Finished. Not Perfect.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is only three words long:

“Real artists ship.”

– Steve Jobs

Jobs was legendary for his perfectionism and for never settling for mediocrity. He saw the task of building computers (and the software they run) as inherently creative work, and he encouraged his team to think of themselves as artists.

But at the same, he knew that mere ideas weren’t enough. Products had to be finished, often on a deadline. These beautiful designs and creative solutions had to, at some point, make their way into the hands of consumers as tangible products. Real artists ship.

Along those same lines, here’s a wonderful short video where Jake Parker argues in favor of “Finished Not Perfect“:

What are you “not finishing” out of the desire for musical perfection?

Are you putting off posting a recording of yourself to SoundCloud or making a YouTube video?

Waiting to sit in on a jam, or play for your friends and family, or participate in a recital until you’re “good enough”?

One of the things I’m shooting for this year is recognizing when I’m letting perfectionism get in the way of “finishism”. Who’s with me on this? We’re “real artists”, aren’t we?Let’s start shipping!

Five Tips for Establishing a Daily Practice Habit

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is “practice every day”, here are a few tips I’ve discovered while establishing and maintaining my own (mostly) daily accordion practice habit:


#1: Define “Practice”

What counts as practice? What’s the least thing you could do that would justify checking the box next to “I practiced today”? Does playing a gig or teaching a lesson count?

It’s up to you, but I recommend going as basic and simple as possible. I’m talking absurdly basic. Author Stephen Guise calls these mini habits–habits that are “too small to fail”.

I decided to make the rule that, as long as I played a single scale on the accordion, I could “count” it. On those days when I’m not really motivated and would rather do something (anything!) else, I still force myself to at least play that scale.

And you know what? Nine times out of ten I’ll finish and think “well okay, maybe a quick tune.” Next thing you know, it turns into a full-blown practice-fest! But even when it doesn’t, that measly scale is still better than nothing. As Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent (which I highly recommend), even short sessions can be useful:

“With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow—incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up.”

 


#2 Define “Daily”

Look, life happens. You gotta give yourself an out now an then. Put some wiggle room in the rules. (After all, even the Guinness Book of World Records lets you take a bathroom break now and then.)

I went with what I call the “three-hour rule”. If I’m home and awake for at least three hours, then that’s a practice day. If I’m away from home on vacation, or if it’s one of those crazy days where I’m out the door in the morning and not back until very late that night, then practice is “optional, but encouraged.”

You might want to also give yourself a few “whoops!” passes in advance for those times when you might just plain forget. And you should definitely give yourself a break if you’re nursing an injury (better to take a week off now than a year off later). The important thing is to not let accidentally ruining a “perfect” streak discourage you from completing a “nearly perfect, but still extremely helpful” streak.


#3 Keep Track

“I think the soundest management advice I’ve
heard is the old saw: ‘What gets measured gets done.’”

– Tom Peters

I’m a big fan of keeping a practice journal of some type, which not only keeps track of the days you practice but also allows you to record helpful notes about what you practiced, what you need to work on next time, broader goals, etc.

If it’s a paper journal, it has the added benefit of giving you a physical representation of your progress as you make your way through the pages (and, eventually, through more notebooks). You can also put it on your pillow, where it will keep you from going to bed without remembering to practice!


#4 Remove Barriers

The process of starting a practice session should have as little “in the way” as possible. Leave the music stand out with a chair in front of it if you can. Keep your instrument nearby, maybe even out of its case. Have your other tools-of-the-trade (metronome, pencil, tuner, etc.) at the ready.

The fewer steps you have to take to start playing, the more likely it is that you’ll do so.


#5 Be Grateful

How awesome is it that you can play a musical instrument? I don’t care if you’re a rank beginner or if you’re Joshua Bell. The fact that music even exists in the universe is a thing of wonder, and the ability to just conjure it up at will is pretty much a flat-out miracle.

A daily practice commitment is not a burden, even though it might feel like one now and then. It’s a choice to participate in something great, and we makers of music are fortunate to be able to make that choice.

So from this moment on, I want you to remove the phrase “I have to practice” from your vocabulary and replace it with “I get to practice.”

Free Sheet Music: De Colores

One of the cool things about the accordion is that it spans so many cultures and languages. You can hear the instrument in Polish polkas, French bal musette, Irish jigs… the list goes on. (Literally:  There’s an actual list.) I’d guess that probably only the violin/fiddle is more ubiquitous in the traditional music of so many people.

Graphic of my Spanish progress so far on Duolingo

My Spanish progress so far on Duolingo. You gotta start somewhere…

When you play such a multicultural instrument, it can be handy to learn some of these spoken languages too. Knowing a few words of Italian, for example, makes playing all those Italian accordion standards that much more interesting.*

So far I’ve managed to learn a bit of what I call the “opera languages” (Italian, German, and French). Nothing fancy… mostly just enough to order something in a restaurant or bar while traveling. My German is even passable enough by now to have a rudimentary conversation, provided a few charades-style hand gestures are allowed.

But now I’ve decided to learn some Spanish. I really don’t know why I’ve put it off so long since, in this country, it’s so widely spoken and there are so many convenient opportunities to learn and practice it. Plus it has so much great accordion-based music!

With all that in mind, here’s a good Spanish-language song to know: De Colores. The exact origins of the song are a bit cloudy, but it’s a fun tune with a wonderful sentiment about different colors (both literal and figurative) adding up to so much beauty in our world.

I’ve arranged two versions–one easy (Palmer Hughes Book 1 level) and one a bit more advanced (maybe late Book 3 level?). Choose whichever you like below, or combine ideas from both. Buena suerte!

decoloreseasy_thumb        decoloresintermediate_thumb

* Technically, the lyrics of many Italian standards, such as ‘O Sole Mio, are actually written in Neapolitan dialect. Knowing standard Italian only gets you so far! Same thing happens with German music–a good portion of it is sung in a Bavarian dialect that is significantly different from standard Hochdeutsch German.

What Accordionists Can Learn From a Ballpark Organist

Why am I posting about a recent interview with Josh Kantor, the organ player for the Boston Red Sox, on an accordion blog?

Well for one, back in my music school days, the Red Sox and I were neighbors. My apartment was right next to Fenway Park, and on game nights you could open the windows to let in the sounds of that historic stadium:  The echo of the announcer, the cheering of the crowd, and yes, the music of that organ. So there’s a personal nostalgia factor here right off the bat (so to speak).

That row of brownstones in the foreground was once home to Chez Jeff. (Source: Melikamp/Wikicommons)

Somewhere in that row of brownstones in the foreground is my old apartment. Wonder if Carlos is still the Super there? (Photo Source: Melikamp, Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, how can anyone not post about something baseball-related after that amazing World Series that wrapped up last night? (Go Cubbies!)

Third, it’s interesting to note how baseball organists face many of the same challenges we accordionists do as players of perhaps old-fashioned-seeming instruments in a modern world. Kantor’s solution? Honor the old, but mix in plenty of the new:

 I’ve done a lot of study and research about the history of ballpark organ music in Boston and in other cities. [I] have tried to borrow from and preserve the best and most beloved traditions of that, as well as updating it and having it evolve and be this thing that’s relevant in the modern age, whether it’s through playing newer songs or taking requests or whatever the thing is.

Then there’s this quote, which really jumped out at me:

I play pretty much entirely by memory and by ear. There was a time in my life as a child when I was pretty good at reading sheet music, but I just haven’t kept up with it, and those skills have kind of deteriorated. But I have a lot of ear training, so I’m usually able to hear a song and play it back, which is just something that comes from a lot of practice.

Yet more proof that having a “good ear” isn’t something you either have or don’t have. It’s not a magical gift. It’s a skill, like any other, and can be developed and improved by anyone willing to put in the work. (And it’s very useful for the working musician!)

Anyway, the whole interview is a great read. Check it out!

Stanley Dural Jr., 1947-2016

News this weekend of a big loss to the accordion world:  Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr., founder/leader of Buckwheat Zydeco, has died at the age of 68.

Like many accordion-players, Dural started out as keyboardist. His first group was Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers, a funk group that managed to attain some success and a hit record in the Louisiana area. But, as NPR reports, it was a later gig playing organ for zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier that ignited Dural’s love for the rollicking, accordion-driven musical style:

“We played for four hours nonstop… And I thought we had just got onstage; that’s how much energy he had projected. I wound up staying with Clifton over two years. I said, ‘Next band I get, I’ll be playing accordion.’

That “next band”, Buckwheat Zydeco, led to major-label record deals, Grammy and Emmy awards, worldwide tours, TV appearances, and collaborations with Eric Clapton, U2, Willie Nelson, and many others. Dural’s contribution to the popularity of zydeco cannot be overestimated.

After a struggle with lung cancer over the past several years, “Buckwheat” passed away at 1:32 Saturday morning–”keeping musician’s hours right to the bitter end,” as his manager put it.

His daughter has set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical and other expenses.

Your Annual Serving of Free Oktoberfest Sheet Music for Accordion!

Munich MaypoleThe 183rd Oktoberfest starts in Munich today, and, as in years past, I’m posting one of my arrangements for you to play on your accordion for the occasion. So I guess it’s officially a jeffjetton.com tradition!

This time, I picked an Oktoberfest song that I’ve seen referred to by several names:

  • Esel Leid
  • The Donkey Song (which is what Esel Leid means)
  • Hey Babariba
  • Iha Iha Iha Oh

Whatever you call it, it’s a fun, goofy song that’s easy for everyone to sing along to. Not to mention easy to memorize–it’s basically just a couple of riffs repeated over and over again. The only challenge is keeping your key signatures straight.

It’s also fairly easy to play, although you can make adjustments as you wish:

  • If you haven’t learned alternating bass yes, just play whatever 4/4 pattern you do know. Use the chord names written along the top as a guide.
  • If you haven’t learned 7th chords yet, just play the chords marked with a “7″ as regular major chords.
  • If you’re struggling with the harmony notes in the right note, just leave them out and play only the top note.

So give it a download, grab your accordion, and enjoy!

Esel Leid Thumbnail

Prost!

Remembering Toots Thielemans

Toots Thielemans

Photo credit: Ron van der Kolk via Wikimedia Commons


I’ve written here before about Toots Thielemans, the trailblazing jazz harmonica player. His passing last week at the age of 94 spurred many tributes, including one from NPR that mentions his accordionist roots:

Thielemans’ first instrument was actually the accordion; he was a child entertainer in the Brussels sidewalk cafe run by his parents. As a teenager, he took up harmonica and guitar, but he still didn’t dream of music as a career.

“But Louis Armstrong changed all that.”

He had heard jazz, and it became his passion [...] However, the harmonica was and is still best-known as a blues or folk instrument—or a toy—and he faced an uphill battle for acceptance.

It’s a battle that he won, hands down, as the Washington Post reported:

It was Mr. Thielemans’s inimitable technique and distinctive sound on the chromatic harmonica, an instrument that he single-handedly proved could hold its own in the jazz repertory, for which he will be remembered.

“He has a level of virtuosity that you don’t have to make excuses for, you don’t have to put an asterisk on Toots. . . . You don’t have to say, ‘He’s great — for a harmonica player,’ ” said jazz critic Gary Giddins, who spoke as part of a 2006 New York University jazz master class with Mr. Thielemans. “He can sit up there with Dizzy and doesn’t have to take an apology because of the instrument. That’s the genius of the whole thing.”

Any musician who plays jazz on a “non-standard” instrument, whether it’s harmonica, violin, ukulele, or (of course) accordion, owes some debt of gratitude to Toots, who showed us that the most unlikely of instruments can still swing.

Paris Musette

Photo credit: Shawn Lipowski via Wikimedia Commons

If I were to close my eyes right now and imagine myself at an outdoor cafe in Paris, there would, I’m sure, be a certain sort of music playing in the background. I bet you know the kind I’m talking about: Charming, romantic, maybe a little jazzy, and heavy on the accordion. Music that sounds like fresh croissants smell.

That’s a style of music called “musette”, and many accordion players (myself included) love it in the same way–and for many of the same reasons–that banjo players love bluegrass and harmonica players love the blues. It’s tailor-made for our instrument, fun to play, and sounds great!

For a deeper look–and listen–into musette, here’s Jean-Pierre Beaurenaut’s 1993 documentary Paris Musette, which traces the genre from its start in the folk traditions of 19th-century rural France, through the influences of Italian immigrants, two world wars, and American jazz.

At least I think that’s what’s going on in the film. It’s in French, and mon français n’est pas très bon. But regardless of your own language skills, it’s still worth checking out if only for the great performances (both “live” and from archival recordings) and the vintage scenes:

 

Free Sheet Music for Accordion: The Irish Washerwoman

St. Patrick’s Day is coming soon, and if you’re an accordion player, you’re going to want to know an appropriate song or two. Well here’s arguably the single most famous Irish jig for you:

The Irish Washerwoman (pdf)

Granted, in certain “serious” Irish Traditional Music circles this tune is considered quite daggy and overplayed. (You wouldn’t want to start this one off in a session, for example.)

Elsewhere though, it’s an instantly-recognizable crowd-pleaser that’s perfect for setting the St. Patrick’s Day mood. It can be a lot of fun to play too!

In my arrangement, notice how the bass note usually doesn’t play in the second part of the measure unless you’re changing to a new chord there. That’s a good way to give the melody a bit of space while still providing a solid rhythm. And in this sort of music, the melody is king! (In fact you might want to omit the left hand entirely the first time through and only bring it in the second time around.)

Irish Underground

Looking for a unique way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day weekend? Why not come and spend a Saturday afternoon 333 feet below ground in a cave?

Bluegrass Underground Cave Photo

Yup, a freakin’ cave! How cool is that?

My friends the Nashville Celts will be putting on their trademark rousing show of Irish music and dance in the “volcano room” at Cumberland Caverns, as part of the Bluegrass Underground concert series.

They’ve once again invited me to join them on accordion. It should be a blast!

Tickets are apparently going fast, so grab ‘em while you can.