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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Austin

The Man Behind The Accordion

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

With a quick glance around Steve Solkela’s apartment, it’s hard to believe that anyone even lives there. The kitchen has no appliances (I didn’t even see any food); the living room includes a sofa, table and chair (which all came with the apartment); and in his room, the only electronics he has are four separate alarm clocks on a table next to the wall perpendicular to the foot of his bed.

“I used to have an alarm in each corner of the room,” said Solkela on a crisp November Wednesday night on the campus of Rowan University. “But I wake up more easily when they’re all in one spot like this.”

In addition to the furnishings, the living room also houses a rather unusual combination of items: a giant, deflated beach ball and an accordion.

“I blow that ball up every single day,” said Solkela, a junior vocal performance major at the university. “It’s very good for your opera voice.”

Originally from Palo, Minnesota, Steve Solkela didn’t even start singing until his sophomore year of high school. Prior to that, his plan was to just simply enlist in the Marines. The sudden change of heart came when the organizer of an annual summer music festival in Minnesota heard him speak for the first time. Back then, he was merely working as a stage crew member. He mentioned how she complimented them on the set in preparation for an upcoming opera. His response would change his life forever.

“’Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,’” said Solkela, mimicking the voices of the stage crew. He makes the first three “thank you’s” significantly high-pitched in contrast to the last one to portray how unusually deep his voice was compared to his peers.

That woman just so happened to be Veda Zuponcich, a piano professor at Rowan who’s also from Minnesota. After taking him from work and testing out his voice, she marveled at the fact that someone his age was able to hit low G and F notes. She insisted he put this natural gift to use, so she persuaded him to take up opera. At school, girls then persuaded him to join the choir as they were in need of more bass singers. He even took up public speaking (Solkela mentioned that Minnesota has speech competitions).

“It was pretty much just a lot women telling me to do a lot of different things, and me being way too polite to tell them no,” said Solkela. “Women, I tell you… They’re persuasive.”

A couple years later, Professor Zuponcich urged him to audition for Rowan’s College of Performing Arts. He was awarded a full scholarship. Hearing of his childhood, it comes as no surprise that Solkela was so eager to put Minnesota behind him.

“I’ve got pretty serious frontal lobe damage from nine concussions from my alcoholic father,” he said. “I didn’t really see him for 10 years after I got thrown through the coffee table. That was, like, my worst concussion I had.”

Though his parents split when he was only a year old – which he considers the best time they could have done it since he was too young to understand – the little time he spent with his father (he lived with his mother and grandmother) was a constant nightmare.

“What people go through as they’re going to war, is like what I went through,” said Solkela. “I broke a window one time to run away. I got brought home by the cops a couple times, and they would always just ignore when you’d say, ‘Dad hits me.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, you ain’t got no proof and we’re at the end of our shift.’”

While he understands the need for physical proof, Solkela still sees the officer’s efforts as completely unacceptable. He believes that law enforcement should have more connections with child services and child psychologists to get a better idea of what’s going on at home. Deeming an accusation false based solely on the absence of scars and bruises, in Solkela’s eyes, is “disgraceful.”

Last summer, he had gotten a call from his brother saying that his father was in the hospital and death seemed likely. Steve decided to see his old man and see if there was any way to form some kind of bond before he passed on. His father actually acknowledged his torment throughout his son’s entire childhood. The brutal honesty soon followed when he added that once he got out of the hospital, he would most likely go back to his old, alcohol-fueled ways.

“There’s plenty of hatred still left in the heart,” Solkela said. “But I’m working on it.”

Even at school, the torment wouldn’t stop. Bullies would often pick on him just for being poor.

“I always had cigarette burns on my shirt because they were hand-me-downs,” he said. He also added that his Finnish heritage was a constant target for bullies. In his area, Swedish people would often tease Finnish because of Finland’s past of being enslaved and oppressed by Swedes. In school, Steve was constantly reminded of his history.

“One time, they told me my whole life was a lie and Finland never broke free from Sweden,” said Solkela. “And they said that my last name’s actually fiction and my whole life’s a lie. I got really mad and said, ‘You call me Swedish one more time, you’ll reap the consequences.’ He said, ‘Sure thing… Swedie,’ so I tackled him right into the library bookshelf and starting waling on him.”

He added that his willingness to fight back also kept the bullies coming. For Steve, however, this was just another opportunity to crush egos – which he actually considers a hobby of his. A few years ago, this hobby took the form of participating in ‘avanto,’ which is essentially the Finnish version of the Polar Bear Plunge. The Finnish take it a step further, however. The word fittingly translates to “hole in the ice” as the occasion involved cutting holes in a frozen lakes and swimming from one hole to the other. According to Steve, he mainly wanted to do it because the regular Polar Bear Plunge – which involves running into a frozen ocean and running right back out – was far too common and he wanted to do something that was actually impressive.

“I always wanted to do the Polar Plunge for a fundraiser,” said Solkela. “But whenever I’d say, ‘I’m thinking of doing the Polar Plunge,’ a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, I’ve done that.’ Well, I’m not one to do what everybody does; so, I’m going to take their polar plunge and raise them avanto ice swimming.” He added that whenever someone tells him they’ve done the Plunge, he adds that he has too and shows them the video of his ice swimming. They often reply with something along the lines of, “Oh, I didn’t do that,” and Steve once again succeeds at bringing someone back down to earth and one-upping them.

Due to the permanent brain damage he sustained as a kid, Steve has trouble with short-term memory. If he has a thought, he quickly writes it down. He keeps a date book on him at all times to make sure his day goes exactly as he scheduled it the night before. He’s very much a man of routine. On his apartment door is a piece of gridded paper with the handwritten title “The Concrete Schedule of Steve Solkela.” He sleeps five hours a night from 2-7 a.m. His weekday mornings consist of class and his afternoons and evenings are almost entirely consumed by choir and opera.

As one would assume, his difficulty with memorization makes school more of an uphill battle than it already is for most people. If he needs to memorize something like a song for a class, he relies on an unorthodox study method he developed when he was younger. The method is as follows:

Steve writes out an entire song on a piece of construction paper. He then cuts out a couple words and recites the words on that piece aloud over and over again. Disregarding how annoying it starts to become, he continues until he knows every word on that piece like the back of his own hand. He then refers back to the paper with the rest of the song and then reads the lyrics. When he gets to the part with that missing piece, he’s able to quickly remember what the words are based on the shape of that missing piece. In this way, he creates a sort of puzzle for himself. He repeats the process until the entire paper is cut into many small pieces and he’s forced to put it back together using the memorization of the words.

The note taking isn’t just for school, however. In addition to using his unmistakable voice, Steve also plays 18 instruments – 9 of which he can play simultaneously for his act “Steve Solkela and his Overpopulated One Man Band.” As of now, he has written over 180 songs. He’s even recorded an album.

Next to The Concrete Schedule of Steve Solkela, another piece of paper hangs with a list of unfinished songs. He explains the origin and meaning of each song as he points it out on the paper. When he gets to “Jersey Girl” on the list, he turns around into the living room and picks up his accordion. He then demonstrates a completely unexpected vocal range for someone with a voice as deep as his. Though he plays 18 instruments, it appears nothing comes more naturally than the accordion. He plays it – exceptionally – with ease. Now, with his accordion resting on his chest, Steve Solkela is whole.

In “Jersey Girl,” he comically speaks of a love interest in the Garden State who’s only concerned with the “Taylor Ham vs. pork roll” debate and determining whether or not “Central Jersey” exists. As a Minnesota native, he gives the perspective of a confused outsider who has no idea why these things even matter. After singing the entirety of the first verse, he abruptly stops playing his accordion.

“Got an idea for the second verse,” he says as he grabs a post-it notepad from a kitchen drawer and begins writing lyrics.

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