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Accordion club membership in decline across Milwaukee area

June is National Accordion Awareness Month

Misha Litvin (left) plays the Domra, a Russian mandolin and Stas Venglevski plays the Bayan during a special performance at the Milwaukee Accordion Club June 24 at the Root River Center.

Misha Litvin (left) plays the Domra, a Russian mandolin and Stas Venglevski plays the Bayan during a special performance at the Milwaukee Accordion Club June 24 at the Root River Center.

June 25, 2013

Franklin — The Milwaukee Accordion Club has a problem. Membership continues to decline, as does attendance at its monthly meetings. Worst of all, reminders of the dwindling disposition are everywhere.

The trouble isn't that neighboring accordion clubs are stealing members.

At the club's meeting Tuesday night at the Root River Center's bowling alley banquet hall in Franklin, John Kreiter flips through a huge collection of accordion sheet music. He's clearly out for polkas. The collection was leftover by a now-deceased club member.

On page 2 of the Accordion Express, the club's monthly newsletter, there's an ongoing column titled "Health and Welfare." It's essentially the obituary section.

At its peak, the Milwaukee Accordion Club had roughly 350 members, said Vice President Sherry Huiras. That number is now close to 200, and most members are young at heart, but old in age.

"We're losing people," she said. "They're either dying or they're not coming because they don't want to drive anymore, especially at night."

Raising awareness

June brings graduations, Father's Day, and the first day of both summer and Summerfest. What our calendars don't tell us is that June is also National Accordion Awareness Month.

In appreciation of the designation, the Milwaukee Accordion Club continues its mission to acquaint the general public with the education and entertainment values of the accordion, which is the official instrument of Wisconsin.

"Whenever I go to preschools and bring out my accordion and ask the kids, 'Do you know what this is?' They say yeah, it's a piano," Huiras said. "They've never seen an accordion. It's all new to them."

Accordionists say the instrument's aging population isn't the real problem. The biggest threat is the public's often-narrow perception and interpretation of the accordion and the type of music it plays.

In many pockets throughout the U.S. the common depiction of an accordionist typically involves a mustached German, dressed in lederhosen, playing a series of polkas and waltzes. But that's not the reality around the world, John Simkus said.

Pigeonhole polka

Simkus, a Milwaukee Accordion Club member, lives in Rockford, Ill. and travels across the "cheese curtain" once a week to rehearse with world-renowned accordionist Stas Venglevski at his Milwaukee-area home.

"People in the United States have a tunnel-vision when it comes to the accordion," he said. "They think it's only an ethnic instrument. Whereas you go to Russia and it's a classical instrument. In fact, all over Europe it's looked at that way. In the U.S. though, people just pigeonhole it."

The accordion is like any other instrument, with no strict allegiance to any one style. The piano is used in jazz, classical, country and rock n' roll, and the accordion can be, too, Simkus said.

"The instrument is limitless in my opinion," he said. "It just takes a knowledgeable person playing it. In the right hands it's a fantastic instrument."

After members voted for new club officers Monday, the accordion's limitless possibilities were showcased by Venglevski, the night's feature performer.

Accordions come in many shapes and sizes: There are squeezeboxes, concertinas and, Venglevski's speciality, the bayan, which looks strikingly similar except the keyboard along the right side of the instrument is replaced by hundreds of small, round buttons.

Venglevski, a native of the Republic of Moldova, part of the former Soviet Union, graduated from the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow, where he received his Master's in music under the tutelage of the famed Russian bayanist Friedrich Lips. In 1992 he immigrated to the U.S. and is frequently asked to sit in on symphony orchestras throughout the country.

He also founded Accordion XXI Century Series in 2010, bringing gifted accordionists and other musicians to people across the Midwest. For accordion enthusiasts, Venglevski is seen as an important ambassador, introducing the instrument's versatility to new audiences.

Misha Litvin, a master mandolinist who teaches at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, joined Venglevski on stage in a duet that took club members around the world. The two played contemporary and classical, standards and original compositions. But the crowd cheered loudest when they played a polka number about sausage — this is afterall one of the largest German-populated cities in the U.S.

Fixing the problem

Just because the Milwaukee Accordion Club has seen a dip in membership doesn't mean the instrument is on the verge of disappearing.

Helmi Strahl Harrington owns and operates the Accordion-concertina Repair Technicians' School in Superior, Wis. In just nine months, students earn an occupational certification and go on to start careers, Harrington said.

She only allows up to 10 students to enroll in the program a year, and she's had to turn people away.

"It's like a technical college," Harrington said. "After graduation, most of them go on and start their own lucrative careers. There are millions of accordions in the U.S. in active use, and every one of them need annual servicing."

Harrington said most of her students are between the ages of 30 and 40, but recently she's had students in their twenties.

When news of Harrington's young students reached a Milwaukee Accordion Club member Monday, he responded, "Well that's music to my ears."

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