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Old Accordion plays Music for Heart & Brain

A few doors down the block from the house on Main Street where I lived in early childhood, a music store filled a storefront beside the local print shop. We walked by it on trips to the grocery store in downtown Lebanon, OR.

Perhaps it was there, in the music store window that a shiny accordion caught my imagination. Or maybe it was the happy melodies that spilled from my Danish uncle’s button accordion at every family gathering.

Then again it could have been my mother’s decision to launch an accordion band at the two-room country grade school where she taught the upper four grades. Somehow, I became an accordion player at an age too young for protest.

My first accordion

By the time I slipped my arms through the straps of my own accordion I had gleaned basic keyboard familiarity in piano lessons with Mr. Miller, who wore a suit and came to our house to instruct me and my younger brother in scales and musical notations. I practiced the piano dutifully, if not enthusiastically, learning to read music at about the same time I was learning to read words.

As soon as my brother, Lyle, and I were enrolled in Mrs. Ruby’s grades one-through-four classroom at Tennessee School a few miles north of Lebanon, we were recruited into the accordion band by our mother, a young widow fueled by the anxieties of single parenting and economic insecurity.

There must have been a dozen of us young amateurs in this extra curricular band that served as the school’s music program. We performed at pie-socials and parent gatherings. Each June, we climbed on the bed of a farm truck to entertain viewers at Lebanon’s annual Strawberry Fair parade.

One memorable year my mother installed her sewing machine on the dining table and created billowing gowns of red, white and blue for band members. When lined up correctly, we created an American flag as we slogged through a patriotic repertoire.

Through my grade school years, I graduated from a beginner’s 12-button base instrument to a 120-button accordion far too big for my body or my talent. I was too young back then to be aware of the social repercussions of accordion playing but by the time I reached my teens there was no escaping the awkwardness of being a woman with bellows. I tucked the instrument into its case and moved on. Yet, somehow in the years that followed, I never managed to detach myself from the actual accordion—a bulky burden weighted with memories.

Its hold has been tenacious, clinging on through multiple moves and years of transition. It languished first in my mother’s attic, then in basements and closets of my own homes, protected somehow for more than sixty years by a vague intent to return to music one day. This year, I lugged the case up from a storage closet and opened it at last, figuring it was more or less now or never to heed that calling.

Inside, the gleaming white accordion rested atop two books of elementary musical scores. Just where I’d left them three score years ago. As I hoisted the unwieldy instrument to my lap, I wondered how I had managed this weight in pre-teen years. I could hardly cope with it now. And weight was just the first of the challenges released in this adventure.

I could locate middle C on the keyboard, but not on the sheet of music before me. Base notes baffled me completely. My mother, rest in peace, would be aghast. Even I felt a pang of chagrin. I had lost the ability to make sense of a musical score. I was lost with a map I could no longer read.

On the Internet, I found an image of a keyboard with notes of a scale identified by name. Then I found a diagram identifying the 120 buttons on the base panel of my accordion.

I started with tentative scales. Eventually I advanced to “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” an early selection in “Everybody’s Favorite Elementary Accordion Pieces,” copyright 1941.

Time and time again, I plugged stolidly through the tune until even I grew bored and moved on to “There is a Tavern in the Town.” Single notes for the melody—no chords yet. But the challenge of relearning a lost skill had wedged itself in me.

I phoned the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts and inquired about accordion lessons, and about finding a smaller instrument. My outsized accordion would be burdensome to transport for lessons. I needed something smaller. After all, my goal in this endeavor was not ambitious. It was, as I wrote on the Shedd’s student enrollment form, “to amuse myself.”

While I searched for something smaller, I would practice on my accordion at home and borrow instructor Chico Schwall’s lighter instrument for lessons. When I spotted a flashy blue accordion on Craig’s List, my spouse and I drove the freeway north to West Linn to investigate. In the photo, it appeared petite. One look and my optimism wilted. Too big.

As the quest continues, I’m advancing slowly through the nostalgia of “Everybody’s Favorites.” A few days ago I realized that I could flip a few pages and proceed from “The Band Played On” to “Home on the Range” and actually sight read the musical score. Elation! Little by little, I’m learning.

And, I’m amusing myself. That’s enough. But there may be a bonus I hadn’t anticipated. This challenge may be music to my brain. Recently I attended a talk by former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, author of “30 Days to a Better Brain.” Carmona posited that someone who learns to play the piano at age 80 gains more than musical pleasure—they build new pathways in the brain

When brain networks become weakened with age or illness, Carmona says, neuroplasticity enables us to create new pathways for memories and skills, triggered by learning experiences that keep the brain actively growing. If it works for piano lessons at 80, why not for the accordion at 76?

This week, I’m focused on “Good Night, Ladies.” Stimulation for my brain and satisfaction for my soul. No longer cause for embarrassment, the accordion seems somehow to have aged into a smugly satisfying source of pride.

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer. Contact at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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