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Fifty-two years ago I picked up an instrument for the first time and played it immediately. Why was that possible? Was it because I was a gifted and talented kid at age twelve? Was that so very unusual for those times? The answer is NO to both questions. The answer lies in the very simple fact that myself and many other people grew up in those days listening to music from birth. We learned the music first! Over the years our technique would continue to develop and refine itself as we continued to play, but the fact remains that the music was learned first. That was, and remains today, the only logical approach to learning music by ear.

After thirty-eight years of attempting to teach Cajun music, I have begun to notice a new series of problems beginning to emerge involving learning music by ear. The main problem is that the sequence of steps in the learning process is illogical. The other problem is that beginning players attempt to adapt the instrument to their lack of understanding of the basic mechanics of the instrument instead of adapting themselves to the instrument.


Learn the music first! To do this, you don’t need an instrument. You do need to listen to music (CD, cassettes, LPs, live performances, etc.) until you can instantly recall each note in the melody correctly. This may take an hour, or it may take a month. But whatever time it does take, it’s no use to proceed to the next level of actually putting the instrument in your hands until you have mastered the melody in your head.

The manner in which you will orally recite the melody by whistling, humming or singing is identically the same as the manner in which you will attempt to play it. It’s the same analogy as sitting down at a typewriter and attempting to type a word when you can’t ever spell it. Committing the melody to memory and being able to recall it instantaneously has the same significance as a spelling class being a pre-requisite to a typing class. There are no lessons, instructional materials or magic buttons available to help in committing the melody to memory note for note anymore than there was when you had to learn your multiplication tables or “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America”. You have to do the work. No one can learn it for you.

After you have mastered the melody line of whatever tune you want to play and can recall it instantaneously note for note, then and only then are you ready to pick up an instrument. Now you are confronted with taking each note that you hear in your head and attempting to reproduce that particular sound using your hands on button, string, key, etc. If you hear the note in your head, then it should be a simple process of “hunt and peck” on the instrument until you can find the particular sound (note) that matches up to the one in your head. After you have located its hiding place, you then try hunting around for the second, then the third, forth, fifth and so on until you have found all of the notes' hiding places.

After you have discovered all of the notes hiding places and can find them immediately without hesitation, then you will discover that you are now playing the instrument. Unfortunately, learning the basic melody line does not usually sound like a regional style and a lot more effort and study will be needed to make the melody sound like whatever region it comes from. I don’t advocate learning music by looking at a series of numbers, because there is something much more important than simply the choice of notes. That something is called rhythm, and rhythm can not be learned by looking at a series of numbers. It is much more important to the style of the music than any choice of notes. However, for the sake of a visual understanding of what is actually happening, assuming that the student has the correct rhythm lets look at the melody of Love Bridge Waltz. Note that a number with ‘ indicates “draw”.  

Simple melody line (no particular regional style):

9 notes           7’6’6’7’67667                      4 draw, 5 push  

Cajun style (adding notes above and below the melody note):

16 notes          756’7’6’56’7’5’6’5’57667       8 draw, 8 pushing  

Now you are on the road to playing Cajun style music.    


Adapt yourself to the instrument instead of trying to adapt the instrument to you. This doesn’t mean that you have to develop biceps like Arnold Schwarzenegger, while you continue to wrestle with the accordion. It means that you must learn to play “with” and not “against” the instrument. Physical strength or tight, springy bellows are not a concern when you have developed the proper technique.

Bellow-makers in Europe have been making bellows for hundreds of years and have devoted a lot of research and development to the craft. Bellows of today are very airtight and do have a springy quality, the quality most professionals require. These bellows are designed like they are for a reason. Likewise, much attention has been focused on reed-making to produce reeds that respond with very little air consumption, meaning that YOU DON’T NEED TO EXTEND THE BELLOWS MORE THAN A FEW INCHES TO PLAY MOST SONGS.

It would seem logical, therefore, that if someone’s playing technique involves extending the bellows to the point that they become stiff, wouldn’t that indicate that they are using the wrong approach?? It would also seem logical that the cause should be corrected instead of continuing to deal with the symptoms. If resilient bellows work for everyone else on any type of accordion, wouldn’t that also indicate that the player’s entire approach be re-examined? The tendency of the bellows to want to close back upon themselves is a desirable quality and should not be considered a problem. The following are helpful hints in managing the accordion.

First, since button accordion involves a push/pull system having half the notes in the push direction and the other half on the draw direction, it shouldn’t be necessary to extend out the bellow more than a few inches. Secondly, the air control button on the left side of the instrument is very important for regulating the amount of air volume within the instrument. Improper use of this very important feature will result in either having too much volume (resulting from having extended the bellows out too far) or finding oneself in a predicament known as “hyperventilating”, which means that while in the act of playing a song, the melody calls for a few more notes on the push, but the bellows have now become completely closed.  It now becomes impossible to play the required push notes because the bellows are fully closed. Third, and most important of all, is learning Cajun style. I would advise you to try playing a song with one of the bellow straps closed, so that you can only extend the bellows out a few inches. Playing a song like this without proper use of the air volume regulator would result in extending the bellows out so far that it would be very tiring for the player. Utilizing the air regulator makes it possible to play the melody with one bellow strap attached in the closed position. Let’s return for a moment to the melody of Love Bridge Waltz, which was discussed earlier. Line A is the first part of the melody as you would sing it. It is comprised of 9 notes. Since there is almost the same amount of notes on the pull (4) as on the push (5), that would indicate that if you start playing the tune with 2 inches of bellows open, you should be able to complete that line with the same 2 inches of bellows open. Line B is structurally the same as line A, but by playing above and below the actual note as required in line A, you now make the melody more articulate (not just a brief summary of the tune). And now it begins to sound Cajun. The other problem I have heard expressed is the inability to hang onto the accordion while playing it. As with the misconception that the bellows are too stiff, I’ve seen many attempts at dealing with the symptoms instead of trying to determine the cause. An extra harness is not required if the instrument is held correctly and neither do you have to pump iron to hang onto it. Using the correct technique to hold the instrument will also result in proper hand placement, which will in turn enable the player to have a comfortable reach of the entire keyboard regardless of whether you have a small hand or a large paw.

For a closer look at solutions to your problems refer to the instructional video The Gospel Accordion to Marc Vol. 2. For CDs and videos of Cajun music to help you on the road to easier playing, please visit our website, Wishing you many happy years of playing.

Marc Savoy

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