Sunday, 30 January 2011

Bayan time

Further to "You'll like this, it has buttons": the bayan arrived several days back. Being very busy (tax deadline again, and lots of web work to do ... sorry, guys) I swore I wouldn't spend time trying it out until I'd cleared my desk adequately, but once I'd opened the huge padded package from Ukraine with "НЕ бросать" (Russian: "DO NOT drop/throw") all over it, it was inevitable I'd get sidetracked. So, brief impressions.

It's a secondhand Орфей (Orfei = Orpheus) bayan - the Russian flavour of chromatic button accordion - with 120-button stradella left-hand keyboard and a five-row 85-button right-hand keyboard. It's a chunky 10kg (nearly 2 stone) instrument as used by professional bands such as the Ukrainian folk rock band Тік (above), with a very solid clarinet-like tone, with lots of bass (it makes my small piano accordion sound positively shrill and tinny). Oh, and it has a nice green casing.

Although I'd read around the topic as much as possible, moving to button-key was still very much a leap of faith after decades of playing a piano accordion - and even more so to go for a B-system bayan, where I'm likely to be on my own over learning (the reasons were partly affordability, partly liking the overall tone, and partly feeling indefinably simpatico with the instrument). But after a week, I can safely say I'm sorry I didn't make the change years ago.  The left-hand needs only minor acclimatisation, since I'm used to the stradella layout. As to the right-hand: I find the keyboard layout - shown here at Blumberg's Music Theory Cipher - both conceptually elegant and practical. As Blumberg puts it, it's an "isomorphic instrument" - every note has the same relationship to those adjacent (see basics), meaning playing scales in all keys uses the same fingering, as does chords.  Any scale is playable on three rows, but the five rows offer duplicate buttons playing the same note, which often offer easier alternate fingerings (for instance, a move to an adjacent key rather than a jump). The keyboard is also highly compressed compared to piano format: you can easily play two-octave chords. A downside, however, is that the non-linear layout makes long glissandos rather more difficult (Nydana's Accordion Resources has a good analysis comparing the B and C systems).

All of that is readable anywhere; but an aspect I haven't seen mentioned is that I'm finding it vastly easier to learn tunes on the Orfei than on a piano keyboard.  I tend to think visually, and find the 2D button layout gives tunes a "shape" - they become a path following locations on a surface - that's rapidly memorable. Another neat, and encouraging, observation is that there seems to be a kind of synergy: after a week exploring the bayan, I've noticed an improvement in my piano accordion technique. So far, it looks altogether an interesting project for 2011.

(There are some scary examples on YouTube of what can be done on the five-row bayan: see Lidia Kaminska and Alexander Dmitriev. Ouch).

- Ray


  1. Hi
    I am 60 years old Gideon from Israel, find your story like it wrote by me...I play my two Italian 80 bass xccordions for more then 50 years. about a year ago i wached on TV Richard Galliano plaing button accordion and i started to dream about learning this instrument. I spent hours in internet, understood that there are a few systems, started practice nice bayab aplication for android phone with systems B C and G and yesterday i ordered 120 bass green used Orfei fron Ukraine (before i found your blog - do not feel responsible fot my advantures). After you have bayan for 3+ years -
    are you happy with it?

    1. Hi, Gideon,
      I'm extremely happy with it - see May 2014. It has been hard work but very rewarding. Probably the most difficult thing was breaking away from the idea that scales run in a simple left-right direction, and learning to play them inside three adjacent button rows. But the Orfei has a beautiful tone, and you can play very rich chords (2 octaves). It was the best musical decision of my life.