Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Learn to Play the Harmonica

I don't use the word "evocative" often, maybe once a year at most, but it comes to mind when I think about a harmonica. It just plain evokes some sort of nostalgia for a time and place where I've never been in real life - around a campfire on the Great Plains after the horses have been bedded down for the night, in a Southern blues bar on a dusty side road, in a hobo encampment alongside the railroad tracks with the sounds of train whistles in the background.

My one real-life association with the harmonica was attending a concert by Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats when I was a delegate to the National 4-H Club Congress in Chicago as a high schooler. The Harmonicats' hit song, Peg o' My Heart, had recently scored big on the charts so we farm kids were pretty impressed to have them as our entertainment after one of our banquets.

Having never learned to play the plastic harmonica I owned as a child, I recently started wondering whether it was something I could pick up as an adult. A trip to the local library uncovered a couple of slim instruction books with lots of photographs and songs and only a few pages here and there of actual instruction. Which gave me hope --- if playing the harmonica, including several styles and variations, can be described in such few words, it ought to be something I can learn in a HarvilleQuarter.

How well I could learn the instrument in three months remains to be seen, but I'm really tempted to start now, well before my official retirement. Perusing these books raised my awareness of the many possibilities the "lowly" harmonica offers. A quick search of the Internet revealed that perfectly respectable, quality harmonicas can be purchased for under $50, in fact under $25. And an absolute beginner's model (not necessarily recommended, but an option for the truly cash-strapped) can be found for $10 or less.

Not only that, but instruction is available - including free instruction - on the Web, with harmonica enthusiasts, eager to share their knowledge, demonstrating how to get started in home videos that are short on production values, but long on sincerity. Of course, "how to play the harmonica" manuals, DVDs and subscription Web sites can be easily located as well.

I recommend taking a look at these sites yourself and picking one that seems to call to your inner "harmonicat", or harp player, as some term it. Buy a harmonica if you don't already own one (a diatonic harmonica in the key of C seems to be the universal recommendation) and get going.

I have no idea how proficient one can become in three months, but considering the starting point, the progress should be exponential. And how cool would it be to play the harmonica for your grandkids, sitting out on the front porch on a sultry summer night, the sound of your blues wafting out amongst the fireflies and honeysuckle, accompanied by the distant, mournful wail of a freight and the much closer baying of hounds. It positively sends chills up one's spine. Before long, you could be one of the guys on YouTube demonstrating your technique for the next crop of beginners.

I'll finish this post by quoting none other than John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Press):

A harmonica is easy to carry. Take it out of your hip pocket, knock it against your palm to shake out the dirt and pocket fuzz and bits of tobacco. Now it's ready. You can do anything with a harmonica: thin reedy single tones, or chords, or melody with rhythm chords. You can mold the music with curved hands, making it wail and cry like bagpipes, making it full and round like an organ, making it as sharp and bitter as the reed pipes of the hills. And you can play and put it back in your pocket. And as you play, you learn new tricks, new ways to mold the tone with your hands, to pinch the tone with your lips, and no one teaches you. You feel around --- sometimes alone in the shade at noon, sometimes in the tent door after supper when the women are washing up. Your foot taps gently on the ground. Your eyebrows rise and fall in rhythm. And if you lose or break it, why it's no great loss. You can buy another for a quarter.

The photograph was located at flickr.com/photos/thanland/322740247/.

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