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

AN OPEN LETTER...To American Accordion Manufacturers

by Bill Palmer -- Concert Accordionist, Teacher and Composer

This article was reprinted in its entirety from the September 1948 issue of Accordion World (New York).


There is little doubt that the world owes you a debt of gratitude for your great contributions and conscientious efforts that have led to the speedy evolution of the accordion from a square, gaudy instrument of limited range and raucous tone to the modern multi-shift instrument of classic dignity.

As a direct result of these great improvements in accordion building, particularly those you have made in the past dozen years, the accordion now seems destined to attain at last its long coveted position in the ranks of legitimate musical instruments. Schools, colleges, and universities are now lending a favorable ear to our pleas for full recognition. All that is necessary now is that we, the teachers and artists, and you, the craftsmen, work together perfectly to give the accordion just the right boosts at just the right moments.

This will mean a great deal to every person associated with the accordion field. When our instrument is fully accepted there will soon be many more serious students beginning accordion study. We lose much of the cream of the crop of students who find it necessary to leave our ranks and take up the study of instruments more readily recognized for academic credit. Full recognition will mean more students, more accordion sales, more fine artists developed, more dignity to our profession.

But right now we are up against one tough problem, and we need your help to solve it, and solve it quickly. WE MUST RID OUR BASS KEYBOARD OF SOME OF ITS LIMITATIONS.

Let me agree wholeheartedly with Lloyd La Vaux, who in a recent article for the "Accordion World" pointed out these limitations and intelligently commented on the need for improvement.

"Oom-pah" bass is not only passe, but it has never been in good taste for serious music in general. How much Oom-pah can we find in compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Brahams, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Moussorgsky?

Now I know that there are many accordionists who believe that we should leave the music of Bach and others strictly alone. If this is true it is only because of the limitations of the bass keyboard. It is certainly obvious that the accordion is quite an acceptable vehicle for many of Bach's works, the organ compositions in particular (and it is no doubt superior in many respects to the organs of Bach's day), if we could only play all of the bass notes at proper pitch. The "Toccata in D minor" has become standard accordion repertoire, simply because it is one of Bach's few compositions that can be done easily on the accordion with every bass note almost as intended by the composer.

The heads of music departments almost invariably demand a classical approach to music study. This means that we MUST overcome those bass limitations. To attempt to organize a systematic course in classical music with our present bass range of apparently only one octave is inconceivable, not only to the music but to ourselves. Our weaknesses are only emphasized all the more.

To those accordionists who suggest that we abandon our efforts to play such music I would like to level a blast that has no place here. Let it suffice to say that I prefer to see the instrument improved until it is capable of handling such literature, and at the same time the possibilities of creating more interesting literature of our own will be greatly increased.

Basically, we need at least three octaves range in the left hand, with the same tonal quality throughout the range. We must also have a means of playing harmonic intervals up to two octaves, or at least a fourteenth.

Recently you put on the market many different models with four, five, six, and even seven bass shifts strung out along the bass keyboard.

Unfortunately this is not the answer. These shifts actually only serve to give up to seven varieties of Oom-pah. In some few selections they are quite effective in melodic bass passages, but they only whet our appetites by suggesting to us what wonderful effects we could obtain with a really efficient system. One of the principal difficulties encountered in using these instruments is that the shifts are not readily accessible from all positions of the left hand. Often when we are playing near the fundamental D flat button we find that we have immediate need for the shift that is located, say, near the A natural fundamental button, or vice versa.

Another definite defect is that accordions with multi-bass shifts invariably have the lowest set of bass reeds coupled with the highest, or next to highest set, and have no shift that will give the low voice alone. I understand the reasons you have done this, I believe. First -- The low voice does not seem to respond readily enough alone, it needs the high set to boost it. Second -- If the high reed is not added there will be no chords on the bass when this register is on. These are facts, but have you considered the following points?

First -- The low reed does not need such rapid response when played alone. Most low bass passages are slow passages, due to the character of all low orchestral instruments, when are not such virtuoso instruments as higher ones. The low treble shift seems to work quite well, and it approaches very close to the lowest range of the bass, doesn't it? Second--and important--When we are playing extremely low passages in the bass we have NO NEED for bass chords, high or low. Particularly do we NOT need that high treble chord found on some instruments. Oom-pah has its uses, but Oom-squeak is out of the questions.

We cannot wait another twelve years to begin removing these "bugs" from our instrument. If we have to add another bass row or two, let's add them.

If a five-bass shift accordion must have twenty shifts as small as bass buttons to place all five within practical reaching distance from all positions, let's have them.

If we have to depart radically from our present system, let go!

You, accordion craftsmen, are the ones who can contribute most to making the necessary improvements. The artist seldom has the knowledge or the time to experiment with such construction, or the genius to overcome the engineering difficulties involved.

And with every confidence in your ultimate success, let me beg you to make the resulting solution available to all accordion manufacturers. You will profit in the long run.

Much more speedy recognition of the accordion is sure to follow, and every artist, teacher, manufacturer and craftsman will find his position a more secure one.

Let's not wait for the accordion to develop. Let's develop it!



The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. staff gratefully acknowledges volunteer Patrick Kiley, who assisted in the production of this article, as well as Stanley Darrow and his comprehensive American Accordion Musicological Society Library.

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