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Polka master Mike Schneider to perform tonight in Bemidji

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BEMIDJI — It has to be satisfying to know that one’s job brings happiness to everyone and polka master Mike Schneider is quick to agree.

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The focus of his life and full-time job is bringing joy to audiences that range from toddlers to oldsters across the country. When interviewed this past Monday, Schneider was getting ready to head out on a 15-city tour that includes a stop in Bemidji tonight.

A legacy program of the Bemidji Public Library, Schneider will be performing his award-winning Slovenian style polka music at 7 p.m. at the Headwaters School of Music and the Arts, 519 Minnesota Ave. The event is free and open to the public and billed as family entertainment. Schneider promises a fun evening where he will talk about the history of the accordion and polka music in different styles.

“My dad played the accordion for me when I was two or three years old,” said Schneider, who hails from Clinton, Wis. “He would pull the accordion out and play a tune for me but it was going to see Frankie Yankovic at a local church festival that I knew I had to play the accordion.”

Although it took some negotiation with his family, Schneider said he started studying the accordion at a young age, 6-years-old to be exact. From there, his story goes from childhood ambition to fulfilling his dream on a scale that is unbelievable even to Schneider. In 1996, he started the Mike Schneider Band and in 2009, he devoted his efforts to full-time performing. In 2011, he was named to the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame Honor Roll. At the behest of his wife, Heather, Schneider developed a show primarily for children called “Pint Size Polkas,” which he performs at fairs and church festivals throughout the Midwest in the summer months. In the show, “Uncle Mike” teaches the alphabet and life skills through lyrics and music for youngsters.

The polka is a tradition that encompasses many European nations from the Galopp from Denmark, Norway and Iceland to the Polkka of Finland. There are hundreds of polka tunes in the Nordic region. Classical composers such as Josef Strauss also wrote some polka tunes, including the spirited “Pizzicato Polka” for stringed instruments, a far cry from the traditional accordion or button box. Austrian composer Johann Strauss also wrote polka music into his operettas as did Russians Dimitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky. It is widely thought that the polka is Bohemia in origin and it rose from the ranks of the common people who copied the complicated dance moves of the privileged classes.

During his program tonight, Schneider will talk about the different styles of polka music and invite the audience to participate in a game by giving hints and playing bits of songs from the Polish, German and Slovenian styles. The Slovenian style, which is the polka music Schneider plays, is an American style based on Slovenian tradition. The most famous entertainer of this style is Yankovic, who earned the title of Polka King among his many admirers.

The Republic of Slovenia, a central European country, is bordered on the west by Italy and Austria to the north and was a member state of Yugoslavia until 1991. Slovenian immigrants taught their language and the words to the polka songs to their children who later translated the words into English. The musical accompaniment is always an accordion and a saxophone or clarinet along with other rhythm (drums) instruments.

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