Welcome to the Bellows Discussion Page!

On a Diatonic Accordion, the bellows play a huge role in determining the final sound of the music that's played. For those coming from a background of playing other types of accordion, the importance of "phrasing" the music with the bellows is understood, but on a diatonic, there is much more to it, and choices made with the bellows have far reaching implications on every other aspect of your playing. A bad choice in bellows direction, and the whole structure of the tune can come tumbling down like a house of cards. Let me outline some of the things that bellows can affect:
  • the treble note that is played
  • the bass chords that can be played againt the melody
  • whether you will have enough air to complete the phrase
  • whether a passage is played stacatto or legato
  • the accentuation of the strong beats
  • the volume of sound
  • the dynamics of the music
  • the treble chords that can be played
  • the treble fingerings
So you see, the bellows really do affect everything, either directly or indirectly. How you decide to use your bellows is one of the most fundamental decisions you should make about your playing style.

Let me pause here to say that for the purposes of this discussion, I will be assuming a 2 row instrument with the rows tuned a fifth apart, as this is the most common configuration, but most of what I say here can be applied to other diatonics as well.

There are two basic schools of thought on bellows control. The one camp feels that the diatonic nature of the instrument is best preserved by sticking to one row playing as much as possible and using the bellows to change notes....almost as if it were a one row instrument (this is the natural way to play the box for most people, if left to their own devices). The other camp feels that the instrument offers a lot more sophisticated options and versatility by cross-row playing, which also allows the bellows work to be smoothed out to a great extent. Now let me tell you the truth.....they're both right! Thus we have to make a decision when we are learning a tune. How will we play it? Unlike a chromatic instrument, if you change the way you play it, you pretty much have to start over from scratch because everything will be differant, so this decision is critical. Unfortunately, its one that rarely gets made in a conscious way. You've got your row players and your cross fingerers and they make every tune that comes their way fit that style of playing. Now, the lighter and smaller your box is, the more likely you are to prefer the rows camp. Indeed, the lightest and smallest accordions, as a rule, are one row boxes. They have no choice in the matter. They must play on only one row, and they must use the air button almost constantly in order to make it work. Those with heavy boxes, gravitate more easily toward the cross fingering style of play. Its a function of ease. Its easy to reverse bellows quickly and crisply on smaller boxes. Its a chore on big boxes, but big boxes generally have more buttons and that makes it easier to cross finger most of the time. One sees that the tradition with the biggest of the button accordions, the helikon boxes, which normally have anywhere from 3 to 5 rows and weigh as much as a piano accordion, is to try to get as smooth a playing style as possible. So often, the decision is really being made by the instrument rather than the player, for better or worse, but those of us that play 2 or even 3 row instruments really have a choice in the matter.

In my opinion, a good player will be comfortable playing either way, because he or she has practiced tunes using both methods. That is what we should strive for. Once we have that comfort level, we can proceed to make a conscious decision about how we want a new tune to sound, and how we want the fingering to flow and what basses we want to use, so that the tune sounds the way we really want it to. Don't get into a rut, keep your options open.

OK, so lets look at some characteristics of the rows style of play. Generally speaking, its great for simple dance tunes. It almost forces a strong rhythm on the tune. Treble chords fall easily under the fingers (being generally the immediately adjacent buttons). Bass chords tend to work themselves out without much thought from the player, especially on 2 chord tunes. For 3 chord tunes, the musician needs only to decide when to throw in the subdominant chord (4th step). Thats the good news. The bad news is that its difficult to play anything other than stacatto because you must leave a gap between notes during which you can quickly change bellows direction. The bass chords, while they may be bearable, are not necessarily the "right" chords to fit the melody. This can sometimes be fixed a little bit by "swinging" the tune so that the melody note can be played slightly after the bass strike, with a quick bellows reversal in between, to get the right combination to sound. There are limits, however, to the effectiveness of this technique. Row players may find themselves more prone to running out of air on complex pieces, because they have less opportunity to choose whether to pull or push. Once you leave the major key, things get a little dicey for rows players. All that bellows reversal gets to be real work for players of larger boxes....and difficult to do cleanly. Rod Stradling is an excellent example of a player who uses single row playing to its full potential. Not that he does so exclusively, he also cross-rows, but to listen to him play you can definitely hear that his roots are in the one row camp...excellent dynamics as well. John Kirkpatrick also maximizes the advantages of one row playing on a lot of his morris dance tunes, bringing lots of rhythm and lift to the music.

On the other hand, cross-rowers can easily play very quick portions of scales, can usually choose their finger and their button. They have a lot of latitude in choosing basses that fit the tune and can make nice progressions, can play legato at least some of the time, and can throw in a greater variety of ornaments. They have a lot more possibilities for choice of key and mode as well and they can sometimes choose what direction they want their bellows to be moving....depending on whether they need more or less air in the bellows. On the downside, cross-rowers must do more work and give more thought to make the rhythm solid enough for dancing. Treble chords aren't always obvious or convenient, neither are basses. Dance tunes sometimes are lacking in "lift". Fingering can be much more complex. Dave Mallinson advocates this type of playing, as do most accomplished 3 row players like Flaco Jimenez.

Most tunes will sound best using a combination of techniques from both styles of playing. Apply them purposefully, according to what you are trying to accomplish at that point in the tune. I think Chris Parkinson is a good example of this blending of styles, he matches the method to the tune, and it gives him a sort of nice groove that you just can't put your finger on. A lot of the accomplished French players are in this same category.

Now lets briefly look at dynamics. You should familiarize yourself with the impact of instrument weight and size on the use of bellows. In short, by increasing or decreasing the air pressure in the bellows, you change not only the volume but the character of the sound coming from the reeds. This should be done purposefully to define the beat and add interest to the music. It does not come naturally to most, and the bigger the instrument the harder it is to master. In its simplest form, the strong beat of each measure should be accentuated by giving a little extra muscle to the bellows. The weak beat should be accompanied by easing off on the bellows. It can be quite challenging to play the instrument quietly (good reeds make a big differance) if you are used to playing hard. Some people find that they play hard naturally and can't get any more oomph out of their instrument on the strong beats. Such people should work on playing more quietly on the off beats to accentuate the rhythm.

In addition to using dynamics as an aid to rhythm, think about playing whole phrases at differant volumes. It can really add to the expressiveness of a piece of music. This is especially true of slower melodies. In fact, whole tunes can be played with a whole range of differant volumes depending on whether you are trying to blend in with other instruments, or are trying to stand out.

I'd love to hear what you think of this page,

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