An Accordion Romance

Humorist Brian Unger visits the studio of a Los Angeles accordion teacher, and learns that this oft-maligned instrument has been the key to some surprising romantic success for the few who master it.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Regular listeners to DAY TO DAY know to expect Brian Unger in this spot. He writes satire and humor about politics and cultures, usually. Today, for reasons we still don't full understand, Brian has asked to write about the accordion.

(Soundbite of song, La Vie en Rose, played on an accordion)

BRIAN UNGER reporting:

Who hasn't dreamed of playing La Vie en Rose on an accordion? The answer is many, many people. But Pam Griffis(ph) is determined.

Ms. PAM GRIFFIS (Accordian Student): How many 30-minute lessons to get to sound like that? Honestly, someone like me?

Mr. DAVE CABALLERO (Accordion Instructor): If you practice a lot, like two hours a day? Oh, I would say within a couple of years.

UNGER: That's Dave Caballero, Pam's accordion teacher. You see, Pam has a dream. A strange dream, but a dream.

Ms. GRIFFIS: The ultimate goal here is to play in front of my parents at the German-American Social Club of Cape Coral Florida, Inc.

UNGER: Pam - who is more Led Zeppelin than Lawrence Welk - appears on the surface, as we drive to her lesson, perfectly normal.

Ms. GRIFFIS: The majority of the people think I'm nuts, though. As a 40-something-year-old girl in Los Angeles, I don't think a lot of people think that I would ever pick up an accordion. I don't know.

UNGER: It's both musical instrument and luggage.

Ms. GRIFFIS: Do you know how much that thing weighs?

(Soundbite of accordion music)

UNGER: Today is Pam's third lesson with Dave the accordion teacher. She's feeling bold.

Ms. GRIFFIS: I want to show you my version of Happy Birthday...

Mr. CABALLERO: Oh, then I want to hear it.

Ms. GRIFFIS: ...that I play. I love this accordion.

(Soundbite of song, Happy Birthday, played on an accordion)

Mr. CABALLERO: Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRIFFIS: I'm sorry, it's...

Mr. CABALLERO: Relax.

UNGER: Pam swears she sounds better at home. And when we add a little bass, we know she's lying.

Ms. GRIFFIS: No, I do know the song on this hand, but it's getting my left hand, okay.

Mr. CABALLERO: So there's just two buttons you have to depress, that and than C, back and forth. Your going...

(Soundbite of song, Happy Birthday, played on the accordion)

UNGER: It is a complicated waltz, getting the left and the right hand to move gracefully together while squeezing what looks like a suitcase strapped to your chest.

Ms. GRIFFIS: That's what's making this really difficult to me, is that coordination.

Mr. CABALLERO: Well just figure out how many things you're doing. You're playing the basses, you're playing the right hand.

Ms. GRIFFIS: Reading...

Mr. CABALLERO: You're reading.

Ms. GRIFFIS: ...music for the first time in eight years.

Mr. CABALLERO: You're counting, and you're pushing the - pumping the bellows. That's only five things.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

UNGER: Five things. 120 buttons, 41 keys - Dave's been teaching all of it for 43 years. He's not big on small talk. He lets his accordion do most of the talking, like this Italian job from the '30s.

Mr. CABALLERO: It actually has a great sound, too. It needs a little tuning, but...

(Soundbite of accordion music)

UNGER: In just one room of his office, I counted 150 accordions. Dave loves them all.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

Mr. CABALLERO: That was just two switches. And this is a more powerful one.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

UNGER: Dave's been teaching from this same office since 1972. That was the year he met his wife, Veronica.

Ms. VERONICA CABALLERO (Wife of Dave Caballero): I came in for lessons, and that's how we met.

UNGER: 34 years and 3 children later - Dave on accordion, Veronica here on the mandolin - are still making beautiful music together.

(Soundbite of accordion and mandolin music)

UNGER: What can we learn from Dave besides the romantic binding love of the accordion? We learn that Pam has so much homework to do.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

Ms. GRIFFIS: Oops, hold on.

UNGER: I think Pam's going to get there, sometime before the collapse of the Social Security system.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

Ms. GRIFFIS: Oops, hold on.

UNGER: And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

(Soundbite of squeal, laughter)

(Soundbite of accordion music)

ADAMS: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Noah Adams.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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