Throwing Your Hat Over the Fence

First of all, let me say that Brendan Leonard has a great blog called Semi-Rad that is well-worth a subscribe. It’s not a blog about playing music. On the surface, it’s about travel and outdoor adventuring. Lots of content about hiking, camping, climbing, and that sort of thing.

But at the core, it’s a blog about connecting with the world and with the fellow humans who live in it. It’s about setting challenges, improving yourself to a level where you can maybe meet them, dealing with failure along the way, and falling in love with the whole process.

So yeah, I guess it sort of is a blog about playing music.

Case in point is this post on The Power of a Fear-Based Fitness Plan, which starts with a question:

Have you ever committed to something you weren’t sure you could do, and then found yourself in the best shape of your life the week before that something happened?

I bet that some of the most furious bouts of woodshedding you’ve ever done–and largest resulting improvements in your musicianship–have been due to some sort of gig/audition/recital you’d managed to (perhaps ill-advisedly) commit to, and the sheer, waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-thinking-about-it terror of completely botching it in a spectacular, white-hot fireball of suck.

Wooden Fence

I’ve always heard this referred to as “throwing your hat over the fence”. It might be a tall fence, and you might not even know if it’s possible to climb over it. But if you ever want to see your hat again, well, you don’t have much of choice, do you?

I’ll be honest, I’ve lost a few hats doing this.

But it’s funny how those fences somehow seem to get a little shorter each time.

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.”

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!

Why We Call Notating Music “Engraving”

Whenever I need to whip up a musical example to use in one of my accordion student’s lessons, or a string arrangement for my wife’s quartet, or the free accordion music I post here now and then, I sit down at the computer and knock it out using notation software. I started out with Finale, then switched to Sibelius, and eventually became a huge fan of MuseScore, which has been my current go-to for the past several years.

MuseScoreScreenshotBut long ago, when I first learned to write notation back at Berklee, none of the above programs existed yet, so we did it by hand, with a pencil or pen, a straight-edge, and a pad of pre-lined notation paper.

I thought that was pretty old-school until I watched the video below. I always knew that notating music was sometimes called “engraving” (The notation options screen in Sibelius is called “engraving rules”, for example), but I never gave much thought as to how it got that name. Behold:



What Does an Accordion Cost?

If you’re interested in learning the accordion, one of the first questions you’re likely to have is “how much is an accordion anyway?”

Well… it depends.

Accordions come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, ages, conditions, and levels of quality, which leads to a pretty wide ranges of prices. That said, I’ve come up with a handy rule-of-thumb that will get you in the ballpark:

Jeff’s Law of Accordion Prices:  Take what you already know about cars and divide it by ten.

What’s a new car cost these days? Maybe $14,000 to $20,000 for a compact car or entry-level sedan? Something like $30,000 to $50,000 for the next step up? Over $100,000 for something really nice and luxurious?

Just divide those car prices by ten to get roughly-equivalent accordion prices. $1,400 to $2,000 will get you on the road with a decent, brand-new accordion from, say, Hohner’s “Bravo” line (the Hyundai Accents of the accordion world). A step up from that, such as a full-sized Weltmeister, will put you in the $3,000 to $4,000 range. The high-end brands such as Pigini, Borsini, Petosa, Beltuna, etc., will be over $5,000 new, and often even in the five-figures.


Buying a brand-new accordion priced under $400 would therefore be like buying a Yugo.

Okay, so how about a used accordion? The same ten-to-one ratio applies. Buying a $300-$500 used accordion is similar to buying a $3,000 to $5,000 used car. It’ll get you from point A to point B, but probably not in comfort or style. Still, it might not be a bad choice for a “new driver”, especially if you don’t mind the occasional repair bill.

That $100 squeezebox at the yard sale? Like a $1,000 used car, only mechanics should buy it. Expect major problems that will cost a lot to fix if you can’t do them yourself.

How to Promote the Accordion

It seems that the accordion has been making a “comeback” for the last 30 years, and yet never quite arriving. Whether this latest surge in visibility is the sign of a genuine upswing or just a passing hipster fad remains to be seen. Nonetheless, I feel that accordion players do have a bit of a duty to be ambassadors of the instrument and to do what we can to keep the accordion relevant.

Along those lines, Accordion Americana has a piece on Ten Things You Can Do to Promote the Accordion, which I encourage you to give a quick read. I don’t quite agree with every point (for example, the accordion industry actually did attempt to position the accordion as a “rock-and-roll” instrument back in the ’60s, to little avail), but the overall point is spot-on: “The accordion has to participate in current music to survive.”

Note that this doesn’t mean that we need to merely shoehorn the accordion into existing popular music. I suspect that, if the accordion ever does make a true comeback, it won’t be because of songs like Stereo Love. It will have to be something that incorporates the accordion as a necessary component from the start… perhaps a modernized revival of a traditional accordion-based style (Neo French Musette, anyone?), or maybe even an entirely new style of music entirely.

These are a Few of My Favorites Things

You might have noticed the appearance of a new “links” section on this website. I’ve finally collected in one place a list of the various things I wind up recommending to people from time-to-time.

I’ve included some of my preferred accordion music books, a short list of good accordion retailers and repair shops, CDs that are worth a listen, etc. There’s even the make and model of my favorite instrument of student torture (my metronome) for anyone who is curious. Check it out!

Bright Copper Kettle

With apologies to Julie Andrews, my list does not include any bright copper kettles. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Practice Tips from Itzhak Perlman

Do your musicianship a favor and take three minutes to hear what violin legend Itzak Perlman has to say about practicing:

“I always say ‘practice slowly,’ and the reason that I say ‘practice slowly’ is this: If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly.”

I’m a big fan of slow practice too, and I’ll probably talk more about it in later posts. In the meantime, give it a shot the next time you hit a troublesome passage. The slower, the better. A metronome can help “rein you in” if you need it.