When I tell people that I play the accordion, I usually get a certain kind of reaction. “Accordion? That’s unusual,” some people say, “I don’t know anyone who plays the accordion!” Sometimes it’s “My grandpa played the accordion!” Maybe it’s something about the instrument’s Old World charm, or its chintzy associations of the “Beer Barrel Polka” and Italian restaurants with checkered tablecloths — if you’re anywhere short of retirement age and you play the accordion, people look at you like you’re a displaced time traveler. Eventually, one gets used to it.
But there’s something else that happens when people learn I play the accordion. Some relative of theirs had a squeezebox, they’ll tell me, and it’s been in the attic for decades and it doesn’t sound amazing, but it makes noise. Or someone finds an accordion at a yard sale, and a few keys stick, but it might be worth something — can I fix it? Do I know anyone local who might be able to fix it?
My answer until now has been “no” on both counts. Given the active music scene in Boston, one might expect that any instrument could be easily repaired here. Accordions are one blaring exception. When mine needed emergency repair after a car accident, the closest technician I found willing to take on the job was based in New Jersey. Despite having lived in this area for six years, I still had no idea where to send someone who needed an accordion tuned up or overhauled — but I do know, someday, that someone will be me.
Most general music stores don’t have the first clue what to do with an accordion. The Button Box in Sunderland only does warranty repairs on piano accordions, which is what I play. Some DIY repair and tuning instructions can be found online, but to the untrained eye, the innards of an accordion are a baffling labyrinth. Unless you know precisely what to tweak, you might end up sounding worse, much worse, than before. Sending my Brandoni accordion back to the factory in Castelfidardo, Italy — long considered the world capital of the accordion — would do the trick, but then I wouldn’t have an instrument for months. Could it really be that complicated?
Yes and no. Paul Tagliamonte Jr. of West Harwich has been working on accordions since the age of 10 (he’s now 63), and says there are three essentials to the art of accordion maintenance. First is the know-how; second is spare parts such as keys, reed valves (usually leather strips), and metal rods; and third is tools, though most of these can’t be found at your average hardware store. Tools like a set of bellows to test reeds without having to put the whole instrument back together again; a setup to melt wax at a low enough temperature to set reeds without burning them; maintenance and tuning tools that look like what a dentist might use to scrape plaque off someone’s teeth; even a tray that indexes bass buttons to make sure they go back onto the instrument the same way they came off.
Some of Tagliamonte’s tools and know-how come from his father, Paul Tagliamonte Sr., an accordionist and teacher who ran a series of studios under the name “Paul Monte” and only closed down his Wellesley music school a few years ago when he retired at the age of 90. Some of his knowledge comes from men he calls “old-timers,” accordion makers of Italian descent who first taught his father and then taught him as a teenager.
Tagliamonte has never considered himself a full-time accordion technician; for decades, he worked at the audio technology company Bose. But after his father retired, his mother implored him to continue, and he both enjoys the work and wants to be a resource for the next generation of players.
“There was a time when the only accordions I saw coming in were old boxes that were fairly beat up, owned by people with a lot of gray hair,” he said in a phone interview. Now, he’s seeing a flood of customers in their late 20s or early 30s (like me) who didn’t take accordion lessons as a child, but picked up the instrument later in life. I wanted to learn an instrument I could carry, I loved accordion-friendly bands like Beirut and the Decemberists, and since I had taken piano lessons throughout my childhood, I already knew how to play half of the accordion, or so I thought; what I initially lacked in technique I made up in bravado.
Ten years later, I’m still squeezing — mostly playing dance music from various parts of Europe and America — and I’ve learned bits and pieces about the instrument’s strange history along the way.
The popularity of the accordion in America has swelled, then diminished, then swelled again. As instruments go, it is a relatively young two centuries old. The first button accordion was developed in Europe in the 1820s; the piano accordion came along several years later, and when European immigrants brought their accordions to the Americas, the instrument found its place in vaudeville, blues, popular music, and big band jazz.
Because piano accordions were cheap and portable compared to pianos, they were great first instruments for kids. When accordionist Sam Falcetti founded his namesake music store and school in Western Massachusetts, it was an accordion studio first; by the time he opened a third location in 1963, nearly 400 students were taking accordion lessons from him and his employees.
“It was more popular than the piano or guitar, believe it or not!” exclaimed Falcetti in a phone interview.
But many young players stashed their instruments in the closet once rock ’n’ roll took off. “My dad blames the Beatles,” said Tagliamonte, who started playing as soon as he could hold the instrument, just in time for Beatlemania to hit. When Tagliamonte reached junior high school, the accordion was unusual at best, and he picked up the electric bass so he could play in rock bands.
Maybe it had to go out before it could come back in. Thanks to artists including polka parody master “Weird Al” Yankovic, brainy rock bands like They Might Be Giants, and the exuberant bandleader Buckwheat Zydeco, the accordion stuck around long enough for children who grew up on that music — myself included — to pick up the instrument, without the stigma. We’re exploring its traditions and forging its future. But playing the instrument and knowing its inner workings are two different animals.
At the folk instrument store House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Md., accordionist and technician Wendy Morrison fielded frequent inquiries about old accordions starting in the 1990s, many from people who had just come into an accordion from a relative or an estate sale.
“It was a sneaky, gradual thing,” said Morrison over the phone. “I knew it was coming back when I started hearing it in commercials.”
During her time at the store (she left in 2009), she did some minor repairs — what she called “easy stuff.”
“There were some times I could fix a bass mechanism,” she said. “I could just give it a little kick and it’d go right where it was supposed to go.” For anything complex, she had to send it somewhere else. Eventually, she penned a lengthy layperson’s guide to assessing older accordions.
Morrison surmised that Italy’s longstanding culture of insular guilds and apprenticeships led some experts to take their knowledge to the grave. “Boy, were those guys jealous about their secrets!” she said.
But what happens when knowing those secrets is no longer a viable career path? Now, said Falcetti, the next generation isn’t even picking up the profession in Castelfidardo.
Falcetti Music’s Springfield store still has two accordion technicians on staff. One works on acoustic instruments, and one specializes in the digital Roland V-Accordion, which Falcetti credits as the reason he’s still working — changing instrument sounds is as easy as the press of a button.
For Falcetti, who got his start selling accordions door to door during the height of the instrument’s popularity, the digital accordion represents a pathway toward the future.
“The accordion will never go by the wayside. People get a lot of joy out of listening to [it] ,” he said. But accordion repair is “kind of a dying profession . . . I don’t know if it’s going to continue in the next 40 or 50 years.”
Still, Tagliamonte is adamant that many older accordions have plenty of life left in them. If a client brings in an instrument and he determines that buying another one would be more cost-effective than repairing it, he’ll tell them.
“In general, there’s not too many cases where I’m unable to help someone,” he said. “There are not many people that can heal these old instruments anymore, and I feel an inner obligation.” Now retired, Tagliamonte plans to spend even more time at his workbench and occasionally coaching clients through at-home accordion surgeries over the phone. He isn’t thinking about teaching others his tricks of the trade yet, but he has resolved to be an “old-timer” for the next generation. “I will not end my life without passing the baton,” he said.
At some point soon, he and his wife plan to spend a few weeks in Italy and make a pilgrimage to Castelfidardo, a town he has heard about all his life but never seen himself.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.