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Nothing But Harmonicas

Proceedings of the Windy City Harmonica Club



"I think you want to try it a little slower," the conductor says, beating the table with his pencil.

"Slower?" somebody asks.

"Yeah, slower. That way we'll be able to catch all the notes. Let's try it again from the second ending."

"Second ending?"

The 15 people seated flip through the pages of their scores.

"All right. A-one, and a-two, and a-three. Da-da-da-daaaa. Da-da-da-daaa."

The orchestra, which is practicing to perform in front of a church group, comes to life with the sounds of "Spanish Eyes." Every instrument is a harmonica. The bass harmonicas oompah-pah along, and the chromatic harmonicas pick up the melody.

Across the hallway in a separate classroom, a couple of young men are trying to teach a newcomer some blues riffs on the harmonica. And a harmonica salesman is trying to sell the harmonicas he's brought along in his briefcase. In a third classroom a slightly more advanced harmonica group is trying to work its way through a classical piece.

They come from all over, including Wisconsin and Indiana, to Elmhurst's First Congregational Church for weekly meetings of the Windy City Harmonica Club, where amateur and professional harmonica players get together to share tricks of the trade. Most of the members are older men, 30 to 50 of whom make every meeting. There are air-conditioner repairmen, retired construction workers, retail salesmen, a golf instructor, a schoolteacher, and even a professional musician who used to be a member of the Harmonicats. Some of them have played harmonica at local club gigs, and a few of them once entertained fans at Wrigley Field.

Almost everyone carries a briefcase filled with different kinds of harmonicas. They bring standard diatonic harmonicas, which you can buy for ten bucks at your local music store. And they bring a few unusual types, including bass harmonicas and chord harmonicas, which look like hole punchers from a distance.

"This here's a chord harmonica," says a man who works as a salesman at Sears. He's holding an instrument that's about four inches tall and over a foot long and divided into sections for each chord. The plating on it is chipped. "It looks like it's been through the war," he says. "I bought it about 20 years ago for around two or three hundred dollars. It'd sell for double that today."

Frank McCormick--who sells harmonicas as a sideline and has been coming to club meetings for five years, which is about as long as the club has been in existence--is demonstrating a bass harmonica to a potential customer, a guy named Wally who's about 40 and here for his first time. Wally came because he wants to take lessons, but he's had no success finding someone to teach him how to play.

The bass harmonica is a fat instrument with two tiers of holes. McCormick plays "Old MacDonald" on it, and it sounds like a tuba. "The guys don't like me to play melodies on this one," he says. "It's supposed to pick up the bass notes."

"You see," Wally says, as he takes from his pocket the diatonic harmonica that he got in the mail along with his "Learn to Play the Harmonica" tape, "I can't play 'Old MacDonald' with the bottom notes. It doesn't have all the notes."

"Aha!" McCormick says. "You've just learned an important lesson about diatonic harmonicas--they don't play all the notes. At the bottom you can't play 'Do Re Mi.'"

"I can do it if I bend the note a little," Wally says, harshly drawing in air. The instrument responds with a little yelp.

"No, here's how you bend," says a young man with a drooping mustache, demonstrating how to bend notes by sucking in air and pushing the harmonica behind his lower lip.

"That tickles, doesn't it?" McCormick says. "Sure, that's one way to get all the notes. That's how all those blues musicians do all those riffs--by bending. And it's good for filling in notes. It's an attractive sound. But I think for playing 'Old MacDonald' and all those other melodies you want to play you'd be best off with this."

He pulls out a shiny silver harmonica with a button on the end of it. "This is a chromatic harmonica," he says. By pushing the button, he explains, you can get the notes you don't normally get on a harmonica.

"How much is it?" Wally asks.

"Twenty-five dollars," McCormick says.


It's well past 10 PM, and the classrooms at the church are still filled with the sounds of blowing harmonicas. Al Fiore, formerly of the Harmonicats, is tapping his foot as he leads a group through a medley of tunes, including "Blue Skirt Waltz," "Hold Me," and "Harbor Lights."

"Come on," he says. "We're going to have to do it a little better if we're going to be ready for our concert. Let's take it from the top."

"I play it everywhere I go," McCormick says. "I play it in the car--one hand on the wheel, one hand on the harmonica. I'll be blowing it when I'm at a red light. I drive a lot for business. I wish I would have picked it up earlier. I wouldn't have been so bored in the car."

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