The Old Town School of Folk Music is on break this week. There was no Monday class. And if you missed the 2010 SPAH convention last week, here are some impressions from B1 students who attended:
I thought SPAH was excellent. I had a blast and learned some new licks, some bluegrass, and some jazz for the chromatic. The people and instructors were great.
A SPAH convention is not a blues experience; it is a harmonica experience.
Other than killer blues performances by RJ Mischo, the air at SPAH was generally filled with notes, lots and lots of notes, and not so much expressive blues. I was pushed off center by this. Players like Chris Michalek and Jason Ricci are creating a bunch of teenagers who play fast and furious. I know better than to admire that…and yet, when that’s what you hear for days on end, you start to think it’s normal. You start to think you’re a little deficient if you can’t play a couple hundred notes in twenty seconds. I know better, but I guess I have room for a little more confidence building.
And then the late-night blues jams were more challenging than usual for me because they were heavy on song forms that weren’t 12-bar. I walked away from the first couple nights shaking my head, discouraged. I wasn’t playing well and wasn’t inspired.
Then I realized that being pushed off center was exactly what I need right now, it’s exactly what I can take away from the SPAH convention. I’ve been a little stuck in a rut in terms of growth, wondering how to move forward and at SPAH this year I found some solutions. I may not have played well and impressed others, but I did come home with some challenges for myself and thanks to talks with Dennis Gruenling, I have practice ideas. I know now what I need to work on.
I picked up a great t-shirt from Dennis that says: “WWWP – What Would Walter Play?” After five solid days of hearing harmonica, I took Sunday off from listening to harmonica at all. Monday I listened to Little Walter to see what he played. I needed to hear what it was all about again. I needed to get grounded in blues that’s expressive, melodic and not full of pyrotechnics. The first song I heard was Backtrack. Lotsa notes, yes, but not so many that I was numbed by it. And there’s so much wonderful repetition in there that it works – my mind was able to grab hold. It was musical. I don’t begrudge the young bucks their speedy stuff, but it is just not my taste. Tomorrow I’m going to listen to the other Walter to see what he would play.
For me, SPAH 2010 was sort of a painful growing experience…for which I am thankful!
I had a great time at SPAH as always. Joe does a great job organizing the jams and teach-ins. I helped man the custom harp case booth for my friend Hal from the Detroit area and even sold a few harp cases for him. It was a great week.
This is my third SPAH. I find them rewarding with respect to learning how I might improve my harp playing (if I’d only practice what they preach), hearing lots of great players, and meeting interesting people. Not only did I get to hear some of my favorite players, I heard for the first time a great young player from Poland, Bartosz (Bart) Leczycki. At his performance it was just him, his diatonic harmonicas, and a looping machine. He’d create a bass rhythm track using a low C diatonic, sometimes add in other rhythms with other diatonics, and perform the song and solo against the looping rhythms. He showed his great versatility by performing songs in the following genres - Indian raga, techno, rock, jazz, African, Polish folk, and of course the blues.
Then there was Carol and her husband Carl. Carol, just north or south of 80 years old, is a piano player, sometime harmonica player, and musical director of 10-person harmonica ensemble of the old and infirm that lives and plays in Sun (not sin) City Florida. They get together every Monday to perform a rotating set of songs. They even play a blues or two (“St. Louis Blues”) and got to do a song for the visiting Harmonicats. To paraphrase Carol – playing harmonica (even if it is a chromatic) is the only thing some of them have to keep them engaged. There’s a lesson here, harmonica players - check out the harmonica scene before you pick a place to retire and include Sun City on your list of candidate places.
I just attended my first ever SPAH convention (in Bloomington, MN). I
thought I'd share some thoughts about it.
- It was worth the time and money. I heard lots of great playing and learned lots of useful stuff.
- Favorite moments? 1) Joe and Eric's performance on Friday evening was terrific: 2) my Cajun harmonica lesson, where I learned "J'ai passe devant la porte" from Jerry Devillier: 3) learning the latest about Harrison Harmonicas (they are still elusive! Order one now and get it in six months): 4) the afternoon show on Thursday, that showcased PT Gazell, RJ Mischo, Brendan Power, and Steve Baker: and 5) the "Powerbender Tuning" seminar by Brendan Power (yes, I bought one).
- Best Seminar? I got a lot out of the "Harmonicas for Health" seminar. It is a field of interest for me, since I replaced my spirometer with a harmonica while I was recuperating from my bypass surgery.
- The vendors were very helpful to me. I had a stuck reed in one of my Seydel harps, and one of the Seydel reps fixed it and went ahead and smoothed out the gaps in the whole harp!
- Next year's convention will be August 9-13 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I plan on being there!
So I got an email from Joe asking if I could maybe lend him a hand over the weekend teaching beginners at SPAH. Sure, of course. Always happy to.
Firstly I was very flattered he trusted me with teaching at SPAH. Secondly, I was pretty scared of the idea. But before I knew it, there I was sitting down with a bunch of people who’d never touched a harp in their lives, and a bunch who had questions about tongue blocking and who could already bend. I think I managed to get us all successfully through the two hours, and, guess what, I even had fun.
The next morning I was a little more prepared, and had even more fun. I was impressed with how fast both groups I taught picked things up, and everyone was really sweet. I’m really glad Joe gave me the opportunity to try out something so new, exciting and just a little bit scary. And thanks to my dear friends Jasper and Madeline as well, who showed their never-ending support for me by sitting in on both classes and putting up with me teaching them for four hours.
I had a great time this year at SPAH and I learned a lot. I heard some great harmonica playing and met some wonderful people.
In my mind there were a few things I wanted to glean from this year. First was blow bends and second was improvising.
I had a chance to sit with Michael Peloquin in Joe's teach-in sessions. He was teaching on the subject of overblows. He asked if I could blow bend on the high notes. I told him I couldn't (which was the case with all who were there at that time). He began to instruct me in his style of how to blow bend. I think I might have bent it once but couldn't repeat it. I left a little frustrated but thought I would practice it later. The next day I was trying to decide whom to sit with. I then decided I needed to go back to Michael Peloquin and try again. He worked with me and after a while I did it twice! He said if I were you I would go somewhere and work on it. I did and it paid off! I still have to work on it to make it sound good, but thank God I hit a milestone for me.
David Barrett gave me a great way to remember licks for improvising by taking all my licks from songs and categorizing them - 2 draw licks, 4 draw licks etc. and he encouraged me to practice them that way, all 2 hole draw licks, then all 4 draw hole licks etc. Chances are you will remember them when improvising. You need to check out his book on improvising - it is great.
Keep on Harpin!
Overall, my expectations were exceeded...not in every category, of course, but in the ones that I feel are most important.
Joe's workshops alone were worth the trip. The standout session for me was one with David Barrett in which he explained his 'Chorus Form' approach for developing improvising skills. His extraordinary ability to explain the approach made it crystal clear and the 'test drive' we took as a study group really helped me internalize the system.
His book, entitled "Improvising Blues Harmonica" explains it all but it made a big difference to get a live lesson from David.
I realize now that SPAH is an incredible learning opportunity. I'll be there next year.
Harmonica Einstein (Rick Trankle)
Many of you know I am the inventor of a new product called The Tuning Table to aid in the tuning of harmonicas. Confident in the importance of the need for more people to be able to tune them and this product's ability to fill that need, I rented booth space at SPAH. I have to thank LJ Atkinson for welcoming me as a new vendor and providing me with a great location. I was pleased and amazed at how many people, after listening to my sales pitch, 'got it' and then bought it. Look for my video interview with David Barrett soon.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend any of the seminars during the day. As a Chicago blues style harmonica player I was looking to experience something different at SPAH. Early in my career I was frustrated at trying to play any real authentic blues harp because I just could not figure it out easily. For some reason I was attracted to the country and bluegrass world of Charlie McCoy. Perhaps because there was more single note melodies that I could adapt to my then pucker style of playing, and if I mastered Orange Blossom Special I too would be a great harmonica player, ha! Anyway, off to the bluegrass jam I went and there I met Cara Cooke.
Cara is a great addition to the SPAH offerings providing her extensive knowledge of the bluegrass style of harmonica playing. I participated in her late night jam sessions every night where she handled every aspect like the pro that she is. Each person in the group got a turn to call a song. She would explain the structure to everyone, the stylistic possibilities you could explore, previewed it, even rehearsed once and the whole group took their turns playing in a variety of ways. Lonnie Joe Howell was the the official bluegrass guitar accompanist and a fine harmonica player in his own right. Lonnie also has published harmonica teaching books, dvds and cds. He was truly the captain of the musical ship for each song. He kept the form on track and rescued all derailed trains. I helped out the rhythm section by playing the Laptop snare drum.
Howard Levy was named 2010 Player of the Year by SPAH. Obviously Howard's reputation preceded him as he is known for excellence and mastery of his instruments. The closing show's performance was another notch in his belt. Howard played harmonica in the duo format with guitar player Chris Siebold. He backed up Chris on piano as well. Just as Filisko and Noden are a perfect team, so are Howard and Chris in the duo format. These two know and compliment each other harmonically and rhythmically like nothing you have experienced. Yes there are flurries of notes but you never get the feeling it will ever get lost. This is well thought out and perfectly executed music. Let me emphasize - MUSIC. So many harmonica players today are becoming involved in gymnastic scale improvisation. It would be a better world if everyone concentrated on playing real melodies that fit chord changes. This is exactly what Howard's music is about. He has incredible facility but always uses it musically. I must say exactly the same about guitarist Chris Siebold.
Chicago Blues Harp Bash #3 Tickets On Sale!!!
Tickets to our Chicago Blues Harp Bash #3 are on sale! We're thrilled to have living legend Jerry Portnoy headlining our show. Get your tickets now before they sell out!
The Bash will also feature local harp players Shoji Naito (with special guest Willie Buck on vocals), Highway RickEy, Harry Garner, Lamont Harris and Kirk Manley.
Events like the Bash and guest appearances in class happen because of great financial support from those of us in the class and our friends, so buy tickets and spread the word! The Bash is on Facebook at: ChicagoBluesHarpBash. Tell everyone about it!
Chicago Blues Harp Bash #3
at SPACE in Evanston
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Tickets at: www.chicagobluesharpbash.com
Mark your calendar and don't miss this show!
(Note that Jerry will also be in B1 as a special guest on Monday, September 13, 2010, 8:00pm.)
- Old Town is on break for two weeks , so no classes on August 16 or 23. Classes resume August 30.
- Pssst! Buy your tickets to the Chicago Blues Harp Bash