Chromatic Harmonica (HARP) Histrionics (For present and future harmonica junkies)

I lost my lip (musician’s terminology) when I was a professional trombonist in the showrooms of Reno, Lake, and Las Vegas in the late 50s and early 60s. It was my life and I loved it. I woke up one morning and couldn’t play. I had developed Bells palsy and after a second serious attack of the same ailment my playing days were over. Luckily, I was married to a beautiful dancer, Shirley, whom I had met when we were both performing at Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe, NV, she as a dancer and I with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. Being a Hoosier and a down home girl, she was a tower of strength, and with her help I pursued other areas of employment. I had a B.S. from the State University of NY, Potsdam, and soon became a band teacher in Palmdale, CA, for 27 years, a truly rewarding career. When I retired at age 60, I became a children’s author for the next 21 years (felixchildrenstories.com), and also wrote my autobiography, “Diary of a Young Musician, Final Days of the Big Band Era (felixmayerhofer.com).”

When Shirley passed away almost two years ago after 48 years of a wonderful marriage (we were one of the lucky ones), I couldn’t stop thinking about her, so I had to find something to do to keep my mind occupied. My creative juices to write had disappeared the year I began taking care of Shirley and continued after she passed away. So I pulled out the old trombone that I hadn’t played for almost 50 years. When I held it in my hands it was like being back with an old friend, but the magic wouldn’t return. I tried for a few months but the muscles in my lips wouldn’t respond. I laid off the horn for a couple of months but being a glutton for punishment like a drug addict, I tried again and got the same discouraging results.

I wanted to do something musical and for some strange reason I chose the harmonica, or harp as it’s known. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I decided to play the chromatic harp because I loved the way Toots Thielemans played jazz and that’s what I wanted to do. I found out all I needed to know about the instrument on the internet, the brands, how to take care of it, and what the internal components were. I should have been forewarned when I read the material. When I felt well informed, I went to the local Guitar Center and bought a Hohner 270 Chromatic Harmonica plus a couple of instruction books.

When I was a kid I bought a trombone with an instruction book thrown in and learned to play it by myself, then eventually took lessons. I didn’t know any better and was lucky I didn’t develop bad habits. Three weeks after I began the trombone, I bought Tommy Dorsey’s recording of “Getting Sentimental After You,” and copied Dorsey as he played the tune. By doing that I soon developed a high range that helped me when I joined a professional road band almost three years later. In fact that tune got me my first job, it’s all in my book, “Dairy of a Young Musician, Final Days of the Big Band Era (felixmayerhofer.com).”

When I returned home from the Guitar Center I immediately read the introductions to both instruction books, and soon became a little confused. I assumed the longer I played I would become deconfused (my own word), and as the months passed that’s what happened. I was learning to play the harmonica by myself as I did the trombone. The difference between the chromatic harp that has a lever on the side, and the smaller type we’ve all played called the diatonic, was the chromatic had three full octaves. Of course the first thing I tried to play was the jazz tune, “Lullaby of Birdland,” by my well-tested hit and miss method. I got it to a degree but it didn’t sound very good. By experimenting, I blew from note to note and discovered where the first note of the song was, and then went from there. But when I tried playing that note again I had to go through the same process because there were so many more notes and octaves. As I soon found out the instrument had it’s own built in playing problems. The only way I could find the right notes on the chromatic was to practice hundreds and hundreds of hours and eventually find the notes by instinct). Eventually that instinct would direct me to the correct starting notes (I’m doing much better now but still not totally mastered). Once I came to my senses, I began at the beginning of the instruction book with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I was truly on my way.

But that was only the beginning of my problems. The third day after I took the harp out of the case the lever stuck and it wouldn’t budge. I went back to the internet to look for “Trouble shooting,” and found out about the above-mentioned problem. It turned out my own saliva was the culprit. Saliva is something like a glue-like substance that could only be taken care of by unscrewing the mouthpiece and cleaning it with dish detergent. I found one piece of serious “erroneous” instructions that said to turn the instrument up side down and place the mouthpiece in water up to the lever in a small tray. While in the water I pushed the lever back and forth, and then let it dry for a while in that position, so water wouldn’t drip into the delicate reed area that makes the harmonica function. That worked, but the more I cleaned it, notes that were weak to begin with when I bought it were getting even more difficult to play. I called a tech at Hohner and the old gal who answered wasn’t very pleasant, giving me no satisfaction at all. She has since retired. As the harmonica got harder to blow I bought another harmonica and after a few months the same thing occurred. My progress on the instrument was being held up. Getting discouraged, I momentarily thought of forgetting the whole thing. But not being one to give up I decided to try one more time and purchased a more expensive deluxe model that was definitely better. I was frustrated once again when the lever became stuck after a few days. I called Hohner, and the new tech who was almost as cold as the previous one gave me the correct advise. When I asked if it was okay to place the harmonica in water to clean, he answered, “Absolutely not, it will eventually prevent the reeds from working even though the water’s not hitting it.” Somehow the moisture got into the reeds. All these problems had now been going on for a period of months and were very discouraging. The tech said the mouthpiece must be taken off and cleaned every time the lever began to stick. I answered, “Every time?” He said “yes,” and that was it.

I proceeded to unscrew the mouthpiece of the harmonica and that’s when new problems arose. I couldn’t get it to play when I reassembled it and the spring that held the lever came unhinged. I had no alternative but to send it back to the factory. When it was returned to me it was in fine working shape, but this time they sent along a set of detailed instructions how to take it apart and clean it. The newly repaired instrument played beautifully, but within days the lever stuck. Following the instructions I carefully disassembled the harp, washed it, then reassembled it without any problems, but it took a half hour. Did I want to spend that much time cleaning it every few days? It was a major decision. I figured all professional harmonica players did the same thing. I practiced running the procedure in my mind and the next time it took 20 minutes. When I did it a third time it took 10 minutes while listening to the news on TV. If I wanted to play the chromatic harmonica that’s what had to be done.

From the time I began playing I had trouble finding anyone who played the chromatic harp as I had many questions to ask. I finally found two great diatonic blues harp players who played the small harmonica. They had both tried to play the chromatic but had given up because of all the complications. They thought it was the most difficult instrument they’d ever tried to learn. Whenever I hear great professional players I have profound admiration for them, as I know what they went through to learn and play the instrument. Now that I’ve overcome all the physical barriers of my beloved harp, I’m now sailing along, and have been offered dance jobs that I’ll be playing about a year from now when I’m 82. Now if I can just stay awake on the job!

Comments

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  2. I can’t believe someone actually read one of my blogs. A lot has happened since I wrote the above blog and I’m thinking of writing a follow-up of my experiences the past two years that is even more interesting.

    Felix Mayerhofer

    • Bob Gagne says:

      Enjoyed your blot on the chromatic. I started on the diatonic playing oh Susanna. I changed to chromatic because of the range and ability to play in any key. I am 70yo. Looking forward to your next installment. I’m a big band fan.

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  6. Bob Gagne, I was on the road as a big band trombonist for 13 years, ending my career in the show rooms of Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe that I wrote about in my book, “Diary of a Young Musician Final Days of the Big Band Era” felixmayerhofer.com. I was doing the Tony Bennett Show and when I woke up one morning my lip wouldn’t function. Having been newly married I had to support ourselves, so I became a school band director soon after but still couldn’t play for almost 50 years. I had a teacher’s degree from the State University of New York, Potsdam. My frozen lip was caused by two very serious attacks of Bells palsy. As I was practicing the harmonica about two and a half years ago and doing quite well, I had the sudden urge to try to play the trombone and when I did I found I could get air through it, not notes, just air that I couldn’t do before. With hope in my heart I began fooling around with the horn and it took months before a single note came out. It was about a year and a half before I got the full range of the horn but without a good tone. I was encouraged and worked two to three hours every day. I went to the local instrument repair shop about eight months later, and the owner who knew I was trying to play asked me to test a trombone he was repairing. When I began playing I could hear the musicians in shop go “Whew! when they heard me. One came up and said, “You’re the best trombonist I’ve ever heard,” and this before I could even play well. That was very encouraging, and now that more than two years have gone by since my harmonica days I’m playing with a couple of bands. In fact I’ll be performing with a polka band tomorrow night at a large fair where many of my friends, especially former band students will be in attendance. I still have a long way to go before I can play like I used too. I was a top trombonist during my playing days. As a school band director for 28 years I influenced many children and loved my job, so you can tell I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m 83 years old. I couldn’t have done it without the total support of my wife, Shirley, now deceased, who worked at Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe as a show dancer, and our son David, also a fine trombonist, but now a professional photographer with his own studio in Hollywood. He also runs the photo lab at night at Glendale Community College in Glendale, CA. (davidmayerhofer.com, and I Bake He Shoots.com). I haven’t touched the harmonica since the day I picked up the trombone.

  7. Bob Gagne, I was on the road as a big band trombonist for 13 years, ending my career in the show rooms of Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe that I wrote about in my book, “Diary of a Young Musician Final Days of the Big Band Era” felixmayerhofer.com. I was doing the Tony Bennett Show and when I woke up one morning my lip wouldn’t function. Having been newly married I had to support ourselves, so I became a school band director soon after but still couldn’t play for almost 50 years. I had a teacher’s degree from the State University of New York, Potsdam. My frozen lip was caused by two very serious attacks of Bells palsy. As I was practicing the harmonica about two and a half years ago and doing quite well, I had the sudden urge to try to play the trombone and when I did I found I could get air through it, not notes, just air that I couldn’t do before. With hope in my heart I began fooling around with the horn and it took months before a single note came out. It was about a year and a half before I got the full range of the horn but without a good tone. I was encouraged and worked two to three hours every day. I went to the local instrument repair shop about eight months later, and the owner who knew I was trying to play asked me to test a trombone he was repairing. When I began playing I could hear the musicians in shop go “Whew! when they heard me. One came up and said, “You’re the best trombonist I’ve ever heard,” and this before I could even play well. That was very encouraging, and now that more than two years have gone by since my harmonica days I’m playing with a couple of bands. In fact I’ll be performing with a polka band tomorrow night at a large fair where many of my friends, especially former band students will be in attendance. I still have a long way to go before I can play like I used too. I was a top trombonist during my playing days. As a school band director for 28 years I influenced many children and loved my job, so you can tell I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m 83 years old. I couldn’t have done it without the total support of my wife, Shirley, now deceased, who worked at Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe as a show dancer, and our son David, also a fine trombonist, but now a professional photographer with his own studio in Hollywood. He also runs the photo lab at night at Glendale Community College in Glendale, CA. (davidmayerhofer.com, and I Bake He Shoots.com). I haven’t touched the harmonica since the day I picked up the trombone.

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