The Lost Art of the Accordion

Waller Mill kids bellow with enthusiasm
By Susan Robertson

From the Virginia Gazette

YORK – Under the patient instruction of retiree Jim Rice, students at Waller Mill Elementary School are learning to squeeze.

The accordion, that is.

Accordion for Kids

Lindsey Pettibon helps James Griffin with his timing during a session of Waller Mill Elementary’s Accordian Club.

It’s all part of the school’s newest club, already 10 members strong.

“They’re really learning about themselves, about life and respect and discipline,” said Rice, known to his students as Mr. Squeeze. “These are life skills they’re learning.”

Why the accordion? Blame the King.

Rice got his start at age 10 when a traveling salesman came to the family front door selling accordions. He asked his father, “Wouldn’t you like your son to play one?”

“I myself said ‘No,’ because there was this guy called Elvis Presley and this new thing called the electric guitar. I wanted to play that.”

His father prevailed, so Rice resolved to be “the best squeezer he could be.” He stuck with it through high school, college and the Army, playing in Germany and Korea.

Rice used to be invited as a musician to play at the “Brown Derby” artist showcase at Waller Mill. Fifth-grader Alexandra Medina was so impressed that she asked him to start an accordion club at the school.

He called on his own teacher, who works with Accordions for Kids, and borrowed five child-sized accordions. He supplied two of his own.

Students came up with the club name “Young Masters.” Their T-shirts promote “Eat-Sleep-Squeeze.”

Fifth-grader James Griffin finds the instrument challenging because one has to master the keys, bellows and base simultaneously. He’s thrilled.

“You get to experience a new instrument you’ve never played before, and you get to teach other people,” he said. Rice called it “the lost art of the box.”

Fourth-grader Lindsey Pettibon has put in extra time to learn “Anchors Aweigh” so she can play it when her Navy father returns after 10 months.

“I wanted to play for him because I know he’ll be really proud of my new skill, and I wanted to surprise him.”

The students have “bellow buddies” with whom they share an accordion and discuss how to improve.

Rice teaches accordion to perpetuate the instrument. “Who’s going to play this music when I’m gone?” People say he’s bringing the accordion back, but he argues he’s just bringing it out. “They’re out there,” he said, referencing commercial jingles. “You hear ’em, you just don’t see ’em.”

The accordion has helped him maintain his manual dexterity and aided his memory after suffering a stroke.

On May 31 his students will perform a concert and receive certificates of achievement. For him, enjoyment is what the accordion is about. “It’s about the cheers and the claps and getting older people to do the chicken dance,” he said with a laugh. “My goal is to keep ’em squeezin’.”