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AccordionUSA Article about Mickey Bisilia, March 2022

by Joseph Natoli

Since March 19, 2022 would have been Mickey Bisilia’s 104th birthday, and it is also my namesake day of St. Joseph in the Catholic religion, I was asked to write this article for this month’s edition of AccordionUSA.com which I am happy to do. So who was Mickey Bisilia you say? Well, that’s exactly why I am writing this article, because Mickey didn’t receive a lot of fame or attention in his life musically, but he was such an important teacher, musician, arranger, composer, and accordionist that many people should know his name and his accomplishments. In that context, I thought I would honor him by posting his bio, one of his own articles from 1957, and an original piece of his called "Speed Demon" which is a really charming and attractive novelette piece he wrote back in the 1970s. Mickey wrote many of those types of pieces which are for sale on my website (inquiries at janpressmusic@yahoo.com).

There is a wonderful quote from the German writer Berthold Auerbach. He said "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

I thought, no quote could be more appropriate when remembering Mickey Bisilia, because music was his entire life. In fact, it was so important to him, that it sustained him throughout many years of poor health. Many times we came close to losing Mickey during his multiplied illnesses, yet each and every time he would return to his music after a bout of illness, and he would bounce back to life almost miraculously. Music was to Mickey like water to a dying plant. It washed away the dust and the worries of his everyday life. With each and every health crisis, it was the one thing that rejuvenated him, kept him fighting, and kept him alive.

However, even though music sustained Mickey's life, he was also able to use music as a tool to nurture and touch the lives of each and every one of his students. For he was one of those rare selfless teachers who taught for the sheer joy of watching a student grow and blossom into something special. Mickey would often write spectacular arrangements and compositions for his students, that any studio arranger would charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for, yet these things were always included in the cost of a lesson. In fact, it is a miracle to me that in this day and age when the value of anything is inevitably reduced to dollars and cents, Mickey was always using a different kind of calculator. His calculator had no number keys at all. You see, his calculator keys contained words like "dedication", "selflessness", "excellence", "respect", and "hard work", all multiplied by the "love" key, producing the final output of many many enriched lives.

Mind you, Mickey was a "what you see is what you get kind of guy,” and he could sometimes become pretty acerbic if he knew you were getting lazy and not putting in the same time and dedication towards the relationship that he had. If you hadn't practiced a particular week, he would often invite you to go home, take your money with you, and ask you not to come back until you were serious about making some progress. But I know I can speak for all his students that no offense was ever taken. We may have been embarrassed that he exposed us, but once you were "busted" by Mickey, it made you want to go home and never disappoint him again. Because we all knew that these antics were his attempts at polishing his stones into brilliant diamonds.

But remember, even though I speak about the importance of music in Mickey's life and in the lives of those he touched, he taught us all even more meaningful values that extend into our everyday lives and have become a critical and integral part of who we are as human beings. Mickey taught us all the ideas of selflessness, the pursuit of excellence, cherishing the important things in life, but most importantly, the refusal to fail and the refusal to give up.

Mickey was like that special uncle or grandparent who always understood, never criticized me, and always supported everything and anything I did. And he always, always believed in me. He was my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and my 2nd father. His actions made me understand how much he respected and loved me unconditionally, and I hope he realized how much of those same feelings I felt for him.

Mickey's most interesting bio

Mickey BisiliaDOMINIC "MICKEY" BISILIA, born March 19, 1918 in Youngstown, Ohio has been an accordionist most of his 79 years. Mickey started his musical studies at the age of 12 with accordion teacher Isabelle Irwin of Mineral Ridge, Ohio. After 18 months of study, Mickey was progressing so quickly that Isabelle admitted he had advanced beyond her teaching abilities. Therefore, she asked Mickey to assist her in teaching some of the extra students in her schedule, which he did until graduating high school. His teaching experience with Ms. Irwin helped him pay off his first accordion and very well may have sowed the early seeds for Mickey's eventual development into one of the more successful accordion teachers in the United States.

Mickey BisiliaAfter graduating high school in 1937, Mickey decided to travel to California to stay with his aunt. He had $19 in his pocket and drove there alone in a Model A Ford he had purchased for $50. As luck would have it, his aunt lived next door to "Spanky" McFarland of the famed Little Rascals series. Besides Spanky, Mickey befriended some of the other Little Rascals stars (Alfalfa, Darla, and Buckwheat) and drove them all to the set each day at Hal Roach Studios where they filmed the Little Rascals. It was during these trips that Mickey eventually met a quite popular studio accordionist at that time, Johnny Kiado. Mr. Kiado was so impressed with Mickey's playing, that he asked Mickey to fill in for him on some accordion background music that was needed for a new movie with Fred MacMurray called The Princess Comes Across. Mickey, who was playing many of the popular Charles Magnante arrangements at the time, filled in the movie soundtrack with 90 seconds of Flight of the Bumble Bee behind a scene where Fred MacMurray was acting out an accordion performance.

Afterwards, this and many more studio jobs started coming Mickey's way. But unfortunately, after approximately three years in California, he was called home to be with his sick mother, who was incorrectly diagnosed as having a large "tumor," which later actually turned out to be Mickey's younger sister Jeanette. Nevertheless, this misdiagnosis is what lured Mickey back from a quickly progressing career in Hollywood, just about the time that World War II broke out.

Mickey was then drafted into the Air Corp at the beginning of the war, and of course brought his accordion with him. The accordion opened a lot of musical doors for him and kept him out of the front lines when he was later transferred to the infantry. After basic training in Midland Texas, he started going regularly to the Air Corp band rehearsals, where he connected with Sergeant Bob Mayhu, a very well-known Air Force band leader at the time, who had conducted his band behind Bing Crosby, Dale Evans, and other singing celebrities. After noticing Mickey listening to rehearsals night after night, Sgt. Mayhu asked him if he was a musician. Mickey indicated that he played accordion. Sgt. Mayhu responded with "We'd really like to use you in the band, but we really don't have a spot for an accordionist." Mickey said "I'm not really interested in playing the accordion for you. I just feel I could write better arrangements for your band than the ones I am hearing." Mr. Mayhu accepted, and Mickey wrote his first big band arrangement on the standard tune Sunday. Mickey sharpened his skills as big band arranger for the next three years, which he felt provided better musical training than any music college could have given him.

Mickey left the service in 1945, and came back home to Youngstown, Ohio to start a teaching partnership with a very successful local music store owner, "Tee" Ross. Accordion interest was booming at the time, and Tee needed an outstanding teacher on his staff. Mickey also started his four-year degree program during this period at the well-known Dana School of Music at Youngstown State University, where he was able to polish his skills in theory and composition. For the next 25 years as teacher with Tee Ross then as independent accordion teacher in Youngstown, Mickey was able to draw on all his previous rich experiences as a young teacher, studio accordionist in Hollywood, and big band arranger in the Air Corp, and use those skills to produce some of the best and most frequently awarded students in the American Accordionists' Association (AAA) state and national competitions. Mickey's outstanding teaching abilities as well as his successful accordion transcriptions and adaptations of classical literature, enabled his students to capture first place in most of the AAA divisions year after year. On occasion, they would find themselves competing in the same divisions against each other, bringing home first, second, and third place simultaneously. Many of Mickey's transcriptions were used by other students in the AAA competitions, often taking top prizes with his arrangements for standard and/or free bass accordion. In fact, the late Charles Magnante with whom Mickey shared a lifelong friendship, often told Mickey in personal letters, that his transcriptions were establishing a new standard in the accordion world.

Two of Mickey's students, Joseph Natoli and Anthony Rolando, each won the AAA United States Open Virtuoso Competition and represented the United States in the world Coupe Mondiale Competitions, winning second and third place respectively. But Mickey produced a host of extremely talented students that were also big winners in competitions year after year in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They included Maurice Bechtel, Steven Martinko, James Gerlach, Robert Bisciglia (Mickey’s nephew), Richard Pastula, Peter Terzak, Jim Frank, David Janesh, and many others.

Mickey's personal achievements in his later years revolve around his accordion performances in the Kenley Players Theatre Orchestra behind stars like Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Dean, and Bobby Vinton. Most notably Mickey performed the 110-page accordion part in the Kenley production of Irma La Douce behind Juliette Prowse (popular stage and screen star in the 60's and 70's). Mickey also performed on occasion with the Montovani Orchestra.

In addition to his accordion-related achievements, Mickey has created literally hundreds of big band and stage band arrangements for many different dance orchestras over the last 30 years of his life, and continued to write arrangements for the accordion until he passed away in 2000.

Mickey's 1957 Article
Student's
ACCORDION WORLD

reprinted from October 1957 Accordion World Magazine

Building Accordion Champs
by Mickey Bisilia

 
SITUATION – The Year, 1957 – the Place – Lane Technical High School – the Time – 2 P.M. – the Event – Two Persons waiting the results of the National AAA Contest:
 
CONVERSATION -- Who won? Jimmy Jones. Where’s he from? Chicago. See, I told you this contest was fixed. Our Bobby played much better than he did. Those judges must have tin ears, and I know that they can’t read music, because they weren’t even turning the pages while Bobby was playing. Furthermore, that Jimmy Jones cant possibly be 13 years old because 13-year olds don’t play that well. I’d surely love to see his birth certificate – wait a minute – here comes another result: Wow, look here – our Sally won lst Place in the 14-year old division. Say, these judges are sure all right. They really know what they’re doing, after all. Isn’t it a wonderful feeling to have a champion!

… this is the type of talk that goes on year after year in any type of contest.

If the student wins, the judges are fine – if he loses, the judges are terrible. In my humble opinion, this is the attitude, which completely defeats future championships. You can’t always be a winner. Had my students, their parents, or myself, given up after a loss, there would be no Bisilia Accordion School!

I believe that one of the first steps in successful teaching is to personally screen your students for Natural Talent. I test a student’s coordination and hearing ability above everything. If they have these factors, then the next step is a well-organized and planned musical curriculum. One that exposes the student to all types of music, classical, pop, jazz, etc. I never overlook their mechanical deficiencies, which can best be corrected with some form of exercise – for which there are many, many fine books.

Three of my finest students are decidedly left-handers, who have responded tremendously to the “Art of Muscular and Finger Control” – by Frank Gaviani. However, I find that most students are bored to death with exercises, but will sit for hours working out a concerto movement or a jazz arrangement. I see nothing wrong in suiting an individual’s needs. Too many students fail because the teacher does not tailor the course to suit the student. I expose my good students to the finest classical and best jazz music that I can get my hands on. I saturate them with this material to their feeling and liking.

From there on, the Road is paved – and the student eventually becomes a fine musician first – and in most cases ends up by becoming a champion as well.

Outside musical activities and participation in contests are very important to the student. It keeps the interest of all people concerned, including teacher, at a very high pitch. So, in summing up the makings of a champion, I would say that it is a four-way deal:

1st – a talented student
2nd – a competent, interested teacher
3rd – parental cooperation
4th – a fine instrument

Don’t forget, however, that the best players do not always win. If you lose, as a student or teacher, don’t despair – try again!

    The slogan at our School is:
         We Want to Win,
         We Work to Win.
         Should it not Happen,
         We’ll try again.

Video: Speed Demon. A novelette composed in the 1970's by Mickey Bisilia, performed by Joseph Natoli. Download the pdf music file kindly donated by Joseph Natoli at: Speed Demon

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