GRANTSDALE - It's not easy being a top-notch accordion player growing up in a small town in Montana.
"Some people think the accordion is kind of a joke," said Irene Patterson. "After all, it's not a guitar."
But those people haven't had the pleasure of sitting down in front of Patterson's 16-year-old granddaughter, Kassie, and hearing the sound she is able to produce from her remarkable music machines.
Eight years ago, Kassie's grandfather handed her a small squeezebox and taught her how to play "Silent Night" before taking her along on a caroling trip around the neighborhood.
The young girl liked what she heard from that small red accordion.
When she turned 13, Patterson started taking lessons. Before long, her skills outgrew her local instructors and people started taking notice.
Her ability to make the accordion sing began taking her places.
She was invited to attend prestigious competitions and began to travel around the country and into Canada.
Earlier this month, the Hamilton High School junior attended the 2011 International Accordion Convention after winning the annual Art Van Damme Youth Scholarship Award for Outstanding talent.
The award allowed her to attend workshops, dinners and concerts for accordion enthusiasts from all over the world.
Her favorite workshop offered some guidance on how to improve her showmanship and stage presence.
"I know that some things I have to work on," Kassie Patterson said, while hanging out in the back room of her grandmother's home that serves as her place to practice.
Her favorite performer was Bruce Gassman - the showy and ostentatious Bruce Gassman.
Even after watching the professional accordion player perform, Patterson isn't ready to trust the accordion for a livelihood.
"I don't want to do it professionally," she said. "I don't trust a musician's income. It may sound boring, but I want to work in an IT department of a major business."
Still, Patterson doesn't think she'll ever become what her grandmother calls a closet accordion player.
"There are a lot of accordion players out there," Irene Patterson said. "They played the accordion when they were a kid and then they quit and put it in a closet."
Patterson continues to work hard to improve her skills.
She studies now with Bev Fess of Calgary, Alberta via Skype in her grandmother's back room.
"It's not as good as in person, but Bev is a world renowned teacher who can hear every detail even through a microphone," Patterson said.
And to show that she's no where close to be ready to give up her music, Patterson purchased a new accordion while in Las Vegas.
"It's a Sem Branch - related to a Perre Maria - a little bigger and heavier," she said. "It is black with gold trim and expensive."
Patterson is gearing up for her next competitive convention next June in Leavenworth, Wash.
What is it that keeps her coming back to an instrument that not many people really seem to understand these days?
"It is something that a lot of other people can't do," Patterson said. "It also takes a lot of coordination and quite a bit of arm strength. And I just like the sound it makes."
Her accordions weigh something close to 24 pounds and it takes some muscle to push and pull those bellows.
"I really like to play for people who enjoy the music and not nitpick it apart," she said. "That's what I really enjoy."
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.