The Hanni Strahl Concert Hall is acoustically ideal and seats 1,000 people on floor and balcony levels. The Helen and Theodore Miller Concert Series has presented dozens of the world’s greatest accordion artists and has elevated cultural prestige of the Midwest region. Focal highlight of the stage is a unique and beautiful ten-foot, two-manual harpsichord encased in gold and vermillion with eleven pedals controlling six plectra. At the hall’s west side is The Duane Sellman Special Exhibits Area that features displays honoring individuals who have significantly influenced American performance art, and whose estates are contained in the museum. The hall also serves community special events and weddings.
Hanni Strahl
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.
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The Hanni Strahl Concert Hall
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.
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Above left: Hanni Schorn Strahl
Above right: Helmi Harrington, PH. D and her mother Hanni Strahl
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Hanni Strahl and accordion orchestra
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.