#RevelsConnects: Musical Connections

Tom Pixton: A Short History of the Accordion

April 28, 2021 Revels Season 1 Episode 5
Tom Pixton: A Short History of the Accordion
#RevelsConnects: Musical Connections
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#RevelsConnects: Musical Connections
Tom Pixton: A Short History of the Accordion
Apr 28, 2021 Season 1 Episode 5

Tom has been active in a variety of traditional music scenes for more than 30 years. He is a dear friend of Revels and has been a regular Revels performer since 1997, appearing on stage and working behind the scenes as an accordionist, arranger, singer, and bandleader. He's worked closely as a dance musician and musical leader for organizations such as the Pinewoods Band, the Folk Arts Center of New England, and the Boston Branch of the Royal Scottish Dance Society. Tom is an accomplished recording artist and also publishes the Pinewoods International Collection, a 400-page book of folk dance tunes and songs from around the world. In this installment of the #RevelsConnects: Musical Connections podcast, Tom walks us through the history of accordion music and the intricacies of the accordion itself! Hosted by Maggie Holtzberg, Folk Arts & Heritage Program Manager at the Mass Cultural Council.

Each #RevelsConnects: Musical Connections podcast is a follow-up to a 45-minute salon-style performance with the featured musician, premiering on Facebook Live and available on the Revels YouTube channel. Visit Revels Inc. on YouTube to learn more!

The #RevelsConnects Musical Connections series is sponsored in part by a grant from The Ithaka Foundation and produced in collaboration with the Mass Cultural Council. This program is also supported in part by a grant from the Watertown Cultural Council, a local agency, which is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. Audio engineered by Dave Jamrog Audio/Video.

Show Notes Transcript

Tom has been active in a variety of traditional music scenes for more than 30 years. He is a dear friend of Revels and has been a regular Revels performer since 1997, appearing on stage and working behind the scenes as an accordionist, arranger, singer, and bandleader. He's worked closely as a dance musician and musical leader for organizations such as the Pinewoods Band, the Folk Arts Center of New England, and the Boston Branch of the Royal Scottish Dance Society. Tom is an accomplished recording artist and also publishes the Pinewoods International Collection, a 400-page book of folk dance tunes and songs from around the world. In this installment of the #RevelsConnects: Musical Connections podcast, Tom walks us through the history of accordion music and the intricacies of the accordion itself! Hosted by Maggie Holtzberg, Folk Arts & Heritage Program Manager at the Mass Cultural Council.

Each #RevelsConnects: Musical Connections podcast is a follow-up to a 45-minute salon-style performance with the featured musician, premiering on Facebook Live and available on the Revels YouTube channel. Visit Revels Inc. on YouTube to learn more!

The #RevelsConnects Musical Connections series is sponsored in part by a grant from The Ithaka Foundation and produced in collaboration with the Mass Cultural Council. This program is also supported in part by a grant from the Watertown Cultural Council, a local agency, which is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. Audio engineered by Dave Jamrog Audio/Video.

Maggie: Tom Pixton is a valued folk dance musician in the international, Balkan, and Scottish folk dancing worlds.  As a solo player, and as a member of the Pinewoods band, Tom provides dance music for dance camps, workshops, and special events in the U.S., Canada, and Japan.  He’s worked with many of today’s most accomplished dance teachers and musicians as a pianist, bandleader, music arranger, and CD producer.  But his secret power is the accordion.  Tom Pixton, welcome to Revels Musical Connections!  Glad to have you!  Watching you demonstrate on a variety of accordions is like taking a virtual musical tour around the world.  You play in a wide range of styles including Cajun, French, Quebecois, Irish, Scottish, Armenian, Bulgarian, and Russian.  How did you learn to speak in all these musical languages?

Tom: Well everything I do is pretty much faking it because I’m a great imitator.  I do speak Romanian and French and German.  But at an early age, I was introduced to international cultures by my family.  I was raised in a Quaker household outside Philadelphia and we were involved with international organizations since I was a kid.  In fact, my parents took our entire family to Morocco for one year when I was seven.  And it sort of attuned me to the exotic sounds, the non-western sounds.  I was just always a good imitator, so if I didn’t know the language, I would fake it.  You know, memorize it pretty well.  Unfortunately, as I’ve learned a lot from my colleague, David Coffin, I can memorize quickly and then promptly forget it! 


Maggie: Haha!  But you’re learning by ear?  As an aural tradition?

Tom: Well I spent the first 30 years of my life as a classical musician playing organ and harpsichord and had somewhat of a career...I  like to say I PURSUED a career... but in pursuing I discovered the career was elusive and I never caught up to it.  But I spent probably 10 or 15 years intensely practicing keyboard every day which became very valuable later when I decided to take up the accordion.  Which occurred when I was in my forties, really after I had abandoned my career as a classical concert performer and started working in higher ed publishing.  And my wife dragged me to a folk dance and I just started going…  I first became involved with Revels in the mid-1980s when I worked with the founder, Jack Langstaff, on the first Christmas Revels songbook as a designer and type-setter.  And that’s when I first got involved with Revels.  So it was a gradual process but inexorably I was drawn to the accordion and its many types of music that it plays.  And also the many forms that it takes.  As you may have seen in my presentation, I can only play a few of the many, sometimes bewildering, versions of the accordions one finds in world music.  And it’s sort of a microcosm of what Revels does, not just with Christmas Revels, but throughout the year we find ways to connect people through a wide variety of music, singing, and we get to look a little bit about the cultures behind that music.  And playing for international folk dancing is kind of like a mini-Revels. Every song tends to be from a different culture, I’ve had to learn to sing in Turkish and Bulgarian, Serbian, Greek, and being a good faker is a valuable skill when it comes to doing that kind of work.

Maggie: I think you're belittling your talents here, although you point at a very important fact... you have a foot in both the classically trained world and the folk music world, and from my own experience on the violin and the fiddle, one relies more heavily on the text or reading the music, versus the ear and picking up the nuances that way.  You mentioned all the different instruments you have and how they vary, one of the things I’d like to just get you to talk about with us a little bit is the inner workings of the instruments, starting with how the reed functions.

Tom: Oh!  The so-called free reed…  I opted to not get into those details in my Revels salon piece just because David encouraged me that people want to hear, they don’t want a lecture.  But, since you asked…  As you saw, I think I mentioned in the piece some of the far eastern ancestors of the accordion.  So, they’re called a free reed, or an aerophone, because, unlike a lot of reeds, say an oboe or clarinet, the reed in those instruments beats against a foot or a chalet.  In an accordion the reed doesn't beat against something, but is just free, it’s vibrating, an air column is forced over the reed and it just vibrates and creates the sound that way.  However, it only sounds in one direction.  If you put air in the other direction, it just goes *imitates a deflated balloon.*  Pardon my French.  So in an accordion, the instruments are what we call diatonic accordion where the push and pull are different notes.  Those are two different reeds, and on the opposite direction of when the reed sounds, there’s a little leather valve that closes over it to stop it from sounding.  So that’s why it’s called a free reed instrument, it’s a bit of a misnomer I think.  But that is the principle behind those Chinese and Laotian instruments like the sheng and the khene.  And those are instruments that were brought back to western Europe by missionaries starting in the mid-1750s, and they were captivated at a lot of sort of… Western European dilettantes and connoisseurs were just interested in these instruments and just tried to adapt them to various forms, the harmonica was sort of the first one.  They were considered poor people’s instruments; they only played a major scale, they only played one note, a single note, and a different one in each direction.  They really didn’t have any concept of, unlike the sheng and the khene, which were the instruments they came from, those were very highly developed in their own way. If you saw those clips in my piece, those people are incredible virtuosos.  And I’m determined that David Coffin should get one of those shengs or a khene, one of those things to add to his voluminous collection of instruments.  “Well, what do you have there David?”  Well, a concertina, of course, is one of those.  I remember when I first got involved with the Revels as a performer in the 90s as a musician, my band was engaged to play.  And Paddy Swanson, the director said, “You’re going to be working with David Coffin, you know David, don't you?”  And I said, “I think I’ve heard of him!”  And I said, “What does he play?”  And Paddy says, “Oh he plays all kinds of things that you blow into.”  So I think that khene and the sheng you definitely blow into… But from those beginnings, these various types of accordions proliferated, and each culture that took up the accordion adapted it and changed it.  So unlike the violin and the piano, the accordion takes on a variety of forms, from the concertinas to the bandoneon to the Irish and the Cajun.  It’s quite amazing and one couldn’t possibly play all of them.  I really only play the keyboard, my main instrument is the piano keyboard.  I do play the diatonic instruments a bit.  But I can’t really compare to some of these incredible virtuosos that you could find.  Nowadays we have the advantage of being able to search and see all kinds of videos online of people playing these instruments, it’s just amazing.  And one could get lost in the following, for example, the bandoneon has incredible virtuosos that play jazz on it.  It’s quite amazing.

Maggie: So as they added going from a diatonic scale, a simple scale, to a chromatic scale, getting more and more complex, what did that allow the player to do that they couldn’t do with a much simpler instrument?

Tom: Well it gradually meant the accordion became more capable of playing classical music or more complicated music.  The advent of the chromatic keyboard accordion, with a full left side of bass and chords, meant there could be more possibilities, and gradually the accordion in that very advanced form became used in jazz, and as we saw in Russia, they used it in classical music.  But what’s really interesting, and this gets back to sort of how what I’ve learned about from being involved with Revels, is how we connect with a variety of folk arts.  What we used to think of as primitive instruments, the one row, diatonic like the Cajun, it’s a very primitive form,  is now valued for its supposed primitiveness is now a virtue.  It allows the player a virtual, sort of visceral energy in playing.  Whereas 50 years ago these primitive accordions would have been thought of as inferior to the keyboard accordions, since the folk revival of the 70s, these one row, primitive, simple accordions are now valued for the credible music energy they impart.  So nowadays those instruments, even though they are simple, and may be considered rustic, compared to the larger accordions, they provide a music energy that cannot be duplicated in the larger ones.  

Maggie: I agree, and actually you’re reminding me of, I was going to ask this later, but it’s reminding me of the piano accordions that were used… I was in the Shetland Islands in the 1970s.  So I was studying fiddle from Tom Anderson and I remember specifically that there was somewhat of a prejudice against the large piano you know, Jimmy-Shand-type accordions, for evening out the subtleties in the music.  In the Scottish fiddle tunes and playing.  Does that sound familiar?  Can you talk about that at all?

Tom: Oh yes that’s it!  And by the way you studied with Tom Anderson, that’s amazing, I’m impressed and envious.  Of course Tom Anderson handed down many Shetland tunes and in fact, my Revels piece, I end with two Shetland pieces.  I play on a large accordion.  But yes, you’re right.  You cannot show up at an Irish session with a modern, big piano keyboard.  They would look at you like…  yeah. And in a lot of places, Shetland in particular, the accordion really wasn’t used all that often at all that I’m aware of.  And certainly, the accordion as played by Jimmy Shand would have been viewed as more of a music hall, you know, bourgeois kind of instrument.  And while there are certainly cultures where that prejudice did continue, what’s remarkable is how much the accordion in whatever form it became aware of in any particular culture, was adopted successfully.  So I’m thinking for example in Bretton, in Brittany, the area of western France, they had these various bagpipes, the binioù, the binioù-kozh had been played for who knows, since the 1600s, and when the accordion came along, initially it was worried that the accordion would supplant those instruments.  But then wound up playing together.  So now you have accordion and binioù-kozh.  Same thing in Eastern Europe, the large piano accordion started being popular in the 50s and 60s in Bulgaria and Serbia.  There were those who preferred the old village instruments, the kaval, the gadulka, the tambura, for example, the gaida, the bagpipe.  But eventually, those instruments all started playing together, and so I look at the accordion as sort of the melting pot, the great equalizer that people overcome their prejudices against it.

Maggie: Well yeah I was going to ask you, why do you think there’s so many jokes about accordions players and banjo players?

Tom: Well, you know.  People like to make jokes about all kinds of things.  I think primarily in the United States, people associate the accordion with the most popular accordion music that was known, at least when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, which was the Cleveland or Chicago area polka style which was promoted by Lawrence Welk and his accordion player Myron Floren who was an incredible virtuoso.  But the music of that era struck me as tacky, or we didn’t understand it, because we were cultured interested in playing 18th-century baroque music.  And a lot of people associate the accordion with that.  But not so much anymore, I mean, 20 years ago, it was still, maybe people in the states associated the accordion with polka.  But now after hearing rock n’ roll players use the accordion, Billy Joel, Christine McVie,  I think the accordion now is much more accepted than it was 20 years ago.

Maggie: Well we’re exposed to so much more musical traditions from around the world with these star players from various cultures.  Flaco Jiménez…

Tom: Oh yeah!

Maggie: ...and just amazing players.  But speaking of large accordions, let's talk about your- Guerrini?  Is that how you pronounce it?

Tom: *accented* Guerrini.

Maggie: Ok so the Guerrini, you call it the pinnacle of the accordion maker’s art.  It looks as if this massive piano accordion is not for the faint of heart.  

Tom: Well, depends on how faint your heart might be.

Maggie: I mean just, how much does it weigh?

Tom: Well, Maggie, when I put it on, I’m lifted up.  It must weigh nothing or next to nothing.! So the accordion I play, the large one, the Guerrini.  It’s a 96 bass, which is actually fewer notes and reeds than the standard model of say Myran and Florens which is a 120 bass.  And there were even 140 bass instruments, just gigantic monsters.  So a 96 bass is full-sized but fewer keys.  So it’s much more manageable.  It probably weighs 30 pounds, I joked about it weighing nothing, but when you put it on it’s just an amazing instrument.  Any kind of music I play, it responds.  So it’s got handmade reeds, a lot of effort went into that accordion, a lot of expense into that accordion.  And the reeds are handmade and adjusted which means they respond to the slightest amount of wind, there are all kinds of niceties about it.  

Maggie: Well you demonstrated the two different tone chambers, they have beautifully different nuanced sounds.  And actually talking about the reeds again, once they’re pitched and finely tuned, do they stay that way?

Tom: Oh!  That is a... tricky area.  Because, theoretically, yes.  So, factory-made accordions... so my accordion was made on order - you have to pay upfront and wait a year to get an instrument custom-built.  A lot of instruments off the shelf will be pitched at a443, a445.  Because, I asked an accordion dealer, “Why are they pitched like that?”  and he said, “Well, it’s brighter!”

Maggie: But how will you play with other people though?  It’s like, higher than a440 which is the normal tuning.

Tom: But getting back to your point… It’s tricky to tune an accordion, once it’s tuned, it does stay.  But things do happen, the accordion is made out of wood, the reeds are waxed into reed blocks.  So, things do change.  I take the accordion once a year to The Button Box out in mid-state Massachusetts and I reserve two or three hours of Bob’s time and I specify this note is two cents flat or this note is three cents sharp, because otherwise, it's just a giant, a huge effort.  But in general, to answer your question accordions are the most stable of instruments. They’re more stable than say, a church organ, which is subject to a lot of temperature variations and pitch variations.  I would say the biggest challenge, or at least for me, the challenge is the temperament.  So usually we expect an accordion like this that’s going to play in any keys to be equal-tempered, which means, as in the piano, all Keys,  C, C sharp, E flat, F sharp, they're all slightly out-of-tune so you can play at all keys.  So this brings up the issue on the left side is how you tune. So for example, Cajun accordions are tuned more just, or even we would say, the mean tone.  The thirds on the accordion are pure, which gives it that bright sound.  But it’s only got, the accordion, the single row accordion I’m playing in the piece is D major so it’s got D, E, F sharp, G, A.  That’s it.  It doesn't have to worry about an F sharp being used as the tonic in F sharp minor, so you can tune that F sharp, it's about 15 cents flat to an equal tempered F sharp.  It’s beautifully in tune and bright and it sounds like a Renaissance organ.  But you couldn’t have that on a piano keyboard and expect to play it in all different kinds of keys.  So one learns to adjust and for me, that’s more of an issue, do I want the D and the A to be a pure 5th?  Or am I going to accept it being slightly narrow so that I can play, so that D can be the 3rd and the B flat, all these kinds of things.

Maggie: Well you’re making me think of so many questions!  But one of them is reminding me of your discussion of the musette,  I hadn’t heard of this term before, but the musette tuning.  When we hear it, we think it’s French, that sound of a French accordion player.  And that notion of being slightly - just talk about that a little because I don’t think most people would know that.  

Tom: I didn't want to belabor that issue, but basically what they discovered is when you have more than one reed and they're tuned at the unison, because the accordion reed is a free reed we mentioned earlier, it's just vibrating in air, it has a very pure sound, there not many higher partials, it's more like a sine wave if we looked at it on an oscilloscope. And as a result, when you have two of those beating together, if one reed is slightly not tuned exactly the other one, you'll notice it.  Earlier accordion makers discovered, well if we tune that second reed sharper, then we get this nice buzz. You have to remember that until, you know, that until World War I, folk dance bands didn't have amplification.  So having an accordion that could pierce through a dancehall was much valued.  So to give you an example, the accordion that I'm using on the piece that has the musette tuning, that second reed is 15 cents sharp to the main one.  Now 100 cents is a semitone, so it just gives you an idea.  It buzzes quite a bit.  But accordion makers discovered well, let's put a third reed in there and tune it flat.  And this type of three reed musette became very popular in a number of places, especially Scotland.  Now, Jimmy Shand’s accordion that he made his recordings on, the Shand Marino, he had the second reed tuned 15 cents or 18 cents sharp.  The third one is 18 to 20 cents flat.  And it makes this incredible buzz.  

Maggie: Well I heard it more as a warble, like vibrato.

Tom: Yeah it’s kind of a warbly vibrato, it’s all of those things.  And accordion makers have fanciful names for the amount of... swing is +5, tremolo is +10.  They had various fanciful names that don't really mean anything.  But you’ll notice on my larger accordion, all the reeds are tuned exactly perfect,  or at least, they are intended to be, and they usually stay that way.  So for an accordion to be used in the widest variety of music, there are those of us who prefer what we call “dry tuning” where the second reed is tuned exactly to the first one.  And most large accordions, for example, Art Van Damme was a very well-known jazz accordion player in the 50s and 60s.  And instruments that he favored were tuned dry. The bandoneon is tuned dry.  We think of Irish accordions as kind of music, but Sharon Shannon, Mick McAuley, they play +4 or +3, it’s a very gentle sound, so I think... you know, in the 50s and 60s there was the era of Jimmy Shand +18, +20.  And I don’t know how a violin can tune to that.  I don’t think they can.  I think the trend is back towards a more... a dryer sound.  There are those who you will hear, it's very distinctive, that musette tuning.  Especially in France the valse musette style, and you will hear it, less and less I think than you did 20 years ago.  

Maggie: So, The Button Box is a wonderful place and a great resource for us in the region, and if we have the Lowell Folk Festival this summer, or certainly next summer, they’re one of the... we’re doing musical instrument makers, and two people from that shop will be demonstrating.  So it’s great to hear that you go there.  It’s like bringing your car to a repair shop once a year, for maintenance.  I wanted to get into the dance, playing for dancers world a little tiny bit.  It seems like Pinewoods dance camp is one of the earliest dance camps, music camps, in the country before they became so popular.  And I was wondering when you got involved with them and your involvement with them and the band and stuff.  

Tom: So I started playing accordion in like 1990-91. I was not even 40 yet and just started... I had stopped playing organ and stopped playing classical music. My wife had been a piano teacher she stopped doing that.  Both of us spent about 4 or 5 years not playing, not practicing all day long, and we had all this free time, and we started going to folk dancing for recreation.  And as I mentioned, I became acquainted with the Revels through working on the Christmas Revels songbook, started going to the Revels, started seeing a lot of the people that I saw folk dances at Revels.  At first, I was like, "Where did these people know each other from?  Do they all go to the same church? " Well soon enough, I realized that there’s a large following for traditional music in various forms and I think after someone suggested I should try the accordion, and I had never played an accordion, and they loaned me one and I put it on, I never actually had played one, and played a few notes, and I had this incredible epiphany, like woah... this is my instrument.  So I started playing for the local folk dance and Mary Ann Taylor, who was running the folk arts center at that time, was programming the Pinewoods sessions for the folk arts center. And they had some live music, but she suggested that I come down and play live music.  And before it had been maybe an hour each night and I said, “Well, an hour?  Huh, we’re gonna play the whole night, the whole seven nights.”  And people said, “No you can’t do that...you can’t possibly have enough of a repertoire."  So I spent the year borrowing records from Connie Taylor’s record collection.  On Thursdays, I’d take it home and I’d transcribe it, I’d make a simple notation of it, I was using a very primitive notation system.  But after about six months I had a hundred and fifty tunes, simple tunes that, I mean-  I mean they were tunes, I didn’t try to make an elaborate transcription, I tried to make a simple chart.  ANd I had enough of them and I made copies of them, and I showed up with like eight copies and I said "Okay everybody here you go!" And then we started doing that, and soon enough, you know, by playing the same stuff you get it in your ears.  The goal for playing for dances is to play for the dance and watch the dancers, not look at your sheet music.  I mean sheet music is a great thing to get you to square one but playing for dances really is about engaging with the floor because it's really a two-part thing that you're playing and they're dancing and there's a synergy that's rewarding for both, and it can't happen if you're peering at your music stand.  As we know from participating as a in Revels, you can’t walk on stage and sing your song, to the people or at them, by looking at sheet music.  And the joy of making music is having it flow out of you and not worrying about a score.  So what that required was having colleagues who understood this. They would look at the sheet music, "Oh yeah we're going to do that," but then they would mostly look at the dancers or each other because sometimes we would play it differently from whats on the page.  We might play it longer or we might play it shorter, some songs I would say I would go around and say, “Ok, up a half step guys!”  And so sometimes that worked.  Haha!

Maggie: Haha!  Yeah but you’re pointing at a really good point I was going to ask you… what makes a really good dance musician? And you're saying you’re looking at the floor, the feet, but get a little deeper into that.  Like Steve Riley playing his music on his accordion, or you at Pinewoods… When it’s really working, what do you think’s going on besides just looking at the dancers?  

Tom: So, well part of it is to have a driving energy. Technically you're kind of playing on the edge of the beat or slightly in front of the beat. I mean Louis Armstrong, the great legendary Jazz Trumpeter, people asked him "What does it mean, or how do you know you're when you're swinging?" or "What does swing mean?" and he said "When you're playing and you're really cooking and you feel like you're rushing and your speeding up but you're not, that's when you're swinging." So I kind of feel like good dance music propels the dancers. I know now from digital recording, we have either the advantage or embarrassing opportunities when we record our tracks to look at them as we're editing them and we can see exactly where that ictus happens, and you have your bass and your guitar and your drummer, and then you look at the instruments that sound like they're driving there. If anything, they're slightly ahead, they're anticipating, but they're not rushing. So I like to think back of Louis Armstrong's, you know, when you feel like you're pushing, but you're not, and so I would say it's a driving rhythm. So you mentioned Steve Riley, of course, he was, he is a master at that, and that's what really propels the dance. I would say we watch the dancers, we don't watch their feet, we kind of watched them as an entity, and I think playing on the edge of the beat, that's one thing. I don't know if you have to play with... you have to be lively, you have to be kind of visceral, you can't be hesitant…

Maggie: What about, is it important to know how to do... talking about international dance, like trying to play Norwegian music for Norwegian folk dancing, is it important to know how to do that dance?  

Tom: Well, it is.  And you mentioned Norwegian, so the Scandinavian community can be very picky. But what it is is that, and this is true of all music, in particular, dance music, the beat isn’t just 1-2-3, 1-2-3. So Scandinavian, if you’re playing a hambo or a (Norwegian Waltz) for example, it’s usually 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.  Or in some cases, you have this *sings joyfully*.  So these subtleties, we call them agogic accents in classical, you know you stretch the beat here and you make up for it here.  So your overall rhythm is exact but you’re playing beat 2 slightly early.  And maybe you’re playing beat 3 slightly late, those kinds of things.

Maggie: Like in a springer?

Tom: Like a springer, that's right.  And there are tunes... Well I was going to mention, Alex Cordre is an American who has been living in Norway for decades, she comes here and teaches.  One year she brought dances from this particular region, and I’m trying to remember the name, Finnskog?  But they are all 3/8 tunes or3/4 tunes but they were played as 7.  *sings joyfully again*  1-2-3-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2.  And that’s how it sounded to me.  I transcribed all her tunes in 7.  But when she arrived, I said, “Oh these tunes are interesting, they’re like hambos but in 7.”  She says, “They are NOT in 7!”  And then she showed me some notations, the time signature?  3 ½ / 8.  Which didn’t make any sense.  But the idea was it’s in 3, but that first beat is longer. It's held a little longer

Maggie: My point was because I’ve tried to learn a little bit of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddling, which is incredibly demanding.  So at some of the dance camps, music camps, if you learn the dance step then your body feels that thing that you’re describing.  You’re not counting it in your head, but you feel it.  I would think that’s very important to be a good dance musician.  

Tom: Yes I got off your original point, which is that that’s right.  After having danced for five years, for example, Balkan dancing, they had lots of what we call “compound rhythms.”  Mixtures of twos and threes.  There were a number of these dances that I saw people dancing, line dances.  And I’d say, "This rhythm is just bizarre!  I cannot figure out.”  I would sort of start dancing but really couldn’t figure it out.  But eventually, I could do the dance.  I still didn’t know what rhythm it was.  When I finally tried to play it on the accordion, at first I would imitate what I heard...  when I tried to write it down I was like "But how?"... but eventually you get the idea that what’s important is the feel, not the beat.  So we had Balkan tunes that are, 1-2-3-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2, etc.  But you don’t count it!  Counting it would be ridiculous… you feel!  *yet again sings joyfully*  So yes, I agree, having done the dance, and having been involved with the dance community, is probably essential for becoming a good dance musician.  

Maggie: Yeah, thanks.  Well, you already talked about the maintenance and care, I was going to ask you about that, of the instruments.  And you have a lot of them, do any of your vast collection of wonderful accordions require more care than others?  Is it that you just keep an eye on all of them?

Tom: By far the one I play the most is the large Guerrini, the 96 bass keyboard accordion.  And as I mentioned, I take it once a year to the Button Box and have them adjust specific reeds.  Because Button Box is really devoted to their own line of concertinas that were started by their founder.  They don’t really... they do deal with piano accordions, but it’s not really their specialty.  Unfortunately, there are not many accordion technicians around.  There are fewer and fewer of them because most people are happy to play the accordion that they got out of their grandmother’s attic So I’ve been dealing with the Button Box for a long, long time and so they will service my instrument, but only if I specify what I want to be done to the specific notes, and then they’ll go in there.  But it’s daunting to take an accordion apart.  The biggest challenge is tuning the reeds on the reed block.  You take the reed block out and if it’s a tone sharper you have to take all the other reed blocks out in order to get to the one inside and then you take it out and you put it on the bench to tune it.  And you use a device and it seems okay, and then you put it back, and then it’s different because the air pressure changes and... you know?  I would not want to be an accordion tuner!  Haha!

Maggie: Haha! Something to remember!

Tom: I am amazed at the patience of Bob Snope at Button Box, he’s a master of patience.  

Maggie: Yeah, they’re wonderful!  Well, as we look to wrapping things up there, is there anything I haven’t thought to ask you that you’d like to add to our conversation?  

Tom: I think we’ve covered a wide range of topics and I thank you for this opportunity. You’ve raised a lot of interesting points, and I hope that people have more questions after viewing my song piece, I’m happy for them to get in touch with me in any way.  I’m easily found online.  I would say that the past nine months have certainly been challenging us all, all of our gigs have been canceled, obviously.  But I’ve been busier than ever making music here in my studio.  A lot of the dance camps, I’ve created some pre-recorded video series.  Right now I’m finishing up a two-hour dance session with my eight-piece band that we’re going to be doing for New Year’s.  And then I played live for a number of dances.  At first, it felt weird, me playing solo into my laptop, watching like 400 people around the world dancing to my music.  It seemed like, really?  But people really, they want to connect.  And being able to pre-record here and I send my recordings out to my colleagues and they video themselves playing to it and I bring it back here and I assemble it through the miracle of modern technology, which is wonderful.  It’s been a lot of fun!  I’ve also been supporting the Folk Arts Center of New England, which I do a lot of web work for and technical consulting, they’ve been featuring teachers every week from around the world.  So everything’s online.  And we are looking forward very much to being back in person, but I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to be able to practice here and work up,  for example, the Revels piece was a great opportunity for me to really hone some of those pieces.  And so while it’s been enjoyable in a different kind of way, we are looking forward very much to being back in the swing of things, as I’m sure we all are.  

Maggie: We are!  Thank you very much!  

Tom: Well thank you, Maggie!  And thanks to the Revels folks for having me, and Dave and Dave, the technical team.  It’s been a blast!  So I hope you all enjoyed it and let’s look forward to 2021!  Yay!