Like all epiphanies, the idea to learn to play the harmonica came to me while stuck in L.A. freeway traffic. What an incredible waste of time, I would think as traffic inched along. I should be doing something productive, something more satisfying than thwarting the encroachments of raging lane cutters. Then it came to me, I could be playing the harmonica, which I’ve wanted to do forever. And I could use this twice-daily downtime to practice my lessons.
Unlike many epiphanies, which are shelved once the idea deteriorates into work, this time I followed through. McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica just off the 10, which was convenient considering my commute after work between Encino and El Segundo, offered evening private lessons for beginning harmonica.
Once weekly off-and-on over a couple of years resident instructor Dave Gage taught me the fundamentals of harmonica playing. As I envisioned, I used my commute time to practice the blues scale, popular riffs and a handful of songs by memorizing blow-draw music sheets.
It worked. My commute frustration was tamped down. I became proficient (dangerously overconfident) at staying the course in slow moving traffic by steering with my knee. I held the harmonica with one hand on the rare occasions traffic sped up. What never really did gain traction, in spite of considerable practice time dedicated to this passion, was my musicianship. I sucked (no pun intended) then and still do.
Upon reflection, I’ve determined that a good teacher can teach you what they know. But it takes a great teacher to teach you what you don’t know.
I still play for fun and every so often have a minor breakthrough. Just recently, 25 years on from my SoCal experience and other random lessons, thanks to Mick Martin, a renowned Sacramento blues musician and part-time Learning Exchange instructor, something clicked. He simplified the nature of “jamming,” which is what I’ve really wanted to be able to do all along, by simplifying the approach to sticking to a handful of basic notes and riffs.
As for that epiphany: Playing the harmonica in traffic – traffic jamming — made me appreciate once again that with optimistic, creative thinking it is always possible to turn a negative into a positive.