WATERBURY, Conn. — Grade-school students accustomed to seeing accordions in their grandparents’ attics or in polka bands are learning about the instrument’s versatility through a collaboration between Wolcott High School and the Connecticut Accordion Association.
The group is trying to reintroduce to the box-shaped reed instrument into schools and shatter stereotypes about it through a program called Bellows Open: The Great Squeeze Project.
“It’s an intergenerational experience,” said Marilyn O’Neil, president of the Connecticut Accordion Association. “How often do you get to do something recreational and artistic with someone old enough to be your grandparent?”
In December, accordionists from the group played for Wolcott High School band students. Since then, six students have been practicing with the Connecticut Accordion Association orchestra. They will perform together in a concert at the Mattatuck Museum this weekend.
The concert starts at 3 p.m. Sunday in the concert hall of the museum, 144 West Main St. A donation is requested, but tickets are not required.
Later in the week, the orchestra will play at Wolcott High School’s spring concert.
The song list ranges from traditional accordion numbers such as “Waltz Allegro” to the jazz ballad “Moonlight Serenade” by Glenn Miller. It also features rock arrangements, including Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Bob Gaudio’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
For students, part of the excitement about the accordion is its novelty.
“I’d never heard multiple accordions playing at the same time,” said Chris Lagasse, a 10th-grader at Wolcott High School. “It’s a great sound you’re not used to hearing.”
Lagasse will play the trumpet in Sunday’s show.
The high schoolers are playing instruments they’ve learned in band — the flute, saxophone, trumpet and clarinet. They’ll be joined by 28 accordionists, vocalist Jim Lawrence and Mitchell Guido on saxophone.
Some of the kids have an interest in playing the accordion, but it will take years of interest in playing the accordion, but it will take years of practice for them to become proficient. Many accordionists in the group have been playing their entire lives.
O’Neil said the program’s goals are multifaceted — to expose the accordion to a new generation, but also to show it can be integrated into a band.
The Connecticut Accordion Association may launch similar programs in other schools districts in coming years. If they’re successful, the American Accordionists’ Association wants to spread the initiative across the country.
When O’Neil grew up in Waterbury, the accordion was so popular that many kids took lessons after school. It was especially prevalent in Waterbury’s immigrant populations during the first part of the 20th century.
She blames rock ‘n’ roll for the instrument’s demise. Now, she wants to reach children before they’re exposed to stereotypes about it.
“The best part is watching kids’ faces when they see an accordion,” O’Neil said. “It’s like Greek to them.”
The orchestra’s conductor, Peter Peluso, an accomplished accordionist and certified teacher, believes there will be a resurgence.
“To the younger generation, there’s no stigma,” Peluso said. “It used to be nerdy, but now it’s cool.”
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