of performing as well a lack of exposure to higher musical education in general. Keeping this in mind one should observe these methods with a critical mindset, as they are not based on experience and therefore lack any real understanding.
It must be stressed that one need not invent the wheel all over again. All musical instruments share many principles when we speak of the art of performing. The technical concepts involved have evolved over hundreds of years and therefore have stood the test of time for good reason. After any concert of a great instrumentalist, one can hear such phrases as “how natural was his playing, he made it look so easy”. I believe that here lies the key to playing any musical instrument.
When we observe the playing of the worlds most famous Pianists we realise that due to the fact that we all possess a unique physical construction a ‘one size fits all’ method is absolutely outrageous. For example, small hands often have to be even more flexible than larger ones and so they function in a different way. This is why I strongly oppose any kind of fixed method. The beauty of the human is that we are all unique in our body structure and so our capabilities within this structure are also unique to each individual. This is an important fact that must be taken in to consideration at all times, however, the technical principles for top level musicians remain the same no matter what instrument one plays.
Simplicity through a natural approach.
I ask you the readers to take some time to study this subject yourselves. On YouTube, one can find Martha Argerich performing Scarlatti’s ‘Sonata in d minor K 141’. Another video I would ask you to view is that of Grigory Sokolov performing Couperin’s ‘Le Tic Toc Choc’. Lastly I would recommend that you watch the performance of Bach’s ‘Prelude from cello suite no.1’ by Mstislav Rostropovich.
Observe very carefully and one will come to realise that although the cello and the piano differ greatly, the principles of playing these two instruments are the same. Their bodies are flexible and without and ounce of tension. Their minds seem to share this sensation also and one can view these sensational artists as ‘free souls’. Thus, they can achieve what they wish to achieve in their interpretation of the music. They have no technical limits and it is almost as if their instruments obey them. Their performances reflect hundreds of years of development in the principles of playing. Any forms of tension or unnatural and complicated movements are avoided. There are no fixed patterns and positions but rather one can observe a constant flow, a never-ending source of energy that brings the music to life.
To take an example outside of the world of music we must move in to the world of sports. Athletes try to avoid stiff motions, fixed patterns and also fixed positions. After an athlete fails to achieve their best in competition we will often hear them say that they were ‘not relaxed’. They will blame this tension and stiffness for their inability to succeed on that given day.
These principles are also valid when we discuss accordion playing. Our instrument is one of the most difficult to handle and so a deep understanding of our natural bodily functions will help a player a lot, when talking about reaching ones technical potential. The key to true and effortless virtuosity is relaxation, simplicity and maintaining ones natural intuition. This is quite the opposite of certain ‘methods’ where students adopt playing positions that make their bodies stiff. These include the fingers being utilised in tensed, unnatural and uneconomical ways.
When discussing the concept of practicing, relaxation and simplicity in approach are key factors. Pianist Grigory Sokolov said when asked how many hours he practices per day, “I produce sound for about four hours per day”. I personally agree with this way of thinking. I do not practice (with my instrument) for more than four hours per day unless I must learn something with haste. When the technical principles and strategies are understood profoundly then one will find that practicing does not require too much energy. When the body is functioning in a relaxed and natural way, learning even the most difficult of passages becomes a lot faster and easier. One does not need to warm up before practicing as the natural process of practicing acts as a warm up itself. Before a concert the warm up is almost not necessary, as a player who possesses a relaxed, energy saving technique, possesses a technique that is ready at all times.
“Practicing your technique is perfecting your interpretation”. This is a famous quote of one of the most famous piano pedagogues of our time, Heinrich Neuhaus. Neuhaus was responsible for nurturing the genius that was Sviatoslav Richter. He firmly believed that a technique that is relaxed, natural and simplistic is a technique that allows interpretation to flourish.
I have been playing the accordion for 40 years. I started to give concerts 28 years ago and have played dozens of programs that have included the most complex pieces one can possibly play on the accordion. I have never had any problems with my physiology due to practicing. Often I hear accordionists complain of problems with their back, wrists, shoulders and fingers after they have been practicing for extended periods of time. Personally I feel energised and relaxed post practice and this is because I apply the principles of relaxation, simplicity and a natural approach. These are the principles I teach to those who study under me at the Sibelius Academy and to those who come to my seminars. (Language editing: Evin Kelly)