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

The Orchestra Job

Why strictly accordion men do not hold more orchestra posts. Piano players in majority. Practical example as object lesson. Orchestra morale.

by Vincent Pirro -- Accordionist with Paul Whiteman

This article was reprinted in its entirety from the March 15, 1936 issue of Accordion World (New York).

"There has been too much blah-blah about why accordionists do not land more jobs in orchestras, and when they do hook one, why they don't keep it steady," said Vincent Pirro, Paul Whiteman's accordionist.

"A great number of accordion players in the bands of today are of "piano extraction" and this brings on more arguments on why aren't strictly accordion men filling these places," continued Pirro.

"Let me give you," said Pirro, moving forward in his chair, "a practical example of what happened to me, way back when I anchored my first job as accordionist with Charlie Strickland's Orchestra. I was then a full-fledged pianist, and proud of it. I am likewise now proud of being an accordionist from the piano-player ranks, who has studied the accordion seriously and conscientiously despite all the side-tracking that crossed my path in the matter of accordions and so-called expert teaching at the beginning. I made a quick success with the accordion, nevertheless, and club dates started to roll in while I was working with Strickland," Pirro explained.

"One night, a swell-looking fellow comes up to the stand and insists on dating me up for a grand affair. His talk was so convincing that I just couldn't say 'no'. There I go to Strickland to ask him to let me off for the following night, with the promise that another accordionist would substitute for me. So I looked for and found a strictly accordion player who was supposed to be a topnotcher, and sent him in my place in Strickland's Orchestra. I went to the date.

"The next night I returned to my regular job and as soon as they saw me coming in, I thought the orchestra would go into a fit; everyone was frowning and hollering at me and there I was with my box, wondering what it was all about. Strickland, with his hands to his head, signalled me to come over, and said, 'It's a good thing to see you back; how in the world did you send in that accordionist; he had all of us nutty'. Thereupon Strickland told me what had happened. For the first three or four numbers, things didn't go so badly; the accordion was heard plenty in the orchestra but everyone put up with it. When the orchestra took a rest, my substitute accordionist asked Strickland's permission to play a solo. Strickland indifferently consented. And there the accordionist burst out with no less than an overture (maybe 'Trieste'). Repeated requests for permission to play and show off again were made by the accordionist. With his loud playing in the orchestra plus his soloing, the accordion was the only instrument heard all night long and had Strickland and the other musicians nearly crazy, to the point that they almost wanted to shoot the accordionist, and then shoot themselves, one by one.

"I bring this up, as I said," Vincent pointed out, "because this desire to show off is one of the greatest drawback to keeping a steady job in an orchestra and it seems that the accordionists, particularly those coming fresh from the teacher's hands, have the idea that they are the whole band.

"I have played with Lopez, Dick Gasparre, Russ Colombo, Erno Rappe, Charlie Previn, Joseph Litau, Freddy Martin and Paul Whiteman, as accordionist, and I know that in a fine orchestra there is no room for cliques or class distinctions. Paul Whiteman, outside the band stand, is just a pal; very democratic. He knows the art of commanding respect without 'using the whip'. The companionship is so close in an orchestra that the troubles of one are felt by all. Once a member of the Whiteman organization donated freely of his blood for transfusion to another member who was sick. Personal jealousies are not tolerated.

"I am fortunate to be with Paul Whiteman's band, one of the finest and hardest-working units in the world: a set of musicians who are really exceptionally good and versatile. On the road, one night we might have to play a concert, the following night a barn-dance with music the way they like it there, and then a show somewhere else, etc., so that versatility is necessary.

"Comradeship, discretion, sincerity as well as ability all go to make up the band."

Note: The above undated photograph (from The Whiteman Archives, Stetson Hall, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts) of violinist cum accordionist Mario Perry soloing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was included in the reprint of this article, as the original Accordion World article by Vincent Pirro had no photograph.

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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