- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Always listen to your grandmother. She won’t steer you wrong.
At least that’s been Michael Leggett Jr.’s experience.
When the late Lottie Leggett learned that her son Michael Sr. and his wife Joyce were having a son, Lottie, a German native, went shopping for the perfect gift.
“As soon as she found out he was a boy, she bought him his first pair of lederhosen,” Michael Leggett Sr. said. “She bought him his first accordion.”
The family is steeped in its German heritage as members of Alt Washingtonia, the original Bavarian dance club of Washington, D.C.
Leggett Sr. has been a member of the group since the late 1970s and is its vice president.
Although she doesn’t speak a word of German, Joyce, who has a perfect ear according to her husband, sings and yodels in the language as if she were born speaking it, and Michael, when he’s not dancing, is providing music on the button box accordion — the steirische harmonika.
He tried the piano accordion, the instrument usually associated with the word “accordion” — the box with bellows and a keyboard on the side — “But it didn’t fit me,” said Michael, a senior at North Point High School, where he plays trumpet in its symphonic band.
In 2008, the dance group visited Germany for a festival, staying with members of another dance troupe that was celebrating its 100th anniversary. That’s where Michael saw a band featuring a button box player and was intrigued and transfixed.
“I couldn’t stop listening and watching,” he said.
He made his way to the “lighter” button box, an instrument that has four rows of buttons — G, C, F, B flat — on the side instead of a keyboard like that of the piano accordion.
The button box is popular in the Alpine region and is specifically designed for playing “volksmusik,” or German folk music, Michael said.
The family sought out a tutor for Michael and found Austrian-native Silvia Eberly of Arlington, Va., who has been playing the steirische harmonika for years.
“I think it’s very important for a teacher to bring students who are really good to the forefront,” she said. “They are the future of harmonika players. He is a quiet person, a shy person. But with music he blooms like a little flower.”
Eberly said she believes in Michael as a musician — in addition to the button box and trumpet, he plays piano, alphorn (the long, wooden horn made popular by Ricola cough drops commercials) and flugelhorn — and often calls on him to join her to perform at gigs.
“I drag all of my students with me,” she said, laughing.
Recently, they played at the Dupont Festival in the District on Groundhog Day.
They play in a band with Michael on lead steirische harmonika, Eberly on steirische harmonika, wooden spoons and vocals, Ian Hargreaves on euphonium and Michael Brown on guitar.
On Saturdays, Michael and his family usually are performing at Euro Bistro in Herndon, Va., and from August to October, Michael sees his calendar booked up to play during Oktoberfests and other events.
He is a member of the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society and stays busy attending festivals and competitions including the National Button Accordion Festival in Bessemer, Pa., where musicians get together and jam.
He was the only button box accordion player at a competition sponsored by the American Accordion Musicological Society of Westmont, N.J., where he took first place in polka and first in ethnic music and second in the virtuoso category.
He recently was named the first-place winner in the annual talent hunt held by the Tau Lambda Lambda chapter of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. To keep his skills sharp, Michael attends button box camp in California near Lake Tahoe, a camp that is run based on the methods of famed musician the late Joe Smiell.
Getting the hang of the accordion is not a simple process, Michael said.
“You have to have your wits about you,” his father said, adding that Michael’s confidence has been boosted by playing in front of crowds such as the dance group and at performances
“It wasn’t easy,” said Michael of the instrument. “But I enjoy the music, and to play it takes it to a new level.”
Eberly said she believes interest in the accordion is growing.
“It’s a forgotten instrument, but it’s on the rise,” she said. “It’s not about the quantity of students. It’s about the quality and how long they stick to it. [Michael] is certainly quality. He’s a person of class and has the love for the instrument.”
Leggett Sr. said Michael’s musical ability comes from the teen’s mother.
“He gets his musical talent from her side of the family,” Leggett Sr. said. “He gets his enthusiasm from me.”
Michael likes that his hobbies — not only playing the steirische harmonika but dancing with Alt Washingtonia — is unique.
“The cool thing is, it’s different, “ he said.