Saturday, July 16, 2011

Back to H

As I mentioned I learned the basic musical scales, but then I took a longer trip to Rutgers and after getting back I started to open the box less and less frequently.

I tried to keep myself to the written suggestion of Hugo Aranguiz, which came with the bandoneon, namely that before attempting to play any piece I should learn the scales and other basics well; the lessons in Madrigal's Método also suggest such progression. As far as I recall Ben also advised a similar path, and Maxi also wrote me he decided to only practice scales for his entire first year before turning to any actual music. (This reminds me too well to the legends about leaders practicing tango for years amongst each other before showing up in a milonga for the first time. Damn milongueros.) A common element of all of these advices were: patience.

I'm sure this is good advice. The problem, I think, was that since I don't have any serious background in playing a musical instrument I didn't have any frame of reference to measure my progress, and I didn't quite see how the steps I take fit into a path which eventually leads to bandoneon heaven. It's easier to be patient when you know better what are you waiting for. At any rate, I need to admit playing scales became a bit too monotonous. I started to spend way too much time with simply taking pleasure in the loud voices I can get out from the instrument; eventually I comforted myself with the idea that when I get back to Hungary I'll have the chance to contact other bandoneonists and restart from scratch.

Now I'm back. Getting through customs would deserve it's own tale (at a certain point I needed to play Boci-boci tarka to convince the customs officer that I'm not bringing the instrument for sale - apparently I would have needed to own it for at least 6 months to avoid harassment). I was lucky, a few days after I arrived Divertango had another great performance, and so I took my bandoneon to meet Tamás Radnai. He is both knowledgable and enthusiastic about the bandoneon and got quite excited to see my instrument. I had a couple of things to take care of, but we agreed that I'd take lessons from him.

Divertango playing Piazzolla's Libertango.

And so a week ago I got started again. Tamás is an experienced teacher and the classes are really useful; I basically get an ideal blend of musical theory with application to the bandoneon. Theory-wise I've (re-)learned to read scores, and it's nice to finally have a theoretical understanding of musical keys, of the minor- and the major- scales, of the composition and function of accords, etc.; luckily he is very patient with the sometimes maybe too annoying questions of a physics-minded guy. Practice-wise we started doing small finger-exercises for basic tunes such as changing between playing quarter notes and half notes, and we focused on opening the bandoneon uniformly to not to have changes in the way different notes sound. Apparently I have a tendency to rest my left arm on my left leg, a bad habit probably due to that it's easier to hold the weight of the bandoneon that way. Also, we did some basic exercises with changing between legato, tenuto and staccato; i.e. playing the same three-note tune with both hands but one in legato and the other in staccato.

Two online resources I recently found extremely useful:

Practicing note-names online . After spending a couple of hours with "drilling" I can now recognize sheet notes in 4 seconds on average. Not enough to read continuously of course, but better than not being able to read at all. As an exercise I identified the notes of Bahia Blanca.

Bandoneon simulator for Mac and Windows: . This is what I'm planning to use now to learn the chromatic scale. Couple of notes don't sound the same pressed on the virtual piano and on the bandoneon, and the bandoneon buttons don't have the row/# numbering on them, but otherwise it's really great!

Finally a practical advice: get a blanket which you can put between the bandoneon and your supporting leg, it prevents the bandoneon from ruining your jeans!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bandoneon Resources I

Some resources I found quite useful so far:

Christian Mensing's already mentioned bandoneon page - especially the section on bandoneon terminology.

The Bandoneon Yahoo Group - everything about the bandoneon. - a growing repository of bandoneon resources, especially for those looking for solo arrangements.

Todotango - everything related to tango.

Lightonthestairs - download links to tutors / scores for the bandoneon. (Thanks Tamas Radnai for the pointer!)

Danceforums thread on the bandoneon - this might develop into something useful.

Please don't hesitate to share your resources in the comments!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Learning - the first step

I was quite busy with the end of the semester, but I already play the four scales (both sides opening and closing) comfortably - that is, when I need to play only one of them with one hand. I plan to work myself through the fingering practices of Madrigal's Método para Bandoneón which came with the bandoneon. This means I made a progress of one page in three weeks by practicing roughly one hours per day. Oops.

Questions I have:
- How much emphasis should I put in the beginning to be able to play with both hands at the same time?
- How much should I care in the beginning to switching quickly between playing the opening and the closing notes?

I hear that the bandoneon is out of tune, but that's no surprise given that it spent some 12 years on a shelf unused. But I truly enjoy the sounds, especially the deep ones, I just like to make loud noises on it by pushing random keys. I feel like playing in a kindergarden again. I suppose my neighbors are not as much entertained as I'm.

A couple of advices I try to follow: here and here.

Taking care

There are couple of videos on youtube showing how to take care of the bandoneon, just run a search on "bandoneon maintenance".

My To Do list:
- Cleaning off the dust the years left on the bellows.
- Carefully cleaning the leather on the main valve.
- Fixing the crack on the mounting board.
- Applying oil on the reeds and on other metal components to prevent corrosion.
- Couple of notes sound weird; I need to figure out the mechanical cause and how to fix it. I'm going to upload some sound files in a separate post.

Questions I have (any comments would be appreciated!):
- Can I use a wet sponge to clean the leather on the main valve or would that carry too much risk damaging it?
- After reading reviews I bought a can of wood glue to fill the crack. (Another option would have been to use wood filling, but a friend of mine who has experience with woodworking said that for such a small crack he would probably still use wood glue.) Can I go ahead to apply it? My main concern is how changes in humidity would affect the mounting board if I filled the crack with this type of glue. I don't want to have other cracks as consequence.
- Can I just simply apply the oil I use for my bike chain, or is there a special type of oil which is recommended specifically for the reeds?  
- Is there an ideal level of humidity for storing the bandoneon? I know that a too low humidity environment damages the wood components and a too high humidity environment damages the metal components. What is the ideal balance?

My first bandoneon

A couple of details about my new bandoneon. The metal plate over the main valve carries the brand name "Tango"; Oscar Zucchi's description suggests that it was produced by M. Hohner. However the cover is typical of ELAs and many other detail suggests that it was indeed produced by Ernst Louis Arnold. As Christian Mensing explains, these brands were originally produced by ELA, distributing them through M. Hohner was only part of ELA's marketing strategy. I also got in touch with Hohner and  Christian Baumann kindly confirmed that this bandoneon was not made by them. So since both Ben Bogart and the original owner say they are sure it's an ELA, and it looks and sounds like one, I'm quite sure it is. According to the previous owner, who bought it in a bandoneon shop in 1999, it was produced in 1936. Here is a picture:

and another photo of the cover:

Some basics: it is a 142 tone bisonoric concertina. I was quite happy to notice that the reed plates are made of zinc, not aluminium, which are widely considered to yield better sound quality. Although scratches on the reeds show that it was tuned a couple of times, it's in a pretty good condition and probably wasn't used by professional musicians. I venture this because it still has the original tuning of the factory, meaning that three rarely used keys on the bass side play notes differing from the standard tango tuning. (I forgot which three and what is the difference.) A serial number is written inside with a pencil, it reads 35587.

The reeds are covered by plastic instead of leather, but this is a minor issue, as far as I know it will only affect how frequently the reeds need to be cleaned. The bellow has few small holes but the leak through them is fairly minimal. The main valve has a more serious problem, it yields too easily when you try to force the instrument to open without holding down any of the buttons. On the long run this needs to be fixed, but it's not a big issue, and I hope that cleaning the leather on the main valve - which seems pretty dirty - will take care of it. Another minor problem is a crack running through the half of one of the mounting boards. Aesthetically it's in a pretty good shape: one of the pearls is missing, the lyra in one of the corners is damaged, and there are few other signs of wear and use on the paint under both handles, but otherwise it looks as new.

Couple of other photos from the inside:

A story of finding a bandoneon. Part II - success

After a couple of months of salivating I got lucky. Ben Bogart visited Pittsburgh to perform Maria de Buenos Aires with the Quantum Theatre - it was a pretty good show, by the way - and one night he gave a musicality workshop for the local tango community. Ben is one of the very few Americans who play professionally, and I got really excited because I initially thought, wishfully, that the workshop would focus on playing the bandoneon. Instead it was an exploration of different rhythmic structures in tango for dancing, syncopations and asymmetric rhythms; nevertheless it was very useful and interesting. Had I attended this workshop a year before the musicality of my dancing would have improved instantly, but it was still very helpful to become more conscious of what I'm doing with those step-variations I stole from videos of the old milongueros. If Ben is in your area I do recommend taking this workshop with him.

I digress. After the workshop Ben kindly allowed me to play a bit with his bandoneon, and we also had a dinner together. Ben very patiently answered some of the questions I carried with me for a while. Someone - Trini or Sean, or maybe Sarah mentioned that Timmy Pogros of Cleveland owns a bandoneon he bought many years ago in Buenos Aires, but he is not playing it. When I got home I wrote an email to Timmy asking whether he would consider selling his instrument. To my biggest surprise he said he would. Events accelerated from then on. I asked the opinion of Maxi Gluzman of the instrument (I've heard from a favorite Cleveland follower that he had the chance to use it) who gave me some good advices. Ben was very helpful again and spent with me an hour or so showing on his AA what to look for. Next weekend I took a trip to Cleveland; I met Timmy in the workshop of Alberto Dassieu (I just love that guy) and he let me play around with his concertina. Unfortunately he wouldn't let me to take it back without committing to buy, but he was kind enough to agree to take it back in case Ben would find some major flaws. He told me a price, I wrote a check and brought the bandoneon back home. Unfortunately Ben was very busy with his last days of stay, but we squeezed out some time so that he could take a look at it. He confirmed that it's in a quite good condition, and so the deal was done. Yee, I have a bandoneon!

Newly built bandoneons

Another option could be to buy a newly built bandoneon. I found comments on the new designs here. For me the price was prohibitive - my PhD scholarship is good, but not that good -, and I also found it suspicious that these producers don't make a wide variety of sound samples available; for me that suggests that the sound quality is probably not matching that of the old AAs and ELAs. But I don't have any first hand experience, they might be truly awesome.

A story of finding a bandoneon. Part I - difficulties

I got interested in playing the bandoneon maybe half a year ago. Although I have seen bandoneons before - both in Buenos Aires and in Hungary - I haven't had the chance to get a feel for them. I think my interest got mainly sparkled by watching videos of D'Arienzo conducting his orchestra. Here is one example, Loca:

Crazy, isn't it? Anyway, I searched around the net for information about the instrument; I found surprisingly little, but the website of Christian Mensing got me started. It's a must read. Also, the youtube channel HAranguiz contains many videos of bandoneon players, including some quite inspiring footages of Astor Piazzolla.

So I started to play around with the idea of buying a bandoneon; unfortunately a typical 142 tone bisonoric instrument is fairly expensive, and it's also very difficult to determine the quality without already having the expertise, or having a physical access to the instrument for that matter. There are some good resources (see here and here) for learning about how to check the quality, but I faced two big problems.

First, without having any basis of comparison I would have a hard time deciding whether I actually understand these instructions. It's like when you have zero experience with cooking and you try to follow a recipe for the first time; the result can easily be a disaster, but you won't know until someone tastes it. Without having a prior feel for how a good instrument should work - i.e. how much pressure you need to apply to get a certain sound out - the only thing I could really check is the consistency of the behavior. But even if I had a feel for how an instrument in good condition behaves it would be still difficult to tell how much deviation from this normal behavior is acceptable. You can take the presence of such deviations for granted as most of the old instruments on the market were produced in the 1930's and practically none of them is in perfect shape.

Second, these quality checks assume that you can actually hold the bandoneon in your hands before you commit to buy. Unless you stay in Buenos Aires (or maybe in one or two other big cities around the world) you can't simply walk into a musical store to buy a bandoneon, because they don't carry them. Local owners - if there are any, none lives in my current area - are unlikely to sell. So your main option is to buy online. You can always find bandoneons on eBay for sale - the starting bid price for an AA with aluminium reed plate is around $1700 -, and sellers typically post many images and even videos to assure perspective buyers. Another online source is the bandoneon mailing list on Yahoo - you certainly want to sign up and browse through the archive, it's a gold mine - although the seemingly more trustworthy sellers who I contacted through the list tend to pitch their prices much higher (one asked 3600EUR for a recently tuned AA in perfect shape). The problem with online purchases is that there are many potential mechanical troubles which are difficult to determine on the basis of videos, like how well sealed the main valve is. I was advised against buying online; during the past couple of months I certainly saw a few seemingly really good deals, but you know the joke about the two economist who see a $100 bill on the sideway: one wants to pick the bill up, but the other holds him back saying that if it were real someone else would have already taken it. And so I kept looking around, counting my pennies, and salivating.

Hello world

This blog is dedicated to the bandoneon, more precisely to my attempt at learning to play it. The community of bandoneon players seems really small, and since there is no-one in my current area who could show me the techne, I will mostly need to teach myself. I hope that this blog will become a useful resource for future beginners in helping them to avoid some of the pitfalls I'm certainly going to fall into. Any feedback from those in the know would be appreciated!

About me: I dance tango for a couple of years now; my style is described as tango milonguero. I mostly enjoy tango from the Golden Age, my current favorite is Edgardo Donato. I do not have any formal background in musical theory, although I did some readings on my own, and as I have a quite analytical approach to learning, I'm certainly going to pick up some more on the way. I also never played any instrument seriously. So I'm a true beginner in all respects.