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

The Accordion: A Back Breaker

Part Seven: The Great Accordion Myth!

Is Lighter Really Better?

by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.

If you are reading this article you are most likely an active accordionist. So am I, but like most of you I can't give up my daytime job yet, which is that of a spinal specialist in manual therapy. Every day I am teaching people how to manage their job or their leisure-time activities so as to minimize the stress and potential injuries to their bodies. The name given to this science is Biomechanics and Ergonomics.

To perform one's job or leisure-time activity and minimize the risk of injury is of paramount importance. It is essential that the activity be performed in an energy efficient and safe manner biomechanically speaking. The same applies when we are playing our accordions.

In the past ten years there has arisen this almost fanatical quest in seeking the ultimate, lighter accordion. Some players will often base their choice of instrument entirely on the fact that one is three or four pounds lighter! The importance of weight when considering an accordion is probably the greatest myth in the accordion industry today!

Unfortunately, "light is best" is being touted by some manufacturers who are targeting and capitalizing on the myth, that "less weight is better". Unfortunately, the medical profession in general might support this in theory, but this advice comes from poorly informed physicians who don't play an accordion and, therefore, have no idea of the physical dynamics involved in playing one. Generally doctors will say, "If it hurts, then don't do it." This maxim they apply to any activity. However that is the last thing accordionists want to hear!

Somehow the word has gotten around that as we get older we need a lighter accordion. It is my understanding that the mean avenge age of accordionists in the United States is around 55. At all times, particularly as we get older and less flexible, it is important for us to ensure we utilize sound body mechanics and energy efficient playing attitudes when it comes to our accordion, particularly if we want to keep playing the instrument for many more years.

Where did the fairy tale originate, that light accordions are more desirable? Unfortunately, most of the blame must be placed squarely on the shoulders of some accordion manufacturers and distributors (particularly the ones endorsing the myth) because they are having to alter their construction and use of materials in order to stay competitive in price due to increasing costs of labor and materials. Hence the substitution of plastic for wood and soft, light non-aged woods in place of hardwood are some of the ways that shortcuts in construction and cost are being undertaken.

Think about it, an accordion is essentially an acoustic wooden sound box filled with reeds and reed blocks (also wood) which resonate. This resonation is what gives the instrument its characteristic sonic quality. Just as a violin or an acoustic guitar resonates to produce a beautiful sound, imagine if that violin or guitar were made out of plastic! They most definitely would not have the musicality and resonance of their wood counterpart.

Similarly, accordions that are having their wood parts substituted for plastic and less dense wood suffer the same acoustic fate. Just as in the manufacture of Stradivarius violins, the type of aged wood and design is what gives us the richness and beauty of tone we all wish to possess so that we can express ourselves musically. To substitute a hardwood quality construction for plastic or soft woods will, naturally, alter the tonal quality of the instrument. Is this a desirable sacrifice we should consciously make in seeking a lighter instrument? A lighter (or smaller) instrument cannot be compared sonically with its no compromise, full size counterpart. This is a given. The more wood, the more resonance, the better the projection and musicality.

Which brings me to the main point of this discussion. For those of you who may have been persuaded that a lighter accordion is better for your body, I urge you to consider this.

It matters not a hoot that your accordion weighs thirty pounds or twenty pounds (or in the case of the "plastic fantastics" sixteen pounds). The actual weight of the instrument has absolutely nothing to do with the ease of playing the instrument or getting injured. Provided, however, that you play the instrument in its proper playing position which is sitting down. What most people don't realize (obviously doctors and some manufacturers), is that in the sitting position the accordion weight rests on the thigh or thighs, thereby relieving all the actual weight from the shoulders or neck. There is absolutely no additional strain or compromise placed on the neck, shoulders or the spine when played in an energy efficient upright position.

However, for those of you who stand to play the reverse is true. Unless you are an entertainer, like Dick Contino or Myron Floren, who's solo presentation on stage is part of the show, there is no reason that one should stand. You don't see pianists standing to play to enhance their musical presentation. Why should an accordionist stand? It is a difficult enough instrument to master without creating physical and painful distractions by having the instrument hang off the shoulders and strain the neck and low back. The accordion is balanced nicely in the sitting position with the player assuming a position which is relaxed, upright and energy efficient. The number of accordionists I have seen professionally who have serious neck and shoulder problems over the years is considerable. Almost without exception, they are the performing, standing players. If you want to shorten your playing career, stand-up while playing!

If you look at photos of the different postures accordionists assume and the multitude of ways they fit their accordions to themselves, it is little wonder that physical injury over time occurs. Most playing positions are down-right inefficient and awkward which results in compromised ability to play well and express one's self musically. It has been my focus for many years to impart to others the optimal use of the hand, which fascinates me, but also the correct use of the accordionist's hands, fingers, forearms and upper arms and torso in order to play with virtuosity and musicality and without injury.

Take a look at Maestro Anthony Galla-Rini. In his 94th year he sits and plays with his accordion balanced close to his body, supported by his thighs. His keyboard is upright so he can utilize the higher notes, his feet are under his chair and he has no difficulty with control of the instrument or his bellows. With the accordion strapped closely to a balanced body, sitting upright, in a straight backed chair, keyboard near straight up and down, bass strap snug (any slop in the bass strap make clean bellows control an impossibility) there is little or no adverse strain on the body.

The reason, most often, that we tire when we play and practice badly is because our attention and concentration is diverted from the music to those uncomfortable aches and stiffnesses in various parts of our body because we are abusing them positionally. Consequently, I can confidently say that playing the accordion correctly, taking into account all the things mentioned above, is in no way harmful to your health.

There are other important factors, such as the balance and design of your accordion. With any well balanced accordion, it should be possible to do a triple or quadruple bellow shake by merely grasping the upper fi-ont foot rest (the little square rests that support the accordion when it sits on the floor) and performing the triple or quadruple shake with two fingers. Try this test on your own accordion. If it is well designed and balanced, triple shake and quadruple shake is a breeze.

In reality the accordion can be big (thus heavier) as long as it is designed so it is balanced. My two Petosa AM 1100's and my Petosa Tuba Bass accordion model are beautifully balanced. Even the physically larger Tuba Bass accordion is balanced as well as the AM I 100's and presents no difficulty in managing the technical difficulties that the accordion calls for. Additionally, small design details like the strap attachment points on the top of the accordion are of paramount importance. One Canadian accordionist has had his attachment points altered over 20 times to try an achieve balance of the instrument!

So to those out there praising the merits of the ultimate light accordion (made of soft wood and/or plastic whose reedblocks and treble keyboard will, consequently, warp more readily) I say this, "If we are going to make a substantial investment in a musical instrument, let us make an informed decision based on the merits of its tonality (derived from the quality aged hardwood construction in both reedblocks, keyboard and body) and balance (design factor). Therefore selecting an accordion because it weighs several pounds less make very little common sense sonically or economically.

I wonder how many of you would believe this one? A prominent accordionist (who shall remain nameless) was told by a certain northwest dealer (who also shall remain nameless) in his effort to sell his particular brand of accordion that his particular brand of accordion would actually lose about three pounds in weight the more he played it! What will they think of next!! The only way this could happen is if the accordion was made of green, uncured, and thus unstable, softwood which would warp very readily as it dried out !

So don't be afraid of the weight of a well designed accordion. Sonically a bigger heavier accordion (given all the criteria mentioned above) will sound, play and project better, as well as last longer than its plastic or softwood counterparts. If a dealer is trying to sell you a light weight accordion using its weight as a selling point, be suspicious of what components are being sacrificed in quality or indeed even left out, to attain a lighter (less sonically desirable) accordion. Insist upon seeing the insides of the instrument and look closely at the construction. And, of course always shop around before making your choice because in the end you get what you pay for.

The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. staff gratefully acknowledges volunteer Terry Knight who assisted in the production of this article.

About the Author

John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P., is the founder of Pacific Spinal and Orthopaedic Manual Therapy Clinic, a subsidiary of Rockwood Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Clinic, P.C., located in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Born in New Zealand in 1942 of Italian parents, he grew up in a musical family in which his grandfather played accordion. Mr. Bonica played drums, percussion, flugelhorn, bugle and string bass before turning to the accordion at age 15. He taught himself by ear and learned the Chopin "Minute Waltz" by listening to a recording by Charles Magnante.

After some time, he realized the limitations of playing only by ear, so he taught himself how to read music so he could enter competitions. He won the New Zealand Championship several years in the duet, trio and quartet divisions. He won second place at the New Zealand Open in 1978 in the solo division.

Mr. Bonica emigrated to the United States in 1980 to teach spinal specialists and continue his practice of spinal therapy. He has recorded four CDs of Italian and European folk music utilizing a MIDI orchestra ensemble. Other activities include writing and publishing (he was editor and publisher for Accordion World magazine from 1989 until 1994), sailing and photography.

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