Accordionists' Association encourages young players

Vince Demor walked through a hotel lobby in shorts and a T-shirt, looking like any teenager, except for the accordion around his neck, which he wore as naturally as a lawyer sports a tie. He played exercises quietly as he walked.

Accordions are all over the Sheraton City Center in Baltimore this week, with more than 300 people attending the 2012 American Accordionists' Association Festival. Since Wednesday, there have been competitions, concerts, workshops and lectures. Orchestras of accordions have been rehearsing for Saturday's final performances.

The 16-year-old from Spartanburg, S.C., has been busy checking out the latest accordion models in the exhibit room, catching up with people he met at previous festivals, and, at any time in any place, slipping in a little practice. But Demor isn't partaking of everything.

"I don't like the competitive thing," he said, "and playing in an accordion orchestra is boring."

He seems more comfortable with the instrument than without.

"When he was 8, I got him a toy accordion," said Paul Rots, the boy's grandfather. "He wore it over his coat to school and to church. For two weeks I couldn't get it off him. I figured we had to find him a real accordion and a teacher after that."

The accordion, with its distinctive reedy sound produced by bellows, has not been widely popular in this country since the 1950s and '60s. But the American Accordionists' Association, founded in 1938, has been trying to reverse that, putting emphasis on attracting young players. It's not easy.

"Look around," Rots said. "Most people here are in their 60s and 70s. The young kids aren't coming. That's disappointing. But the people here are great. They really charge you up."

For his part, Demor couldn't be more energized. He has been performing paid gigs. And he just received an invitation to join the Foothills Oompah Band in South Carolina — this teen has no prejudice against polkas, the most stereotypical association with the accordion.

Polkas are not what drew Mark Nejako to the instrument, even though he comes from a family with Polish roots and heard plenty of polkas when he was growing up in Woodbine. He only started lessons three years ago, after a chance meeting with the Virginia-based, veteran accordion teacher Frank Busso, accordionist with the U.S. Air Force Strolling Strings.

"He inspired me," said Nejako, 28, a senior research associate for a biotechnology company who is also working on a graduate degree at the Johns Hopkins University. "The accordion is such a beautiful instrument, and it makes people smile. It's so versatile. It can play classical, jazz, pop. It brings a lot of relief for me."

Nejako is playing in a jazz ensemble formed for this week's festival, putting together four accordionists and young Baltimore-area players on sax, trumpet and bass. It's part of the Youth Involvement Program, an initiative the association introduced last year to spur interest in the accordion.

The band, led by conductor-arranger Don Gerundo, could be heard rehearsing the jazz standard "Perdido" Friday afternoon in the hotel basement. There were starts and stops, and a few tentative, improvised solos, but the combination of the instruments produced a cool vibe.

Cool is one thing the accordion has not been for a long time, but that could be changing. Accordion-spiced folk music of many cultures is gaining young fans in this country, the Brazilian dance music craze forro being the latest example.

"We need to start a new generation on the accordion," said Alex Chudolij, founder of Music Magic USA, a New Jersey-based company that pioneered online sales of accordions 15 years ago. "We need to get little accordions into schools so that kids can start learning. But if the stigma doesn't go away, there's no way a child will take it up."

There's the cost factor, too. New high-end accordions — made in Italy by hand, as they have been for decades — can easily cost $10,000 to $20,000.

"There are not many parents who can pay that," Rots said.

Still, judging by the smattering of young faces at this week's meeting in Baltimore, the instrument has a future. Some talented role models should help, such as 19-year-old Michael Parziale, who entertained at Thursday night's Italian-themed dinner with his younger sister, vocalist Amanda Parziale.

Friday's luncheon concert featured an impressive display of accordion virtuosity in a mostly classical program performed by Bulgarian-born, Pittsburgh-based accordionist Vladimir Mollov, 29, and his wife, violinist Annie Mollova, 28.

The accordion's past is also being given attention at this week's gathering. A display of material from the American Accordionists' Association's history includes a photo from the 1962 meeting that reveals a wide range of age groups in attendance. A photo of the 2012 meeting would look quite different.

Louis Coppola is one of the older generation attending this year. In 1955, at the age of 18, he became the first American to represent his country in an international accordion competition. The Falls Church, Va.-based musician still performs regularly in the Washington area.

"I do think the accordion's popularity is starting to go up again," Coppola said. "I'm encouraged — but I was encouraged 10 years ago."