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Pushing the right buttons: Marvin Luinenburg discovers the joy of making music in his retirement

Marv Luinenburg demonstrates his accordion prowess on one of his favorite instruments at his Worthington home.

WORTHINGTON -- If Marvin Luinenburg had known how much fun he'd have playing the accordion, he might have started making music a whole lot sooner.

"When you're busy making a living for your family, you turn these kinds of things aside," reflected Marv, a retired farmer who has three children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Although he'd always enjoyed music, it didn't become a focus until 11 or 12 years ago, when Marv realized he wasn't too old to learn to play an instrument.

"We go to Texas in the winter," explained Marv, sitting in the living room of his Worthington home as his wife of 60-plus years, Geneva, worked on a cross-stitch piece nearby. "In our park, they have entertainment come in during the evenings, and one night there were these two couples who had a band that were part of the program. The one woman said, 'Two years ago, none of us had ever played an instrument.' So, as we were going back to our trailer that evening, I said, 'There's still hope.'"

Marv did already play an instrument -- the harmonica, a skill he acquired as a lad -- but he decided he wanted a bigger challenge. He chose the button accordion because it was similar to the harmonica in that two notes can be played on each key, one on the intake of the accordion and one as the air is forced out.

"Sometimes they call it a button box," Marv said. "I'm self-taught. I play by ear. That doesn't say I can play every song, but if I hear it a few times, it'll usually come together."

Using the manual that came with the instrument, along with some trial and error, Marv was able to turn out a reasonable tune within six months.

"The songs I learned first were the ones I heard when I was a kid," he said. "There was this old bachelor who used to come and stay at our house during the winters when I was a kid. In the evenings, he'd get out his accordion, and these were the songs I remembered."

The previous harmonica experience was helpful, but it also had a unique side effect as Marv made the switch from an instrument that required him to blow into it to the blow-and-draw mechanism of the accordion.

"I caught myself taking real big breaths on certain songs, because I knew what was coming," he said with a laugh.

A piano player herself, Geneva supported her husband's efforts to learn the accordion.

"It kind of drove me crazy at first," she said about his practice sessions, "but I got used to it. I didn't object. He wanted something to do in his retirement."

Marv really began to hone his musical skills when he attended jam sessions during winters spent in Texas. Many of the retirement parks host such sessions, giving amateur musicians a chance to share their love of music.

"In our park, they have them once a week, and other parks have them, too, so you can go to as many as you can bear," Marv explained. "We've gone to as many as four or five a week."

At a jam session, Marv explained, anyone who plays an instrument can sign up to participate, with each participant having his or her chance at the microphone. The rest of the musicians play in the background, being careful not to drown out the leader.

"The first couple of times I went, I just wanted to be on the sidelines," Marv recalled. "You don't want to make a total disaster."

But it didn't take long for Marv to fly solo, cranking out old-time tunes, polkas and waltzes. A couple of his favorites are "The Barbara Polka" and "A Mighty Pretty Waltz." Once a month, he added, there's a jam session solely devoted to gospel songs such as "There's Power in the Blood," "In the Garden" and "Precious Memories."

"I am limited in the sense that on a button accordion there are only three keys -- G, C and F," Marv said. "If you want another set of keys, you have to get another accordion. If you see someone reaching down to change accordions, that's because they're switching keys."

To keep track of his repertoire, Marv has compiled a play list now numbering somewhere between 150 and 200 songs.

"I keep track of where and when I played a song so I don't repeat it," he noted. "I know many guys who will play the same thing over and over again."

As a result of attending the Texas jam sessions, the Luinenburgs have both become acquainted with many people in their park and neighboring communities.

"You learn to know a lot of people, and people start to look for you," Marv said. "In our park itself, we're just like one big happy family."

While jam sessions kept Marv's musical fingers busy throughout the winter months, when the Luinenburgs returned to Worthington for the warm-weather months, there was no such outlet for his talents. Then Marv and Geneva attended a performance by the South Dakota Old Time Fiddlers group in Pipestone.

"I had heard of them on the radio, and we've got a niece who lives up by Pipestone, so we went up and listened, and then I went up and talked to some of the guys in the grop," Marv said.

Marv was encouraged by what he heard and eagerly took a schedule of the group's events.

"Right away (the leader) said, 'The one thing we don't need is a professional.'" Marv recounted. "In other words, he was saying, 'We're just ordinary people doing this because we enjoy it.'"

The Old Time Fiddlers gigs have taken the Luinenburgs to venues around the region, including Sioux Falls, Madison, Freeman and Flandreau in South Dakota; Hawarden, Iowa; and Pipestone and Lake Benton. Most recently, Marv took third place in the accordion button division of the South Dakota Old Time Fiddle Contest in Yankton, S.D. The event is the culmination of the group's event season, drawing musicians of all ages to compete on the old-time instruments.

"The talent some of those kids have got," said Marv, shaking his head in amazement, then lamenting, "If I'd started at a younger age, I'd have been much better."

But as Marv picks up one of his accordions and begins to pump out a tune, it's evident that the instrument has become more than just a hobby for the retired farmer. It's now become a way of life and a passion that fills many hours for both he and Geneva -- hours filled with music.

"You know what they say: When you're retired, you get up in the morning with nothing to do, and when you go to bed at night, you're only half done," Marv said.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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