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The discussion now moves from the theoretical to the physical aspects of playing the Club System Accordion.

General Considerations

There are essentially two ways to employ the Club System instrument in music:
  1. Playing in the home key and companion key and their relative minors
  2. Playing chromatically
We now examine both these usage modes.

Playing in the home key and companion key

Both the home key (e.g., C on a C/F instrument) and the companion key (e.g., F on a C/F instrument) are powerful. To the easy playability of a two-row diatonic accordion on which the scale both the home and companion keys can be played entirely on the draw is added the convience of all the accidentals being present. It's almost as if the Club System right hand were both sides of a 30-button Anglo-Irish Concertina folded into one, though there are some differences in the placement of the helper accidentals. In addition to this one-handed concertina on the right hand, you have the bass buttons on the left side should you choose to use them.

The bass buttons are especially useful in solo performance. While lacking the completeness of a Stradella bass system , they are adequate for many types of music while leaving the left side of the instrument light in accordance with the exigencies of a bisonoric instrument whose bellows direction must frequently be reversed. Partly due to the layout of the bass buttons, often it's easier to play a tune in the companion key than the in the home key.

The helpers also contribute to the the ease of playing in the companion key. It is possible to play the companion key entirely on the press.

Most European and New World folk and traditional music can be played in either the home or companion key or both. This includes those ethnic traditions with modal and minor scales, as well as the more exotic scales, such as the dromoi ("DHRAW-me") of Greek Rembetiko music. If you are a performer of Yiddish music, or of any Eastern European tradition musical, you will probably find both the left and right hands of the Club System instrument quite congenial in the key of D minor (the minor relative to the companion row).

Playing chromatically

The Club System instrument can be viewed as almost being two different instruments. In addition to the "one-handed Anglo-Irish Concertina" described above , it's a fully chromatic instrument on the draw within a fairly wide range (about two octaves). So it's also sort of a one-handed Bandoneon. It's amazing the fluency with which this diatonic instrument can render jazz standards when played as a chromatic instrument.

Chromatic performances stretch the player's fingering and bellows technique. Getting those notes to hit just right as one switches bellows direction to reach them without the ear hearing the bellows reversal between segments of a chromatic passage is the apex of Club System technique. Doing this correctly requires careful planning with regard to which notes can be achieved on the press, possibly with some assistance of the bellows release, to permit a few press notes to allow recovery of bellows position for the next draw portion of the passage.

Holding the Instrument

The right side of a Club System instrument is fairly stable, but rocks as the bellows oscillates, and that rocking motion is combined with the motion of the player's fingers to achieve pressing the keys. In any case, the object is to balance the instrument, in such a fashion as to allow the right hand to finger reliably and the left arm to provide a graceful and accurate bellows motion.

The instrument should be worn suspended from a pair of appropriately sized shoulder straps so that the right side rests against the chest of the player, centered but more or less on the left breast rather than on the diaphragm. The author is male, so he asked a noted female Club System player for advice for women players:
If you have the shoulder straps properly adjusted, the bellows should be off the breast, to the left. The part of the accordion that hits the left breast is the back of the keyboard, same as with any piano accordion. Your chin should be directly above the keyboard (over the black keys, on a PA, over the buttons, on a button box). Playing in this fashion really builds up the left arm muscles!

However, large-breasted women may still find it uncomfortable to play any type of accordion, as the left breast does get compressed somewhat, even if not pinched in the bellows (which should only happen with VERY small accordions - like my two Hohner Lilliputs and my Hohner Imperial 24 bass, which is truly a midget-sized instrument, about 2/3 the size of a typical 12 bass.) When I play my smaller accordions, I lengthen the right shoulder strap to get as much of the bellows off my breast as possible, and I never go bra-less :)
- Wendy Morrison

The Bellows

Each note played is enunciated by the bellows.

The bellows is to the bellows free reed instrument as the bow is to the violin. The bellows arches somewhat as it is opened, usually with the left side describing the beginning of a counterclockwise circle away from the right side. The sensitivity of the player to the feel of the pressure in the bellows is one of the most important contributors to good sound from the instrument, even its long life. The player is striving to provide just the pressure in either direction to deliver just the right amount of air to the reeds currently actuated.

For a negative analogy we have the pump-type church organ or the bagpipes in which air is delivered to the reeds from a reservoir. The accordion bellows, although it possesses some latency, is by contrast not primarily a reservoir. Rather, it is a direct delivery system. The speed of the bellows and pressure of the player's hand on the bellows is of interest at every instant, just as the speed, angle and pressure of the bow is of interest at every instant to the violinist.

The Keys (Buttons)

Diatonic button accordion technique presupposes much more motion of the right side of the instrument than does piano accordion technique. Piano accordion's right side must remain very stable because of the lever nature of the keys. Button accordion's round buttons allow the button to be attacked from any angle. Additionally, more frequent bellows reversals are necessary on diatonic accordion than on the piano accordion.

The result is that the slight rocking of the right side is taken into account in the technique. The player is aiming for the compromise between stability and flexibility which allows him or her to play vigorously without losing control of the right hand button board. 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 button accordion. 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.

As with the violin bow and the playing fingers, the bellows collaborates with the key playing fingers to keep your playing in time and correctly accented.

The Right Hand

The buttons are arched to allow the fingers to skate across the button board. The precise fingering in playing a passage is very flexible. Whereas the piano accordion keyboard is linear and uneven (there are several key sizes), the layout of keys on the Club System button board is perfectly regular. Playing proceeds between three rows. There are any number of ways to finger a passage, and player finds it easy to hop to another hand position or glide or walk along the buttons with one or two fingers.

The Right Thumb

The player's right thumb is alternately free and 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 instrument. The edge of the keyboard is curved in a fashion to support the use of the thumb as a pivot as it traverses a short range. This is unfortunately a coarse description of what is in practice a graceful balance exercise. Possibly the picture on the cover of this web book will provide some guidance.

The Left Hand

The left hand has three tasks:
  1. Operate the bellows
  2. Play the bellows release
  3. Play the bass keys

Operate the bellows

In contrast to concertina, where both sides take part in the motion of the bellows, accordion requires the left hand to operate the bellows. All the expressiveness of the instrument is in the bellows technique.

Because of the compressibility of air, there is a slight offset between bellows motion and the buildup of pressure. In these days of electronic instruments, it is occasionally surprising to a novice player to discover the non-instaneity of the bellows.

The goal in bellows technique is the delivery of the precise amount of air to the precise reeds whose valves are open. Smaller treble reeds require less air than larger bass reeds. Also, the angle at which the bellows is moved builds up localities of greater pressure within the bellows itself. It requires great skill acquired through much practice and experimentation to deliver the sweet sound which the listener expects from the instrument.

Perhaps there is one solid rule for bellows playing: if it feels good, it's right.

Play the bellows release

The bellows release when depressed allows the intake into or explusion of air from the bellows without having the air pass thru the reeds.

You should never press or draw the bellows unless you are either:
Failing to observe this simple and obvious rule can damage the (expensive) bellows of your accordion.

The bellows release allows you to end your performance by closing the bellows without playing any extra notes.

It also serves to help you change the bellows position if you need to do so in playing a passage.

It is best to anticipate your performance needs by taking into consideration as you practice:
Although you will learn to balance use of press and draw notes (since there are many duplicates to choose from), you will in any case find yourself using the bellows release occasionally during play, since not all musical phrases will express themselves in a manner convenient to the bisonoric instrument in your hands. When you use the bellows release in playing, use it not as a breather pause in your playing, but as a means of accelerating the progress of the bellows as you continue play. The goal is to reach an appropriate reversal position prior to starting the next phrase in the opposite direction.

Solomon Smulewitz
Solomon Smulewitz (1863-1940), the author's great-grandfather, and the composer of over 500 Yiddish popular songs including Churbm Titantic (The Titanic Disaster), Ellis Island , and the still-popular Brivele der Mamen (A Letter to Your Mother).

Play the bass keys

There are many styles of music to which the bass keys can contribute. Arrangements in the author's repertoire using the bass buttons range from folk tunes such as Acres of Clams to ethnic tunes like A Brivele der Mamen [A Letter to Your Mother] and Kaitsis [The Boatman] to acid rock tunes like Nights in White Satin to modern pop hits like You Were Meant for Me. On the other hand, jazz standards such as Alone Together and Deep Purple go beyond what Club System bass is able to deliver and one performs such tunes pleasingly in right-hand-only arrangements, perhaps with guitar accompaniment.

It's easy to learn to play the bass buttons, though their bisonoric nature may puzzle the novice. When you desire a particular chord, you have to remember to release if the bellows needs to go in the opposite direction for a note or two!

When using the bass buttons, it is often easier to play a song in the key of the companion row than the in the key of the home row. The two most important reasons that this is so are interrelated, and they are as follows:
  1. The companion key can be played entirely on the press.
  2. The tonic chord is on the press and the subdominant and dominant seventh chords are on the draw.
Also note that one can obtain extra minor (actually minor seventh) chords by pressing (on the C/F instrument in this example) the bass A with the chord C (forming Am7) or the bass G with the chord Bb (forming Gm7).

In any case, the bass buttons, when useful at all, are mostly useful in a solo or duet performance. In a full combo or orchestral arrangement, they are obtrusive and clumsy. Furthermore, as a general rule, your bellows technique will be more fluid if you follow the Tex-Mex style of abandoning the bass buttons. Yet bass button technique should not be completely ignored as you learn the instrument, because in solo passages they can add a charmingly wistful and nostalgic air to your performance.

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Copyright © 2003 Jacques Delaguerre