At 7, Naomi Harris picked up the guitar. She put it down after three weeks.
“I didn’t practice at all,” she said. “I quickly ended that.”
Two years later, 9-year-old Naomi’s father picked up the accordion, enrolling in lessons through the Parks and Recreation Department. Naomi thought his instrument was cool – it had so many keys to poke at. She wanted to play, too.
Remembering the guitar, her dad said no, but Naomi persisted. She made a PowerPoint presentation, mapping out practice times. She included a note at the bottom: Naomi would carry her own accordion. Her father relented, figuring she’d last a few lessons.
Next week, Naomi, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Sacajawea Middle School, will be the youngest person ever to compete in Trophée Mondial, a prestigious international accordion competition that moves from country to country. The competition will start Tuesday in Spokane, its first U.S. appearance.
As an accordionist, Naomi has surpassed her father.
“If it was a boat race, I wouldn’t be able to see the boat that Naomi is driving,” Bill Harris said.
When she plays, she said, “it makes me feel like I’m free. The type of music I play can snatch you, emotionally.”
‘The most beautiful noise’
Trophée Mondial, now in its 62nd year, is an international competition to be held for the first time this year outside Europe. Naomi is one of five accordionists representing the United States, and the youngest of Spokane accordionist Patricia Bartell’s three students in the competition. In total, 48 accordionists from about 20 nations will compete in Spokane.
Just the word accordion makes some people giggle, even grown-up music lovers. An announcement about the Trophée Mondial before at least one recent performance by the Spokane Symphony elicited titters from the audience.
But Naomi is part of a new generation of musicians who are re-embracing the instrument for its portability, versatility and, especially, its sound.
The accordion, Naomi said, “makes the most beautiful noise in the world.”
Lots of other people used to think so, too.
In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the accordion was “the instrument,” Bartell said. Everybody wanted to play, and Spokane accordionists met the demand, at one point offering 20 competing teaching studios, she said.
Starting in 1955, Myron Floren, a self-taught accordionist known as “the happy Norwegian,” played with a big band for a coast-to-coast audience every week on “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Among Welk’s precepts for the musicians on his show: “Keep it simple so the audience can feel like they can do it, too.”
Serious critics didn’t love the show – or its sentimental, danceable music – but plenty of people did, making it a top 30 hit for five seasons in the ’60s.
But with the rise of rock ’n’ roll came a decline in Welk’s “champagne music.” The guitar surged in popularity, brought to the forefront of cool by the Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
A stigma grew around the accordion.
As a music student at Whitworth College in the early and mid-’90s, Bartell would tell her fellow students she played the accordion.
“They’d look at me like, ‘Why? That’s a grandpa’s instrument, a grandpa’s squeezebox. It plays polkas.’ ”
Yeah, it plays polkas, Bartell would tell her fellow students. But it also plays baroque music, contemporary, musettes, tangos, “all across the board.”
To help spread the word in college, she gave concerts.
“Man, we packed that place, and I played anything but a polka,” she said. “Even my bass player, he leaned over to me during a concert and he says, ‘Man, Patricia, I feel like a rock star.’ They were on their feet, yelling and throwing up their hands.”
And the accordion has made headway since then, Bartell said: “The accordion’s coming back, and I can see it in the young people.”
‘Brings the music alive’
While Naomi Harris said she gets some laughs, too, from those who associate her instrument with “oompah” sounds and vague images of the Alps and old-timey German people, she also plays in a band of young people – ages 12 to 25 – who are still surprising audiences.
The Portatos are five accordionists, two bass players and a drummer. The band performs in competitions and at local events with big crowds – the Spokane County Interstate fair, the Fourth of July festivities at Riverfront Park.
Their repertoire includes “Wipeout,” “Axel F” – of “Beverly Hills Cop” fame – and just one polka.
“Younger people, say like 20s, 30s, sometimes they’re really amazed what you can do on an accordion,” said band member Yevgeniy Nosov, 24, who also will compete in the Trophée Mondial. “We play all genres of music, to give people a taste of a little bit of everything. And they’re amazed, like, ‘Wow, we never knew you could get that kind of sound from accordions.’ ”
In the past, the accordion was used mostly to play music you dance to, said Kendall Feeney, a pianist and lecturer at Eastern Washington University who has worked with Bartell and some of her students to improve their musicianship.
Increasingly, Feeney said, it’s also used to play music you’re just supposed to listen to, such as compositions by Mozart and Bach.
“It’s gone way beyond polka and dance music to art music,” she said.
The Portatos also play “Libertango,” a composition by Argentine tango composer Ástor Piazzolla. It’s a fast, fluid piece that incorporates elements of jazz.
Piazzolla, who used an accordionlike instrument called the bandoneon, wrote and played music that people dance to but also music that’s just for listening, Feeney said.
The accordionlike sounds add a crucial energy to his pieces.
“It just brings the music alive,” Feeney said. “It has that wonderful charge in it. I think younger people associate it with an aliveness and something new, with epic music, the tango, art music and beyond now.”
‘Anything can happen’
As an accordion student, Naomi Harris has a couple of teachers. Only one of them plays the accordion.
After her lessons with Bartell, she gets online with her maternal grandmother, who studied music in college in Tokyo, where she still lives. Naomi plays, and her pianist grandmother offers tips on expression and theory in Japanese.
“Her grandma would say, ‘OK, what did you learn in your lesson with Patricia?’ and they would go over that over Skype,” Bartell said. “It was like she was getting two lessons, and I think that really helped her mature quickly, and to the point where she’s playing some sophisticated pieces for a 12-year-old.”
No matter who she’s playing for, the accordion is a workout. At Bartell’s urging, Naomi upgraded to an adult instrument, a 25-pounder. .
Accordionists play by compressing or expanding the bellows while pressing keys or buttons. Normally the right hand plays the melody, while the left plays the “accompaniment” – bass or preset chords.
The keys or buttons cause valves to open, allowing air to flow across reeds. The vibrating reeds produce the sound.
As she plays, Naomi’s T-shirts can get soaked with sweat.
She’s amped up her efforts in preparation for the competition, practicing daily and bumping up to twice-weekly lessons with Bartell.
Naomi has competed before, including at the Leavenworth International Accordion Celebration and the Kimberley International Old Time Accordion Championships in British Columbia. There’s always an adrenalin rush at the start, she said. Her teacher’s big advice: Take three big breaths before taking the stage.
While Naomi has won some trophies, she also has placed dead last.
“Sometimes you know your piece, and you go up there, and you just fall,” Bill Harris said. “And other times, everything works perfectly. It’s really nerve-racking for a parent. You know that anything can happen.”
But she’s competed against older accordionists before and excelled.
Her father recalled a jazz competition where Naomi was pitted against some teenagers.
“They’re cocky, these guys, all three of them,” he said. “Naomi was first out of the four. So it’s first, second, third, and one person doesn’t get an award, right? So Naomi goes up first, and these kids, they’re all like really cocky, like, ‘This is going to be cute.’ ”
As her father put it, Naomi nailed it.
“Those guys were flabbergasted because they had to step it up,” Bill Harris said. “All of a sudden it was rough. She pulled second out of that competition.”