Sunday, August 8, 2010


Every few years I get a hankering to be a harmonica player. It’s in the genes, I guess. My grandfather was a master of the instrument, and not just the little ten-hole plaything most of us have blown at one time or another. Grandpa played the Super Chromonica, a twelve-hole device that utilizes a button-activated sliding bar to essentially double the number of holes.

Then you’ve got the fact that each note can be changed by reversing direction of the breath, and Grandpa was blowing 48 different tones! No wonder he could reel off so many different tunes, sitting in his comfortable chair in the living room, the grandchildren huddled at his feet.

“Play another one, Grandpa, please!” we’d plead.

That’s what I notice about the difference between Grandpa’s harmonica playing and mine: no one ever begs me to play. I’ve walked down the sidewalks of Palo Alto, California with my brother-in-law as we attempted to warble the blues, and I have on occasion made an effort at a song with someone else in the house. But I rarely draw anyone to me; I don’t attract a crowd.

My most loyal following came when I used to teach kindergarten. It didn’t strike me as a thing to do in class right away, but one day we were singing “You Are My Sunshine” and I remembered that used to be one of my standby songs. (That, and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” were pretty much all I knew.)

The next day I took my harmonica to school and we sang the sunshine song, except this time I accompanied rather than sing along. The students were struck by the novelty of the situation, if not my skilled playing, and asked if I knew any other songs. When I played “Jolly Good Fellow” they shook their heads in disappointment.

“What’s that?” one asked.

When I tried to explain that it was a song traditionally sung at retirement and promotion parties at Fortune 500 companies, I was upstaged by a bright little girl.

“No, it’s ‘The Bear Went Over the Mountain.’”

We went back and forth with the “no it isn’t”/“yes it is” argument until she sang the first stanza. Lo and behold, she was right, the bear did indeed go over the mountain to see what he could see . . . but I wasn’t ready to give up. Some of the pupils were whining that they were bored, so I asked, “Well, then, what would you like to hear?”

I should have known I was setting myself up for failure.

They immediately clamored for “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” (Note: they weren’t clamoring for me, they were clamoring for the songs, an important distinction.) Simple enough I thought, so I gave it a try.

After a few moments, one asked, “What was that one?” as if he was tired of the entire event.

“‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Yes, it was.”

Here we go again.

“It didn’t sound like anything.”

I tried to sound out the nursery rhymes as best I could, and if the kids actually sang along they drowned out my discordant tunes. We did Mary, and then Twinkle, and then Mary again, and then Twinkle again, and then someone asked if I could play anything else. And that was pretty much the last time anyone asked me to play.

It didn’t stop me, though.

I found one of Grandpa’s old Super Chromonicas and had it cleaned up at a music store. Its wooden case needed a little TLC and I took care of that with some glue and twelve-inch clamps. Then I tried to play it with the soul and emotion of its original owner.

Despite the newly refurbished slide button and the hours of practice (okay, a few minutes a couple of times a year), I couldn’t entertain even the most disinterested people. Perhaps disinterested people by their very nature would lose interest in amateurish harmonica playing. I prefer to think that disinterested people don’t have the inclination to seek out their own entertainment so they are happy to sit back and experience whatever comes their way.

Doesn’t quite work out that way. Interested people lose interest in the unenjoyable. Disinterested people look elsewhere for something to interest them. Either way, my audience diminishes to zero.

I am not exactly living up to Grandpa’s legacy, but I am still trying. I have found songs online to practice, and can play “Blowin’ in the Wind” well enough that adults can sometimes identify it, if they stick around long enough.

Usually my audience consists only of the dog, and if she doesn’t leave the room I figure it’s been a good show.


  1. I'm so amateur at the harmonica that I didn't even know what a Slide Chromonica was until about 10 minutes ago. I learned "When the Saints Go Marching In" because the instructions had the music for it.

    You should be glad you have more than just one song in your repertiore. That way, when someone asks you if you can play anything else after you serenade them with the first song, you can at least say yes.

  2. I like your harmonica playing because even though it isn't always pure it is improving AND it is better than some of your heavy metal choices that can typically bleed out of the speakers.

  3. I'm glad that you have taken to the harmonica. Don't know if you knew that I began my "career" as a harmonica player 75 years ago. Sadly my harmonicas were left behind when your mom and I separated, and all I have now is a 12 key Hohner Marine Band model. So there you have it; three generations of harmonica virtuosos. It must be in your genes.