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Musician renews her interest in underappreciated accordion

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One day in 1949, fate knocked on the door of an 8-year-old California girl's home. By then, little Janet Cutrer already knew she had a gift for music.

Born in Spanish Fork, she and her family had moved to Southern California a couple of years earlier. She had grown up around music. She could play the piano. But she wanted something more.

"I would have studied whatever happened to come along," she said.

What happened to come along on that particular day was a door-to-door accordion salesman.

Ten lessons came with a little accordion. If the student did well, she could upgrade. Janet did well — so well that she hooked up with a major studio and became the star pupil. She remembers that the owner of the studio had a new Cadillac, "and he told me, 'Janet, if you practice, one day you will be driving one of these.' "

In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, more people were studying accordion than any other instrument, she said.

That's hard for us to understand now, when accordions have become underappreciated and overridiculed in this country. "They are still the most popular instrument in the world. A lot of cultures don't relate to the piano, but they love the accordion," said the woman who grew up to become Janet Todd (she met her husband at Brigham Young University) — and one of the leading accordion players in the country.

A slight 4-feet,11-inches tall, Todd does not appear to be the most likely person to be an accordianist. She is practically dwarfed by the new electronic digital Concerto she has started to play. Although she still plays her acoustic accordions, "the electronics mean I can be a one-person orchestra."

It is physically demanding to hold and work the bellows — consider that it weighs 30 lbs. and she weighs in at 104. "Plus, my style has always been to play standing up."

Her ability has taken her more than 250,000 miles to 22 countries and 26 states for conventions and shows. While at BYU, she participated in U.S. Defense and State Department tours of Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

After her marriage, she continued to play, among other things opening for such acts as Glen Campbell, Johnny Mathis, Bobby Vinton, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. She also loved the "domestic" side of life, cooking, gardening, being a mother to five children. "So I would get up at 4 a.m. to practice, so I could still play and travel."

In the early 1980s, however, serious health challenges put Todd's performance career on hold, permanently she feared. Playing the accordion is a lot like training for athletics, she said. "If you don't use it, you lose it. Rest is the enemy to a musician. You lose all your technique."

But not your love for it. So, in 2001, as she turned 60, Todd strapped on an accordion again and began practicing, "just to see what might happen at this point in my life."

What happened is that she discovered there is still an accordion world out there. And it welcomed her back with open arms. Performances in such venues as TAA's National Accordion Convention, the Las Vegas International Convention and the Accordion Festival in Cotati, Calif., received high acclaim; critics hailed her "world-class" appearances.

Even more touching, she said, was that "people remembered me. They followed me around. One man remembered hearing me play in Washington, D.C., in 1960, and told me I changed his life. He went right back to Pocatello and began to practice the accordion." One man had heard her play in Germany; another in Shreveport, La. "They remembered my style."

Todd has recently produced her first CD, a self-titled album that includes folk, classical and popular songs. She's also been selected to be part of the Utah Arts Council's Utah Performing Arts Tour for 2004-05. (For information visit www.janettoddmusic.com).

Accordions are making something of a comeback, she thinks. Cajun zydeco music is popular. More and more pop and folk groups use them. Still, it is nothing like it was in the 1950s. Even now she looks back on those years with some amazement. "Before I got married, music was my whole life. I'd spend 20 hours a week in music lessons, some six hours in the Accordion Symphony and another four to six in straight practice."

Stereotypes aside, it was five years before she learned her first polka. "My teacher taught only classical music: Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky. But I had a good ear, and I could pick up the pop songs."

But she learned early on that "there is a side of music for the musician, and one for the audience." She remembers at age 14 playing at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, and playing her own arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a difficult piece.

And then Myron Floren came on, and he played the "Pennsylvania Polka." Polkas, Todd notes, only use three chords for the left hand and really aren't very challenging. "But the audience went wild; they loved it."

Polkas were so popular in those days that there was even a "Polka Parade" TV show, and she could have had a part in it, earning $450 a week — a lot of money then. "But my teacher threw a fit. 'If you start playing polkas now, you'll not play anything else,' he told me." And so, even though "polkas are wonderful," she said, "I've always wanted to give the idea that there's more than that to the accordion."

She doesn't know how far this comeback will take her — it's not like she's an aspiring artist hoping for a big career. But, she said, "the phone's been ringing, people asking me to play."

The accordion has brought music back into her life. "It's revived my deep love of music, a love I had buried for other important things."

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com