Mary Ellen Mason loves the warm tubes of the monophonic Moog keyboard she plays in the local band Sissy Bar, yet she craved a fuller sound. Her need for something deeper led her to a pawnshop on a quest for a cello. She surprised herself, though, by walking out with a 1940s Argentine "Maestrina" accordion. "It sounds like it was made for a female accordion player," she says, "a little one at that."
Though she boldly went onstage at Spaceland in Silver Lake with her new instrument just one week and two Sissy Bar rehearsals later, Mason realized lessons might be a good thing. So she looked up Dave Caballero of Dave's Accordion School in Atwater Village.
Admiring the Maestrina's tortoise-like brown plastic body, Caballero, complete with the scrunched brows of a besotted Frenchman, warmed it up with a little Parisian ditty. Rows of gleaming instruments smiled out over the room as he guided his student through the basics.
"It's like rubbing your stomach and patting your head!" Mason says with a laugh after a few false starts. The wheels turn in her head and her face flushes as she tries to navigate the bellows, buttons and valves--without sounding like rush-hour traffic.
"I'm trying to think horizontally, and it's disconcerting to play vertically," she says. But soon she is blazing though the lesson, exhibiting a musician's understanding of notes and rhythm.
"She learns fast," Caballero says approvingly.
Mason, a music video producer by day, spends the next week practicing scales, much to the delight of her neighbors. "One thing I've learned is that the accordion is an extremely loud instrument," she says. "There is no volume control. I may have to go out to Griffith Park and practice under a tree."
Caballero's school has been around for 28 years. In its heyday during the champagne music era, it had enough students to fill a float in the Echo Park parade. Now the accordion has become the object of scorn, as evidenced by the school's wall of cartoon strips poking fun at the polka-making machine and its masters.
This bad rap doesn't scare Mason. She signs up for more lessons and is determined to master the accordion. "If I endeavor to play an instrument, I really want to learn to play it properly," she says. "Ideally, I'd like to learn how to play accordion while roller-skating. That'd be the most fun."
Dave's Accordion School; (323) 663-1907.