It can be said that Phyllis Edamatsu is a tiny woman with a very large presence, particularly when she’s playing music.
Edamatsu is director of Delaware State University’s research, planning and analytics office, and an adjunct mathematics professor at the school. However, she sheds her scholarly mien whenever she takes up her favorite instrument, the accordion.
She’s been playing since the age of 8 and is a member of several professional groups.
Edamatsu, who always had a fascination with music and musical instruments, began learning the bellows-driven instrument because her family, living in Spokane, Washington, didn’t have room for a piano.
“At the time our living room was too small for one,” she said. “Later on, my dad built onto the house and so my sisters were able to take piano lessons.
“By that time I was pretty comfortable with the accordion and didn’t want to switch.”
“The parents of one of my closest friends in grade school had a nightclub, and they had a friend who was an accordion player with her own band, the Gay Rancheros,” Edamatsu recalled.
At the time, the band leader, Lucille Taylor, was just starting to teach the accordion, she said. Edamatsu saw Taylor perform at a school PTA meeting and was hooked.
“My friend and I became Lucille’s first students,” she said. Because Taylor could not carry the accordion during her pregnancies, she switched instruments and ended up teaching Edamatsu’s three sisters when they learned the piano.
As her confidence grew, Edamatsu began playing at school meetings, churches, and talent shows. At one time she played duets with a partner whose appearance and choice of instrument was just the opposite of her own.
“We were teased a lot,” she recalled. “She was a big farm woman who could pick up bales of hay, but who played the piccolo. And there I was, barely five feet tall, carrying around an accordion.”
When Edamatsu went off to college, her accordion made the trip as well.
“In the dorms, my house mother would let me practice in the luggage storage room,” she said.
Even though Edamatsu has been playing for years, she still works to hone her skills, making the 90-minute trip almost weekly to take lessons at the Acme Accordion School in Haddon Township, New Jersey.
The school was founded in 1948 by Stanley Darrow and his late wife, Shirley.
“Their intention was to not only teach the accordion but to have people develop a solid musical foundation and music education,” Darrow’s current spouse, Joanna, said.
At age 87, her husband still is a regular at the school, advising the students and conducting the Westmont Philharmonia Accordion Orchestra.
Edamatsu plays with the 14-member group, which specializes in classical and contemporary works. It’s also the official community orchestra of Haddon Township.
Both Darrow and Edamatsu think the accordion hasn’t been given its due as a serious musical instrument; many think it’s just good for playing lively polkas and as the apparatus of choice for song parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic.
But lately, the accordion is shedding its reputation as an instrument only for dancing and light entertainment and is taking on a more serious reputation.
“The accordion has been developing its own literature and is being taught in conservatories, mostly in Europe,” Darrow said.
“There’s a new attitude about it,” she added.
The accordion even is offered as a music major in some American colleges, she said.
“I think that’s a stereotype, that the accordion is just for playing polkas,” Edamatsu said. “When I was growing up, it was mostly associated with a song, ‘Lady of Spain.’ Lucille refused to teach me that because it was such a stereotype. And Joanna won’t teach polkas simply because everyone expects to hear them.
“I do know a few polkas, though,” she admitted.
‘It’s like the voice’
The accordion is like other instruments because, like a human, it breathes. It can interpret any genre of music, from contemporary to classical to baroque, Darrow said.
“It’s like the voice,” she said. “It’s the closest instrument there is to the human voice. You control the air going through the reeds that produce the sound, and it can be extremely expressive.”
And the accordion continued to follow Edamatsu through various positions at colleges and universities throughout the United States. When she moved to Delaware in 2000, she discovered a local accordion club and later met the Darrows at a music festival. They soon began encouraging her to play publicly.
Today, Edamatsu not only plays for the Westmont Philharmonia, she’s also a member of the Accordion Pops Orchestra, which includes members from seven states and is considered the largest professional accordion orchestra on the East Coast.
The APO has concerts planned for Oct. 8 and Nov. 19.
“It’s a 90-minute drive to take my lessons and play with the WPOA, and an hour further to play with the Pops,” Edamatsu said. “But it’s worth it.”
That pleasure doesn’t just extend to playing in public, she added.
“I’ve played since I was a child, and it’s easy for me and I enjoy it,” Edamatsu added. “If I’m stuck at home and I’m bored, I can pick up my accordion and play something new. I’ve got stacks of something I can use when I want to practice. I’m always learning.”