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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Help With the Left Hand

Left Hand: Le Grand Mystère
During my hiatus I received the following letter from a person I'll call John because that's his name. John is a newish player on the button box, asking for help getting a handle on the bass end of the instrument. Uniting the left and right hand is always sort of Kierkegaardian Leap of Gosh I Hope This Works. Here's John's letter, followed by my response. If anyone out there has advice or encouragement for John (or corrections for me) be sure to post it in the comments.

John's Letter


I am writing because I have very much enjoyed your blog as an amazing resource for the sounds of French Accordion music. I am new to the accordion, having started just last spring, but am playing every day and progressing slowly. I however have been enthralled with the french accordion music (some accordion is just too much oom pah oom pah for me!), perhaps because of the years I spent living there.

I see that you recommend a specific book Bal Folk: Traditional Dance Music From Central France for learning some French tunes. My question to you is this: From the google images of the pages, I see that the music scores for that book have no notation for the bass notes. Is there some theory on how to add these in, or does it become intuitive at some point? Any thoughts on how this works? Am I missing something here? I notice the ABC notation format also has this same issue (I like listening to Lester Bailey's tunes, but wouldn't know how to add the bass to those either.)

I think I could get the right hand down for some of these tunes, but when it comes to just guessing what bass notes would work and when, this might be still a bit difficult for my ear to render...

Thanks for considering this email. Any thoughts you have would greatly help this new accordion player.


And my response ...

Hey, John,

Thank you for your kind words about my blog … it is amazingly gratifying to hear that people get something out of it. I didn’t do it for attention or some obscure form of fame. I was just stoking my own fascination with the instrument and the repertoire.

To answer your question about the basses … these are easily the hardest part for people to come to grips with. Getting the left and right hands to go together. The good news is that it not only becomes intuitive, but the system is actually built into the mechanism of the two row box. But how to go about getting there? You have a number of options. Here are your bass/chord buttons:

1 2
3 4
5 6
7 8

The even buttons are closer to the bellows. The higher numbers are closer to the floor. 

First you can recognize some basic tenets: the inside right hand row TENDS TO go with buttons 5 and 7 (Bass/chord); the outside right hand row TENDS TO go with buttons 1 and 3. If you start there, playing one row tunes just using those bass buttons, that will start you to hearing how the Tonic (I) and Dominant (V) work together. Second (meanwhile), start boning up on some basic theory around folk music … it may seem obscure and cryptic, but it’s really not. You only have six bass/chord combinations to deal with on the box. I once wrote a tune for a student that used all of those combinations. It is tricky, and requires you sometimes to squint and think a bit. But not too much. Don’t think too much. Third, I would urge you to find a French tune book (or web site) that had some accordion tab in it. I find I still learn stuff from tab, which tells you where to put what finger when.

I don’t really know what’s in print anymore. But there are a lot of websites out there. I would start with the CADB website (Collectif Accordeon Diatonique Bretagne). Another source is Bernard Loffett, an accordion builder in Brittany, he’s connected with CADB, but has his own great page here. He’s also the very first person I wrote about when starting this blog. Doing these three things, it took me about a year to know what to do with the basses, even if I wasn’t doing it well.

The other thing to do would be get a teacher, but I understand that everyone learns in different ways.

Gary Chapin

Monday, October 6, 2014

Photos of L'Accordeonaire

I have been out of action since June, because of arthritis in my right arm. I've recently been able to play again, and am getting ready for a gig on November 1, at AcousticArtisans in Portland, Maine! Yesterday, my daughter took me over to the park for pictures. Enjoy.

All photos by Brigid Chapin, Copyright 2014

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mazurka Return

Feels like it's been a very long time since I've posted. It hasn't been very long, but it feels that way just because so much else has been going on. With the divorce, and moving, and my brother being ill ... after the end of "Folk Dance Season" in New England, I put down the box for a few months and just didn't think about it. But now I am in the new place. There is space and light, and the Shadows seem to have fled from the land. Let's hear it for new beginnings, which, as usually, I celebrate by playing old songs.

The mazurka in this video is one of the old ones, untitled, collected by Mel Stevens, and available in the Mallinson's Bal Folk book. As is my wont with untitled tunes, while teaching it to a student, I gave it the title, "Hannibal's Mazurka." I do love my Roman/Carthaginian history, and who are we to deny elephant's in the alps their right to mazurka? For some reason, that landing on the IV chord at the beginning of the B part seems especially touching. Hits you right in the feels.

UPDATE: Yes, I have shaved my head. And, no, I did not realize my legs looked like THAT.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

More Dance Videos

Gregory Dyke, on his dance blog Movement Creates Connection has posted an amazing set of videos of French dance and music, along with a great essay on the state of tradFrench music today. I urge you to check it out here. If you scroll further down, you'll see an entry for a post called, Expression (in Dance and Music), also worth reading!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Breton Dance Field Recordings (and other places)

The An Dro snakes through! Pic by Chris Ryall
UPDATE: I've gotten some push back on this post from folks (great stuff in the comment section), essentially saying that some of these videos are not exemplars of their regional styles, but are just examples of dances done at the Big Bal. I think that's fair, but still think it's interesting to see these as documentations of what's going on at the Big Bal, especially for those of us who would have a hard time ever making it there.

Following up from the post of French Dance Field Recordings, here is the second half of Chris Ryall's amazing collection of videos, or dance as he found it in the wild. Chris writes, "Breton dance is often done in lines, traditionally snaking around the floor intertwining and 'meeting people.'" Here is the repository:


Rond St. Vincent - a very simple village dance that has become a standard
An Dro (An Dro = "the turn")
Another An Dro - Wild at the end!
Tricot (mixed An Dro and Hanter Dro)
Plinn (Simple, very peasant, gets wild improv from musicians)
Another Plinn
Suite Plinn (Same rhythm. Couples dance with fast and slow parts)
"Standard" Gavotte" (Danced as a suite with varying speeds)
Gavotte de l'Aven (small valley in the Cornouaille with it's own "dreamy sway" style - this is just part of a "suite gavotte"
Le Ridée (aka Laridé)

Other Regional Dances from France

Auvergne (and other mountain areas): Rigaudon
Basque Country: Fandango
Basque Country: La Saute
Gascony: Gascon Rondo - done in pairs in a big circle
Alsace: asymmetric waltzes (5/8, 8/8, 11/8)

And two imports

Swedish Polska

Another Swedish Polska

Untold quantities of gratitude to Chris for this work and for permission to put this together here. Thank you, sir!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Castagnari Tommy D/G at the Button Box

A few weeks ago my job took me within stopping distance of Sunderland, MA, so I stopped at the Button Box. It was a great time. I met Margaret of the e-mails and got to sit among the instruments. One stood out among the rest. A used Castagnari Tommy in D/G that's there. I enjoyed most of the instruments I tried, but this one was just magical. The feel was effortless, so very responsive. Here's me playing "Mominette," a scottish by Maxou, of La Chavannée fame. This tune has become my "go to" piece for trying out instruments. If I had the cash, it would be hard to pass this one up.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book of Bourrées from Berry

Blog reader Mark van Nieuwstadt wrote me informing me of a bourrée tune book he had come across. It's in Dutch, he writes, "but it contains an interesting collection of bourrée tunes from the Berry region, and detailed descriptions of dances. I happen to know that the writer, Harry Franken, was a very knowledgeable amateur musicologist."  Aside from this collection of bourrées, Franken "collected many tunes in the field and published an impressive collection of tunes from the southern part of the Netherlands."

The tune book is called Youp 'Nannette. It is posted as a series of images on Picasa and can be found here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

VIDEO: L'Autre Diatonist and Tattoo

Bangor Daily News photographer, videographer, blogger, and box player Troy Bennett (who I corresponded with here) is producing a series of short videos about Mainers and their tattoos for the BDN blog. Last week he came to my home to talk about my tattoo and French accordeon music.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

French Dance Field Recordings (Part 1)

Part Two is here.

Melodeonist Chris Ryall spent August of 2013 at Fête Embraud (La Chavanée) and Grand Bal de l'Europe St. Gervais. He shot a lot of video. He writes:

"The collection was intended to inform some of the ... shall we say, 'different' ... versions of these dance rhythms heard in UK pub sessions. The general focus on the dancers and their movement is intentional. If your play of a melody 'informs the feet' ... it is probably about right!"

Some of the videos are posted on Facebook (possibly requiring Flash); others are on YouTube. The first batch of videos presented here focus on French dances. Breton dances will be featured in the next post.

French Dance Videos

Basic French Waltz (played faster and smoother than English waltz)

Scottiche (note "skip")
Another Scottiche (delightfully light - Accordzéâm)

Mazurka current "Bal" style (generally 9/8)
Another Mazurka -- Accordzéâm - great accordion solo

Mazurka Morvan style "simple, straight 3/4)

Circassian Circle - same as UK - sometimes even to the same tunes!
Another Circassian Circle

Medley of Various Dances (Lucas Thebaut says this set was made up = non Trad)


Bourrée du Centre - Grande Bourbonnaise (the main line bourrée, 4/4 rhythm)

Bourrée d'Auvergne (fast 3/8 rhythm) Auvergne = Massif Central
Another Bourrée d'Auvergne (fast bourrée with variation - St. Gervais BIG dance!!)
Yet Another Bourrée d'Auvergne (Komred, with the great Etienne Loic on accordion, at Embraud -- watch those feet!)

Bourree de Morvan (simpler, 3/8) Morvan is the hilly part of Burgundy

Fast 3/8 circle bourrée - duo Thebault are from Charantes, so "Poitou" style?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Correspondance with L’Accordéonaire, Part 2

Continuing my correspondence with David Maust (begun in the previous post).
Jan. 26, 2014

Spoiler!  He goes for the Panther!
Hi Gary,

Thank you for the thoughtful reply! You have given me a lot to think about and I appreciate the invitation to continue the conversation.

I especially liked listening to the various renditions of On d'onderon garda that you posted. I agree that the various instruments give the music a very different feel, and think what you say about the CBA and PA tending toward fluidity and complexity is true. I didn't realize the CBA had such a strong presence in the Auvergne music, but I can see how this would have bridged the Bal Folk to the Bal Musette. I love the sound of the CBA recording, but I also really like the one on the Giordy. And really, for some reason the less adorned Giordy version seems to fit more what I feel is my own personality as a musician. I really love simplicity and maybe that is why I feel drawn to a diatonic box. I think I have always felt musically more at home in playing in a diatonic mode, even on chromatic instruments. Maybe this also comes in part from playing different diatonic instruments like the mountain dulcimer and harmonica. I feel that I put the love of those instruments into my playing of chromatic instruments like the piano, organ and piano accordion.

I mentioned in my last email that I have liked playing from an Ad Vielle Que Pourra songbook on my PA. There is something so different about how the tunes feel on my PA and the sound of the recordings of the band with the diatonic accordion. Of course the musicians are so well accomplished, but the instrument itself too is just different and that keeps my interest in looking at the diatonic accordion. Also the lighter weight of the diatonic is something I know I would like. When I bought my 60 bass PA I downsized from an extremely heavy Titano 120 bass and that made a great improvement in my comfort with the accordion (and my 60 bass still weighs about 16 pounds).

I appreciate what you say about enjoying the process of learning the instrument. This is true for me. I'm not really concerned with reaching a goal of ability, although it is always nice to improve, but the satisfaction from playing is of much more value to me. I've always felt I'm a bit of a slower learner, but I really enjoy, and deeply remember the process. I have so many memories over my life of playing music in different places, situations and with different people, and there in lies the richness of music for me. I sense you approach music in the same way and I appreciate your causing me to reflect on this.

As far as monetary investment goes - is there a particular box you would recommend for someone on a budget?

I noticed The Button Box's most economical diatonic accordion is the Hohner Panther, and I've read a lot of favorable reviews, but I'm not yet sold. I really would like to try and save for a higher quality instrument. I've always felt that one should get the best instrument one can afford, and that has certainly proved true for me in playing the accordion I have. I just love hearing it every time I play it; it always seems worth the money I spent on it. Have you ever played a Panther?

I also remember reading that you started with a Hohner Corso. Do you like the Hohners? They seem a little more affordable than some of the other brands the Button Box carries. I wish I had a place like the Button Box close by where I live and I could try out different boxes. Watching different videos is helpful, but it's nothing like actually playing the instrument.

Thanks again for the conversation, I've really enjoyed it! -David
Honing in on an Acquisition
Jan. 26, 2014

Hello, David,

Again, thanks for your kind words.

I agree about the difference that diatonic instruments have, even if I can't necessarily describe it.  Even when I play guitar I tune it CGCGCC.  Very drone-y.  I play whistles, keyless flutes, and diatonic accordions. The only chromatic instrument I really play is recorder (love baroque music). And I play piano, but really just to help me figure out arrangements and such.  I like the diatonic mindset a lot. I have thought a lot about the CBA, because I love that Auvergnat style -- and Weltmeister makes a good, less-expensive CBA ($1200) -- but I feel like it would amount to a huge distraction from the work I've already done.  Just taking on the quint-tuned Dino Baffetti has stretched me quite a bit (and I love it!)  It takes me away from the simplicity your describe. If someone were to gift me one, the temptation might be too much.  But the next accordion I'm going to buy is going to be a one-row in D … whenever that happens.

About buying an accordion … you really have to try it before you buy, unless you are commissioning a new instrument from a trusted maker (Saltarelle, Castagnari, Dino Baffetti).  The cheaper accordions CAN be great, but there is a variability. I am very fond of the sound of Hohners, and I would recommend a Corso or Erica. I got VERY lucky with my first accordion (a Hohner Presswood in A/D), which was a loaned to me for a time. Then also lucky with my Corso, which had a very wide tuning and a very nice touch. I have heard good things about the Panthers and such, but really, the inherent musicality you describe in your own playing will move beyond a Panther quickly. The action of the instrument is really important.  I was happy with the Corso, but I'm much happier with the Dino Baffetti I've gotten, which, essentially, is a Hohner clone except made with top quality parts. I do love that Hohner sound. I see the Button Box has a Corona III that looks pretty sweet. If you did decide to go for a cheaper box, I would go for a Presswood or Pokerwork and pay to have it de-clacked.  If you do get a chance to go to some place where there might be a collection of accordions -- make the pilgrimage. There's nothing like trying them and having it suddenly "feel right".

Framing the Quest
Jan. 28, 2014

Hi Gary,

Thanks for the tips. I really appreciate your opinions on all this and feel I know where to go from here in looking for a particular box. It's hard to decide since there are so many beautiful accordions out there, not just brands but keys and reed set-ups as well.

I took a look at that Corona III and you are right, it is has a remarkable sound. I also love the sound of your Dino Baffetti. But I think I will probably go with a less expensive, simpler option at this stage in my playing like a Presswood or Pokerwork like you say. I should be able to afford one of these and feel it would be a better choice than the Panther. I really liked the used Presswood and Pokerwork boxes on the Button Box's site and watched the videos.

As far as key, I'm assuming a two row G/C will be a good tuning to start out with. I figure that's what many players would do French folk music with. I know that hurdy gurdies that are usually G/C tuned are considered Auvernait and D/G Bourbonnais. I'm hoping for something that is a pretty standard key for my first instrument. And G/C is good for American folk stuff too which most of my local musician friends play - although I do like playing in D also... but I figure I always have my chromatic accordion for other keys if I want them.

And I'm going to do some looking around for a shop in my area (Los Angeles) and up north around San Francisco too as I'll be up there most likely this summer for a family trip. There is an annual accordion festival near there in a town called Cotati (which is close to SF), although going to it is not an option this year for me. Still, maybe there is a shop up there.

And maybe I'll be surprised and find something in my area too. I found out this year that one of my high schoolers is learning button accordion from his uncle. I'm sure there are more at my school who play as well;  my school is overwhelmingly Latino and accordion is plentiful in a lot of the traditional and popular Mexican music.

Thanks again for all your help! I've learned so much from our exchange and am deeply grateful for the chance to talk.

After that I heard nothing. A few months letter, I checked in on David to see how the quest was going. His response.

March 23, 2014

The quest has been going well and thank you again for encouraging me along the way. I'm so happy I decided to get a diatonic box after many years of piano accordion.

After talking with the Button Box some, visiting a place in downtown Los Angeles that had a few diatonic accordions (mainly 3 rows for Norteno players, Corona, Panther, etc.), checking my budget and looking on Craigslist, I decided to buy a Hohner Panther to start myself out.

And although I really like some of the used "Presswoods" and Pokerworks on the Button Box site, I am looking for a G/C instrument and they don't currently have any in my price range. I'm staying on the look out for one of these but in the meantime, I was able to easily get started with a Panther.

There are a lot of Panthers and Coronas on Craigslist out here in California, and I wanted to be able to play the box I was getting since I have heard the Panther's out of factory tuning can be inconsistent sometimes. Getting one on ebay, even new just seemed scary to me.

Also, the place in downtown LA wanted 600 for a Panther and I could get one on Craigslist for 350-400. I found an older style Panther about 20 min. away, the model with the Corona-like grill (I really don't like the newer grill) and it is in great shape. I have been really enjoying it! It is so light compared to my 60 bass piano accordion and I love figuring out tunes and just noodling around on it around the house while my kids play. And I can take it with me so much more easily than lugging the 17 pound piano accordion around!

So my plan is that I've got this Panther and will play it for a year or two to see how I like playing a diatonic box. I figured that if I didn't like it as much as my piano accordion, I could sell it. But if I did like it (which I do!) then I eventually will probably sell my Panther locally on Craigslist and step-up to a nicer box.

I also got the Panther, because I thought I might like the 3 row over a 2 row. I'm undecided on this right now, but the Panther was an inexpensive way for me to try out playing essentially either a 2 or a 3 row system. I purchased Pignol &  Milleret Book 1 from the button box and am playing the Panther with this course like it is a 2 row instrument, since that is probably what I will eventually get (but that third row is tempting for shortcuts and fun stuff).

I like having this P and M as a structured course to get my fingering right from the beginning (but ouch it works my left hand pinky doing basses with four fingeres! - I'm used to Stradella bass and NO pinky). But even though I'm not doing much row crossing yet in the course, I'm amazed at how quickly I figure out the same tones and runs across the rows when picking out favorite tunes and messing around with it.

One question for you if you don't mind... Pgnol and Milleret "deeply" suggest removing thirds. I looked this up on and read up on it a little, and now am thinking about taping off my thirds.  I took my basses out and mapped out the thirds and I could tape them off easily (although it means taping the reeds themselves which I hesitate to do until I talk to the Button Box or Mel. net or something; I'm very careful to not touch my reeds, even breathe on them, so the idea of taping them makes me cringe). On Italian boxes, I guess thirds are on the same "port" so you can tape them at the "hole" very easily, but Hohners are not like this. If I take the ports on most of my thirds, then I will also be taping a tonic or a 5th for another chord.

Do you play with thirds? I taped my Bb at the port to see how I would like the sound (has the third on push and pull), and I do like it. I like the simplicity and un-Stradella-bass-ness of it. But maybe I'm a little jaded to Stradella-sounding basses from piano accordion playing. When I play French-Trad. things on my piano accordion, I think the Stradella-bass mucks it up on occasion. If you did remove thirds, any advice on taping them off?

Sorry I got a little long-winded, but I love getting to talk about this stuff with someone who enjoys listening. I'm sure you understand.

Thanks! David