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.

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.

Stars Wars: An Object Lesson in How Music Makes a Difference

This week, after 32 long years, there’s finally a new Star Wars movie coming out! (“Prequels? What prequels?” is my official stance.)

And yes, I Fandangoed my tickets two months ago and will be going Thursday night! I might even dress up as one of my favorite characters. Anyone know where I can get a Max Rebo costume on short notice?

Anyway, I also thought this might be a good opportunity to post a couple of videos for the occasion. We’ll start with the first “teaser” trailer for the original movie (what’s now called Episode IV: A New Hope, but was just plain-old “Star Wars” to us back then). Even casual fans will notice a few differences from the finished film:

The trailer was released in December, 1976–five months before the movie came out. So the logo is all wrong, and the special effects aren’t quite finished. Check out the plain white energy blades on the lightsabers and those blasters that don’t shoot bolts of light yet!

But most glaringly, it’s missing John Williams’ iconic, Oscar-winning score, which wouldn’t even be recorded until several months later, in March of 1977. Instead, we hear a “temp track” of generic classical music (apparently based on Vivaldi’s Winter).

Boooooring!

If you knew nothing about Star Wars except that trailer, would you want to go see it? Without that classic, triumphant dun-dah-duntada-duuuun-daaaah, would you expect this weird little space movie to become the enormous worldwide success that it did? I don’t think I would.

And if you need more proof of the huge impact John Williams has on the world of Star Wars, check out this hilariously awkward look at what the final Throne Room scene would be like if the music stopped waaaay too early:

Yup. Music sure can make a difference.

EDITED TO ADD:  But hey, don’t take my word for it! I just found this great audio clip from a recent ClassicFM interview , where Harrison Ford himself talks about that wonderful music…

Classical Music Musings from GroupMuse

If you haven’t heard of something called a “house concert”, well, it’s pretty much just what it sounds like:  A small-scale musical performance in someone’s home or apartment, with maybe a few dozen or so audience members sitting on sofas and chairs or just plopped down on the floor. Usually a hat is passed around at the end to collect money. A pretty cool idea in this age of giant festivals and Enormodome arena shows!

Over the past few years, GroupMuse has brought people together to put on over a thousand classical music house concerts around the world. They have a Kickstarter campaign to help support and expand their mission. It’s in the last few weeks, and I encourage you to consider backing it if you can (I have!)

Anyway, as a tie-in to the Kickstarter, the founder of GroupMuse did an insightful “Ask Me Anything” interview recently. A few highlights…

The truth is, when classical music institutions are only beholden to the patronage class, the experience and atmosphere is invariably a reflection of that class. We want the experience to be an active reflection of the component members–listeners and performers [...] so that it doesn’t just reflect the priorities of benefactors who can’t be alienated, for fear that un-diversified support would dry up.

“Classical music needs saving!” is actually the opposite of what we should rally around, because if you say “classical music needs saving” to someone who doesn’t yet care about or identify with classical music, it’s kind of like saying “blacksmithing needs saving!” The response is often, “I don’t care; why not just let it die?”

The rallying cry needs to be “Our world needs saving, and classical music can do that!”

From a social perspective, classical music works so well just because it’s so scalable. No equipment, no amplifiers. All you need is four chairs and a floor!

You can read the whole shebang for yourself over on Reddit.

 

Happy Birthday Bach!

330 years ago today, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany. During his own lifetime, he was renowned as a organist, teacher, and… well, that was about it. It wasn’t until about 50 years after his death that his popularity and influence as a composer to begin to slowly grow.

Bach PortraitWhich is crazy if you think about. That would be like people today considering Paul McCartney to be merely a good bass player, with it taking until, say, the year 2100 before anyone started to think “Hmmm… you know these songs of his are pretty good too!”

But can you play Bach’s music on the accordion?

Absolutely! For example, there’s a nice, intermediate-level arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in Gary Meisner’s Light Classical Pieces For Accordion. You’ll find an arrangement of the famous “Toccata in D Minor” in Book Eight of the Palmer-Hughes accordion method.

Palmer-Hughes also published an entire standalone book of accordion arrangements of Bach’s music. (That’s my own copy opened up in the background of this website’s banner image!) Busso Music still sells reprints of the book, divided into three volumes, but used originals sometimes crop up on eBay now and then.

Ah, but should you play Bach on the accordion?

I would imagine that there are some classical purists who would deem the lowly accordion–an instrument perhaps better-known for polkas and barn dances–unworthy of the sublime music of Johann Sebastian Bach, not to mention woefully historically inaccurate. To which I can only answer with some words from Dr. Palmer himself:

J. S. Bach wrote as much music for the accordion as he did for the piano! Neither instrument was in use in Bach’s era.

Bach was not as particular about which instruments played his music as a few modern Bach enthusiasts are. He placed his stamp of approval firmly and indelibly on the art of transcription.

He transcribed the Orchestral Concerti of Vivaldi for organ and harpsichord solos. He rewrote his own compositions for all conceivable instruments and combinations of instruments in existence in his day. He simplified them so his children could play them.

He transcribed his own vocal works for organ, his organ works for string quartets, and even made a flute solo out of one of them. I cannot believe that the Old Master himself would have objected to accordion arrangements of some of his works.

So there you have it! Feel free to celebrate one of this planet’s greatest composers by listening to some of his music played on accordion, or better yet, by playing some of it yourself!

An Interview with an Accordionist

Last night’s broadcast of the radio program “Fresh Air” featured a wonderful interview with New York accordionist Will Holshouser. If you missed it, you can listen to the whole thing over at NPR (or even skim over the transcript if that’s more your style).

As is typical for host Terry Gross, she goes beyond a mere “let’s plug your new album” interview and has Holshouser give an audio tour/demonstration of the instrument, as well as delve into the history of French Musette and other accordion folk traditions.

I especially liked how Gross led with a confession of her own accordion “attitude adjustment”:

When I was growing up, I thought of the accordion as a pretty corny and annoying instrument. Accordion meant “The Lawrence Welk Show,” bad bar mitzvah bands and–worse yet–my father’s accordion lessons. But I wish I still had my father’s accordion because I now realize what a remarkable instrument it is.