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Making a living as a freelance musician is quite a feat, but Mark Stillman of Minneapolis has done it for almost 50 years, and in an unlikely way — by playing the accordion.

Stillman, 69, has been a constant and busy presence on the local music scene, from leading a folk band in the 1970s to his recent work as a strolling performer in pubs, cabarets, theaters and senior centers. While his music has been featured in recordings, soundtracks and commercials, he prefers entertaining small live audiences.

We caught up with Stillman — who's coming off a busy fall, playing German music at Oktoberfest events and heading into the holidays with gigs in a klezmer band at Hanukah parties and holiday brunches with Santa — to talk about the Geritol generation and the universality of the accordion.

Q: As instruments go, the accordion is a bit of a throwback, isn't it?

A: Nowadays, not many musicians make a living doing what I do. Back in the golden era of the '40s, '50s and early '60s, there were accordion schools in the Twin Cities, dozens of teachers teaching hundreds of kids. The accordion went out of favor when it became associated with Lawrence Welk — it was considered music for the Geritol generation.

It's come back with the interest in world and ethnic music. And Weird Al Yankovic also catches people. The way he plays is campy and goofy, but he's a master accordion player and his talent is no joke.

Q: So, how did you learn to play?

A: Growing up I took piano and music was what I did for fun. I never took lessons. I listened and imitated. Today you could watch accordion players on YouTube but not in the '70s. I went to used record stores to find obscure albums from virtuosos all over the world and mimicked them, playing those records over and over. Later I found cassette tapes and slowed them to half-speed. I internalized the authentic interpretation, the flavor, from different styles and countries and put my personality in it.

Q: Can you describe your style?

A: I'm the guy who can play one song slow and beautiful and the next fast and exciting. I can make it romantic or lively. So many countries have musical traditions with the accordion and I can play my repertoire pretty convincingly. I do the phrasing so I sound like I'm in a shtetl in Eastern Europe, a beer hall in Munich or a street cafe in Paris. I can play Cajun style, create a mood with Gypsy music and fire off Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes. I take pride in taking the audience to another place; that's my goal.

Q: How did you manage during the pandemic?

A: Like most musicians, my gigs were gone. Two restaurants in Northeast where I played regularly (Honey and Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit) went under. I did some online music and took my PA system out on my street [in Tangletown in Minneapolis] to serenade the neighbors. I played some senior high-rises; they came out on their balconies. I brought my amp to nursing home parking lots or played in front of windows or in a room by myself where they put me on the closed-circuit TV.

Q: Have you rubbed elbows with the rich or famous?

A: played with Doc Severinsen at Orchestra Hall multiple times. I met Harry Belafonte and jammed with Theodore Bikel when they were in town. Back in the day, I played for Curt Carlson at the Radisson downtown; he loved musical entertainment. I was on "Prairie Home Companion," I played at the Governor's Mansion for Mark Dayton and at receptions when George W. Bush and [former Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu were in town.

Sometimes I think, "How the heck did all that happen?" My accordion led to to some unique and amazing connections.

Q: Why do you like to be a strolling musician?

A: When you play and stroll, you can't pull out a music stand, you have to commit songs to memory. I think that brings out the heartfelt expression that gets lost when you read music. I know hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs. When I play tableside, sometimes I switch from a polka to "Smoke on the Water" or bust out the first chords of "Satisfaction" or give them some "Skol! Vikings." That gets a laugh.

I burn the calories when I play. It's a heavy instrument. Full-size accordions weigh 35 pounds, lighter ones weigh maybe 15 pounds. When I've done two hours walking around at the Black Forest, I'm ready for a big plate of that schnitzel.

Q: Do you play different instruments for different performances?

A: I have 30 accordions, one for every scenario. That's probably 25 more than I need, or that's what my wife would say. I have one that gives the most bold, beautiful sound when I play at Orchestra Hall, a couple of lightweight ones for strolling, one that is pretty darn loud to play for 500 people at Oktoberfest, one that I use for when I record.

Q: You maintain that playing an accordion allows you to connect with listeners. How so?

A: I'm very fortunate with my opportunities to touch people. For people living in nursing homes, it might not be the greatest time of their lives, but when I play the singalong songs they feel so sentimental. Music brings back special memories and is better than any pill. The accordion is such a joyous instrument. They're reminded of going to dances in their small town or the old polka bands. They ask me to play "Danny Boy" and then they cry. I bring them back in time.

Q: You've been playing a long time. Any plans to retire?

A: I'm like a professional painter or chef. Even when they retire they still take up the paintbrush or make a fantastic meal. This instrument is my hobby and my fun as much as my work. As long I can carry it and give someone a serenade, I'll keep at it. I'm having too much fun to stop.