"I walk onto the concert stage holding an Accordion:
Strike one against me.
For over an hour I perform contemporary works:
Strike two against me.
Time and time again I face this challenge with fierce
determination, seeking at least a base hit each time.."
By Matthew Clark
[Reprinted from the Oct, 1980 edition of Keyboard Magazine]
ACCORDIONISTS, IN ALL likelihood, do not suffer from persecution complexes more than any other
group of normal citizens, but every now and then, when you hear one of them wondering in bewilderment
why the accordion has not shaken its image as a cornball instrument, in the other-wise chic world of
modern keyboards, you sense the frustration that many of this lot must occasionally feel, along with the
humor that helps them cope with the situation.
Take Joseph Macerollo, one of the most respected figures in the progressive fringe of the accordion
community. On the liner notes to his album Interaccodinotesta, this internationally-acclaimed artist, this
veteran of recitals and performances with a long list of contemporary chamber ensembles, was moved to
write the lines that hang like a despairing cloud above. Seldom has a baseball metaphor been given such a
Despite these odds, though, Macerollo has been batting nearly 1,000 in the Avant-Garde League, thanks to
his masterful work with the Giulietti Bassetti free-bass or chromatic accordion, his Louisville Slugger. Thus
equipped, he has appeared in concert with a variety of respected conductors, like Victor
Feldbrill, Boyd Neel, Szymon Goldberg, and Luciano Berio, and with such instrumental aggregations as the Orford String
Quartet, the Purcell String Quartet, the Toronto Symphony String Orchestra, the National Arts Centre
Ensemble, and the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra. In 1975 he chaired the International Accordion
Symposium in Toronto, with Yuri Kazaakov, Hugo Noth, James Nightingale, Alain Abbott, and other
well-known artists in attendance. When not teaching at Queen's University, the University of
Toronto or the Royal Conservatory of Music, he frequently performs modernistic works written for him by some of
Canada's top composers. In addition to all this, he has published a valuable reference volume, The
Accordion Resource Manual [Avondale Press, P.O. Box 451, Willowdale, Ontario M2N 5Tl Canada].
Given the critical acclaim he has won, you might say that Macerollo has scored a free-bass hit.
Although he is known mainly for his work with contemporary music, Macerollo's heritage as an
accordionist is in the conservative traditions of the instrument. Born in Guelph, Ontario, sixty miles west of
Toronto, he was steered toward the accordion by his parents, who were eager for him to follow in the
footsteps of his uncle, an accordion player specializing in wedding gigs for local Italian families. By the age
of eleven, he was leading his own combo. "A friend of mine used to pick me up and literally put the
accordion on my lap," Macerollo laughs. "I used to play for four hours almost nonstop at these weddings. I
was one of those zombie players."
Before long, young Joey was expanding his field, playing at political functions, switching from Liberal to
Conservative rallies night after night during elections, and charity fund-raisers; for seventeen years he
performed for the Ontario Reformatory. It wasn't until 1963 that his horizons expanded beyond
Guelph, however. In that year he won the Canadian Accordion Championships, and on the strength of that victory
he was sent to the World Accordion Championships, where, in successive years, he placed ninth and
Meanwhile, Macerollo was pursuing his academic degree, and in 1965 he graduated with a bachelor's
degree from the University of Toronto. Originally he had been a piano major, but he dropped that major
because his heart was more with bellows than with strings. No accordion major was available, however,
so Macerollo wound up earning his degree in musicology. He did manage to squeeze in one performance
on his favorite instrument, a performance that earned him his first teaching post.
"In '65, because nobody really knew I played accordion, I asked to do a solo recital on accordion," he
remembers. "Of course hardly anybody came, but one person who did was Dr. Boyd Neel [formerly
Principal of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto]. I didn't know him personally, but he asked Richard
Johnson, who was head of the Conservatory Summer School, to ask me if I would be interested in teaching
accordion. I always remember Dr. Johnson's remarks. He said, 'I hate accordion, and I don't know why
there should be a place for it, but nevertheless I'll go along with it, since my boss wanted me to ask you.'"
Swept up by the enthusiasm of the proposal, Macerollo accepted the offer, and in the summer of 1967 he
began his teaching career before six young students.
Macerollo's concert career began picking up at about the same time. In January 1967 he premiered the
first accordion concerto ever written by a Canadian. The composer, Morris Surdin, had been
commissioned by Boyd Neel, who conducted the debut performance with Macerollo and the Hart House
orchestra in Toronto. Five months later they presented it again, at the Canadian pavillion in the Montreal
Expo; this performance was recorded and later broadcast by Radio Canada International.
Since then, Macerollo has earned his M.A. in musicology, recorded a number of albums, and organized a
syllabus at the Royal Conservatory on free-bass accordion.
Just to reassure ourselves that free-bass on an accordion had nothing to do with illegal drug mixtures, we
began with an attempt to clarify just what it is.
* * * * * * * *
What exactly does the term "free-bass accordion" mean?
It refers to an arrangement of single-note buttons on the left hand, which allows for a pitch range of
anywhere up to six and a half octaves, so you would think almost like a pianist. The only thing is, on a
piano you think of the keys as two rows moving in semitones, more or less, whereas on the accordion we
have three rows on the left hand, so you are moving in three rows of semitones, but it's all chromatically
arranged. These buttons give us a fantastic range. They are also close together, so we can get a wider
span than on the piano. It also differs from the piano in that the tone quality of the two manuals is different,
the sort of nasal quality you get in the left hand and the quality of sound on the right are quite dissimilar, so
you have to think of them as two completely separate manuals. And there's a slightly different thinking
process involved in terms of how you move on keys and how you move on buttons. The touch is also a bit
Don't most accordions have chord buttons for the left hand?
That's the system you normally find. Everybody has an accordion in their closet, so to speak - the standard
accordion, on which you play all your waltzes and polkas for dances. Basically the left hand on that
accordion is arranged as a folk instrument diatonically in fifths. Take a bass note, let's say C, on the left
hand. The note you have above it is a G, and above the G is a D, so it's arranged in the cycle of fifths. Then below the C is the F, and below the F is the Bb. Now each one of these bass note buttons has
corresponding buttons to produce a major chord, a minor chord, a seventh chord, and a diminished chord, so
you can play boom-chank-chank, boom-chank-chank in any key.
How wide a range do the single-note buttons cover?
The single-note range is only an octave. In fact, it's less than an octave. It doesn't produce an actual
scale, as you have on the piano or the free-bass accordion. Some people have tried to give the illusion of
that through skillful changing of registers, but that's not the same thing really. Our registers on the left hand
allow you a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. But it's really an awkward thing, because you have to switch
among them while you're in movement.
And the free bass solves that problem?
It solves all that without necessarily relying on switches.
So before you started on the free-bass accordion . . .
I was on the standard accordion. The kinds of things I actually played on my recital in '65 were
contemporary pieces written for standard accordion. I was always partial to contemporary music. I was
raised on polkas and waltzes, and I played all the transcriptions, the mutilated versions of orchestral works
of the nineteenth century, badly transcribed. I used to play all these things. Although I enjoyed it, I felt that
in the light of my musical experience it was a redundancy, and I was very frustrated by it. So when I
heard that people were writing original music for the standard accordion I started playing it. I played things
like Paul Creston's Prelude And Dance, Alexander Tcherepnin's Partita, Marlon Lockwood's Sonata
Fantasia, and a Rondo by Otto Leuning. A lot of very fine people in the States had been commissioned to
write by the American Accordionists Association. The Association was in some ways doing the right thing,
but I felt that in other ways it wasn't. They were commissioning these pieces in order to say that we are
getting idiomatic music for the standard accordion and that therefore the standard accordion should be the
classical accordion. In actual fact they should have been commissioning these fellows to write for the
When you began teaching at the Royal Conservatory, how did you go about devising an instructional
There was a committee of three people, including myself, that set up a syllabus for free-bass accordion.
Basically I worked with ten or twelve composers in Canada. They gave us seven or eight hundred pages
of music written at the elementary level, from, say, beginner stages to intermediate, and even a couple of
advanced things. Boosey & Hawkes [30 W 57th St., New York, NY 10019] published a few of them, but
Waterloo Music [dist. by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., 866 Third Ave., New York, NY 10022]
agreed to publish about eighty percent of it.
What kind of pieces were they?
They were all original pieces. We ended up doing transcriptions of some things like Mozart's earliest
keyboard works, but nothing from the Romantic period; we stayed away from that. It was either Baroque
or very early elementary Classical period works. We also stayed away from anything idiomatic for the
piano. Then came all the contemporary music. We actually were way in front of the instructional
programs for a lot of other instruments in making a transition to contemporary music, since the accordion
was something of a new instrument in terms of being formally taught. Our study books, for instance, are
not dexterity drills, like Hanon and Czerny, but studies in compositional technique. So a student of eight or
nine is already playing things in polytonal keys, and we've got them playing twelve-tone works.
Do you teach both standard and free-bass at the Conservatory?
No, we only examine and teach on the free-bass accordion, with the result that we've alienated almost 99
percent of the accordion world. Pretty much everybody plays the standard accordion. But this did put
some pressure on the very aggressive-minded young people coming up, and a number of teachers made the
transition after looking very carefully at what we're doing.
How has the accordion scene changed since you began your program at the Conservatory?
In 1970 the first accordion major was accepted at Queen's University, and that was free-bass. And in
1972 the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto instituted the accordion major. Since then it has
been all uphill. I've got six accordion majors at U. of T. right now, and six at Queen's. You can use the
accordion as a major at the University of Calgary. We've had about fifteen works written for accordion
and varying combinations at an advanced level. There are three Canadian works for accordion and string
quartet, three works for accordion and string orchestra, two works for accordion and four synthesizers, two
works for accordion and five percussion instruments, and two works for accordion and guitar. All of these
pieces have been performed as well.
You must be pleased by the progress being made in your field.
If you had asked me ten years ago what I thought could be accomplished in a decade, I would have never
believed we could have done as much as we have. It's gone three times faster than I expected. But there
are areas where there's a lot of work to be done. For instance, we're such an isolated group, and this is
such an isolated phenomenon, that nobody really knows about what s happening other than the highly
specialized people who are working in it. The general commercial public is not aware of what we're
doing. Little by little I think these opportunities will open up. The accordion is an image thing. You'd be
surprised. You tell somebody you play the accordion, and right away you re branded. You might as well
be in the same category as a banjo or bagpipes or something like that. It's sort of a non-serious instrument,
or it's not usable in a jazz sense.
There are some well-known jazz players, though.
Sure, you have fine players like Tommy Gumina, who played for [clarinetist] Buddy De Franco over the
years. Gordie Fleming, who's now living in Toronto, is a very, very fine and generally tasty accordionist.
The person we know most is Art Van Damme, who told me that he can't even go to the bathroom at
Customs without hearing his music. His is typically the Muzak accordion sound. Then there's Dick
Contina, who's the showman type. But he's limited the accordion thing because he sings, he performs with
his kid and he's into some piano work. He's seen by a lot of people, but he's not a good accordion player;
he's a very bad one. And then you get people like Myron Floren, who could have done a lot for the
accordion. You would think that he and Lawrence Welk, given the opportunity of their show - they
practically run it together - would give some young kid in the States an opportunity to appear on the
program, even if they played two minutes of free-bass music. But they wouldn't. Sometimes I think
they're afraid of the changes that are taking place, afraid these young kids could wipe them off the map
musically. And also they probably feel their audience isn't ready for it. But I think that if you've got a
successful program, you can bomb on it for two minutes and people aren't going to turn you off. Welk's
credibility has been established for so long. When the accordion has been so underrated over the years and
since it's been so good to both of them, you would think they'd just extend themselves even a modest inch
to give some kid a break, and they just won't do it. It's really a tragedy. it's like how they say in women's lib
that sometimes your biggest obstacles are women. I feel the same way in terms of the accordion. The
biggest obstacle we've faced has been accordionists themselves, who've been absolutely militant in their
rejection. In a sense we've been very fortunate having contemporary music, because we've polarized
ourselves from this part of the accordion community. But it has hurt, because we don't reach the public
that well. As a result, if a kid starts with accordion, he or she is going to begin on the standard model and
then make that difficult transition, if and when he decides to, to the free-bass.
Some of your students are teaching free-bass accordion now, however.
That's true. We've taken about ten years to get to this point. We've got about four hundred students in and
around southern Ontario playing free-bass. I'm just in the process of forming something called the
Classical Accordion Society of Canada [3296 Cindy Cresc., Mississauga, Ont. L4Y 3J6, Canada]. I know
that name sounds very general and vague, but the word "classical" is supposed to take care of them
separation between the commercial repertoire and what we're trying to do. It's a misnomer, because
nobody really knows what you mean by classical music, but at the same time I didn't want to create a title
like, say, the Chromatic Free-Bass Accordion Society, because nobody would know then what you were
talking about either. The title we chose does the job well enough of suggesting that there's a difference in
the kind of music we're interested in. We're trying to encourage research, commissions, and acceptance
by educators, eventually leading to public awareness.
How would you help someone who doesn't live in Toronto, but wants to play free-bass accordion?
We would find a way to get a teacher to them. In some cases it doesn't have to be an accordion teacher.
If we could get a piano teacher interested in free-bass, that person could end up teaching it. I do have
some piano teachers studying with me just to learn about the accordion. So wherever the interest is with
the student, we can find a way of getting instruction. I've also got very talented students who come from
all over Canada. These kids were interested enough to travel a little distance to get a lesson. Some of
them are much better than the players you had through the old methods of instruction. I'm not putting down
other accordion teachers; I just believe that nobody really thought about pursuing new ways of shedding
light on repertoire or teaching methods. They all taught the same stuff, and basically were content to play
the same old way with an accordion orchestra or solo, doing the same old material. Very few of them
extended themselves to go beyond what every accordion studio was doing.
What new techniques are you imparting to your students?
I'm working with my students on very complex ideas of breathing. A lot of it is connected with whether
you believe that the secret of playing the accordion is in the bellows. I feel that's partly true, but I tie the
relationship of the bellows to the weight of the hands. I teach the complete body as part of the production
of sound. Lots of times when you hear a student playing the accordion, you hear that the instrument is
totally strapped in. They just push in and out. For me, that's like saying that if you drop your rear end on a
piano you're going to get a sound. The mere fact that you get sound by pushing in and out is not a secret.
The question is how you breathe it. The bellows pressure and the weight of the sound are tied together.
And you have to know that your buttons have to go down quicker than your right hand, because the reed
response varies between the hands. So weight and pressure and rates at which responses take place and
then are articulated by the bellows stress, are what I teach. In some German and Czech schools they
teach that the secret is only in the bellows, and they don't relate hand and body motions, with the result that
the sound is somewhat harsh. It comes out a bit sloppy and you can really tell where the bellows are being
How do people back in Guelph react to the music you're playing now?
Even my own father still says to me, "What are you doing?" I play some of these things for him, and he
admires what I'm doing, but unfortunately he just can't understand it. I played at the Guelph Spring Festival
in 1970 and again in '72. 1 played two works - one was the piece for accordion and string orchestra, with
the McGill ensemble, and I did a thing with the Orford Quartet. Both were very mild selections. The
audience came in droves because I'm a native of Guelph. Everybody wanted to hear Joey play, but Joey
didn't play what they thought he was going to play. And many of them realized that a gap had set in
between what I was doing and what they thought I was going to do. It came as a shock; they were all sort
of taken aback, but they accepted it because it was me. Had it not been a local hero sort of thing they
probably would have been swearing about having to pay money to go to such a stupid concert, but as a
result of who I was they accepted it. They said, "Well, it's different!"
AN ANNOTATED DISCOGRAPHY
Hart House Orchestra (performing Surdin's Concerto No. 1 for accordion and string orchestra),
Radio Canada International (c/o Canadian Broadcasting Corp., P.O. Box 500, Station A, Toronto,
Ontario M5W lE6, Canada), RCI-238.
lnteraccodinotesta (performing Pentland's Interplay for accordion and string quartet, with the
Purcell String Quartet, Shafer's La Testa d'Adriane with soprano Mary Morrison, Krenek's
Acco-Music, and Nordheim's Dinosaurus for accordion and tape), Melbourne (c/o Waterloo Music
Co., 3 Regina St. N., P.O. Box 250, Waterloo, Ontario N2J 4A5, Canada), SMLP 4034.
Joe Macerollo, Free-Bass Accordion (performing Surdin's Serious I, II, & V, movements from
Wuensch's Mini-Suites, Dolin's Sonata, and Fiala's Sinfonietta Concertata for accordion,
harpsichord, and string orchestra, with the McGill Chamber Orchestra), Radio Canada International,
Shafer-Loving/Toi (an audio-visual tone poem for soprano, three mezzo-sopranos, two or three
speakers, dancers, chamber orchestra, tape, and accordion), Melbourne, SMLP 4035-6.
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