There are several different ways to go about learning to play a button accordion. Each way has its advocates, and I dare say that many of them are zealots. The most common methods are listed here:
- Take lessons from a teacher
- Learn informally from other players
- Attend workshops and seminars
- Learn "by ear"
- Learn from notes
- Learn from "tab"
- Learn from "teach yourself" books or videos
Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages, some of which we will discuss here. In the final analysis, methods (1) and (2) will only be available if you are fortunate enough to live near other players or a teacher, and they are willing to work with you. As far as I know, online lessons are not available yet. With any of these methods, you will have the best success if you practice regularly. Nothing can substitute for regular rehearsal. You should practice every day. Play for at least 20 minutes at a time to get the most out of your rehearsal. Am I saying that its OK to only play for 20 minutes each day? Yes, but play every day. I don't care whether its morning, noon, or night, whether you play one tune or many, just play.
Provided you have a melodeon teacher available in your immediate area, this is the preferred method of learning. The great advantage is that you will be getting direction and feedback from an experienced player. This can help you avoid picking up bad habits, give you impartial feedback on areas of weakness and strength, and provide a structured progression through the learning process. In addition, a good teacher will help motivate and inspire students, hopefully making it less likely that the student will abandon the instrument in a moment of frustration. A quality teacher will also be able to give tips on instrument maintenance, performance, repertoire, and a host of other topics which come from experience with the instrument. Unfortunately, given the scarcity of our chosen instrument in North America, most new players probably won't live near a teacher. In Europe, and elsewhere, this may be less of a rarity. Even for those of us that do live near a teacher, finding that teacher can be a challenge. My best advice is to inquire of music shops and other players. If you are fortunate enough to live near several teachers, choose the one that you feel most comfortable working with, or the one whose playing style you would most like to emulate. Of all the learning methods, this is the most costly, but also the one that is most likely to yield good results quickly.
If you don't live near any teachers, but there is an active group of players in your area, this can also be a good way to learn. It will take more initiative on your part, and as always, you may have to sift through some bad advice to really make this work for you. In this sort of situation, it is important that you don't make a nuisance of yourself. After all, these people already know how to play, and if they help you, it is only because they are nice people. If you nag, pester, interupt, or argue, or insist on being helped, or are rude, inconsiderate, or exhibit any other of a number of irritating behaviors, you are unlikely to get any help....at least not after the first time. You need to give people a reason to want you around. Show respect for their abilities, be polite, act interested. Some honest compliments can earn you a lot of good will. Buy a couple of beers. Most musicians really like to perform for an appreciative audience. Be appreciative.
I like to just let people play their favorite tunes, then I politely ask a few questions when they are done, just to show that I was paying close attention. "How did you do that trill in part A right before the ending?" or "Wow! That was a great tune, how did you make it feel so danceable?" or, if the situation is right "I love that tune, where did you learn it? Could you show me how to play it?" You can also ask more general questions such as, "You know, I've been having trouble with my left shoulder strap slipping off while I'm playing, what do you do to keep that from happening?". Most players will respond very well to this kind of specific questioning. Don't walk up to another player and say "hey, I bought this accordion thingy. Can you show me how to play it?" That is just way to general. Its daunting, and the poor guy will probably make up some excuse about not having enough time, etc.. Keep it specific and respectful and you'll do OK. I know a guy who goes "trolling" for melodeon players at festivals. He just slings his Hohner on his back and walks around festivals waiting for someone to say something like "hey, a button box! I used to play one of those when I was younger." Then he gets them to play any old tunes they remember. Then he tries out the tune, while they give him pointers. He's picked up a number of good old tunes this way. Of course, its fortunate that he lives in an area where there is a tradition of button box playing.
If you don't have any of the above options available to you, a good alternative is to combine teaching yourself with travelling to workshops. Workshops offer a chance to interact with other players, get some good information from top teachers, compare notes with other learners, hear new styles, new instruments, learn new tunes, and many other things. Not least of these is the chance to make sure that you are still on track. In other words, it is easy when practicing in isolation, to convince yourself that you are playing well, and that you are in fact a virtuoso. I guarantee that any misconceptions of that sort will crumble if you go to a workshop. You will hear and see many players who are far better than you. This will give you an idea of where you need to improve, and how much work you still have ahead of you. Don't let it get you down, let it motivate you. Everybody at that workshop was where you are at one time.
I'd like to give some specific advice about how to get the most out of a workshop experience. Keep in mind that if you are teaching yourself, this is a rare opportunity to soak in as much information as possible. You should be looking for things in two categories; those that you can take home and work on until the next workshop, and those that require your immediate attention. Things that you can take home include handouts, sheet music, recordings, personal notes, accessories, equipment, and things of that sort. Things that you cannot take home and require your immediate and full attention include such things as interaction with your teacher, interaction with fellow attendees, personal relationships, unanswered questions, workshop atmosphere, jam sessions, performances, unwritten tunes, spontaneous lectures and things of that sort. If you talk to the workshop organizors and/or your teachers and they are OK with the idea, you can get a lot more out of the workshop if you record it. You can either use audio or video recording. Video has the added benefit of being able to record what you see, but it is rather more obtrusive and cumbersome than audio recording. For video, I like to use a small but powerful digital 8mm camcorder and a tripod. I just set it up in the back of the room, point it in the right direction, turn it on and forget about. That way I can give my full attention to the matter at hand. For audio recording, I like to use a portable minidisc unit. They are small enough to fit in your pocket, they are erasable, digital, and they can be marked with tracks so that you can quickly reference a specific event. Just don't handle the mic too much or you will be annoyed with the results. Again, just set it up somewhere where it can remain relatively undisturbed (not right in front of your accordion), turn it on, and forget about it other than changing the disc every hour or so. If you do record the workshop you won't need to worry about taking many notes, or forgetting that great tune or that key bit of advice you were given. Remember, if you are recording a jam or a more formal performance, you should probably make sure that nobody has any objections first.
So assuming that none of the above options is going to work for you, your remaining options all fall under the general category of "teach yourself". This is not neccessarily a bad thing. Many of the melodeon giants have been self taught. As with most "folk" instruments, the melodeon lends itself very well to self teaching. Broadly speaking, you can teach yourself to play either with or without the aid of paper and ink. Learning to play without notes or tab is generally refered to as "playing by ear". There are many staunch advocates of this method who say that this is the best way to learn. They say that you just can't learn to play dance tunes properly from notes alone. They are probably right. This method is very popular among those who never learned to read notes. In spite of saying that one plays by ear, I would say that the memory is at least as important as the ear in this method. For those of us with imperfect memories, recordings are a blessing. The general method goes like this. First you play a recording over and over and over and over....enough times to make an ordinary mortal sick or crazy or both. Hopefully, before you go crazy, you have memorized the tune. Then you pick up your instrument and twiddle around with it until you get the tune thats in your head come out of the instrument. The time and effort it takes to do this will decrease the more tunes you do it with. Sometimes you'll get stuck, or have a memory lapse on a detail of the tune, so you go back and listen again until you are clear on the part in question. Then you try it on the instrument again. More often than not, on complex tunes, we are talking about days or weeks rather than hours. You start playing back slowly at first until you get it figured out, and your fingerings are optimized, then you gradually speed it up until you are completely up to speed. At this point, if your instrument is in the same tuning as that in the recording, you can play along with the recording and fine tune your timing and accentuation. For simple tunes, you may only need to hear it once or twice, and no recording is neccessary. I have met people who have had spectacular success with this method, even learning some very complicated tunes with such perfection that their playing is identical to that of the greats whose recordings are used as a source. You can learn to play any tune that you can get in your head or that is already in your head in this way. With practice, your fingers will know just where to go to make the note that you want. This skill of playing by ear is fantastically useful for picking up tunes quickly in jam sessions, or when swapping tunes with other players. It is also very closely related to the skills one needs when improvising harmonies or accompaniment in an group situation. Even if you don't intend to learn primarily by ear, I would suggest that you practice the technique of ear playing, it will be to your advantage.
If you know how to read notes, or if you are willing to learn, you have the great advantage of being able to learn new tunes without hearing them first. You also have the great advantage of never having to worry about forgetting a great tune...as long as you put it on paper first (losing a tune is another matter though). You can make notations on the sheet music itself, reminding yourself about preferred fingerings, dynamics, variations, etc.. You can download many fine tunes from the internet, or buy music books to learn some of the most popular melodeon tunes. There are also fine melodeon tutorial books which rely on the ability to read sheet music to complete the excersizes. In other words, it is well worth the effort to learn to read music.
What if you're not very good at sight reading music? What if you can sight read, but you're still unsure of good fingerings and bass technique? What if you want to have tunes on paper but you can't even read music? Is all hope lost? Not at all. For such situations, there is melodeon tab. Melodeon tab combines standard musical notation with various other numbers symbols and text to give you full information on the specifics of playing a piece of music on the melodeon. It can be a very useful tool for those who are teaching themselves to play. Very often the tab includes specific fingering instructions, explicit bass instructions, bellows reversals, accentuation information, voicing instructions, and other details. If the tab is well written by an accomplished player, a novice can learn to play well by using nothing other than tab and some common sense. Tab is also useful for playing tunes written for a box in a tuning that differs from yours, since by pressing the indicated buttons, the tune will simply transpose itself into your box's key. In addition, many tutorial books use some form of tab for the lessons. There are many, many tab systems in use in differant areas, but two systems seem to overshadow all the others in popularity. The first system is the so called "Universal System" or "CABD System". The other system is known as the "French System", "Rows System" or "Corgeron System". As far as I can tell, both systems are equally good, and both are similar enough that you can switch back and forth from one to the other quite easily. When I write tab, I generally use the "Universal System", but by shear chance, I happen to have more books which use the "Rows System". As I said, I have no problems using either one. There is software available which will add melodeon tab to standard music notation. I use it almost exclusively for writing out music.
Yes, as I have alluded, there are "teach yourself" books available for melodeon. I have yet to find one that was bad....true the one that Hohner includes with its new instruments is not very good, but its certainly not bad. Some people do find it useful. Some of the others available are by; Dave Mallinson, Yann Dour, Eric Martin, Pignol & Milleret, David Hanrahan, Wegener, Ad Kwakernat, and many, many others. Many of these are written in Europe but also have English translations for the monoglots among us. I must admit that I am partial to this method of learning. It is how I learned, and I thought it went quite well. I most highly recommend those tutorials which have an accompanying CD or cassette. This can help clarify points made in the text and also give you a solid idea of where you are striving to get with your playing. Furthermore, I would recommend using as many tutorials as you can find or afford. No one author is going to cover every point clearly, and lets face it, music is very much a matter of taste, so get as many as you can and pick and choose the ones that conform to your likes the best. Videos are also available from a variety of different players, and these can be informative as well. I think ear players will probably get the most from this style of tutorial, since most don't include text or notes, but everybody can benefit from the lectures and watching and hearing the technique.
Now, lets get down to the details of just how to learn - independent of method. Elsewhere on this website, you can find information about bellows, basses, treble, fingerings, chords, ornaments, etc.. All of that is an aside. There are some fundamental guidelines which should always apply to your practice.
Play slowly. Melodeon is one of the few instruments where it is actually easier to play quickly, to rush. The reason for this is that if you play slowly, you need to worry about running out of air. So, always play slowly, otherwise you will never gain complete mastery of your air usage.
Practice every day. You will progress more quickly if you practice 20 minutes every day than if you practice 3 hours once a week. The reason for this is that even after you are done playing, your brain keeps processing the information, new synapses are formed, old ones are strengthened, muscles grow and adapt. If you play every day, then this process happens after each rehearsal. Otherwise it only happens once a week.
Don't play mush. Crisp, clean, sharp. Those are the words that should describe your playing while you are learning. There should be an identifiable gap between each of your notes. Exaggerate it to the point of being silly. The reason for this is that it takes more work to play crisply, your fingers must move quickly and accurately, with a definite attack and release. Your bellows reversals must be quick and sharp. Even when playing slowly, this will help build speed and accuracy in your fingers. When the time comes, you will easily be able to smooth things out, but if you play sloppily, with one note running into the other, then all your tunes will sound that way, and getting out of that habit will be a chore.
Don't practice mistakes. There are two competing concepts here. First of all, if you make a mistake while practicing, stop, back up, and do it again until you get it right. Don't just ignore the same mistake time and again until it becomes habit. When the pressure is on, you will revert to the way you practiced it, and you will play a mistake. On the other hand, you have to learn how to deal with a mistake in a performance situation, because it will happen. If you are unprepared, it will completely throw you off. So how do you balance these two? First you practice it, stopping to address all mistakes until you can play it through repeatedly without mistakes. Once you can do that fairly regularly, you play it over and over and over, not allowing yourself to stop for mistakes of any kind. Figure out ways to deal with it, keep the rhythm going, improvise. You will make mistakes, and you will learn to deal with it. Eventually, you will be able to play through your mistakes so well that they may pass unnoticed.
Listen to yourself. Don't get so distracted by the mechanics of producing the right sounds that you forget to really listen to yourself. Be objective. Do you like what you are hearing? Are you playing like your favorite musician? If not, what is missing? Are you being expressive? Are you accenting the proper beats? Are you playing to quickly or too slowly? Is your rhythm solid and regular? Do you sound mushy? Do you speed up during the easy parts and slow down during the hard parts?
Use a metronome. If you can bear it, a metronome is an impartial judge. Use it to make sure you aren't cheating. I know from personal experience that you will swear that your metronome is broken and isn't keeping even time. I assure you, it is not broken, you really are playing that unevenly.
Musician, record thyself. Again, if you can bear it. Pretend like you're listening to someone else when you play it back. Critique it honestly, but don't be overly harsh with yourself. Try to be honest and impartial. Your weaknesses will glare at you.
Have fun. Some people can't stand to do scales and arpeggios, others like it. So if you can't stomach scales, play tunes instead. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't learn proper technique unless you play 30 minutes of scales at the beginning of each rehearsal. If you hate it, you're going to find it harder and harder to practice. So the point is; have fun, do something you enjoy, play tunes you like, and you will find it easy to practice and your progress will be quicker. I guarantee it.
I'd love to hear what you think of this page,