January 5, 1916 – January 5, 2000
THE ACCORDION LADY OF TEXAS
By Helmi Strahl Harrington, Ph.D.
Photo: Marta Schorn, Helmi Strahl, Hanni Schorn Strahl in Corpus Christi, Texas, ca. 1952
There are people who change the world, one person at a time, in their own communities that grow to touch continents. One such person was an accordionist. This is the story of an archetypical American—a pluperfect citizen—who happened to be an immigrant woman, with child and mother. Hanni Strahl, of Cologne, Germany, came to Texas after WW II. She had seen her home and homeland destroyed, and watched her family and friends die by starvation, bombs, and Nazis. She expected no golden path in the New World, and was not afforded one, but was grateful to be allowed to work diligently and to achieve an honorable lifestyle based on her professional attributes. Just as she promised when she acquired citizenship, she would never be a burden to the USA. Indeed! She became an asset of the type and style this country proudly represents to the world. She did it in her own way, she did it from her own resources, and accordions accompanied every step.
How does one relate what was lived experience, so that others can also live the process? How much can the inexperienced understand of internal terror, of the psychology induced by years of suffering, the debilities wrought by applied prejudice, the agony of conflict between need and opportunity? Hanni was a single woman with two dependents; a woman supporting a family at a time when only men were accorded that recognition. She was German at a time when Germans were not appreciated—even in the USA. She was a beautiful woman, whose personal path might well have been smoother had she chosen an easier route. Instead, she found her purpose in a modest home-based accordion studio and repair shop, working her entire lifetime with the acumen of integrity that set her apart among businesspeople and provided basis for a reputation known far and near.
If humans measure the importance of a life by the impact of its activities, this modest little lady leaves a large footprint. Thousands of names were found among the lists for her six-decade teaching practice. Many of the adults were prominent attorneys, doctors, executives from the community, while many of the children grew to be influential. Some became musicians who travel the world, others just spread appreciation of good accordion music, fostered and indelibly imprinted by an extraordinary accordionist.
Hanni could capture the imagination of a child so that decades later the adult, bringing his/her own child for lessons, would joyously retell anecdotes about how the dimensions of their lives had been influenced. She could, in so gentle a manner as to be imperceptible, draw out of an adult student, submerged dreams so fragile the only evidence of their presence was the fact of lesson attendance. She could turn a vagary into a vision, and then a reality. And since this process develops gradually, she kept students for years. Of course they got more than music lessons--learned more than how to handle the instrument, and much more than principles of music which she commanded so well as to justly distinguish herself among others. They learned about themselves. She made family of her students, and made friends for the accordion like expanding ripples in water.
If we measure the greatness of a life by the route of its evolution, this courageous lady must be carrying a few extra jewels in her heavenly tiara. Hanni was born into impoverished circumstances. She understood responsibility, diligence, and seriousness of purpose quite early in life. Having been apprenticed into the millinery industry at age 14, her earnings paid the rent for her parents Marta and Johannes Schorn. From ½ Pfennig commissions, she saved enough to purchase the least expensive accordion available at a department store. She taught herself how to play the little diatonic instrument, entered a talent contest sponsored by the city of Cologne, won the contest, and was awarded a scholarship to Staedtische Musikschule Trossingen as a result. Trossingen was the site of the then-most-prestigious accordion school in the world, an offshoot of the Hohner factory. Befriended by Hugo Herrmann, the prominent composer/director whose genius reshaped the accordion world, Hanni came into contact with many leading musicians whose names read like a lexicon of the famous. After graduation, she taught first for the Heinz Gengler School in Cologne, then opened her own studio out of the home she made with her husband Hans Klaus Strahl. There, she taught a Nazi SS Commandant’s wife, who saved her from the concentration camp when she failed to show up for munitions work, and was suspected of harboring Jews. This she did--three doors from SS headquarters. Some survivors found her after the war and remained her lifelong friends.
In the "Kristall-Nacht" of WWII, bombs destroyed her mother’s home. Shortly thereafter, her own home fell to ashes. On several occasions, the lives of daughter and mother were saved through remarkable, seemingly miraculous means as Cologne was destroyed to 95%. Evacuated to a Red Cross Station near Munich, Hanni and her mother were quartered in Bad Woerishofen, with people who were themselves ravaged by war, and whose first morning activity was to knock icicles from inside walls during the bitter winters. Nearly the last time she saw her husband, in their sixth year of marriage, she became pregnant with her only child, a daughter, me. She prayed fervently that the birth take place in peacetime, which became reality in May, 1945. Then, too, Hanni supported the little family by playing accordion with a violinist friend at the nearby USA military station. It was probably no mean feat to get her name on the list for sponsorship in America. In 1949 she emigrated with me to Corpus Christi, Texas, taking up backbreaking janitorial duties at Lester Roloff’s Second Baptist Church. Within six months, she had saved enough for the ship passage that brought her mother to the USA, and in two years, she had the downpayment on a house that became Strahl Music Studio. In this studio, she came into her own. She built the practice to a hundred accordion students per week, all of whom she taught by herself. Two decades later, after I had married and was living in Austin, Texas, Hanni thought to retire there. But unproductiveness seemed a waste of life; once again a new studio was begun. Students soon poured through the doors, each as delighted as the next to have access to so extraordinary a teacher—and so vigorous a personality. People came from far and near to buy an accordion, have one repaired, or just talk accordions.
If the quality of life is measured by the love expended, Hanni might be considered saintly. To the mother who didn’t want her, she was ever the faithful support. She herself, however, was always a devoted mother, later a devoted grandmother, and totally involved in her family. Additionally, she "mothered" all her students—of any age. She spoke truth and common sense, became a second conscience for many, and enveloped all with an uplifting, reinforcing acceptance. She was grateful for her friends and the expression of her love flowed through the accordion.
If yet another measure of life is the amount of love received, the eulogies and flowers at her memorial service stand as a remarkable testament. The speakers recounted moments of unique, personal insights that were Mother’s gifts to them. Attendees from far and near expressed to me their love of her and the esteem in which they knew she was held. Someone said it nicely: within her, there seemed always to be one more new area that kept dialogs spiraling to fresh dimensions. The accordion gave her one more medium of communication.
I have often thought about what this woman, my mother, valued in life; there were no "secrets" of success. Hers was an uncomplicated formula: turn everything into an advantage, conserve resources, waste nothing, save for the future, know who are your friends, and remain true to self. The bright red glasses she added at mid-life were her characteristic presentation to the world, but also her way of looking at it. There was the toothbrush with but three hairs left on it—proof of active use and a "no waste" principal. She had for sale in her studio only about 30 instruments at any time, but they were always the right choices. And standing proudly amidst them were two of her faithful old accordions--friends she would never sell. Mother’s dream of life in the New World was indeed simple; she asked for few earthly pleasures, and afforded herself the least. Yet the little lady who was pitied at one time, was envied at another. The intelligence with which she conducted business proved intolerable competition for many an upstart, though she herself engaged in only the most high-minded ethical codes. Total proficiency is a difficult competitor, as is hard work, attention to detail, accuracy, trust, and many other "Old World" attributes.
I remember my mother with the complexity of experiences that years of intimacy provide. Our lives and souls were inextricably bound together as few mothers and daughters today enjoy. I hear her voice telling me what "is" and what "should be," even before I hear my own. Her fundamental centeredness provided me with an enduring security and a lasting model. There was nothing ambiguous about her opinions or her love. Approval, though, was not always forthcoming--it was mostly a matter of deserve--on her standards. And she could drive a tough bargain.
I began observing the accordion world at her knees, and worked with her for decades. When I began an independent business, it was at the other edge of the USA. That emotionally wrenching decision took years to salve. When I began the accordion repair technicians’ school, she worried that I was inviting competition. When I acquired increasing numbers of "unsaleable" instruments, it challenged her sense of practicality. But later, when she saw the results, she understood, and became the first Emeritus Patron of A World of Accordions Museum. Today her name heads the acoustically ideal concert hall that showcases the best accordion artists of the world. In this way, her life will continue to touch new generations of accordion aficionados and independent scholars whose heightened respect for the instrument family affects a broad base of culture.
Some of the stories of Hanni Strahl’s life are about counterpoints of crisis, others, about her soul in action. Such richness of observable experience can be related only with a focus: specific moments with spiritual, transcendent overtones. The lives of some people leave influence for a moment; others influence into perpetuity. Some folks just get through life for themselves; others live with a momentum that sweeps companions along. Some may even be accordionists. One considered herself a Texan. I see a true American.
Johanna Schorn Strahl January 5, 1916 – January 5, 2000
Published in: Miller, Malcolm. The Accordion in all its Guises. London. 2000
Also in: The Competition-Festival Brochure, American Accordionists Association, July, 2000
The studio practice of my mother, Hanni Schorn Strahl, began in Germany and evolved in two sites in Texas, USA. Her six decades of experience contributed to skillful handling of people, their evolution as musicians not just as accordionists, and a teaching ethic and methodology of highest quality.
Strahl Studio was set in her home, modestly and neatly arranged to promote a sense of ease. The many windows provided light, and also an atmosphere of openness. The chairs were inviting, comfortable for playing, and sat hundreds over the years. Nothing was ostentatious, everything was functional and efficient. Her place radiated warmth and the groundedness of her being. Everyone was welcome, and everyone felt it. That was the first step in her psychology of teaching. There were many more layers. One of her preeminent attributes was her superb musicianship, passed on to students by always predisposing the outcome through example performance for them and parallel performance with them. She believed that when the music is persuasively interpreted, the soul responds and the physical mechanics of imitation are facilitated.
While her primary instrument was the button-diatonic accordion, the overwhelming number of students studied piano accordions. She worked with anyone who desired to learn, regardless of aptitude, or whether handicapped by physical, mental, or psychological infirmities. The Palmer-Hughes Accordion Course (10 vols.), with its many innate pedagogical assets, provided fundamental learning material. At appropriate points, she supplemented with compositions that suited the development of skills and repertory preferences of her students. Some students sought specialization in ethnic music; they got music of European, Scandinavian, Celtic, Mexican-Spanish, American, and other origins. Some wanted specialization in the entertainment industry; they got the standard performance fare expected in the USA, concert versions of polkas, waltzes, pop tunes, background mood-music. Some wanted jazz, blues, boogie, swing, and similar pieces from Gaviani, Van Damme, and the like. She encouraged the gifted to strive for virtuoso repertory. They enjoyed works from Frosini, Magnante, Palmer-Hughes, Galla-Rini, Wuerthner, and many more. After students completed the Palmer-Hughes course, a vast array of original, concert works lay ahead, taken from diverse sources of publication. Whenever possible, she encouraged students to learn on free-bass quint-converter accordions, which opened a yet larger world of music to them. At this point, she often passed them on to me. In a few instances, she suggested they further their studies at the college/university level, in departments that include the accordion as a primary instrument.
Blind students learned to feel the black and white keys, spatial distances of finger and arm movements. Autistic students, like all others, were taught according to individual attention spans in a highly personalized manner. She had a true mentor’s skill of ‘getting inside’ the person in her care. Even deaf students learned the joys of vibration responses of the instrument. All were taught to play correctly, with finesse, and within accepted conventions of style. She took her role very seriously, while all the time making the learning process seem fun, exciting, and non-intimidating.
Although Conjunto and Mexican performers represent a high percentage of Texas’ music, she had relatively few that wanted to learn to read music. Those who did were taught comprehensively, so that their boundaries not be inevitably restricted. Others, she taught by "ear" and by imitation. Similarly, she had few who remained as long-term Cajun or Zydeco players, though she knew and was appreciated by most local and distanced performers. Always her studio offered appropriate instruments; many customers came great distances to purchase from her. For over five decades, she offered free and ongoing service for any accordion she sold, traded, or otherwise provided. Her mastery of requisite skills and speed often allowed one-day turnaround as incentive to untold numbers of faithful customers.
Her students included people of all ages, the youngest being 3 yrs. and the oldest, admitting to 91 yrs. In the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, most students were school age; in the 1980s-1990s, most were young or middle-aged adults. Whether individual involvement was for casual enjoyment or for professional enhancement, she accorded respect and supportive affirmations. In most decades, recitals were held twice yearly, rehearsals in stage presence and concentration methods were focal at those times. Level-appropriate band and ensemble training was included free of charge and attendance was required. Many public performances provided visibility in the community, as well as in national competitions and festivals. An impressive number of trophies, plaques and pictures added to the ambiance of the studio.
Furtherance of the accordion was her primary goal when she contributed to select organizations. She was a fundamental member of the Central Texas Accordion Association, always selling more tickets to events than anyone else, supporting it with memberships from her circles of influence, and with performances from Strahl Music Ensemble. This ensemble became increasingly important in the last twelve years of her life. The members became her closest personal friends and confidants. One of these, a student during his childhood, maintained the friendship for about forty years. Both long- and short-term friends found the courses of their lives changed for the better, enriched also by contact with the network of her acquaintanceships.
While it is doubtful that anyone can assess the full range of Mother’s influence, the depth and strength of her personality remain awesome examples of a life well lived. Her personal ethic was to be ambitious and diligent, prompt and reliable, intolerant of phlegmatic passage of time or cum-se-cum-sa existence. It is a large footprint for her granddaughter to step into, as she assumes the continuation of the studio. Hanni Helmi Harrington Van Zandt, my daughter, recently celebrated the Grand-Reopening of the studio where she now teaches piano- and button-chromatic accordions, diatonic accordions, and concertina. I know my mother planted the seed of aspiration and is smiling in another realm. Hanni, who was given Mother’s name, perhaps also was given the means by which to honor her forbear as the third generation accordion specialist in direct lineage. Similarly, Mother’s legacy is carried by those who study and honor the music of diverse cultures, and who recognize the amalgam fostered in the freedoms of the United States of America. This influence remains a shining example of the best offered in the American experience.
Return to Harrington ARTS Center main page