• 25 Sep 2020

The reeds of tomorrow

An article by Lorenzo Antonelli, President and C.E.O. of Voci Armoniche S.r.l., published in Fisarmonica: I colori che verranno, published by Renzo Ruggeri. A production by the International Accordion Festival of Castelfidardo, which asked artists, teachers, students, artisans, engineers, and industry operators for their opinion on the future of the accordion. Independent PIF and Municipality of Castelfidardo publication available for download from: https://www.pifcastelfidardo.it/pdf/2020/Fisarmonica_i_colori_che_verranno_PIF2020.pdf


When I think of the accordion of tomorrow, meaning the idea of an acoustic accordion that is something better than what we have today and what we had in the past, it is natural for me to think of its reeds. If we try to imagine the ideal accordion, what kind of reeds should it contain? Beyond the names that define the types of reeds we have today, what should the ideal reeds look like? What characteristics should they have?

A brief digression to introduce myself to you, readers. My job is making reeds: since 2001, I’ve been the manager of a company that produces them. In 1935 Luigi Antonelli, my grandfather, founded a factory in Osimo (Italy), dedicated to the production of reeds; in the early 50s he invented the Tipo a Mano (hand finished) reed, which was in fact the “reed of tomorrow” of those years. Through my father Vinicio, the reed factory was passed down to me. Since 2002, it has been called Voci Armoniche – this change happened after the merger with Salpa, an historical reed factory based in Castelfidardo.

What are reeds? Reeds are the sound principle of the accordion. In other words, they are the physical element that creates the sound of the instrument. The Italian word for reed, voce (lit. voice), may refer to the idea behind the invention of free-reed aerophone musical instruments, like the harmonium, from which the accordion seems to derive: the attempt to emulate the sound of the human voice, which was thought to be the perfect instrument. So, it is crucial to define the importance of reeds for the overall acoustic value of the accordion.

The reeds, being the sound principle of the accordion, constitute the fundamental premise of the musical instrument and they can significantly influence the final acoustic results. Of course, every single part of the instrument is an important means to this end and has a different and specific influence on both the functional and acoustic aspects; but everything starts from the reeds and develops around them. We can say with certainty that one of the most important aspects in the construction of an accordion is to “extract” the sound potential from the reeds. So, the higher the potential of the reeds, the more can be extracted in the construction of an accordion.

Reeds are metal components. A reed is made of two high carbon steel tongues, an alloy aluminum frame called a plate and two rivets that secure the tongues to the plate. Reeds work with air, and they are made for air; air is their invisible, though fundamental, element: we’ll go back to this crucial point later on, when I’ll tell you more about the reeds of tomorrow.

The manufacturing of each part of a reed and every step of its assembly, up to the application of the valves and the final tuning, require a number of skills: precision mechanics, metallurgy, acoustics, and music theory applied to the specificity of the accordion; In addition, a lot of care and attention, and a deep awareness of what is being done are required in every phase of the production process.

Today, in my view, these last elements constitute the fundamental pre-requisite for a company that produces reeds – and especially for a company that aims to produce high quality reeds in the coming years. The issues involved relate to organizational, technical, and productive expertise. This is, as of today, the key issue from which we can understand the future of reeds - and the reeds of the future.

The future looks better than the present when we find ourselves in times of expansion and constructive ferment; on the other hand, in times of difficulty and decline, the present and the future seem to be worse than the past. When it comes to accordions and reeds, people usually look at the past as a “golden age”. The reason for this is probably the fact that from the mid-1950s onwards, after decades of strong growth, our sector has experienced a downward trend: fewer sales and smaller production volumes, fewer factories and workers, fewer investments. Brands, models, and names of the past have slowly become “myths”, and in some ways the past has become the model to refer to in order to create the present – a mindset that is kind of similar to the one of people in the Middle Ages. But is all of this true? Are we really dwarfs on giants’ shoulders? Will the reeds of tomorrow still have to emulate the reeds of the past?

The reality is complex and multi-faceted. As far as reeds are concerned, quantities may have decreased but from the 1950s to these days we have observed a clear market trend in the direction of quality. The “soft”- aluminum reeds that were the undisputed market leader during the second post-war period, evolved into reeds with plates made of progressively harder aluminum alloys, known as “duralluminio”. In the 1990s the “A Mano” reed became a booming business: this reed had lost its original characteristics – that is, the completely hand-made manufacture – while preserving both the “myth” and the outer appearance. The reed of the past became the reed of the present and future.

In the meantime, since the late 1960s, the progressive decline of the market was leading to a suspension of development, a sort of “limbo”; in some ways, time had stopped. With the lack of a growth perspective, the presence of small or very small companies, fierce competition, lower margins, scarce resources and limited propensity to investment, the reed sector couldn’t keep pace with the widespread technical and organizational development. The technologies, methodologies, and even the people – at least sometimes – remained the same. At times, when it may seem that you’re standing still, you’re actually receding. And this was true for the entire sector, which remained almost stationary while everything else was moving forward.

But things change, nonetheless. From the late 1990s, a decisive issue was gradually being posed, a paradigm shift, a structural change such as to threaten the continuity of a unique productive tradition at its roots. The issue of generational change in a sector which, for the reasons that we set out above, had experienced a minimum turnover in its workers, middle managers, and heads of companies – the latter almost always being the very owners of the companies. Generational change is always a risk; and if companies do not have a structured organization, the risk is particularly high.

The artisan knows how to create a product but struggles to explain how he does it. The artisan is jealous of his knowledge, and he’s not willing to share it gladly; his low level of education makes him wary of any change, and stubbornly attached to his experience. “That’s the way it’s always been done” are the words that justify the difficulty – and often the inability – to change. Serial production based on artisanal methods leads to an inconstant product, a product that is subject to the loss of control on the variables that can determine its quality. A generational change involving artisanal workers and artisanal middle managers is an extremely difficult transition. Without significant investments of resources, not limited to the economic sphere, a loss of technical and productive knowledge is almost an inevitable outcome.

With Voci Armoniche, we immediately started to invest in resources with the aim of giving more structure to our organization and preserving our technical and productive knowledge. The very decision to proceed with the merger from which the company originated in 2002 was made in order to sustain the investments that were going to be necessary in the times ahead, up until today. And so it was. With my business partner and friend, Giansandro Breccia, we chose the future by implementing a long, complex re-organization process that aimed to achieve quality and continuous improvement.

So, what future? New reeds will come, and what will they look like? For what kind of harmonica or accordion will they be made? How will the musician find them, ask for them and recognize them? What will be new and improved in the reeds of tomorrow?

The future starts with the present, and has its roots in the past. Today the accordion, just as the majority of other music instruments, has found some stability; it is now known and used globally; diatonic accordions are deeply rooted in cultures and identities of all the European regions. In many countries in Asia and America, demand for accordion has progressively grown in the name of quality over the last few years. Quality, in my view, is the beating heart of our Italian heritage, it is the line that must connect the past and the future, the reference point towards which we need to orient our compass in the present. In this era, quantity often prevails over quality. That’s why we need to unequivocally put quality at the center of everything we do, in a decisive, clear, and coherent way. Quality is the element that qualifies, that creates value through distinctiveness, that offers content that can be recognized and appreciated. Quality is opposed to uniformity, to downward homologation. The realm of quantity is a desert; the realm of quality is a garden, rich in beauty and diversity.

Another extremely important element for our entire sector is the promotion of initiatives, just like this book, that can disseminate real information, technical culture, ideas, awareness. Nothing sustains improvement as much as the exchange and distribution of knowledge at every level. Knowledge is the best remedy against the ills of ignorance, against the mental schemes that ignore reality, against prior overestimation and underestimation leading to inevitable mistakes and dead ends. We need to find a starting point in the reality we’re living in, in things as they are right now. We need to start from observation and research; these are the premises of any improvement-centered innovation.

The production of the reeds of tomorrow, and – I believe – of the accordions of tomorrow, will be neither artisanal nor industrial. It will take the best specificities of both craftsmanship and industry and combine them in a creative synthesis that we may call excellence manufacturing. With this approach, the factory will be ready to create around its product, the reed, the virtuous cycle that we define as continuous improvement. And continuous improvement implies research, research will lead to improvement and innovation. This is the only way – and I am perfectly convinced of this – that we will be able to imagine, and then create, reeds that are better than those of today and of the past. These improvements, the consequence of a new organizational and technical-productive structure, will not just affect a single product but will extend their benefits to the whole product range. There will always be a top-of-the-range reed, but every single type of reed will have improved fundamental characteristics, while preserving its specifics.

Investments, plenty of energy, a great deal of work, skills, perseverance, and trust will be necessary. The guarantee of all this is the market itself, a market made of musicians and accordion makers that seek and want something new and better.

The reeds of tomorrow will be able to express their quality simply and clearly. First, they’ll tell that quality doesn’t simply mean the absence of flaws, those flaws that often affect musicians – early breaking of the reeds’ tongues, lack of stability of the final tuning, excessive air consumption. The meaning of quality goes far beyond that. Quality is value and, in a reed, this means the beauty of the timbre, its color, the specific and comprehensive equilibrium in the whole extension of the music notes; quality means functional value, that is, the kind of value that immediately shows the musician that the reeds are efficiently and precisely responding to the execution dynamics. A comprehensive acoustic value that includes everything and becomes immediately, simply apparent.

But be careful! Reeds, being the sound principle of the instrument – as I mentioned earlier – need every element around them to be properly manufactured. The best reeds, if they are not valorized in the instrument, will obtain a result that is well below their potential. To express their colours fully and vividly, the reeds of tomorrow will need the accordion of tomorrow. They will need a production line that is able to bring added value to every single step, from the moment when the reeds leave the factory. When the reeds are being tuned outside the instrument, when the valves are being attached, when the instrument is being tuned: a great deal of value can be added – or taken away– if the action is not performed correctly. This implies the necessity for a production line that is aware, mindful, thorough, willing to cooperate and focused on the concept of continuous improvement: a production line based on value.

One crucial aspect, in my opinion, is related to the reed blocks, the wooden holder on which the reeds are fixed and through which they receive the airflow from the bellow. Reeds and reed block are an inseparable binomial: inside the cells of the reed block, in their volume and size, in the air dynamics, the “match” that will decide whether the sound potential of reeds will be extracted or not takes place. Between the reeds and the reed block, the “magic” of creation of the sound of the accordion happens. The reeds of tomorrow will need a reed block of tomorrow to fully reveal their acoustic potential: this is a truly vital aspect, a fundamental piece of applied knowledge that distinguishes and determines the very best harmonica and accordion makers. The valorization of the reeds relies on the reed block: it’s the reed block that needs to adapt to the reeds, and not the other way around, since the reed is the acoustic principle of the instrument.

The accordion of tomorrow will be the result of a cooperation between different kinds of expertise throughout the whole production line. The whole supply chain will need to be actively involved, following the direction of quality. Our work centers around everyone who plays, and everyone who will choose the accordion as their instrument. And, of course, there is music. By relying on this awareness, improvement happens in a natural way; and with improvement, new horizons will open. If music is the language, the instrument is the means of expression. Improving the instrument means giving greater chances of expression to those who play it: and the reeds of tomorrow will be the heart of this greater, better expressive possibility.