From China to Andover: Lilia Cai-Hurteau Fosters Lifelong Love for Accordion

After performing “Yankee Doodle” on the accordion in Shanghai, China, an elementary school-aged Lilia Cai-Hurteau, Instructor in Chinese, stared in awe at the candy cane she was given as a reward. Candy, said Cai-Hurteau in an interview with The Phillipian, was rare in Shanghai when she was growing up. The candy soon became a reward for her performances and thus acted as motivation for her to improve her accordion skills.

Cai-Hurteau began playing the accordion in first grade, when her parents signed her up for classes. Her parents considered the piano too inconvenient and the violin too conventional, she said, ultimately deciding that the accordion would be the best instrument for Cai-Hurteau to learn. Although she was unable to lift the accordion and needed help from her brothers to strap on and store the instrument, Cai-Hurteau continued to learn the accordion throughout elementary school.
​“It was a love-hate relationship at its best,” wrote Cai-Hurteau in an email to The Phillipian. “I loved it when I did well, when I won competitions, when I accompanied my class’s choir and when I performed for my mom’s Russian classes. I hated it when I couldn’t play outside with my friends after school because I had to travel by bus to the Children’s Palace as soon as school was over three times a week.”

Cai-Hurteau said the accordion was banned in China during the Cultural Revolution. The instrument was accepted back in the ’70s and ’80s and quickly became a popular instrument to accompany choirs.

“I think my childhood experience playing the accordion provides a snapshot of the phenomenal changes China went through during the 1980s,” said Cai-Hurteau. “When I moved to the U.S. about 11 years ago, I quickly learned that people would laugh if I told them I used to play the accordion when I was a kid. Accordion is apparently seen as a pretty goofy instrument. So imagine my surprise when [Caroline Odden, Instructor in Physics] and [Peter Cirelli, Instructor in Music] thought it was so cool that they wanted me to play with them in the faculty band!”

Cai-Hurteau performed with the faculty band during last year’s Faculty Follies All-School Meeting (ASM), even though she had not played in several years.
​“I got the courage to pick up the accordion again after so many years and get on the stage with the faculty band, because I was inspired by the students in the orchestra and chorus that went to Shanghai in March last year,” said Cai-Hurteau. “Traveling with these musician students was really fun… It reminded me that music is a lifelong passion, something that can bring pleasure in any stage of your life, and that if I can pick up an instrument again after over 25 years of not playing, it may be the best way to model lifelong learning for my students.”

Cai-Hurteau stopped playing the accordion in middle school because of her school’s demanding academics. The experience of learning the instrument, however, provided Cai-Hurteau with advantages in her academic studies.

“There were so many benefits in terms of my visual thinking. I was reading notes before everyone else in my class, and I think [playing the accordion] taught me a lot about discipline. I spent an hour a day practicing when I wasn’t in the Children’s Palace, and my parents were never there. I always had to do it myself,” said Cai-Hurteau.

Cai-Hurteau hopes that music will benefit her daughter, who is learning piano, in the same way.

​“I can [now] understand how musical training is not just about music but about being disciplined, and that’s something that will benefit her for the rest of her life, and I think that the appreciation of music in general will benefit her,” said Cai-Hurteau. “I don’t really care if she’s a pianist or not, but I do think [that] brain development and visual thinking comes from musical training.”