The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Leo Niemi: An Artist Among Accordion Technicians

by Henry Doktorski
© 1999

May 1999: A few weeks ago, while practicing a Clementi sonatina for my forthcoming third compact disc, I discovered that one or two passages didn't quite sound right. My technique was fine, but my accordion was beginning to subtly go out of tune. I tried to ignore it and thought, perhaps correctly, that no one would notice it; after all, everything else sounded perfectly well. It was just a couple intervals which sounded off; and only when I used the bare-bones reed combination of clarinet in the right hand and single-note free-bass in the left.

But after a few days, I sadly came to the realization that it was time to get my accordion tuned. Other instrumentalists might laugh at the hesitation I exhibit about tuning. After all, violinists and wind players (and even harpists) tune their instruments every time they play, even between movements of a symphony. Even concert pianists have their pianos tuned before every concert.

But concert accordions are a different matter. They are like pipe organs, which are very difficult to tune and require one or two days labor from a trained technician. Consequently, the price is not cheap. My Victoria accordion has 462 reeds: 352 for the right-hand manual (44 keys x 4 ranks) and 110 for the left-hand manual (one rank: 4½ octave range). Some instruments, like the concert bayan, may have 744 reeds, due to a greater pitch range and more reed ranks.

To tune an accordion properly, the technician must test each reed separately, then take the reed block out of the accordion, tune it by scratching the reed with a file, insert the reed block back into the accordion, and test it again. If the reed is still not exactly perfectly in tune, the process must be repeated.

Some tuners save time and aggravation by placing the reed block over a mechanical bellows so they don't have to keep inserting and removing the reed block from the instrument each time they tune a reed, but this can be less accurate as the air currents and pressure may differ and consequently affect the pitch. This effect is practically unnoticeable for most jazz or folk applications, but it may be critical for classical accordionists who demand more exact pitches.

Once I tried to tune one low bass reed that had somehow drifted flat. It took me nearly an hour before it was fixed! A professional tuner, however, due to his or her experience, should be able to progress a lot faster!

After I had decided that my accordion needed a tune-up, I called my friend Leo Niemi from Sudbury, Ontario, and scheduled an appointment for the next week. Some accordionists ship their instruments by bus, but I always personally chauffeur mine in my car. This is certainly more expensive and time consuming -- especially so considering that Leo lives some 545 miles (877 kilometers) from me -- but I know that my accordion will be treated like a princess!

Why do I make a twenty-hour round-trip drive to get my accordion tuned? Aren't there other technicians closer? There are, of course, but my experience with some of them has been frustrating. In 1989, when I first purchased by secondhand 140-bass Victoria (Emperor Model free-bass with stradella convertor built in 1975) from Antonio Nellie Peruch, a concert accordionist from Alberta Canada, the tuning was unsuitable for my purposes. The violin stop was much too wide for classical work and the overall pitch was too high. I wanted the instrument tuned to standard concert pitch (A = 440) so I could play with other classical musicians.

Accordions are routinely tuned to A = 441 or higher in the factory as a matter of tradition. Although I can understand why a polka or musette player would want an instrument which is tuned sharp to cut through the texture of a dance band, I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend why manufacturers produce instruments for classical accordionists which are out-of-tune with the chamber musicians they perform with.

But where was I to find a tuner? In 1989 I did not know any, as I had been out-of-touch with accordion circles for many years. I asked bayan virtuoso, Peter Soave, who I met at the annual American Accordion Musicological Society competition in March 1989, where he got his instrument tuned. He candidly said, "I take my bayan twice a year to Italy for servicing." Taking my instrument to Italy was not an option for me due to the expense.

I decided to call my friend and colleague, Stanley Darrow from Westmont New Jersey (who introduced me to the classical accordion), and ask him to recommend a tuner. He implied that skilled tuners were as rare as hen's teeth, but he did suggest I contact a man in Brooklyn, New York who tuned Stanley's own accordion and was famous as an accordion technician: Mr. Emil Baldoni. (The book The Golden Age of the Accordion devoted an entire chapter to him).

Although Mr. Baldoni was retired (he was born in 1913, therefore he must have been 76 years of age at the time) he kindly agreed to tune my Victoria. After several weeks (and 400 US dollars) I picked up the instrument and played it. Sadly, I could not tell if any work had been done; it sounded the same. It seemed that Mr. Baldoni had passed his prime. I was disappointed, to say the least. (Mr. Baldoni passed away in 1991.)

What to do? I knew a tuner nearby in Cleveland Ohio -- John Buday (b. 1918), who also had a chapter in The Golden Age of the Accordion about himself. However, I had met him already the previous year and was disappointed with his alleged tuning of a bass accordion for my student ensemble; the high reeds were as out-of-tune as ever. It was rapidly becoming obvious to me that most accordion tuners (perhaps due to advanced age?) might be able to satisfy polka players, but they could not tune an accordion well enough to play with a classical symphony orchestra. I would get laughed off the stage by the musicians!

As a last resort, I decided to call Canadian concert accordionist, Joseph Marcerollo and ask him for a solution to my problem. He instantly replied, "Leo Niemi, from Sudbury Ontario, is your man!" I promptly scheduled an appointment with Leo and drove 600 miles from the Appalachian foothills of Moundsville, West Virginia (where I lived at the time) to the white birch forests and blue glacial lakes of Sudbury (the home of the largest nickel mine in the world).

I was instantly impressed with Leo's hospitality and humbleness. Truly unassuming, he seemed to have a real love for people, as well as the accordion. He was born September 18, 1930, in Beaver Falls, a small town near Sudbury, and learned to play the button-box by ear at an early age. Shortly before his thirteenth birthday, he purchased his first piano accordion and decided to take formal lessons. After six months he quit lessons, and began playing professionally at parties and dances. At the age of 16 he quit high school and began teaching accordion on his own. His studio was very successful and he sponsored concerts by Charles Magnante, Anthony Galla-Rini, John Molinari and others. In 1955 he married Lois, one of his more attractive accordion students.

As the years passed and his students gradually began vanishing during the decline of the accordion's popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he turned more and more to accordion repair. Although Leo still performs today -- most notably as accordion accompanist for the Finnish Chamber Choir (he performed for the President of Finland in 1998) and the Italian Montessori Choir, his greatest gift to the world (in my opinion) is his tuning.

Leo took my sad-sounding instrument and within two days time turned it into a singing nightingale. The intonation was perfect, the tone velvety, and the violin register a beautiful and gently pulsating tremolo, perfectly suitable for sophisticated classical music. And he brought the instrument down to A=440, a very difficult feat for any technician.

Leo spoke to me about his secret, "I'm not in this business for the money; I'm in it because I love the accordion. No one in their right mind would become an accordion repairman for the money, because there's precious little of it in this business! No, I work on accordions because I have a great love for the accordion, and for the people who play it."

Leo continued, "There was a time in my life when I battled with alcoholism and my life was falling apart at the seams. Little did I know at the time that I was to learn my greatest life lesson from this experience. When I hit the bottom, I learned to pray. I made a promise to The Creator: if he would help me overcome my addiction, I would repay Him by helping others. To this day I have tried my best to fulfill that promise.

"When I see an accordion I have worked on before, it is like seeing an old friend. Accordions are not simply inanimate chunks of wood and metal; they possess a subtle energy from their owner. A little of the owner's personality is transferred to the accordion. It is a type of vibration. I can tell a little about the owner by examining his or her accordion, but I also prefer not to work on an instrument unless I know the owner to a certain extent. It makes a difference in how I handle the instrument."

Truly Leo loves his work. "Perhaps a little too much," his wife complains. Lois explained, "Leo works so hard and he charges so little. He needs a vacation; as a matter of fact, I need a vacation also! We both need a vacation! We are planning to go visit Finland as soon as I can get a good airline rate. But Leo can't say no to a customer. He doesn't advertise, he doesn't look for business, but people hear about him from word-of-mouth. He works for the greatest classical accordionists in Canada. He built a custom accordion for Joseph Petric and he services accordions for Joseph Macerollo from Toronto and for Marin Nasturico from Montreal as well as for Claudia Vena from Quartetto Gelato. His basement workshop is filled with accordions, and yet Leo charges less than half of what his services are worth! I worry about him working too hard."

I hesitated to write this article, because the last thing Leo needs is more business, but I also wanted to share his talents with the world; to make a personal tribute to him. Without a doubt there are other great accordion technicians in other parts of the world, but Leo Niemi is my man! Thanks a lot, Leo! I appreciate your wonderful contribution to classical accordion lovers of the world.

For more information contact:

Leo Niemi
46 Strathmere Crescent
Sudbury, Ontario
Canada P3E 2J9
Phone: 705-522-9846


Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 12:45:15 -0400
From: Doug Cumming --
Subject: Leo Niemi

Hello Henry:

Thanks for writing the article on Leo Niemi; I've had my accordion overhauled by him and his work is great! I never actually met him, however, as my parents drove up to Sudbury [with my accordion] a few years ago and managed to have him look at my accordion while they vacationed. I was unable to make the trip myself.

My parents enjoyed meeting with Leo and appreciated the fact that he was able to work on my accordion while they were visiting Northern Ontario. I still don't like to send any instrument via bus [unaccompanied] -- you never know what can happen; I appreciate the fact that my parents agreed to take my accordion to Leo. Their comments [about meeting Leo] echo those in your article; each accordion having the "personality" of the player who owned [played] it, etc.

Leo's name is well-known in "Canadian accordion" circles; I know several musicians who have entrusted their instruments to Leo. It was through "word-of-mouth" that I was put in contact with Mr. Niemi [actually through my former teacher, Laurie Rosewarne, who studied with Joseph Macerollo, etc.]. I'm glad to see that he will get more exposure thanks to the WWW and your interesting Article.

Incidentally someone else was asking me about an accordion tuner recently -- all I could say was to contact Leo Niemi in Sudbury. There are some people who do isolated tuning work in my area; however, nobody of the expertise of Leo, a person who can be trusted to do a fine job with accordions.

Hopefully, some of the "tuners" frequenting the Squeezebox newsgroup will look your article up.

So long and thanks.

Doug Cumming
Ottawa, Ontario

Date: Sun, 13 Jun 1999 18:12:38 -0400
From: (Leon & Lee Zukowski)
Subject: Leo Niemi review


In your review of Leo Niemi, you said: "To tune an accordion properly, the technician must test each reed separately, then take the reed block out of the accordion"---etc.

During final (precise) tuning, most reeds are accessible without removing the reed blocks. They can and *are* tuned *inside* the accordion. The halves of the accordion (treble or bass) must be lifted free of the bellows so that the tuner can approach the reed he's working on. For the reed tongues that are on the inner side of the block, tuners have "retrievers" (that they make themselves) for tuning those reeds without removing the block. In cassotto accordions and/or bayans,those blocks are an exception. Otherwise, it is only the small, high-pitched reeds that may require block removal in most accordions.

The above process is necessary to "fine-tune" the intervals.

On a lighter note---and in reference to yours about faster tuning by Pros: It was before WWII that I tuned chromatic pitch pipes. Each contained the 13 reeds of one inclusive octave. I was alloted 60 seconds to tune each pitch pipe, i.e., 60 per hour. 480 (times 13 reeds each) was my required quota per 8-hour day! But that's another story.



From: Joe
Date: Sun, 30 Oct 2005
To: Henry Doktorski
Subject: Hello Again!

Hello Henry,
Thanks so much for the information that I got from your web-site, especially about the accordionist/repairman/tuner, Leo Niemi.

As I'm sure you're aware, my accordion is an early model Hohner Gola. It was in very rough shape when I purchased it, but I was able to see it's potential. An accordion craftsman in Winnipeg, Wasyl Honcharenko, worked on it. He did a great job of putting it back in shape! Unfortunately he has since passed away.

Now, however, it needed tuning. When I saw Leo's name on your web-site, and knowing that you are a perfectionist when it comes to tuning an instrument, I took my accordion to him. He couldn't work on it immediately as he had a number of rush jobs and he was also not feeling all that well. As I was not in a hurry, the time factor was not important.

When I finally got my accordion back from him, I was amazed at the fabulous tuning job he did! What a great sound it has now! And I also must say, Leo and Lois are great people! They treated us very well during our visit to Sudbury. I'm very happy with my accordion now, and it's all thanks to you Henry for your referral!


Joseph T. Koscielny
Brandon, Manitoba, Canada

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