Accordion Still Cool in Wishek

Nicholson, Blake. "Accordion Still Cool in Wishek." Bismarck Tribune, 24 October 2006.

Wishek High School students practice the accordion in Wishek, N.D., Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006. Seven students from the small school have taken up the instrument. Pictured, from left, are Sara Meidinger, Kristy Bosch, Lisa Horner and Christy Schaffer. (AP Photo/Will Kincaid)

WISHEK - A few miles off the Lawrence Welk Highway is a community where the sound of "O Du Lieber Augustin" is as common as anything by Britney Spears, Jay-Z or Garth Brooks.

Wishek calls itself the "Sauerkraut Capital of the World" and German is almost as common as English. High school music teacher Janet Wolff isn't afraid to teach the accordion.

Her teenage students don't balk at picking up the instrument or performing in an auditorium full of old-timers who take their German traditions seriously.

"It's just something different," said 17-year-old Kasandra Huber. "I thought it would be fun. And it is fun."

Wishek High School has 110 students. Huber is one of seven who play the accordion, an instrument made famous by Welk, who died in 1992, and the late Myron Floren, who both entertained generations of TV viewers on "The Lawrence Welk Show."

In Wishek, a town of about 1,100 people, the accordion players include Jason Hochhalter, 18, a muscular high school senior, and Christy Schaffer, 15, a petite, full-blooded German who has been practicing for four years.

"When I was younger, I thought it was something different to do," Schaffer said. "My grandpa did it. And I thought it would be interesting to play something different, that no other kid was playing."

Wolff, who grew up in the Minneapolis area, married a German with accordions after taking the teaching job in Wishek in 1988. She thought the accordion would be perfect for performances during Sauerkraut Day, an annual sauerkraut and sausage festival held in Wishek for eight decades.

Wolff started teaching the accordion four years ago, using instruments borrowed from people in town. "It's just another instrument to be exposed to," she said.

"I was just going to play it for a day, and then I ended up keeping it," said Hochhalter, who looks like he would be more at home in a weight-lifting room than a music room.

When other students chimed in and good-naturedly chided him for "stealing" the accordion from another student, he grinned and added, "They're just jealous."

The culture of the farming region also helps, Wolff said. Welk, the bandleader whose "wunnerful, wunnerful" show of the 1950s and 1960s can still be seen in public television reruns, grew up in nearby Strasburg. Many older residents converse in German, and wedding dances still feature
polkas and waltzes, Wolff said.

Lisa Horner, 17, said the student accordion players are following in their grandparents' footsteps. "It's kind of cool," she said.

The students like modern-day music but all know Lawrence Welk. "My dad watched all the time," Horner said. "He was like, 'We've got to watch Lawrence Welk.'"

Sara Meidinger, 17, said her father plays the accordion and is trying to teach her. She's not afraid to admit that she sometimes sits on the couch at home and plays.

"I usually do it if I'm bored," she said.

Helmi Harrington, who runs music studios in the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville and in Superior, Wis., is the director of A World of Accordions Museum in Duluth, Minn. She is not surprised to hear that teenagers in North Dakota play the accordion.

"In the 1990s there was a trend toward nostalgia, toward finding our roots in America," she said. "That always brings people back to ethnic connectors."

Harrington, who has played the accordion for more than half a century, said the instrument is unique in that it creates melody, harmony and rhythm like a piano or organ, but is more portable.

"A single person can shine in a spotlight with marvelous notes," she said.

However, with its keyboard, pushbuttons and bellows, "it is a very difficult instrument to play well," Harrington said.

Wolff said she cannot envision teaching the accordion in a big city like Minneapolis, but has never had a student in Wishek refuse to try it.

"It's part of our heritage," Huber said.

Jonna Hochhalter, a lifelong Wishek resident and former mayor, is among the town's residents above retirement age who are pleased with the young accordion players.

"To bring it back now, in 2006, and encourage these young people, I think, is outstanding," said Hochhalter.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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