Last night at choir rehearsal we had a special treat - Mike Stevens, a musician visiting Dal (Dalhousie University*, for the unititated) from northern Ontario, gave a short performance and sat in on our rehearsal for a bit. Mike is considered to be a master in his field, and has provided music for various film scores, among other accomplishments. The thing is, Mike doesn't play any ordinary instrument - not piano or violin or saxophone or cello.
Mike is a professional harmonica musician.
Now before you roll your eyes and think "seriously?", let me tell you I have a ton more respect for people who play the harmonica after he talked to us last night! I've always loved the sound of a harmonica (I love bluesy music) but didn't think it looked too hard to play - they just blow into the holes right? (get your mind out of the gutter). Well, yes, they do but it's actually a lot more complicated than that.
Mike explained to us how he makes different sounds on the harmonica, but there is no way I can remember what he said. I know he used a lot of big, musician-y words. So, instead of me explaining what he said, here's a little blurb about how harmonica's work:
A harmonica has a chambered body with each chamber containing 2 small metal reeds. The reeds are flipped in alignment from each other. As you blow into one of the chambers air passes over the first reed and causes it to vibrate and this vibration causes the sound you hear. As you draw air in through a chamber ("suck on a harmonica") the air passes through the chamber in reverse and causes the second reed to vibrate. because the reeds are aligned oppisately - the air direction will determine which reed vibrates. Harmonicas use a series of reeds lined up from longer to shorter. The shorter the reed - the higher the pitch of the note sounded.
So, basically, to make a harmonica even make SOUNDS that don't resemble a dying cat you have to blow the right amount of air into the right place in a certain way. It takes much more than this to actually sound GOOD and make a career out of it.
Not to mention, there are three main types of harmonicas (arguably more) and thousands of different models. Mike took out the plastic container he keeps his harmonicas in, unrolled the bundles and informed us that he currently had about 40 different ones on hand! He takes about 80 when he's on the road, to allow for different styles, fresh reeds, etc! I don't even take 60 pairs of underwear when I go on the road (mostly because when I do, it's only for a week tops).
He then proceeded to hook himself up to a substantial speaker and foot tools (sorry musicians, don't know the technical terms, so sue me) and play us a set for a few minutes. Well, I was amazed - it sounded at times like an entire rock band, a celtic violin, and a dj spinning while still giving off that unique, raw sound that a harmonica makes. His incessant jerking and moving illustrated just how much physical power goes into playing this instrument.
That's not all, Mike is also the founder of ArtsCanCircle a non-profit organization "bringing Artists and Indigenous Canadian Youth (in Northern Canadian communities) together in Creative Expression". They basically connect youth in rural Northern Canadian communities with the arts, cool huh?
I found this all very fascinating and therefore wanted to share it. I had no idea harmonicas and harmonica-playing were so complex. I have a newfound appreciation for those that play them!
For your harmonica enjoyment, this song has one of my favourite harmonica parts (and videos) ever (FYI, the title of this post comes from an Aerosmith album - I believe Bobo was/is Steve Tyler's name for his harmonica -?).
And here's a video of Mike playing (with Matt Anderson, a blues musician from New Brunswick - repping the East Coast 4 life up in this bish! Word!).
*I should mention that the Medical School at Dal is quite unique, in that it features a Medical Humanities program that exists to "balance the science and fact-base that physicians use as the “tools of their trade” with the human weave that can make the lives of humans rich, rewarding, and at times mysterious." The program consists of "consists of five core initiatives: History of Medicine; Narrative Medicine (oral story-telling film, mass media, and literature); Music; Spirituality; and Visual Arts". The program has various classes, workshops, events, and opportunities within each of these components, including my choir (Dalhousie Medical School Choir). This program (as far as I know) is one-of-a-kind and many people from the Medical community around the world come to investigate it. Just a fun bit of trivia for your Thursday!*