Keyboard instruments—to be played while strapped to the performer— were already used in the middle ages. These instruments were miniature organs and consisted of one rank of flue-pipes, one or two bellows and a single manual usually with less than two octaves range.
The invention of the first free-reed portable organ (Kirsnik- Kratzenstein, 1780) enabled the creation of a number of instruments with a greater keyboard range (Harmonium, Physharmonika and Orgue-expressif), and—at the beginning of the nineteenth century—some inventors were able to build a keyboard mechanism, the bellows and the reed blocks all in a compact and movable body, giving birth to instruments like the Accordion (Demian, 1829), Concertina (Wheatstone, 1829), Bandoneon (Band, 1840).
While most of these instruments have maintained their original setup and remained related to specific styles of music, the accordion has evolved considerably, since it has developed in many different directions. From being a tiny box with a few buttons, able to perform a couple of simple chords, the accordion has become a complex polyphonic and multitimbral instrument. A huge number of different models, configurations, keyboard layout, mechanical devices, tonal ranges and stops were experimented over the years.
The challenge in accordion making lies in getting the right balance between the enhancement of sound qualities and mechanical devices, in having a great keyboard range, a large variety of registers and, at the same time, limited size and weight.
Ergonomics—the science that deals with the interaction between individuals and technology—has been applied to accordion making and playing quite recently. This approach demands a broad knowledge of the
use and the functioning of musical instruments in relation with human anatomy.
Nowadays, the most advanced full range accordion, the so-called “classical accordion”, has two polyphonic button keyboards, a seven octaves range (E1-C#8), four reed stops with 15 combinations in the right hand, and 3-4 stops with several combinations in the left hand. Additionally, a converter system for the left hand manual which allows switching from a polyphonic manual to the traditional Stradella Bass manual with pre- composed chords.
The majority of students from Conservatories, Academies all over the world, as well as most of the professional performers, play this type of instrument, which was also confirmed as the standard classical accordion by the International Accordion Society. Original contemporary accordion works are mainly composed for button keyboard classical accordion.
This complex, yet compact, instrument is equipped with the chromatic button keyboard layout.The isomorphic features of this keyboard system allows a fast and easy visualization of the configurations; consequently, a significant simplification of the fingering prevents fingers from stretching excessively and reduces wrist flexion, extension and ulnar deviations.
The right keyboard is positioned forward, detached from the performer’s body, to avoid an awkward position (drawn back) of the upper arm and the stiffening of the shoulder. Even the slight slope of the keyboard (a decreasing angle towards the external edge) allows a more natural alignment of the wrist and elbow.
There are slightly different systems of button keyboards, where the most common are C-griff (C on the first row) and B-griff (C on the third row). From my point of view, the C-griff system allows a more natural adaptation of the hand while B-griff constrains the wrist to a pronounced ulnar deviation and leads to finger crossing and overlapping.
Accordions adopting a piano keyboard layout on the right manual are also quite popular, though this system is not as effective as in piano or organ, where both hands play on the same manual. For instance, pianists may exploit the possibility of joining hands when intervals are too large for one hand or when they deal with complex polyphonic textures; they may also use the very effective cross-hand technique. In piano accordion, the right hand by itself has to deal with constant over-stretching to reach even the most ordinary configurations, so the wrist is under stress and constraint all the time. Despite being excessively big and unwieldy, piano accordions have a quite limited keyboard range.
As the italian classical accordion pioneer Salvatore Di Gesualdo used to say “the classical accordion is a medium”, able to combine the technical and timbral features of all its predecessors and relatives. Its versatility allows us to reinterpret the literature of ancient keyboard instruments such as the portative organ, harpsichord, harmonium and organ, to elaborate its traditional repertoire with the influence of modern styles, and, most of all, to expand its horizons developing a prolific contemporary music literature.
Accordion making has evolved enormously and is constantly moving towards higher standards even though many accordionists like to celebrate and glorify certain types of “wooden box” above others, in order to preserve the pride and the identity of a particular “tool”. Indeed, I am aware that instruments are not just tools, and that they are the result of cultural, social and musical development. I also think that it is not a particular instrument that makes a real musician, but rather the opposite. True musicians can play any kind of “sound object”.They are able to get a wonderful sound out of the worst instrument but, on the other hand, it is also true that an excellent musician may elevate the refinement of her skills to a sublime sphere only by playing a highly developed instrument.
In any case, as far as it concerns the issues in our book, the pursuit of absolute efficiency—both in the technical and technological aspects of music playing—is a matter of primary importance to deal with and to handle such a big and heavy object during the huge amount of time spent practicing.
Teachers must be responsible for recommending the appropriate type of instrument to their students since early education. Instrument that are too big, heavy or poorly designed may cause a lot of troubles like back, neck, shoulder pain and scoliosis, which, over the years, may provoke serious injuries.
This article is available also in: Italian