Youths take up harmonica: ‘How cool is that?’

Published 12:28 pm Monday, July 12, 2010

Notes high and low punctured the staid walls of a former classroom at Southern Cultural Heritage Center, then a melodious “Skip to My Lou” spiced the air.

The different sounds came in less than an hour last week during the first session of a four-part harmonica workshop.

“It was fun,” said Taylor Byrne, 8. “I think it’s a great opportunity to learn to do music” said the daughter of John and Stacy Byrne. “I like the music it plays. It’s a nice instrument. It doesn’t weigh that much, and that’s why I like it.”

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Taylor has played piano for a few years and recently took up the violin, and she was all smiles as she learned the first few fine points of harmonica-playing.

“She was tickled to death,” instructor Sherman Lee Dillon said. “She was giddy she liked it so much, and she ought to.

“There are folks that live their whole life, 80 years, and never learn to play nothing,” he said. “And here she is 8 years old, and she can whip that puppy out of her pocket and play something. How cool is that?”

The workshop, divided into three classes for children and one for adults, is geared toward beginners and covers many of the playing techniques. Instructions include pieces in blues, country and such Stephen Foster tunes as “Oh, Susanna” and “Camptown Races.”

The students will know six or seven songs by the end of the workshop, which continues each Tuesday, Dillon said.

Dillon, a touring musician, has been playing music for nearly 40 years. The 58-year-old began playing the harmonica at age 14 and has taught classes for 15 years. He also plays the banjo, guitar and piano, but likes the clarity of a harmonica.

“You can make them sound real sweet and real pretty and you can make them sound real energetic,” he said.

“Listen to how phat this is,” he said before playing a rollicking rendition of “Camptown Races.”

“An accordion ain’t much better than that, and look how little that joker is.”

Slade Kingston-Miles, the son of Steve and Sabrina Miles, said he signed up for the workshop because the harmonica is fun to play.

The 10-year-old who already plays the trombone and the guitar, said he feels like the harmonica is easier to learn. “Trombone always hits your pressure point, and guitar is hard,” he said.

The harmonica is played by inhaling and exhaling into parallel rows of air channels. Unwanted holes are covered by the tongue, and, through moving the instrument back and forth, different notes are brought into play. The vibration of the metal reeds within the instrument produce the musical tones.

Often associated with cowboys, folk musicians and other figures of Americana, the harmonica is a product of Germany. Invented in 1821 by teenager Friedrich Buschmann, the harmonica has been called, among other names, the French harp, blues harp, pocket piano and Mississippi saxophone.

Buschmann’s harmonica featured 21 blow notes arranged by the chromatic scale, which consists of 12 equally spaced pitches. In 1826, Bohemian instrument maker Joseph Richter created a version that was to become the standard. It featured 10 holes with 20 reeds on two plates that allowed blow notes and draw notes, and he tuned it to a seven-note, or diatonic, scale.

In the 1850s, Matthias Hohner, a German clockmaker, learned to make a harmonica and started a company in his kitchen. Hohner’s company produced 650 harmonicas in 1857, his first year, with the help of one paid worker and family members. In 1862, Hohner had his name engraved in his harmonicas and introduced the instrument to America. To this day, Hohner is the largest manufacturer of harmonicas with millions bearing his name. The affordability and portability made it a favorite of the frontiersman, and many blues musicians saw the harmonica as an affordable alternative to a horn or piano.

“I think harmonica is very accessible,” Dillon said. “Far more people can play harmonica than do.

“These kids walked out of here an hour later able to play a song,” he said. “I think harmonica should be more available to everybody. It’s so easy to get a tune out of. Everybody ought to do it.”