Bellows and Fingering
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We considered discussing the bellows and fingering separately
but they are inseparable. The bellows is to the bellows free reed
instrument as the bow is to the violin. Bellows technique is at least
half of learning the accordion. This is especially true of diatonic
accordion, unlike chromatic button accordion or piano accordion, since
diatonic accordion systems such as Accordion Conjunto Norteño
requires the player to reverse bellows direction to obtain certain notes.
An additional complexity is the instrument allows for many choices
since many individual notes are found three times on the instrument.
Generally speaking, while rapid and frequent bellows reversals provide
some of the flavor of the smaller one-row and two-row instruments, the
three-row instrument reduces the number of bellows reversals in favor
of long runs in one bellows direction. They are designed for that
purpose, and furthermore, the weight introduced by such design militates
againts rapid and frequent bellows reversals.
On the other hand, the power of the (relatively) huge bellows of the
three-row instrument allows it to drive the right side. The right side
rocks as the bellows punctuates; it is this motion of the bellows, operated
by the left hand, driving the right hand side that gives the characteristic
punch to the sound of the instrument. Each note is enunciated by the
bellows , even to the point of imparting some of the motion which results
in the fingers of the right hand depressing the buttons.
Holding the Instrument
Generally, the instrument is held suspended either by
one strap from the player's right shoulder, or by two straps, one
on each shoulder.
The player is aiming for the compromise between stability and flexibility
which allows him or her to enunciate each note with the bellows
without losing control of the right hand button board.
- The two-strap position offers more stability, as the instrument lies
upright against the player's chest.
- In this position, the right side stays mostly stable while the left
side moves out and in.
- The one-strap position (from the right shoulder) causes the instrument
to tend to tilt left if the player is standing.
- Some players prefer this position
- The instrument draws more easily.
- But the right side moves about a bit more.
- One-strap, player seated, bellows arched counterclockwise down to
the left side resting on the left knee is the position in which earlier
instruments were played, but few players play that way today, mostly
for reasons of stagecraft.
The left hand curls about the bellows as if to play the
bass buttons, but rarely does play them in modern practice. However,
feel free to do so if you can work out a style! Music of the sea sounds
very nice with the bass buttons. There's no law against using the bass
buttons; it's only that the combo/conjunto styles of music which most
employ the Tex-Mex accordion have drifted away from use of the bass buttons,
as their sound tends to be honkily obtrusive when other baritone and
bass instruments such as the guitar/bass/bajo are present.
The right hand is arched over the button board and pivots on the
(sometimes right down to the base of the thumb). The right hand takes
some quick runs and long reaches as it glides over the buttons, sometimes
arching elegantly and pressing the buttons rather deliberately, sometimes
sliding across the buttons like a runner sliding for home plate (with
the side of the sliding finger hitting the next button). The button tops
are curved to allow sliding from one button to the adjacent button.
Unlike piano accordion fingering, it is quite common to depress two
and even three buttons with different parts of one finger, somewhat
like a bar chord on a guitar. (A draw V7 cord in the middle octave offers
scope to this technique.)
The difference in right hand fingering between button accordion
and piano accordion is that:
- Button playing requires you to rotate the wrist to reach buttons a
radial distance from a pivot point on ball of the right thumb.
- Piano accordion has you slide your hand along the keyboard while the
each finger curves about a line perpendicular to the length of the
The player's right thumb is applied to the side of the keyboard.
There the thumb offers a pivot both to the elevated right wrist and
to the right side of the instrument during bellows reversal. Most of
the damping of right-side motion is supplied by the player's chest resting
against the right side; the tip of the thumb is a pivot point where the
remainder of the energy is converted into a rocking between the hand and
The thumb strap, which is disappearing from many models, is
there to help prevent the player's thumb from slipping along the side
of the keyboard. The thumb strap is not a yoke under which the
thumb support the weight of the instrument. You'll injure your hand
if you are in the habit of suspending much of the weight of the instrument
from the thumb strap.
On models without a thumb strap, the keyboard is curved in a
fashion to support the use of the thumb as a pivot as it traverses a
short range of that curve. Even with the thumb strap, the player constantly
is adjusting the thumb position up and down the right side somewhat.
Try arpeggiating a four-note chord back and forth on the home
row, not by pistoning down the fingers as on a piano accordion, but
by flexing the fingers as the wrist rotates on its thumb pivot.
Thumb around back of the fingerboard is not best as it imparts
stability but is an inferior thumb position as regards pivot. You
will have to hunt for the best position for your style. You may adjust,
move, or remove the thumb strap.
You can try playing using the thumb as a playing finger on the
keys themselves, resting the instrument more firmly against the torso
instead of using the thumb as a pivot. This works but is an inferior
playing position. When the thumb is a pivot, the periodic motion of the
right side in response to the bellows is channelled into finger-to-button
impact. When the thumb is a playing finger much of the energy imparted by
the bellows is dissipated and damped by the chest. Thumb-playing tends
to change the attack of all the notes, making it difficult to drive the
instrument between the bellows and the right hand, reducing the characteristic
crispness of the instrument.
You may be compelled to make some long stretches in fingering.
If you are descending on a G/C/F from D' above high
C' in the key of D, it's a long reach back to the draw
C#' on the helper accidental on the F row. And the C major
chord inversion C-E-G-C' , while an easy consecutive
four buttons on the press, is another long stretch on the draw. Arch
your hand over the fingerboard, slide the pivot somewhat if necessary
and you can make it. Gently, don't strain your wrist in your zeal for
playing! This instrument requires of the player a certain amount of agility.
Draw versus Press
Note the difference between the press and the draw
note arrangements of the International fingering system employed
by the instrument. The following statements about the availability
of notes on the press and draw only apply to the main notes of the system,
exclusive of the helper accidentals:
E.g., on a C row the press notes are:
- There are three (3) unique press scale steps on each row.
- There are four (4) unique draw scale steps.
C E G
and the draw notes are:
D F A B
E.g., on a G/C/F instrument the press reeds do not
contain F# or Bb. For more information
on fingering of specific passages, see the sections:
- You can get any note on the draw
- There are two notes you cannot get on the press
Since, as we have noted, the instrument is designed in
contrast to the one-row melodeon to allow long runs in one bellows
direction, it becomes quickly apparent that the draw direction is
somewhat more important than the press direction. Draw technique is
perhaps too important in some schools; it is good to remember the press
direction is also important. But generally speaking, when the instrument
is marking time with the chords, it is often going in the press direction,
or predominately in the press direction, in order to prepare for a melodic
run on the draw without necessitating the use of the
It is best to anticipate your needs and plan out and practice
up your performance in terms of the bellows position at the start of
each phrase and range during the execution of each phrase. Nonetheless,
you will often find yourself using the bellows release, since not all
musical phrases will express themselves in a manner convenient to the bisonoric
instrument in your hands. You can still anticipate your needs by
using the bellows release not as a pause in your playing, but as a
means of accellerating the progress of the bellows as you play .
The goal is to reach an appropriate reversal position prior to starting
the next phrase in the opposite direction.
In other words, if you are anticipating a long draw run,
while you are on the press, you may partly open the bellows release
while still playing in order to make the press phrase end nearer
to full bellows compression. Thus, you will have plenty of room to draw
and not need to open the bellows release in the middle of your draw
run and press silently to recover more draw room.
In a "performance emergency" when you have miscalculated,
you may sometimes toss in a few notes in the opposite bellows direction
to "sneak back" to the position you need to finish a run, rather than
be silent for a beat while using the bellows release. Probably a lot of
nice licks heard on the instrument are discovered in this fashion, with
the player improvising extemporaneously when compelled to regain bellows
Advanced players will note the different physical quality of
draw and press strokes. Draw strokes are more smooth and powerful than
press strokes, while press strokes can be more punchy and puffy. Piano
accordion construction and playing technique go a long way to minimize
this difference, but button players instead take advantage of the difference.
See, for example the section on
in the chapter on advanced technique
. It is true however that advanced piano accordion players also take
advantage of the different quality of draw and press. It's merely easier
and more obvious how to do so with a bisonoric, diatonic button instrument.
The Zen of ...
If there is a "Zen of" playing the instrument, it is that
bellows and keying are one. Bellows and keying are one because
the instrument is played between the palm and fingertips of the bellows
hand and the keyboard hand. The bounce is being provided by the left hand.
When you feel this unity between bellows and button, you have become a
button player and can acheive the characterstic sound of the instrument
that distinguishes it from the squarer sound of the piano accordion.
The pressing or drawing of the bellows is tightly coupled with the
fingering of the buttons for the accenting of the notes.
Fluttering, double-stops, and ascending and descending bellows reversals
are achieved by a combination of bellows motion and some motion
of the fingers. It can't be emphasized too much that the heart of the
instrument resides in the bellows!
Tips for practice
- Expand your horizons! Practice melodies all three ways:
- press runs (to whatever extent possible, with draws where necessary)
- draw runs (to whatever extent possible, with presses where
- melodeon style on one row (to whatever extent possible) with
- If you happen to pause when you have made a mistake during
a practice session, use the bellows release and return the bellows
to the position it should be in for the passage at the point at which
you intend to resume.
- It is not enough to hit the right notes in the right bellows
direction; you must hit the right note in the right bellows direction
at the right point in the bellows traversal or your phrasing will be
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