Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Dan Turpening's deep, wide devotion to the accordion

Accordion man Dan Turpening
Dan Turpening has been giving lessons and repairing accordions at his studio in northeast Minneapolis, Minn. for about 12 years. The studio also houses his collection of about 200 accordions.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

An accordion played outdoors evokes scenes of Paris in the springtime.

Or, in the case of local accordion player Dan Turpening, Minneapolis in May.

Turpening, who is one of the best-known musicians you've likely never heard of, has a devotion to the accordion that runs wide and deep. He can be often found at the Minneapolis Farmers Market and Lake Calhoun, where he plays for anyone who cares to listen.

Turpening said he loves to "bring music to everyday people who wouldn't necessarily hear it."

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"I think there's something really valuable in that," he said.

Turpening, 39, plays for donations and for the joy of playing. But being a street musician doesn't pay the bills.

Napping dog
Dan Turpening's dog Daisy catches a nap at his studio in northeast Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Like many musicians, Turpening cobbles together a living which includes teaching accordion.

Charlie Grabow, 10, is one of Turpening's students. He gives a mini recital for a visitor and shows off a riff he's added to the tune.

"I kind of made up the last few notes in the ending part to make the song a little more exciting, to give the song a little bit more flavor...?" Grabow said.

The lessons are in Turpening's tiny northeast Minneapolis studio, office and accordion storage space.

The warren of rooms is stacked floor to ceiling with hundreds of accordions, a good share of them acquired years ago, Turpening said.

"There was a guy on eBay who had a hundred and thirty accordions for sale," Turpening laughed.

Turpening bought them all from the New York seller, drove out with his father, stashed them into a trailer and hauled them back to Minnesota.

They're from the 1920s and 1930s and nearly all need repair. Turpening doesn't know when, if ever, he'll get around to fixing them but he's smitten by their beauty.

Tuning an accordion
Dan Turpening tunes an accordion at his studio in northeast Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, May 8, 2012. Turpening learned to repair accordions at school in Duluth, and has been doing it ever since.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"They had artisans who knew how to do this inlay and all this wood inlay and scrollwork and things like that," Turpening said.

Charlie Grabow, Turpening's student, offers a review of the scene.

"Cluttered, but it has a homey sense to it," he said.

Turpening said his fascination with the instrument started as a kid when his parents, both accomplished piano players, took him to a movie where an accordion player is in many scenes.

Turpening learned to play and repair accordions from Helmi Harrington, a living legend in the accordion world.

Decorative detailing
One of Dan Turpening's chromatic button accordions features decorative detailing.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

He uses his repair skills to make part of his income and supplements his wages with a small-scale car repair and resale operation.

Taken together — the car and accordion repairs, playing at parties and weddings and puppet shows, house sitting, dog walking and other odd jobs — it's a living.

Probably the least of it is money he makes from busking. Turpening said his cobbled-together existence is good for his art.

"I think it's a lot more fun and interesting to attack it from different edges and try different things and see how everyone else lives rather than live in your own little bubble," he said.