The Piano Accordion

Long time since I posted anything -- I did say it would be sporadic -- but I came across this article written by fellow (and she not be a fella) accordion player Edel McLaughlin. A good read and I get a mention... Thanks Edel!!
Journal of Irish Music / January 2006
Changing attitudes towards the piano accordion in Irish traditional music.

The piano accordion – or piano box – has provoked a variety of reactions over the years within Irish traditional music. Often, in the context of a session, it has suffered from negative attitudes among other musicians, resulting in a certain stigma attached to playing the instrument. I have encountered fellow musicians who would describe the piano box as a ‘JCB’ even before the performer has an opportunity to sound a note! However, there is evidence that attitudes may finally be changing.

The piano box has for long been in vogue with céilí bands, most notably during the 1950s and 60s. Traditional musician Tomás Ó Canainn played the piano box as his main instrument as a member of the Liverpool Céilí Band at that time. In his thirties, however, Tomás encountered Seán Ó Riada at University College Cork. Ó Riada had a strong influence on Ó Canainn’s decision to abandon his accordion in favour of a more ‘acceptable’ traditional instrument, the uilleann pipes, the instrument with which Ó Canainn is most strongly associated today.

Ó Riada had dogmatic opinions concerning the use of piano accordion within traditional music. In his 1960s radio series Our Musical Heritage he claimed that all accordion players were affected, in some way, by laziness! The focus of his argument was that, unlike playing a fiddle or flute, for example, where the performer creates the sound they produce, an accordion player can simply press a key to produce a musical sound. This to him meant the accordion was an ‘inauthentic’ instrument. He openly stated his contempt for the so-called mechanical nature of the piano accordion, and described the instrument as ‘the greatest abomination of them all…’, concluding that ‘Nothing could be further from the spirit of Irish music.’

In his preface to the printed version of the lectures, Tomás Ó Canainn mentioned how the harsh nature of the above statements caused ructions among many accordionists at the time. Interestingly, Ó Canainn shares his experience of confronting Ó Riada on the subject, whose simple response was that sometimes one must overstate their argument in order to make sure their voice is heard. At this point, I could remind readers that Ó Riada himself chose to play the harpsichord as his instrument within Ceoltóirí Cualann – his ‘ideal’ traditional ensemble. In a similar vein to the accordion, the harpsichord produces sound when the performer presses a key on the keyboard. In this way, the mechanical nature of the harpsichord is not unlike the accordion. It seems to me that, in this case, Ó Riada contradicted his theory of traditional music with his practice.

As an experienced piano-box player myself, I feel that the piano accordion is accepted much more widely in some places rather than others. For example, it is largely accepted by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. The piano accordion features alongside other instruments in terms of their annual Fleadh Cheoil competitions and Scoil Éigse workshops, as well as their examinations and the teacher-training programme, Teastas i dTeagasc Ceolta Tíre. It could be said that the piano box is not fully recognised in that it is not often represented on CCÉ tours – which do in fact cater for button accordion and concertina – but overall CCÉ has to receive credit for a largely positive attitude towards the piano box. On the other hand, the piano accordion is still not an instrument that is taught at the Willie Clancy Summer School, which suggests the organisers of the festival do not recognise the piano accordion as an instrument worthy of teaching.

Changes in attitude towards the use of piano accordion have come about, however, as a result of the work of some excellent soloists and some recent recordings on the instrument. Names such as Alan Kelly, Jimmy Keane, Mirella Murray, Phil Cunningham and Karen Tweed spring to mind for their brilliant contributions to the body of recorded piano-box music. What makes these performers stand out is the way in which they approach the instrument as a means of expressing their musicality. They display an admirable degree of knowledge and appreciation of the sensitivity of the instrument. Their box playing is subtle yet powerful; confident yet not forceful in its nature. These musicians know their instrument well; they have control over its capabilities and know its downfalls. They will negotiate elements such as bellow movement, volume, tone and rhythm in order to create the best possible sound. Group recordings of bands such as Capercaillie (Donald Shaw), Flook (Sarah Allen), The Border Collies (Declan Payne) and Danú (Ciarán Ó Gealbháin) must also be mentioned for the part they have played, as should those who as teachers have done trojan work at local level – Martin Power (Cork), Michael Tennyson (Leeds), Mary Finn (Sligo), and Paul Harrigan (Donegal). Up and coming players are also emerging fast, including Martin Tourish from Donegal who has just released an impressive debut recording.

Although it was once deemed to be an unacceptable instrument that was foreign to the concept of a ‘traditional’ style of playing, the piano accordion has endured a difficult journey whereby it now sits much more comfortably within traditional music practice. The stigma once associated with the use of the instrument has faded and has been replaced by a broader mindset, which promotes inclusion as opposed to exclusion. Considering the high level of success these soloists and recordings have already achieved, we are clearly currently witnessing the beginning of a new era for the piano box.