(A Guide for the Strolling Accordionist)


About the Author: Paul Stein is a Manhattan-based accordionist who has strolled for many years at events ranging from weddings to holiday dinners to museum exhibit openings. His diverse repertoire includes a large selection of Jewish music.

"The article grew out of a workshop presented at the Accordion Master Class and Concert Series directed by Dr. William Schimmel, under the auspices of the American Accordionists' Association."

For more information on Paul Stein, please visit:
If you are an accordionist who loves to entertain an audience but has never taken a job as a strolling musician, you really should try it. The delight on the face of one listener you are serenading a few feet in front of you may be even more satisfying than the applause of an entire audience you can barely see from up on a stage. Strolling, done properly, is the most intimate type of performance, because, as you move about the room, you are sharing your music with individual audience members one at a time, although many people may be listening. Like all other skills of the professional musician, strolling proficiency develops with experience. But the following pointers will get you off to a good start.
1. The strolling accordionist should enhance the listeners' space, not detract from it. Think "tasteful wallpaper."
In order to do the job well, every strolling musician must keep in mind that he or she was not hired to be the center of attention. This does not mean that you should give less than your best performance. It does mean that you should be careful that your performance does not distract from the primary purpose of the gathering, and that you do not interfere with any guest's enjoyment of the occasion. People may be there to dine with friends or business associates or for a romantic dinner date.

They may be there to celebrate a joyous event or to honor someone or some cause. Regardless of what brought people together, they did not come primarily to hear or see the accordionist. As a strolling musician, it is your job to enhance the event, like elegant wallpaper enhances a roomful of furniture and fine art. Wallpaper is never intended to be the main focus of a room.

Tasteful wallpaper makes the furniture and artwork look better. However, loud and obtrusive wallpaper whose style clashes with the furniture and works of art draws undue attention to itself and detracts from the overall appearance of the contents of the room. Think "tasteful wallpaper." The nine other commandments of strolling flow from the first.
2. Scope out the event and the guests in advance, so you will be prepared to play the right repertoire for the occasion, and then make adjustments based on audience reaction.
It is always a good idea to discuss the event, the guests, and what kind of repertoire is wanted with the person who hired you, to make sure that you will deliver an appropriate performance. Ask about musical styles, ask if there are any specific song requests, and ask if there is anything in particular you should avoid (e.g., the popular love song that was the groom's special song with his first wife). Chances are, you will have time to learn a few specific requests. But, if you are told that all you should play is swing, for example, and you know only three pieces, do not take the gig!

If the event is far enough off, you may have time to build up your repertoire in one area (e.g., music of a particular ethnic group). However, do not venture into unknown musical territory without consulting someone familiar with the style (preferably another musician), to insure that you have the basic repertoire that people expect to hear and that you have the correct tempo and feel of the material. It is a good idea to write out a set list on a small piece of paper in advance and make sure you have identified enough appropriate songs to fill the period of time you are engaged for.

Put the list in your pocket (taping it to the top of the accordion looks tacky), and if you seem to be running out of repertoire, you can glance at it to see if you missed anything. If you do run out of material, you are better off repeating something at the end that you did earlier than playing other songs that do not fit the occasion or are not well prepared. During the course of a job, you may occasionally insert an original or obscure song that you like. But, as a general rule, stick to well-known songs that most people recognize, in order to get the best reception. While performing, pay attention to how different songs and styles of music are being received by the audience as a whole, and adjust the amount of time spent on each accordingly.
3. Build an extensive repertoire you know cold and can play from motor memory.
It is not fun to watch a musician making many mistakes or struggling through a song. You will be playing within feet of the guests. When you perform alone (as most strolling accordionists do) and are standing a few feet from the listener, both your mistakes and your discomfort from making them (which, theoretically, you never show) are much more obvious than when you play as part of a band up on a stage. If you look tense while strolling, even if you are not making mistakes, your up-close audience will feel uncomfortable. That defeats the whole purpose of being there, doesn't it?

As a strolling accordionist, you have numerous things to think about other than the music. At the risk of stating the obvious, you have to be careful not to trip or fall while you are strolling. You have to be careful not to bump into any of the guests or the wait staff (see Commandment 6 below). You have to pay close attention to the individual members of the audience around you to know who wants you to stop and serenade them and who wants you to move on (see Commandment 5 below). You need to gauge how specific songs and song styles are being received (see Commandment 2 above). You need to look like you are having a good time. You need to actually be having a good time (since it is really difficult to fake it up close), in order for your audience to enjoy themselves. It is impossible to do all of these things right, unless your hands can glide across the keys and buttons without conscious effort because you know the songs so well.

As you gain experience, your well-memorized repertoire should be constantly growing in an organized fashion. The goal is to develop an extensive, diverse repertoire suitable for any strolling occasion that you can play effortlessly while moving around a room. Keep in mind that although you are playing from motor memory, you do not want to appear to be playing mechanically. For example, carrying on a conversation while playing causes you to seem detached from the music and significantly detracts from your performance. So while performing, you should avoid anything more than an occasional, extremely brief conversation with a member of the audience, even if you have the ability to talk and play accurately at the same time.
4. Play all requested songs you know enthusiastically, and if you cannot play a request, compliment the choice, apologize for not having it in your repertoire, and then play something similar.
People enjoy listening to songs they know. They are usually not shy about making requests as you pass by. If you are doing your repertoire-building homework, over time, there will be fewer and fewer requests that you are unable to play. But you must always be prepared to tactfully handle a request you do not know or do not like. Never disparage a request, whether or not you can play it. When you put down a song, you are also putting down the person who requested it. A negative comment about the song might seem to excuse you for not knowing it, but why embarrass the requester and make yourself look bad?

No doubt, you will receive many requests to play songs that you feel are hackneyed and uninteresting to you. Nevertheless, if it is in your repertoire, you should always find some way to compliment the requested song and play it enthusiastically. If you cannot play it, say you are sorry you do not have it down yet, and offer to play something of a similar style that you believe the requester will enjoy. For example, if "Adios Muchachos" is requested and you cannot do a decent rendition of it, play another well-known tango that you know (e.g., "La Cumparsita"). In making substitutions, it is always best to pick a popular piece that the listener is likely to be familiar with.

Keep track of the requested songs you were unable to play. When a song comes up a second time, you probably should learn it. If you have a good ear, you may want to try faking requests you have not previously learned. The requester will appreciate your effort on his or her behalf. But unless you are nailing it, after a few bars move on to something similar in your repertoire.
5. Observe each guest's reaction as you approach, linger if they seem attentive, and gracefully stroll past if they pay no attention or give you an unpleasant look.
Individuals are rarely, if ever, personally serenaded by a professional musician. And the accordion is musically intriguing and visually engaging to many people. So even though the guests were not drawn to the event by the prospect of your entertaining them, some of them will be enchanted by having a real live accordionist playing in person for them up close. Their enjoyment will be obvious from their attentiveness and smiles. Stop by those people for a while, focus on them, and all of you will have a great time. While you are strolling, you should continually be making eye contact with the guests and conveying your enjoyment of playing for them. Although the smiling accordionist may be a cliché, a frown or other severe facial expression does not attract an audience, so be aware of the expression on your face.

If you are paying attention, you will not have any problem figuring out who likes what they see and hear. Take the time to give the loving couple who welcome you to their table a romantic medley. On the other hand, it will be equally obvious who is totally ignoring you, and who does not enjoy your musical presence. Gracefully walk past those people, and do not let them bother you. Whether they are deeply engaged in conversation or are not attracted to your music for some other reason, you do not want to intrude on them with your music. Also, always be conscious of the ambient noise level of the room, and make sure you are not playing too loudly for the environment. The accordion cuts.

Choose registers for the bass and treble that are appropriate for the music and for the room acoustics. When you are strolling by seated diners, keep in mind that your instrument is at the level of their heads. Do not blast music into their ears. It is very disconcerting to see people cover their ears with their hands in response to your playing.
6. Stay out of the way of the food and beverage staff.
Do not make it difficult for others to do their job. Food or drink or both are usually an important focus of any affair that has a strolling accordionist. To avoid a collision, be on the lookout for trays heading in your direction. If you cannot step completely out of the way, at least stop strolling momentarily to let them pass. As you wend your way through the crowd, do not forget what a large, moving, expanding and contracting object you are. Be conscious of whose space your left hand may be entering as you pull on the bellows.

In a very congested room, you may have to limit your movement to the sides near the walls, where the aisles tend to be a little wider than between the tables. Being considerate of the wait staff is just common courtesy. In addition, if you are constantly getting in the way of the servers, or worse yet, cause one of them to drop a tray, the managers of the hotel, hall, or restaurant may not hire you again or will discourage future customers from booking you.

On the other hand, if you are considerate of their staff, they may recommend you for future jobs.
7. Play an instrument that is comfortable and musically appropriate.
Strolling is more strenuous than playing while seated or standing in one place. A lighter full-size accordion or a less than full-size instrument will help you to avoid unnecessary fatigue and repetitive strain injuries. Lessening the physical load can improve your performance, especially near the end of a long job.

Also, make sure your accordion is mechanically sound. If, for example, the bellows is leaky, the extra effort needed to work the bellows, will make strolling more difficult. Make sure that the instrument is of sufficient quality, decently tuned, and otherwise in good enough condition to be played as a solo instrument. An instrument that sounds fine in a blues band may be awful for strolling.

Keep in mind that in a large room full of people who are talking, you may have to play in the "master" treble register in order to project a sufficient volume level to be heard. Do not use an instrument whose type of tuning (with all treble reeds playing) is not appropriate for the repertoire of the occasion.
8. Make sure that both you and your accordion present a professional appearance.
As a solo act performing within feet of your audience, your appearance is critical. A number of the guests will be closely scrutinizing you as you stroll by. It is always better to err on the side of dressing too formally, rather than too casually. However, some sort of costume rather than standard formal wear may be appropriate, depending on the occasion.

If you have any doubts about attire, discuss it with the person who hired you. At a Christmas party, a bright red vest will probably be perfect. At an ethnic party or festival, an ethnic costume is often appropriate. If you wear the same attire to a sophisticated cocktail party, you will look silly. Whatever you wear, make sure it is clean, pressed, and in good repair. Shoes should always be polished.

It is amazing how many musicians are careless about their appearance. When you are strolling, all defects in your appearance are particularly obvious. Similarly, all defects in the appearance of your accordion stand out. Make sure you do not use an instrument that looks beat up or is missing pieces of chrome ornamentation or lettering. Many eyes will be on you. Even your best playing cannot hide a shabby instrument. And shabbiness will offend your audience. Back to the sophisticated cocktail party mentioned above - the bright green accordion with your name in rhinestones should be left at home.
9. Always leave very early for a strolling gig.
As a solo strolling accordionist, you have no band mates to cover for you if your car is stuck in traffic or there is a train delay. You must always give yourself an extra margin of time for transportation delays on the way to a strolling engagement.

You will never be penalized for arriving very early, but not being there to start the music when the party starts is a disaster.
10. Carry a good supply of attractive, custom-designed business cards with you.
Once you get the knack of being a strolling accordionist, people will want to know how to contact you for their next event. Your telephone number scribbled on a napkin does not convey a professional image and could easily be thrown away.

Always have a good stock of business cards on you, in a card case to keep them from becoming dog eared. A custom-designed business card with an accordion logo is much more impressive than a generic business card. An attractive, unique card will remind prospective employers of their enjoyment of your unique performance.

[In competitive markets, elegant brochures and informative web sites are becoming more and more common, but these are topics for another article.]

© 2003 Paul Stein