Saturday, September 30, 2006

I've Only Got Three Hands, You Know!

The accordion is a three handed instrument, I always say. There are many things which set it apart from the piano, one of which is the bellows. It has a little more in common with harmoniums, most forms of which have a bellows system of some sort, but only the accordion family have the added facet of a bellows which changes direction while the instrument is played. This creates much more freedom for the player, but as usual, with freedom comes responsibilities and complications.
The first step to bellows control is holding the accordion effectively. Before we start, I would encourage all players who are still learning basic and intermediate bellows control to play sitting down. The ideal height of chair is one that puts your hips just slightly higher than your knees when you sit squarely. I find sitting nearer the front edge of the chair, rather than right back in it, helps to put me in the right position, as will a cushion for many people. I believe that the accordion needs to be positioned so that the right hand keyboard is just about in the middle of your body - so under your chin. This is why there is a long and a short strap in a pair. If your straps are not allowing you to get into this position, try adjusting them. Often the right strap is still not long enough to achieve this. You can make a simple extension by adding a loop of very strong cord between the bottom strap bracket and the leather loop created by doing up the little buckle on the strap which is normally used to attach it to the bracket. An overhand knot should be safe enough as long as you leave a bit to spare beyond the knot in the unlikely case of slippage. Now your accordion probably feels too loose! If you aren't using a back strap you probably should be, and now that you have lengthened you right strap (and probably tightened your left one) you may well need to shorten your back strap as well.
There are a number of reasons why this is an advantageous position for holding the accordion, but from the viewpoint of bellows technique the main reason is that it allows you to apply pressure to the back edge (the corner where the back of your accordion meets the left end) in order to push the bellows in. This is crucial!!! The left end of your accordion must be further to the left than the left side of your own ribcage when the bellows is closed. If it is not, your own torso will be in the way of you using your arm effectively to operate the bellows.
If you push the bellows in with the palm of your hand, the heel of your hand or by using the inside flat of your forearm on the whole of the left end of your accordion, you have got yourself stuck in a position where it is now difficult to move your hand freely around the bass keyboard. People often ask me "Which part of my hand/arm should I push the bellows with?" That really depends on how long your arm and fingers are relative to the size of your accordion. What counts is that you can move your hand around the bass keyboard without affecting the bellows. The two things need to be highly independent - a tall order considering that the basses are played with the left fingers and the bellows is worked by the left arm, plus most of us are right handed!!
Here's how to find the right position: place your left fingers on the bass buttons where they need to be to play easily. It's best if the ends of your fingers hit the buttons in a sort of hammer action, as opposed to putting the pads of your fingers on them. The first position means that your fingers will be somewhat arched and have more clearance over the buttons you are not using. Everything else is determined by where your fingers need to be.
Now that you've found this position, arch your wrist slightly, so that the flat underside of your forearm and the heel of your hand come off the accordion slightly. This arch should stay the same whether you are opening of closing your bellows. This means you will need to apply pressure to the all important back edge in order to push the bellows in. This may well feel very unnatural for awhile. That's okay. Learning something new is rarely entirely comfortable! You will find this easier if you position your arm so that you are reaching up slightly for whatever row of buttons your fingers are on. In other words, your fingers are pointing slightly upward when you play, not parallel to the ground. Also check that your bellows strap is loose enough to accomodate this slight arch in your wrist - but not so loose that there is a great deal of play when you change bellows direction. Remember, this strap works loose gradually as you play, so you need to develop the habit of checking and adjusting its position regularly.
Hang in There!
This can be quite a big shift both mentally and physically - especially if you have been holding your accordion differently for some time. Be patient with yourself, but if you really want to improve your bellows control hang in there! Try to think in terms of forming a new habit rather than breaking an old one. You might do this by not playing all your familiar pieces and exercises for a few days. Begin by spending awhile just holding the accordion in this new position and playing some long notes with the right hand. Just get the feeling of going in and out. Listen for a steady, controlled, unwobbly sort of sound. Experiment with loud and quiet. Then play a little with your left hand. Just something which you consider to be very simple. A few bars of waltz time in C might be a good place to start. Practise taking your bellows out different distances. Not too far at first, further when you are ready to stretch yourself. Work on being conscious of changing direction, not just letting it happen. This will set you up for success with the bellows.
Well, no pictures so far, but I think I may have come near the 1,000 word mark! There is so much more to the bellows, but I am going to leave it there for now. If you want to learn more about the bellows, make a start by getting going on this. Give yourself a week or so to assimilate and experience these ideas. I will write another installment soon, so that you can begin to put this new position to work for you to improve the following:
  • dynamics (loud and quiet)
  • phrasing
  • accentuation
  • tone

and much more.

In the meantime, please feel free to ask questions about this topic if you are feeling stuck or unsure. You will probably be doing ten other people who have the same question a huge favour!!

- Kris


Iain said...

Very useful introduction to the bellows! it seems that my technique is almost exactly as you described! which is just down to luck more than anything i think!

Look forward to reading more on the techniques! this is very helpful! many thanks!

Kris Hughes said...

That's great, Iain. You must be a bit of a natural. However, it is perfectly possible to arrive at this position without tuition - some do, but many more don't.

Glad you enjoyed the first installment.


Janine said...

Hey Kris, many thanks for the pointers on the bellows. I feel this is the aspect that I need to focus on most since its peculiar to the instrument.

Checking the straps during every practice seems obvious, but I have an occasional day when left-hand buttons just don't seem to be "in the right place". Never thought about the straps slipping (doh!), I was just putting it down to being a beginner or having an off-day.

I think most days I do it they way you say, especially the bit about fingers using a hammer action (otherwise sometimes the "steal" too much air from the right-hand?). But I'm going to take a week and just concetrate on bedding-in the right habit.

Many thanks for your valuable tips on this. I really appreciate it!

Kris Hughes said...

Hi Janine - Glad to hear you found this helpful.

It would only be the bellows strap that you need to check regularly. Another thing that can make you feel in the wrong position is sitting on different heights of chair.

With the hammer action thing, I wasn't referring to playing the basses staccato (although I know what you are getting at), but rather the actual angle at which the fingers meet the buttons.


Mike said...


This description of bellows technique is very interesting and I think it will be of great use to me.

I am a beginner at the piano accordion and I have found it difficult to deal with the demands of the left hand and arm. I'm never quite sure whether my bass strap is too loose or too tight. You have given me a new perspective on this and I am going to attend to it for the next few days in my practice.

Please continue with this very helpful instruction.

Many thanks indeed!

Kris Hughes said...

Mike - I hope you find this helpful. Let us know how you get on with it.


Mike said...

Absolutely right on, Kris. Today I took a workout at the accordion and discovered something which had escaped me utterly.

Your system, for which the critical instruction is to place the left hand so that the fingers are reaching for the buttons from slightly below them (the floor side). This twists the lower arm in such a way as to take up the slight bit of slack needed for arm movement. The left arm is actually holding the accordion more with the lower arm bone which lies on the same side as the small finger. The slight twist can be reversed a small bit to reduce strap friction when taking a big move for a button four rows away (or more, I suppose; four is my current limit).

Competent accordionists must figure this out intuitively. Kris's didactic brilliance caught it for those of us who are not so "natural" at playing.

Kudos and grazie mille (to combine three languages).

Kris Hughes said...

It does work, doesn't it, Mike!

The great thing is, if you can find a more efficient way to do something your body will tend to want to do it this way, helping you form a new habit more easily.

Keep ckecking in!


Jil said...

Kris, THANK YOU!! I've recently picked the accordion back up from early teen self-taught days, and the lack of information on strap adjustment and bellows control has been a particular pet-peeve. I'm looking forward to your next installment!!!

Kris Hughes said...

Jil - I'm glad that the article has been helpful!


Anonymous said...

Hello there

I just wanted to say your site is very informative. I am considering taking up the accordion and had been dissapointed with the info available on the web....until now!

All hints/tips and techniques are greatfully received!

Great work and thanks for giving up the time to pass on some knowledge!