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PALM LATITUDES

BEING THERE : Blowin' It

July 24, 1994|R. Daniel Foster

As a kid, my brother Mike hopped Burlington Northern boxcars, wailing on his harmonica as he headed out of St. Paul, bound for adventure. That sound, mixed with the clatter of train wheels, signaled escape. I have wanted to play the instrument ever since.

I know he never played "You Are My Sunshine," the inane ditty my harmonica teacher has assigned to me. I decided to learn to play after the Harmonica Store, apparently the only music shop around devoted to the instrument, opened last year in North Hollywood. At my first group lesson taught by David McKelvy, who for 25 years has made his living playing the harmonica for films and TV, I blew a single note for nearly 15 seconds, hyperventilated and nearly passed out. This would be an arduous journey.

Playing is a complex task that includes learning to hinge my hands to produce a vibrato, bending notes, tongue blocking, playing out of both sides of my mouth and mastering trills, shakes and tremolos. I have had a private lesson from McKelvy, who has taught hundreds of harmonica wanna-bes, but I prefer to learn at my own pace using a workbook and tape he sells.

I am resolute in my efforts to avoid what McKelvy terms the campfire sound, the waaah waaaah waaaaaaah or "wienies and marshmallow vibrato" that only a den mother could love. "I can teach the techniques," McKelvy tells me, "but not the attitude."

And attitude is my goal. McKelvy has encouraged me, saying "your tone is nice and fat," but I'm tired of playing "Camptown Races." Today I glanced ahead in the book and dreamed of the day I can wail off "Boil that Cabbage Down" and "Snake Tongue Blues." Even on my $4.95 tin Hohner All-Band, I know they'll sound right, especially in the acoustics of the boxcar I'll hop back to St. Paul.

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