Bulgarian Accordion Tutorial - Keyboard Basics


Bulgarian accordion can be played standing or sitting, and should be practiced both ways. In either case, the instrument should be mounted solidly on your body so that is not constantly shifting beneath your hands. While standing, take care not to counter balance the weight of the instrument by swaying your back. This will hurt your back over time. Instead, stand solidly with feet spread about the distance of your shoulders, with slightly bent knees. Angle your shoulders slightly forward of your hips, using your hips (not your back) to counterbalance the instrument's weight. While sitting, the keyboard will dip somewhat between your legs. Extend your right knee outward to allow access to the upper keyboard.

Right arm positioning

Optimal hand attitude to the keyboard is achived though a combination of shoulder, elbow and wrist angles. The right shoulder should be relaxed and mobile. The right elbow is slightly raised from its natural position, drawing the shoulder slightly away from the body and angling the forearm back toward the keyboard. The elbow angle varies as the hand moves between the upper and lower keyboard. When on the lower keyboard, it is important that the elbow angle not become too acute, creating tension in the muscles of the upper and lower arm, and impairing finger mechanics. The join of the forearm and wrist should be relaxed and nearly, but not perfectly, straight. A marked angle at this join cramps the natural motion of the wrist and impairs finger motion.

Neutral hand position

In its neutral, relaxed position, the hand should be elevated so that the thumb knuckle is slightly above the plane of the keyboard. The knuckles of fingers 2-5 form a gentle arc, with the knuckle of finger 5 somewhat closer to the plane of the keyboard than that of finger 2. The neutral position places fingers 2-5 somewhat in opposition to the thumb, so that closing the fingers and thumb together (as to hold a marble between fingers 1 & 2) moves the thumb somewhat up the keyboard, and the other fingers slightly down. This position also means that as a finger 2-5 depresses a key, it moves slightly down keyboard.

NOTE: The recommended neutral position is in contrast to the position recommended by some classical pianists in which knuckles 2-5 are roughly parallel to the keyboard. If that approach is followed on the accordion, tension is introduced into the wrist, and the elbow is forces to unnaturally elevate. Further contrast between this hand position and the recommended one will be made in the mechanical discussions that follow. Amoung several advantages of the recommended position is an improved 1-2 stretch.

Key Depression with Fingers 2-5

In contrast to the piano, organ and other horizontal keyboards where keys are depressed using a variety of finger mechanics, in Bulgarian accordion one mechanism is used almost exclusively. That method is similar to the motion of gently closing your hand around a tennis ball. The arm, wrist, flat of the hand remain stationary. Most of the key depression comes from curling the lowest two joints of the finger under the hand, with a minors assist from a slight downward motion of the finger's uppermost joint. The key is depressed with a relaxed hand and the minimum possible force via a light brushing of the fingertip. The brushing motion applies to both long and short notes. In the case of long notes, the brushing motion is paused once the key is depressed, and continues when the time comes for release. As mentioned above, the neutral position of the hand means that the fingertip moves down keyboard during depression.

Key Depression with the Thumb

To start, place the thumb directly below finger 2. The thumb should be relaxed and straight so that the nail arcs slightly outward from the line of the digit. The thumb is usually inserted into the keyboard in preparation for the stroke, and key depression is initiated with the left side of the thumb tip as the thumb is drawn straight away from the keyboard. As with fingers 2-5 (above), this is a light, brushing motion that applies to both long and short notes. As the thumb is drawn back, the angle it makes with the plane of the keyboard increases. As a result, the wrist is raised to accomodate and the rest of the hand rolls forward over the top. This rolling motion facilitates the next 2-5 finger stroke. In slow practice, the thumb angle increase and corresponding wrist rise will be exaggerated, starting at perhaps 20 degrees at key depression, and rising to perhaps 70 degrees at key release. As the motion becomes more facile and gradually increases in speed, it will become less exaggerated and the angular change will decrease.

Finger crossing

The recommended neutral hand position above makes certain demands (or perhaps opportunities?) for finger crossing technique, that is, the crossing of the thumb under going up the scale or fingers over going down. Thumbs crossing under are easy, because knuckles 2 & 3 are already elevated in the neutral position, making a natural pathway for the thumb.

More consideration is required for fingers crossing over. First note that, in Bulgarian music, there is rarely a need to cross fingers 4 or 5 over, only fingers 2 and 3. As a consequence, classical scale practice (which crosses fingers 3 and 4) is not particularly relevant here. The rule for crossing over is to NOT rotate your forearm (counterclockwise) to allow the crossing finger to reach its destination. Instead curl finger 2 or 3 more that usual, and close the hand to the thumb allowing the finger to reach. This is only possible because of the thumb/finger opposition of the neutral position. This motion can be slightly assisted by angling the wrist leftward, but most of the work is done by finger curling and hand closing. And again, don't rotate your forearm! Pay attention to the bones on the right side of your wrist (technically, the ulnar styloid process and the pisiform bone). They will elevate if you rotate your forearm left, but they should remain largely stationary in Bulgarian technique.

Practicing Key Depression

The descriptions above probably seem unnecessarily complicated and specific at this point. The reason they are this way is that the complementary motions of thumb and 2-5 depression integrate in a specific way to facilitate the execution of prall-triplets which are the subject of the next lesson. Prall-triplets are fundamental to all Bulgarian accordion playing.

NOTE: It will be difficult (if not impossible) to execute the techniques for fingers 2-4 described in this tutorial unless your fingernails are clipped quite short (less than 1/16 inch). As the finger is drawn under the hand, you will be forced onto the nail, thus losing the required sensitivity of touch. Longer nails for the thumb and finger 5 are somewhat less problematic.

Try out the basic key depression techniques above on some very slow 1 octave scales (use only those starting on white keys). Each thumb, come to a complete stop midway through the brush. Then continue the brush, elevating your wrist in response to thumb angle and move the entire hand forward to the next note. Follow the guidelines above for crossing under and crossing over. (As mentioned above, multiple octave scales are not especially useful here.)

Other useful exercises for basic key depression practice include the first few pieces from Hanon's "The Virtuoso Pianist", restricted to the right hand over a single octave. A couple of my favorites are:

Hanon exercises focus more on finger 5 than Bulgarian music requires, so it can be useful to truncate them to just fingers 1-4, for example:"

Choice of switches

For melodic work, I recommend practicing using a single middle-range reed on the treble. On most accordions this is labeled "clarinet", although some use the term "oboe". The clarinet switch provide the clearest sound, and will best allow you to hear, diagnose and correct difficulties you encounter. Other switches compatible with Bulgarian playing are middle and low (usually called "bandoneon", sometimes "melodeon") and middle and high (usually called "organ"). Musette switches are inappropriate in Bulgarian music.

Copyright 2015 Erik Butterworth. All rights reserved.