The accordion can look a little intimidating when you first get your hands on one. Not to worry though, this interesting instrument will have you in love in no time.
While the accordion, like any other instrument, can be hard to master, it is one of those instruments that will allow you to play simple tunes relatively quickly. Actually, when compared to other instruments, getting the basics of accordion technique under your fingers and some basic tunes should take about 6-8 weeks. That’s not long to invest before you can show off a new skill, right?
To call yourself an intermediate player, can take you up to 2 years of consistent practice, and like all music becoming a master of the accordion can take a lifetime. However, you should have enough experience at the 10-year mark to call yourself an expert – and maybe consider teaching someone else to play the accordion!
Why Learn the Accordion?
That stereotype we have all heard of accordion players doing nothing but playing polkas is exactly that – A stereotype. The accordion is a truly unique instrument and is a lot more versatile than you would think.
Accordion players can accompany themselves while playing a melody. Not something that is possible for our wind and string instrument-playing friends. This opens up a world of possibilities and musical genres with everything from Jazz to Classical music being suited to the instrument.
Factors That Affect How Long it Takes to Learn Accordion
Whenever we learn a new skill, like how to play a musical instrument, there are a number of factors that will affect how long it takes you to learn. The accordion is no different. How old you are when you start playing, any prior musical experience you have, the way in which you learn, and the type of accordion you have will all affect how fast you are able to learn the accordion. There is no one single way to learn to play the accordion
As we age, it becomes a little harder for us to learn and absorb new things. That is because the older we get the harder it is for the neurotransmitters in our brains to process and relay information, and our reaction times slow down a little. Think about how easily 5-year-olds learn a new language, compared to a 54-year-old taking their first French lesson.
The same thing applies to music. Usually, the younger you start, the easier you are going to find any new skill. This doesn’t mean that age should keep you from learning the accordion. It just means that your approach to learning may be a little different.
Prior Musical Experience
Having some prior experience with another musical instrument is definitely helpful. Piano players will find the transition to a piano accordion easier, while a string player may find the arco motion of the bow that they are accustomed to can easily carry over into getting air into the bellows of your accordion.
And having some knowledge of the basics of music theory will go a long way in helping you learn accordion chords and melodies.
Absolute musical beginners may find that it takes them a little longer to learn because they first have to get all those fundamentals in order. Don’t let that put you off though, we have all been there.
Honestly, the biggest factor affecting how long it takes you to learn is you. To get better, you need to get good at practice first. Frequency is way more important than the length of your practice session. You will learn a lot more in 6-8 weeks of consistent practice for 20 to 30 minutes a day than you will if you practice for an hour once a week. Repetition is key. You need to put in the time for muscle memory to be built up.
In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” author Malcolm Gladwell refers to the “10 000 hour rule” that says that in order to master a new skill, you need to spend 10 000 hours practicing that skill. That is a great rule of thumb for learning a new musical instrument.
Type of Accordion
Accordions come in two main types, namely the button accordion and the piano accordion. The piano accordion, as the name suggests, has piano keys. The button accordion is generally considered the easier option for beginners. You might feel a little intimidated at first, as you will have to memorize all the buttons.
Once you have those buttons committed to memory though, you will find the button accordion easier to navigate. Chords are easier to play, and the instrument is also lighter than the piano accordion.
How You Learn
If you are teaching yourself to play the accordion, it will likely take you longer to learn than someone who is taking accordion lessons with an experienced accordion teacher. Learning from a professional instructor will ensure that you don’t miss anything and learn accordion correctly. It will also ensure that your technique is correct from the get-go. Not only that, a good teacher will teach you to play many musical styles.
It is absolutely possible to teach yourself to play the accordion, but it will require more dedication and effort than it would with a teacher who already knows what they are doing. There is a lot of information for beginners online, and definitely more than enough for an interested beginner to get some tunes going. Most people either teach themselves to play by ear or if they are able, by reading sheet music.
Self-Taught by Ear
Playing by ear means that you will be memorizing a lot of music. The best way to start learning something by ear is to start out by humming it. If you can find the pitch that you are humming on your accordion, you will likely be able to figure out the gaps between what you are playing and what you can hear.
Playing by ear does have its pros and cons. On the one hand, being able to play tunes by ear is invaluable for a musician. On the other hand, learning only by ear doesn’t give you any music theory knowledge at all.
This YouTube video is a great resource for playing by ear.
Self-Taught by Reading Sheet Music
Teaching yourself to play accordion using sheet music, requires you to already be able to read music. So this may be less difficult for you if you are coming to the accordion as a new instrument, rather than your first instrument.
This YouTube video does a great job explaining some basic theories on the accordion.
Steps to Learning to Play the Accordion
Okay, so now let’s get to what we really want to know. We are all here to find out how to play the accordion, right? In the next few steps, we are going to look at some of the fundamentals you need in order to embark on your accordion adventure.
Understanding the importance of posture and playing position, getting to know the structure of your accordion and how the bellows work and what they do, as well as some hand coordination, will help you get a really good grounding for getting those first few tunes under your fingers.
Get Used to Proper Posture
The very first step to playing is to make sure that your posture is correct. This avoids RSIs and ensures you are able to play for longer periods of time. Make sure that you put the accordion in front of your chest. Use the straps to hold it in a comfortable position. You can sit or stand, but make sure that you don’t slouch because it will make playing much harder. If you are sitting, make sure that both of your feet touch the ground and your hips are level.
Once you have the accordion in a comfortable position, it is time to look at where to put your fingers. Start with your wrist in a comfortable position with your fingers touching the keys, and move your left hand between the bass button and the strap
Get an Understanding of the Accordion’s Structure
Whether you are playing a piano accordion or a button accordion, knowing the basic structure of the instrument is important. For button accordions, you have to be familiar with the button layout and remember which buttons have holes. Piano accordions need you to learn the keys on the left-hand side.
The accordion also has register switches or couplers that change the tone of your accordion. You can usually find these on both sides of the accordion.
The button keys found on the left-hand side are responsible for producing harmony when you play the accordion; an air valve allows air to move out of the instrument silently.
Lastly, the bellows are the folds on your accordion and they help move air through to make a sound.
This YouTube video from Classic FM explains how accordions work.
Practice Hand Coordination
From the very beginning, start to learn to familiarize your hands with notes and fingering. A really important concept to wrap your head around is limb independence. You need to be able to use each hand independently in order to play. It is important that you practice with each hand separately. Don’t focus only on your dominant hand.
Once you are able to operate your hands independently, you are well on your way. Now you can start getting familiar with where the notes are, and how to play chords. A good place for beginners to start is the major chord. From there you can move on different chord types and scales.
Get Used to Accordion Bellows
The bellows are often something that beginners struggle with, so it is a good idea to get used to how your bellows work. The bellows are really the heart of your accordion. Getting good at using the bellows will allow you to start getting used to the phrasing and dynamics of your accordion.
So we will start with the basics. The bellows work when a player pulls apart the two sides of the instrument. The bellows force air into the accordion, and when you push inward, the air is forced over the reeds to make a sound.
To practice this, start by opening and closing the bellows while you listen to the note that you are making. You will be able to hear from the volume and tone how much air you need. Once you have a handle on properly sounding the notes with the accordion’s bellows, you can start experimenting with dynamics to make your playing more interesting and get you out of beginner level
How Often Should I Practice Accordion?
If you really want to see your practice time pay off more quickly, Experts recommend committing to a daily practice routine.
Now, that’s not to say that you need to put in two four-hour long practice sessions a day. Taking half an hour every day will give you results in no time. And if you are too busy to commit to a daily routine, then half an hour every other day will work as well.
To keep your practice routine on schedule, commit to a scheduled time every day. Don’t spend the whole practice session on one element either. A well-rounded practice routine keeps you interested.
One approach is to split your practice session into three sections. If you have a 30-minute practice session, you can spend the first 10 minutes on scales or a technical exercise. The second 10 minutes can be used to learn a song or melodies. For the last 10 minutes, get experimental! Play something that you find fun so that your practice session ends on a high note (no pun intended) and you’re eager to reach for your accordion at the next session.
There are other ways to split your practice time, but remember that you are here to learn music, so make learning songs one of the most important things you do. Remember that knowing the C Major scale doesn’t really mean much if you don’t know how to apply it musically.
Is the accordion hard to learn to play?
No, the accordion is not hard to learn to play. With a little dedicated time and practice, you will be on your way very soon. Like any other instrument, what you put in is what you get out though. If you keep a regular practice schedule, within 6 -8 weeks you should know enough chords and melodies and have enough experience to be playing simple songs.
What do the buttons on the accordion play?
On the piano accordion, the left-hand buttons represent complete chords. Root notes of the chord are arranged in the circle of fifths. This means that every root has the 5th on one side of the root and the 4th on the opposite side. This YouTube video explains more about chords in an easy-to-digest way. From there, the two rows that are closest to the bellows play single bass notes on the root of the chord and the third, and all the others play complete chords.
If you start with the button closest to the bellows and then work down to the bottom or hand-strap end you have the 3rd, the root, then major, minor, 7th, and diminished.
What is the easiest type of accordion to learn?
As mentioned earlier, although the initial learning curve can feel a little steeper because beginners have to memorize what all the buttons do, the button accordion is actually the easier choice.
Once the buttons are memorized, beginners will find them a little easier to get around without the extra keys.
Remember though, that if you are coming from a piano background, you may actually find that a piano accordion feels more familiar to you. For the rest of us though, the button accordion is likely a good choice.