Originally created 03/19/00

Getting keyed up



Clara Harris holds her instrument like a small sleeping child, cradled softly in her arms. She shifts in her chair slightly, allowing a lone sunbeam to catch the silver bellows and red lacquered wood. Quietly she peers at the open sheet music on a small stand in front of her and then, unbuckling the leather strap that holds the instrument silent and still, she begins to play.

The music escapes from the accordion's reeds, deep and sonorous. The selection Mrs. Harris plays is German, written with the distinctive sound of an accordion in mind.

"Good, Clara," encourages LaRue Mangelly, who has been teaching accordion here at the Mangelly Accordion-Dance School on Peach Orchard Road for more than 45 years. "Do you want to try playing it together?"

The women launch into a duet. Mrs. Mangelly's hands, though battered by arthritis, move confidently across the keyboard under her right hand and the field of buttons under her left. The two women soon find a common rhythm, squeezing and pulling at their instruments in unison, filling the small studio with organ-like music.

The studio is something of a shrine to the accordion. Yellowing photographs and newspaper clippings, touting the achievements of accordion enthusiasts, cover the walls and shelves. From a prominent perch, photos of Mrs. Mangelly's son and daughter, their own accordions strapped to their torsos, smile encouragingly at the students that file through the tiny practice space. Any shelf space not occupied by photographic evidence of Mrs. Mangelly's love for the accordion is occupied by the instruments themselves. Circumnavigating the room, Mrs. Mangelly lifts the dust covers from an assortment of accordions. Some, fashioned with elaborate mother-of-pearl inlay and gleaming chrome, are like works of art. Others display the wear and tear of years of neglect.

"Look, this was kept in a basement," Mrs Mangelly said, running her fingers over the chipped and tattered keyboard of a particularly bedraggled instrument. "Looks like something was eating on it."

Raised in St. Louis during the city's golden jazz era, Mrs. Mangelly began her musical career not as an accordion player, but a saxophonist, playing with jazz luminaries like Louis Armstrong.

"I was a child prodigy on the saxophone and played on the radio out of Chicago," Mrs. Mangelly said. "Then one day my mother said `OK, the saxophone is now 25 years old, how about the accordion,' which was in its infancy at the time."

After strapping on the accordion, Mrs. Mangelly never looked back, performing on USO tours, radio and television. After meeting her husband, Thomas Mangelly, who served in the Army, Mrs. Mangelly began teaching the accordion.

"We had a school pretty much everywhere we went," she said. "I've had schools all over the world so when we came here, I just set up another one. I guess it's in my blood."

Although accordion-type instruments can be traced back as far as China circa 49 B.C., the modern, keyboard-equipped accordion remains a fairly recent arrival on the musical scene, first appearing sometime around the turn of the century. Mrs. Mangelly said that its popularity on the Polka circuit has given the instrument an unfair reputation for being fairly one-dimensional.

"People think the accordion is just an oompah instrument," she said. "That's just not true. We play scales and arpeggios and everything else you can imagine. When I started playing publicly, we always started with classical tunes and then followed with pop tunes. We did that so we could show the versatility of the accordion."

Extremely popular during the 40s and 50s, due in part to bandleaders like Lawrence Welk championing the instrument, the accordion lost much of its footing during the guitar-driven 60s and 70s. Today however, the accordion seems to be making a comeback as musicians are rediscovering the instrument's versatile nature.

"The accordion never went away," Mrs. Mangelly said. "It just went underground for a little while."

Mrs. Mangelly said many of her students, including Mrs. Harris, are returning to the accordion as adults after falling in love with the instrument as children during its heyday.

"I had this little boyfriend when I was 8 years hold," Mrs. Harris said, remembering her first exposure to the accordion. "He had this black pony and used to come visit me playing the accordion on this black pony. I fell in love with it then."

Mrs. Harris, who took up lessons again last summer, said that she now has her grandson taking lessons from Mrs. Mangelly.

"He's getting better than I am," she said ruefully. "He's even started playing in church."

Its ability to play multiple parts, much like a pipe organ, makes the accordion an adaptable instrument, capable of playing, jazz, classical, rock or the oft-associated polka.

"The accordion is a keyboard instrument and a rhythm instrument," Mrs. Mangelly said, pressing a series of bass buttons with her left hand. "You make your own rhythm with the left hand -- that's your bass guitar."

Such versatility however, comes at a price. The cost of a new child's accordion starts at about $600, and a adult-sized accordion will cost at least $800.

"It's portable," Mrs. Mangelly said. "But you can pay as much for an accordion as you can a grand piano. The Pope has an accordion worth $150,000."

Part of the reason for the high cost of accordions is the complexity of the instruments. A standard accordion, hand-built with hardwoods, Swedish steel and beeswax, will have more parts than a 1950 Ford automobile. However, with proper care, an accordion player should have to make the investment only once.

"I've had my accordion for almost 60 years and I still play it," said Mrs. Mangelly. "They are long-lasting instruments."

Although the standard accordion features 120 bass buttons, Mrs. Mangelly said smaller instruments, like the 48 bass Hohner she currently plays, are becoming popular.

"I think all adults like playing the smaller instruments," Mrs. Mangelly said, laughing and positioning her instrument for another duet with Mrs. Harris. "Especially when we're toting it from the car."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or suhles@hotmail.com.