TRAVERSE CITY — Can you pat your head and rub your tummy?
Pat VanDeventer’s sharp nod assumes the affirmative. Then you can play the accordion.
VanDeventer has every confidence in the two students before her, who really couldn’t be more different from each other.
Mary Ransom took up the accordion in her ’60s. The quiet retiree from Interlochen is a beginner, still plugging away at her “om pah pah" on a cherry red "practice" accordion.
“I almost quit. It’s so difficult. You’re essentially playing three instruments at once the piano with one hand, chords with the other, plus you're pumping.”
But VanDeventer’s advice to “give it two months and decide,” hit the mark. Ransom now feels like she is making progress and is slowly falling in accordion love.
Jack Capper, 13, is already a goner. The elaborately-haired hipster plays with his grandpa and is in it for the long haul an apt term considering his accordion's girth.
Accordions range from 10-30 pounds. A standard accordion has 120 bass buttons for chords. The bellows connects the keyboard box to the bass chord button box and controls sound and volume. The weight comes from the number of wooden reeds needed for the octaves. Capper’s enormous blue beast is close to four octaves and dwarfs the slight teen. He found it online.
Accordion popularity expands and contracts just like the instrument's signature bellows, and these days, “it’s on its way back,” VanDeventer said.
Enthusiasts can grab a base model for as little as $300 or could splurge and spend more than $3,000 for high-end versions.
“People love it,” VanDeventer said. “It’s just the way it sounds – it makes people want to get up and dance.”
VanDeventer, a Traverse City native, is a beloved regular on the senior center circuit. A wedding party wearing zoot suits and vintage dresses recently hired her to gig at the nuptials, playing all songs, even “The Wedding March,” on the accordion. She is a lively, uplifting player, a consummate performer of head tilts, flapping elbows and a smile that gives away none of the tremendous focus required to do three things at once. She started playing the accordion at six after falling under its spell at the county fair, she said.
VanDeventer plays trumpet and organ as well, but the accordion occupies a special place in her heart. The former host of a radio show called "The Accordion Room" now gigs and teaches students at her home for $20 an hour.
“It’s more than moving the air,” VanDeventer told Ransom and Capper. “You move the expression out of the bellows.” She demonstrates with a toe-tapping snippet of the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
“Move the expression.”
Polka tends to be most commonly associated with the accordion, but there’s much more to it than that, VanDeventer said. She plays “classical” accordion, but the instrument's rich variety of sound adds buttery resonance to any music style, she said.
It's medicinal, said Ransom.
"Pat calls it the 'happy box,' and it's true," Ransom said. "You can't be depressed when you're playing the accordion."
Guitar fatigue has many bands rediscovering the accordion, including "indie" groups Arcade Fire and Panic! at the Disco and Celtic punk groups like Dropkick Murphys.
Modern accordions have USB outlets and built-in sound systems like a synthesizer. VanDeventer invested in an electric accordion a few years back, but traditional accordions can last many lifetimes if maintained. Several are hiding in Traverse City closets, she said. The 1963 graduate of Traverse City High School played in an accordion band with 40 members. She'd like to get a new band started.
"Those were the days," VanDeventer said. "All of those kids put them in the closet, and now it's hard to buy one."