Originally posted April 2014
This past week, I traveled from chilly New England down to the small coastal town of Duck, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for a 5-day harmonica workshop with jazz virtuoso Howard Levy. The setting was beautiful. A beach house with big windows overlooking the ocean waves, a stormy sky, sea birds flying by.
Where Ya From?
Howard traveled to us from Chicago, and the rest of us flew and drove in from NYC, Philly, north Georgia, New Hampshire, Connecticut, plus one student who flew in from Mexico but lives most of the year in the Yukon Territory in Alaska.
Five of us were overblow / pucker players who use tongue blocking for octaves, one was primarily a TB player who also used TB overblows, and one student got his first whisper of an OB on the 6 blow with coaching and reed adjustment by Howard. Congrats, Tom!
Over the course of several days, we worked with tunes ranging from jazz standards, to Bach, blues, bluegrass, Eastern European folk, swing, and a Hindustani raga.
One highlight, song-wise, was Howard’s spontaneous adaptation of a recording of a tune played by a Romanian musician whose instrument was a fish scale, mouth-blown like kids do with a blade of grass – it sounded kind of like an oboe. Howard played it in either the 7th or 10th position, and was able to achieve a remarkably similar sound by placing the melody notes on overblows and bending them up in imitation of the Baltic “upwards vibrato” sound.
Techniques we explored included sweep arpeggios, melodic breath patterns, rhythm harp articulations, and harp in a cup.
Naturally, to play the melodies, we also needed bends and overblows, and Howard gave us feedback and pointers where needed.
A frequent theme was the goal of maintaining a supported, connected sound while changing breath directions.
Over the course of the workshop, we started out playing stuff using the diatonic modes, looked at some of the modes of the pentatonic scale, and to get further into jazz, we introduced the melodic minor scale and its modes.
One of the great pleasures of playing diatonic harmonica is the art of experimenting with different harp keys and positions to find the one which best suits a particular tune. We played most of the workshop on C harps, for ease of naming notes, but branched out to match the standard keys for various tunes. A typical puzzle: Body and Soul shifts keys from Db to D to C – what key harp is the best to cover all three? Musical considerations aside, the mental challenge of key transposition is a great way to stave off Alzheimers, knock on wood.
I got some good stuff to work on, and gained insight into my own growing edges. An example: play longer 8th note lines with accents and full tone. As always, it was great to gather with other intrepid harmonica fanatics and talk shop. Margie from Class Acts on Tour was a fabulous host and cooked us amazing meals. Speaking for myself, Howard continues to inspire with his musical genius, his care and generosity as a teacher, and his commitment to playing soulful music without limits.