Patricia Bartell is a native Bolivian, adopted when she was nearly 5 by parents who took her home to Charlo, Mont., seven miles northeast of the National Bison Range.
Her first musical influence, when it came to the accordion, was one of her 17 siblings – a big brother who got to play one. She was 8 when her parents gave in and let her take lessons, too.
Her second influence was that first teacher, a woman who was at least 80 and lived in Missoula, an hour’s drive from Charlo. She visited that woman every month or two until she died, depending on how often her family could make the trip.
That first teacher “didn’t know anything about technique, but she knew how to have fun,” Bartell said. “She taught me how to have fun with my music, and that carried me through many, many different things.”
You never know where you’ll find your influence, said Bartell, 34, an acclaimed accordionist and teacher in Spokane. You never know how one thing will lead to another.
Take the international accordion championships coming to Spokane this week.
Forty-eight musicians – each deemed among the best in their countries – will converge on the city to compete for a world title. They’ll be judged by an international jury.
That path here, Bartell said, started with her relationship with another Spokane musician, a pianist who taught her a new way to make and hear music.
“It’s an interesting thread, how it came to be,” Bartell said. “People influence things and sometimes don’t even know it.”
‘Catch people with a pulse’
Bartell’s influences vary, as do her students in Spokane – those drawn to the accordion by the sounds they heard as they passed her studio door, those who’ve learned that hitting the right keys or buttons at the right time is just the start, those who’ve risen quickly under her tutelage to compete internationally.
But as for this week’s meeting of musicians and judges from around the world, the thread starts with one teacher in particular, Kendall Feeney, a well-known pianist at Eastern Washington University who, in all her years in the music world, had not run into the accordion much.
Bartell, who also teaches piano, sought out Feeney a few years ago to learn a way of playing that can prevent repetitive-stress injuries among students. Feeney taught an intriguing method she’d stumbled across called the Taubman Approach.
By focusing on pianists’ tiny movements as they’re playing – alignment of fingers, rotations of forearms – the Taubman method can reduce strain. As Bartell learned, it also can help musicians play more expressively. When Bartell decided to enter an accordion competition in Washington, D.C., she and Feeney left behind the piano and switched to Bartell’s main instrument.
Feeney broke down the expression part – the musicianship – into the tiniest bites.
A piece of music played technically perfectly – each note hit and held as written on the page – but lacking good musicianship is like a grammatically correct conversation held in monotone.
“We’re not feeling it, we’re not expressing it, we’re not showing the energy behind it to emphasize certain things,” Bartell said. “It’s not hard to judge, you just know it when you hear it.”
But it can be hard to do. Before studying with Feeney, she said, she’d get it sometimes. But it was almost accidental – she’d get there, but she wasn’t sure how. She remembered a piece she played in college, a W.A. Mozart composition she said she found boring. She played louder where the music said to play louder, or softer or slower.
“It meant nothing to me,” she said. “But that was before I even knew something could mean something to you.”
Until one day it did. She “got a picture,” she said. The piece suddenly reminded her of something, and she was able to interpret it in a certain way, express it as an individual. Still, she didn’t know how to duplicate that for another piece.
Feeney gave her tools, Bartell said, to take from piece to piece.
“And it was then I understood musicianship,” Bartell said. “She just made everything come alive.”
Bartell went to that competition Washington, D.C., where she placed third in the world, and where judges were “stunned,” she said, that anyone from the West Coast could play at that level “as a musician, not just technically.” She met Frédéric Deschamps, a world-class accordionist and president of the organization that runs Trophée Mondial, which led to her study with Deschamps in France.
In France, she asked Deschamps to critique a CD she’d released. He was impressed enough to invite her to serve in the international pool of judges for the Trophée Mondial. She remains the only American on the jury.
She invited him to work with her students in Spokane, and during one of his visits, he told Bartell he thought the next Trophée Mondial should take place in Spokane. She agreed to organize it.
“He listened to (that CD),” Bartell said. “He says, ‘You know, you have an ear to hear the subtleties of music,’ and he said, ‘This is what we need on the jury.’ He said, ‘Not everybody can hear these subtleties.’ Well, I didn’t, until Kendall opened up that world to me.”
A famous pianist, Artur Schnabel, was quoted in the Chicago Daily News in 1958 as saying, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.”
With Bartell, Feeney said, she worked on timing and rhythm, “how you catch people with a pulse.”
“Somebody can do a brush stroke with the same brush and the same speed and all the same paint, and somebody’s will have nuance and will breathe and have life, and others just won’t,” Feeney said. “It’s about how you time.”
‘Encouraging, but also demanding’
Back in the day, Spokane was an accordion town.
Ilmar Kuljus, an Estonian immigrant who taught Bartell at Whitworth College, was here to see it.
“In 1952, we came to Spokane which, back then, was the hottest accordion town in the country. In those days, I always had 50 or 60 students,” he told The Spokesman-Review upon his retirement in 2006.
While Bartell believes the stigma that’s since grown up around the instrument is fading, especially among a younger generation of musicians, accordion players are still relatively rare.
Yet Spokane is sending three of the United States’ five delegates to the Trophée Mondial: Yevgeniy Nosov, 24; Gabriel Soileau, 16; and Naomi Harris, 12 – all Bartell’s students. They and others get instruction and practice in her studio at Music City on North Monroe Street, crowding in between the piano and the electric fireplace.
As a teacher, Bartell advocates a teaching method called Simply Music, a “playing-based” approach that lets students learn to perform songs quickly, rather than requiring them to learn to read music at the start. She is at the center of an effort to adapt it for beginning accordionists.
She also draws on techniques she learned from both Feeney and Deschamps.
Among them: a focus on how students move as they’re playing, said Soileau, a high school junior who also plays piano and bass.
More so than with other instruments, he said, seemingly unrelated movements in an accordionist’s body affect its sound: “It’s strapped to you. It’s like part of you.”
Bartell might tell her students to move their heads very fast when they’re playing fast notes, or to raise their eyebrows, which “makes the whole body lighten up,” Soileau said.
Among Nosov’s competition pieces is one called “Revelation,” written by Sergey Voytenko as an apology to his own teacher. It’s a plea, Nosov said: Please, take me back.
“You have to, in a way, act the piece out,” said Nosov, who also teaches at Bartell’s studio. “It’s a challenge. You have to tap into places where you don’t normally go. If you’re portraying a bad guy, you have to be the bad guy. If you’re this heartbroken student that’s bawling your eyes out, you have to portray that.”
Harris, a seventh-grader, will be the youngest person ever to play in the competition.
“(Bartell) wants you to do really well, so she pushes you really hard,” she said. “But I like that, how she wants us to do so well that she pushes us and pushes us. And the outcome is that you do well in competitions.”
“She’s a very energetic teacher, and very demanding, which would be expected,” Soileau said. “Encouraging, but also demanding.”
Hearing Bartell play is not just about hearing, Feeney said.
“She’s all about giving what she has as a musician and a person through her instrument straight out to the audience,” she said. “First of all, accordionists get to face the audience, unlike pianists. People talk about this totally giving nature of her countenance, and this incredible presence she brings to the stage.”
Bartell will take the stage again Tuesday, during the Trophée Mondial’s opening ceremony. There, too, will be Feeney – they play together in a quartet, Tango Volcado, scheduled to perform along with the Spokane Symphony and world champion accordionist Grayson Masefield.
Speaking weeks before the event’s start date – but not so many that she didn’t know how many days, exactly, she had to pull it all together – Bartell looked forward to that moment, when she would step onto the stage and see her teacher there. It’ll be an honor, she said, to step out with Feeney, whose influence she credits so heavily for her own success, and whose influence her own students are feeling, too.
“She doesn’t even realize, to this day, how much she plays a part in all this,” Bartell said.