Felipe Perez began playing accordion while still in elementary school. Some of his earliest memories came from watching his uncle play next door, “with a big ol’ cigar in his mouth and a can of beer,” and knew he wanted to learn himself. With little money in the family, Felipe saved up to buy his own accordion, shining shoes along the Corpus Christi cantinas, where the many sailors stationed in town provided consistent business. Eventually, his mother would surprise him with an accordion he initially had on layaway: a Hohner two-row button accordion, costing $47. It wouldn’t be much later that Felipe would play his first public show, playing for a graduation party at 11 or 12. Soon after Felipe was playing regularly in Corpus Christi and the surrounding area, starting his three-piece conjunto, Los Tres Angelitos. Additionally, due to a shortage of musicians in Corpus Christi at that time, Felipe was regularly asked to perform in town and the surrounding area, either in his own conjunto or for others from out of town. Performing across multiple cantinas and venues, Felipe honed his abilities as a master accordionist, and was constantly in demand to perform.
It wouldn’t be much longer that Felipe started learning to tune accordions. Some of the earliest instruction came from legendary accordionist and 1986 NEA National Heritage Fellow, , who taught him to tune reeds through using lead from butter knives. Much of what Felipe would learn, however, came through trial and error and experimenting to find what worked best in tuning accordions. By the time he was 15 or 16 Felipe was earning the admiration of older players that didn’t know how to tune, and earning money in addition to his playing.
Like Felipe, Lorenzo Martinez also learned to play accordion at a young age. Seeing other kids playing accordion in the barrios of west San Antonio, Lorenzo was committed to learning the instrument himself. Using an accordion bought for him by his grandfather, Lorenzo learned from legendary musicians Santiago Jimenez Sr. and Flaco Jimenez, as well as other kids around the neighborhood. It wouldn’t be much longer that Lorenzo would play his first show for a birthday party, being paid in Kool-Aid and cake. Motivated by this first gig, Lorenzo would walk to the barbershop and other places around town, playing with Flaco at various shops around the neighborhood. As Lorenzo recalls about these early years, “We got paid in soda, Kool Aid, and cake.”
In addition to performing, Lorenzo also started teaching early in life. It was not uncommon for kids in the neighborhood to trade ideas, and this would often be a collaborative effort. But Lorenzo’s passion for playing equally drove his desire to learn more; in addition to learning to play by ear, Lorenzo equally studied music theory. Taking piano lessons and learning to read music early in life, Lorenzo would transpose classical music into accordion, expanding his repertoire and understanding of the accordion.
Though he would put down the accordion for several years to raise his family, through the motivation of his neighbor and well-known guitarist Chucho Paredes, Lorenzo got back into playing accordion. Continuing his passion for teaching, Lorenzo also co-found , a community-based organization in San Antonio dedicated to the continuation of conjunto music through low-cost accordion and bajo sexto classes.
Tuning accordions are often done for professional musicians who can hear the differences between a standard factory-built accordion, and an accordion that’s been retuned, which gives it a brighter, fuller sound. Even the smallest changes make a significant difference, as Felipe explains. While all factory accordions are tuned to the pitch standard of 440Hz, Felipe tunes his accordions to 445Hz. While a small change, the difference in tuning stands out when performing, leading to a unique sound that can only be done through retuning the instrument from the factory standard.
“You have to be extremely passionate to learn accordion tuning,” Felipe states. Tuning is a very labor-intensive process, where the smallest changes can take hours to complete. For example, tuning just one reed can take three to four hours alone. To put into a larger context, for each button of an accordion there are two reeds; for a 31-button accordion, then, there are a total of 62 reeds in just one accordion. When Felipe was starting out, too, a tuning wheel was used instead of an electronic tuner, requiring a very attentive ear. But while technology has allowed for some shortcuts, Felipe still stresses the need to keep things simple: wax, a triangle file or grinder for reeds, and a small blade to push up and keep a reed in place are common tools.
While too busy to learn and not knowing anyone around him who could show him, Lorenzo has always wanted to learn to tune and repair accordions. In addition to Felipe’s instruction, much of what Lorenzo learns comes through trial-and-error. While more modern technology like an electronic tuner has helped in some aspects, the process still requires time, dedication, and passion to learn. As Lorenzo explains, it is through these mistakes that one is able to learn: “You have to make mistakes to learn… Sometimes I’ll keep doing it until I get tired and mess up, but I can’t leave it alone.” What matters most, as both Felipe and Lorenzo state, is the passion to learn, and the satisfaction that comes with completing a project.
As he continues to expand his understanding of accordion tuning, Lorenzo aims to pass on this knowledge to the younger generation. As an instructor at Conjunto Heritage Taller, the dwindling number of individuals who know the art form affirms that need to teach others. Playing the music and learning to tune, Lorenzo explains, not only keeps kids out of trouble but, even more so, allows them to pursue something they truly love and enjoy. Lorenzo feels a personal obligation to support and nurture these passions for the next generation, and recognizes that no one ever stops learning. “I don’t think it’ll ever be over,” Lorenzo states. “It’s there forever.”