My Button Box Odyssey

I’ve had this button box for almost 2 years. For ages I wanted to play the button accordion, but never thought it was a practical idea as the fiddle is hard enough to play and requires enough commitment…..and why bother with 2 impossible instruments when 1 is enough. That’s at least how I used to think. But then I decided life is too short; and while this trite thought would send most people to book the Carnival cruise of their dreams, or finance that fancy sports car, my life-is-too-short thought process led to the button box.

So, 2 years ago when I decided to take the button box plunge, I was confronted with one sad truth: button accordions are very expensive; the good ones are made in Italy and Ireland, and the strong Euro made them simply unaffordable to me. So I did some research and contacted an accordion maker and repair guy in Florida, Michael Usui of Irish Dancemaster Accordions and asked for his suggestions. He makes a very affordable Irish button accordion, which sounds just as good as  fancy Italian boxes at 1/3 the price; but he said if I could find an old Hohner on Ebay, he could swap out the reeds and set me up with a good starter box for even less.

So with some effort I found a Hohner Pokerwork (the photo above) that was actually made in Germany (not China, like some Hohners are these days): everyone who sees it says it looks “old” but it’s probably only 25 years old. I got it for $400 on Ebay (a pretty good deal) and then shipped it to Michael, who for $360 I believe installed the reeds and did the equivalent of an accordion “detail” job, adjusting the fingerboard, filing sharp parts down, installing a shoulder strap hook. He did such a fantastic job.

I took my box to the Swannanoa Gathering in 2008, where I took Martin Quinn’s accordion class, and he said my accordion sounded fantastic. I don’t think this was just plamas either. I went to Martin’s class again in 2009, and slowly began to understand how to play the instrument; he’s a wonderful teacher.

And then…just as I was starting to hit my accordion stride… I got tendonitis in my right shoulder. I stopped playing; I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. What made it more confusing is that when I worked for Child Protective Services, I injured my right shoulder due to the repetitive strain of mouse-clicking (that job is more about data entry than children), and as a result I never mouse-click with my right hand anymore, it’s too painful. I thought maybe I’d never be able to play the button accordion, because maybe the right hand action was like mouse-clicking. Then I thought it was the shoulder strap, which seemed to put too much pressure on my shoulder, not matter how ergonomically I tried to play. I thought I was doomed. I tried different shoulder straps. I tried using 2 shoulder straps. Nothing worked. So, until recently, my button box sat sadly unused.

Last month, though, I had a huge button-box-epiphany. I can’t tell you how exciting this was. Really. Laugh–go ahead; there are so many jokes about accordions among Irish musicians and I can take it.

I don’t know how it all clicked. I was up at 2AM with a migraine one night and I was looking through my books and pulled a copy of Damien Connolly’s  The Irish Accordion Tutor off the shelf and read what he had to say about the button box….and I realized at that ridiculous hour that I was letting the left side of the accordion sag too much when I was holding it, which pulled on my right shoulder; he described how to avoid doing this. When I was feeling better I tried it out, and, presto, my was problem solved!

I’m back to playing (like a snail) the button accordion, and working on my tunes. It’s a lot of fun. The button accordion sounds very happy and upbeat. And unlike the fiddle, it’s a tempered instrument. The buttons are all very predictable.

I can’t recommend Damien Connelly’s book enough; it’s fantastic.

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