What You May Not Know About Blues Harmonica, with David Barrett

Today we’re talking with David Barrett, one of the world’s leading harmonica teachers and experts in blues music. David is the author of over 70 music education books including Mel Bay’s main harmonica tutor books, he is the founder of bluesharmonica.com, the leading online training provider for learning blues harmonica, and he has also somehow found the time to found and run the world’s only music school dedicated to the blues, the School of the Blues in San Jose, California. He is also a Grammy-Nominated blues harmonica player who still regularly performs and records.

We were really eager to pick David’s brains on harmonica, the blues and also improvisation, and he delivered 110% on all three.

In this conversation you’re going to hear:

  • Why harmonica is both a very difficult and also a slightly easier instrument to figure out by ear
  • Why it is that harmonica and the blues are so closely associated with one another
  • What characterises blues music
  • And how David teaches his students to go beyond just memorising licks and riffs and build musically-meaningful improvised solos that will connect with the audience

This is definitely not a conversation only for those of you into blues music or who play the harmonica. There is a ton packed in here that’s relevant for any instrument and style of music. That said, we suspect that by the end you may have had your mind and ears opened to the possibilities that blues and harmonica might hold for you, too…

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, David. Thanks for joining us today!

David: Thank you, Christopher. It’s my pleasure.

Christopher: You have an impressive and extensive catalog of teaching materials all about the blues and harmonica, but I’d love before we talk about those, to rewind the tape and understand where this world leading expert on harmonica and blues came from. What did your own music education look like and where did harmonica come into the picture?

David: Sure. My pleasure. I started music in school. Played saxophone for a number of years. I think it was around third grade that I started. At that time, we still had a good music program. Played sax and then trumpet the summer of eighth grade and I was kind of done with the school band thing, but I wanted to stay in music and I’m not sure what made me think about the harmonica, possibly it’s my grandfather. He played harmonica actually in a harmonica school band. You can see pictures in old advertisements of these large groups that looked like full orchestra’s but they’re all holding harmonicas so he was in one of those. So I went to the local music store, picked up a harmonica, because my idea was I wanted to stay in music, but I loved the idea of the portability of the harmonica. Having played alto sax, then tenor sax and eventually baritone sax, there was definitely a nice thing about having an instrument you can throw in your vest pocket.

So I picked it up when I was 14. There were some books that I was able to learn from. Phil Duncan’s Blues Harp from Mel Bay Publications was where I started. Even though it said blues harp on the cover and he’s a good author, there really wasn’t blues harmonica inside. It was more basic methods of how to learn the harmonica. I later learned that if you put blues on the cover, it helped to sell the books.

Actually at that point, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a specific style. I just wanted to play the harmonica and I sure wasn’t familiar with blues. But I picked up fairly quickly. I enjoyed it and practiced quite a bit. And I saw the movie Crossroads and I remember having that goosebump moment of, “Yeah. I want do that”.

I took my little recorder, put it up against the speaker of the television set and recorded all the harmonica parts. Quickly learned that I didn’t have all the proper harmonicas and I went back to the local music store, bought three more harmonicas and that started my journey of learning the harmonica by ear. And blues music, I was thinking this was old music so I would go to my local Lost Mine Antiques. I didn’t even think about going to at that time, record stores or they were selling tapes at that time, too and I think CDs were maybe just starting to come into the world of music at that time, but mostly tapes and some LPs.

I didn’t think to go to the local music store and pick that up so I went to the antique place and I learned all the old blues first. And did again, everything by ear. Every now and again, I would run across someone who played harmonica, but they really couldn’t articulate what was going on in their mouth to make the sounds that I was hearing on the recordings. And I was lucky enough to win some tickets to a local JJ’s Blues Festival and I saw the local legend blues harmonica player, Gary Smith, who’s still around and actually I work with him and we still do videos for bluesharmonica.com together, which is really cool.

And I saw that the musicians were going out the side gate to get their barbecue chicken after the performance and my plan was hatched that I’m going to plant myself next to that gate and ask him if he’d give private lessons. He actually at first said no. He said that, “Nah, I get students and they’ll take a lesson or two. They won’t practice. I’ll never see them again.” And I begged him and said, “No. I’ll be different. I’ll definitely study it”. And that’s where it started.

I took monthly lessons with him. I would drive up to his home in Campbell, California and he would hand me a microphone through a tube amp and he would have a matching one and he’d walk me through cool licks and sounds and even though harmonica players, for a long time, weren’t again still very articulate on exactly what was going on in the mouth because they learned by ear, so they were essentially teaching by ear. I would say Gary was a good instructor and was able to kind of define important things, even though they weren’t stated in a technical way, he played the sound, made me aware of it, that my tongue had to be on the harmonica or something like that. Something basic like, “Okay.” Then I recorded those with a boom box and I’d go home and I’d just study that up.

So that really was my beginning as a harmonica player from doing things by ear through lifting up the needle and putting it back on the grooves, trying to learn the licks and then having someone like Gary Smith kind of clue me in to the important areas of study and I just loved it.

Christopher: Fantastic. That’s such a cool origin story and I think there were a few things that really jumped out at me and touched on some of the stuff I was super keen to talk with you today about.

The first I think, is that you quite quickly transitioned to playing by ear. And I think you said that you were playing the sax in the school band and so I presume that was from a very traditional sheet music perspective, was it?

David: Correct. Yes.

Christopher: And so can you, I realize it’s awhile to cast your mind back to, but can you remember what it was like to be making that transition of someone who’d kind of had some success as a young musician learning and improving, but then kind of take a very different approach with it with a quite different instrument?

David: I actually kind of enjoyed it because at that time it became a hobby. Moving from reading music and working on scales, which were requirements in school. You had to learn three scales a month and then take tests. You had to test up to move up in your chairs in the school band. For me, playing the harmonica was all for me. My parents never said, “Hey, we paid this much money for this instrument and you need to practice.” It was all me. I bought the harmonica and it was something for my own pleasure.

When I got the book from Mel Bay, that was music notation but it had tablature. Even though at that point I could read music, I didn’t even think of applying that to the harmonica because there was a tablature system. Okay, on a hole one there’s an up arrow. I’m going to blow through the hole. I guess that’s how you do it on the harmonica, even though Phil Duncan did write out the music notation.

When I moved over to blues, again, since my first experience with the blues was from the oral side of things, of here’s some cool harmonica parts, I want to copy it. Of course I did look for books but they didn’t exist on the blues, so I really had no choice but to do it by ear. Blues has always been an oral tradition: listen, copy, and try to use. It just seemed like the natural path to continue learning things by ear. Even again, with my lessons with Gary Smith, there was nothing ever written down. It was always done by ear.

For me personally, as a teacher, when I started to teach at 18, even though I didn’t feel like I was qualified to teach at 18, many times I’d go to the local music store. I started harmonica when I was 14, by the way. Gary Smith was when I was 16. I’d probably say within about six months of studying with him, I started playing local jam sessions. I started to play jam sessions. I wouldn’t say I started to get my name known in the area, but I played harmonica and people knew about me I guess because I tried to participate in any jam situation that I could.

Again, JJ’s Blues, the same place that did the festival, had jam sessions and I would partake in that. Actually, kind of a fun story. I’m recording this at School of the Blues in San Jose, California and we opened the doors in 2002. My bass instructor and my drum instructor here at the school were actually part of the house band that I played with when I was 16 years old. That’s pretty fun.

It’s always been an oral tradition. When I started teaching when I was 18 … Again, the reason why is I’d go to these local music stores and want to talk shop and check out the new harmonicas. I’d say, “Do you know anyone who teaches?” “Would you be interested in teaching?” I don’t know anything about teaching, but after they would say that numerous times, I figured, at that time I’d graduated from school. I knew I wanted to do music for a living and I signed up for De Anza College, a local community college, to continue my studies in music. I thought, hey, that’d be a good way to make money. A lot of the ways I was making money was doing yard work and other things that an 18 year old would do at that time.

I started teaching harmonica, and it just made sense that I would want to write down some of these ideas, some of these cool licks, some of these technique focus things. That really started my progression in writing books.

Christopher: You said something there that the listener might have not paid much attention to, which was you saw this movie, but you recorded by the TV and started figuring things out by ear. A monophonic instrument like saxophone or trumpet that’s playing a melody one note at a time, and with all do respect to players of both instruments, myself included, there’s not a huge amount of technique variety possible on the instrument. Sure, there’s a lot of expressive mouth work and so on. But if you hear it, and experiment a bit, you can figure out what notes they’re playing.

With an instrument like that, it’s fairly easy I think to imagine how someone could painstakingly figure stuff out by ear. But the harmonica is a very different kind of an instrument, not the least because it’s polyphonic. You can play a bunch of different notes at once, and there is actually a lot of technique variety possible. For the listener who’s maybe only encountered harmonica played by Bob Dylan or maybe John Popper Blues Traveler playing a fast flurry of notes, and just imagine a very simplistic instrument, could you maybe open their minds to what’s possible on the harmonica, or why it might actually have been maybe challenging sometimes to figure out what was going on on the recording?

David: Sure. My pleasure. To me, that’s one of the reasons why I stayed with harmonica all these years, because it was challenging. Really, where the harmonica starts, is once you’re able to play single notes and move around the harmonica playing melodies in good time, for a lot of people, that’s kind of where they stop they’re study. They’re, “Yeah, this is a single note instrument. I’m using this to play melodies.” I commonly in my workshops will get an older person come in with this big fat book of music, and they’ll say, “I can play hundreds of songs,” but they’re essentially just playing single notes.

I like to tell my students once you’re able to play single notes, that’s where your studies begin for the blues harmonica, or just harmonica at large, when you want to take your skills to the next level.

A very simple instrument. We have reed, the moving part of the harmonica that affixed to a reed plate. That reed plate is then sandwiched onto what we call a comb, which basically directs the air to either the top plate, which is the blow plate, or the bottom plate, which is the draw plate. We have cover plates to direct the sound, and most importantly, just keep our fingers away from the moving parts. Very simplistic design.

We use our mouth. For example, there’s 10 holes on this diatonic harmonica. If I want to play the fourth hole, for example, my lips go over those one, two, three, four holes. There’s actually four notes in my mouth, basically. We use our tongue to block the, commonly, the holes to the left. Holes one, two and three, so that the fourth hole sounds.

The whole harmonica goes in the mouth. We use the tongue like fingers to a guitarist, for example, to place it lightly on the harmonica. The neat thing, and would you mind if I played a little bit for you and your audience?

Christopher: Please do.

David: Okay. When you play a single note, for example if I play this four blow on my A Hohner Marine Band harmonica (music). If I play a melody, let’s see (music). Single notes, that’s nice. I can put a nice tremble on it just like a singer or a saxophone player (music). I can add inflection to the note by bending. Bending on the harmonica’s a neat thing. I’m actually tuning my mouth cavity with the placement of my tongue to match that of the reed and the possibility of that reed. Some reeds can bend deeper, can flatten more in pitch, than others. That’s part of the fun, is to figure out which reeds can bend further than others. It has to do with an interaction with the draw reeds and blow reeds by the way.

Either way I’m tuning my oral cavity to the pitch of the harmonica (music). So I can play, for my harmonica players out there, the three draw. I’m bending and releasing (music). That’s what really is the soul of the blues harmonica, is moving around these notes (music). I’ll play that three draw again (music). And I’ll play that phrase with that nice dip (music).

Now we start moving into the techniques of what you’re talking about, playing multiple notes at the same time. That second note, if I want, I can play the adjacent hole, three and four together (music). You get these beautiful harmonies (music). Because my tongue’s on the harmonica, if I wish I can start with my tongue off the harmonica, start my breath so a chord sounds, in this case playing the fourth hole. Remember I had holes one, two and three blocked with my tongue. If I had my tongue off the harmonica, I’m sounding all four holes at the same time like a guitarist strumming a chord, and it dynamically leads to a single note.

Instead of just playing this fourth hole inhale (music), I can precede it with a chord (music). Now we have a bigger sound. Actually, this is the way a blues harmonica player, their default way of playing a single note (music). All the notes I’m playing (music) have a bigger presentation. That last note that I played (music), that’s the fifth hole draw on the harmonica, I can take that tongue on and off quickly (music).

We can even play octaves. We were playing the four draw, which happens to be on this A harmonica, B, or the one draw is also B. So I can now move my tongue to the left, center it, and maybe pull a little bit of the tongue off so I’m only blocking two holes in the middle. I’m actually playing a note on the right and a note on the left of my mouth. Instead of just four draw (music), I can also play one draw at the same time (music), and play what we call octaves. Now I can take this phrase that originally started like this (music, and get a big sound (music) and you put all that together and you get something like this (music).

The technique of a harmonica is what I feel is the greatest blessing of the instrument, that you can take one note and present it in so many different ways with so many textures, and with those textures, adding rhythm (music).

We had a workshop this Saturday at School of the Blues, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the workshop is we took a couple of moments and made a big list of how many ways you could present one note on the harmonica. Without too much focus, without too much time really digging into the obscure techniques, we’re about 30 techniques, 30 different ways to play one note on the harmonica.

For the learner, that’s really the stages they go through as a learner. First we start with single notes, move around the harmonica. Then little by little, add the textures, add the tremolo, add the vibratos. What I do at bluesharmonica.com, for example, is I write study songs. These are blues songs that are fun to play on the harmonica that are full length: seven choruses, two to three and a half minute instrumentals. Each study song focuses on different techniques. As they continue to progress, they more and more sound like the great players like our great Little Walters and Big Walter Hortons and Sonny Boy Williamsons and such. It’s fun to guide the students through that.

Christopher: Super cool. Thank you. That was a fantastic demonstration and explanation. I have to admit to having a kind of personal ulterior motive with inviting you on the show. I am a former blues harmonica player myself. I say former, I stopped really playing it, but I still play.

David: Sure.

Christopher: It just made me keenly aware that if you’ve never played a harmonica or tried to learn it, you hear it and you know there are multiple notes being played, and maybe you try a harmonica and you realize, “Oh, okay. I can play multiple notes at once.” And that’s kind of where your perception ends. You figure, “Okay, they’re just shoving it in their mouth, moving it around.” I won’t say rude things about Bob Dylan, but some people, that is how they play harmonica. It seems like there’s not a lot of thought going into exactly what notes are sounding when. They ultimately sketch out the melody idea by moving their mouth around. After a couple of years really learning harmonica, I understood a fraction of what you were just talking through, which is there is great intention behind each and every note being played, and a rich technique that allows you to explore those possibilities.

David: Yeah. There’s two things that come to mind before we move on to the next thought. Thanks for bringing that up, and Bob Dylan’s interesting conversation. Studying harmonica players, yeah, we don’t study Bob Dylan. There isn’t anything in there that we would strive for. But the funny thing is, and I think this is important for your listeners too. When we listen to Bob Dylan’s music, his harmonica playing, though we wouldn’t consider it to be something to study, or high level, it was exactly the right thing for that music. That’s one of the wonderful things about playing any musical instrument, especially in a folk style, in an idiom that is a tradition of listen, copy and use, is folk music is rough. It is rough around the edges. It’s not polished, and that’s part of the charm and part of the realism and part of what allows us to immerse ourselves in the music.

When we listen to Bob Dylan, as sloppy as it, again, from a harmonica player who is studying the harmonica and music, is, it is exactly the right music to play with his … It has exactly the right mood, the right feel. There’s many singers out there and guitar players, for example, who’ll add harmonica as a second instrument, and it works. Even though we don’t study it, it’s something that works.

Sometimes, especially as a teacher early on in my first decade of teaching, I didn’t quite get that. When a student would bring in a song of a inferior harmonica player, I would just laugh at him, say, “Ah, you don’t want to study that.” I had to remind myself, “You know what, this gave them goosebumps at some point. To them, this is pretty happening music.” It took me a while to realize, yeah, music doesn’t have to be “technical” to be great. I’d often tell them, say, “You know, we’re going to study this. We’re going to learn a melody, we’re going to learn a song, and in the end, that’s going to be great, play one of the songs that inspired you on the harmonica. We’re of course going to take it to the next level.”

The funny thing is, me as a professional harmonica player, if I was to play to Bob Dylan’s music, if it was Bob Dylan and me playing, I’d probably ruin it. It’ll be too polished. It’ll lose that folky feel that was so good.

To your other point about the technique, man. I think vocal instructors and vocalists who are taking lessons can really relate, because everything is hidden. It is a blind person’s instrument. The tongue is responsible for all good and evil on the harmonica. If the note doesn’t sound good, your tongue’s in the wrong place. The harmonica is very much affected by your tongue location because the location of the tongue in your mouth tunes your mouth and the reeds will either like where your tongue is or not like where your tongue is, to make it simple, without getting too much into the deep science.
Bending has to do with tuning your mouth. The slaps, the pulls, the flutters, the octaves, all has to do with the tongue on the face of the harmonica. The vibrato, the tongue’s moving. It needs to move to be able to affect pitch. If you move your tongue on purpose, the vibrato won’t happen. It has to be moved by the throat opening and closing. There’s so much going on inside the mouth. As a teacher and a student, we really have to listen very carefully. As a teacher, I’m kind of seeing a side profile of them and how their muscles are working and how their skin’s moving and such like that. Between that and the sounds, I’m intuiting what’s going on in the mouth and where their tongue is.

It is definitely what makes the harmonica, if you can play it well, you can be proud of yourself because it takes really a lot of work and a lot of patience to be able to do all of these crazy techniques and again, that brings us back to the beginning. If it were an easy instrument, I think I would have left it long ago. Still playing this instrument for over 30 years, I still find some really cool things that I wasn’t aware before that you can do on this instrument, and of course different styles, like my good friend Joe Filisko. He can play all eras of blues fantastically, but he is especially known as being the world’s leading expert in pre-war blues harmonica. The stuff that he does, from copying the artists of that era and also the innovations that he’s made in his own technique and his own original work, I hear new stuff every time. He just sent me, I received today a new album of his. I’m listening to it and I’m like, “Man. Joe.” He’s taken it to new heights.

Christopher: So, a couple of thoughts on that, coming back to that vision of you as a 14 year old, or 14, 16, listening, and trying to figure this stuff out by ear, two questions. One is, if you were deep into that, like early blues music, like 50’s or Delta blues kind of stuff, was it all as sophisticated and complex harmonica playing as you just demonstrated it can be, or was that something that’s more modern and kind of clever and evolved over decades? The second question is, if it can be that complex to figure out harmonica by ear, is there anything that makes it easier, compared with another instrument, say piano or guitar?

David: Good questions. The harmonica was really mastered by the 1950’s. There are some new techniques that have come along, and I’ll speak about that in a moment, but the harmonica, the sounds you hear, for example, John Lee Williamson doing Sonny Boy II Rice Miller, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, George Harmonica Smith, the stuff that you hear them play, which we generally consider to be close to our blues harmonica. John Lee Williamson, he’s the transition person from pre-war blues. Pre-war blues, a good example would be Deford Bailey. The wonderful thing is I know your listeners can just go onto YouTube and type in Deford Bailey and they can listen to it. Yeah, when you’re out there listening to this interview, take a listen to Deford Bailey. Then listen to John Lee Williamson a little bit. You’re hearing a change of the style. Then listen to Little Walter, and you can hear the influence of John Lee Williamson in Little Walter. Now Little Walter has a very sophisticated, urban sound. By the time we get to the mid-50’s, pretty much everything has been done on the harmonica.

An interesting thing, I mentioned Joe Filisko and pre-war blues. There are techniques that were lost at the time. Even some of the basic techniques, like that technique of a slap. I told you that that’s the default way that a Blues harmonica player presents a single note. My books were the first to even mention that. It was kind of lost to the world. The blues players that are professional players today, and have been around during that time, of course it wasn’t lost to them. I was teaching workshops all around the country. I was teaching these tongue-blocking techniques, the slaps and such that are the cornerstone of blues harmonica. Everyone’s like, “Oh, wow. That’s how you make that sound.” It’s interesting the way the harmonica is played to perform these techniques. In the early days of teaching workshops, in the early 90’s, it just wasn’t known. Players were pursing their lips as if they were sucking on a straw to play the harmonica, and that’s not how you get the blues harmonica sounds, at least those textural sounds that we hear these players using and that I was demonstrating.
The techniques were known, but interestingly, from the education perspective, they weren’t known. What’s neat about the pre-war stuff, just probably over the last 10 plus years, players who are studying harmonica, players who are just starting to become aware of some of the cool things that pre-war players were doing. Again that gets down to Joe Filisko starting to bring that to the harmonica players’ consciousness.

What was your second question, I’m sorry?

Christopher: If the blues music you were trying to figure out by ear can be sort of sophisticated in some of the techniques, was there anything in terms of the harmonica, that made it easier for you compared with another instrument?

David: The sophisticated technique, no. I think one of the nice things about the harmonica, for anyone who’s interested in learning an instrument, is that it is a major diatonic harmonica. If we define that, let’s go backwards. Harmonica, that’s the easy thing, that’s what the instrument’s named. So major diatonic harmonica. Diatonic is a system that uses five whole steps, two half steps for our theory geeks. Major is the mode that it is played in. If we say C major diatonic harmonica, we start on C.

That has all the information in there, but we don’t have to think about that because you just blow. If I grab my harmonica again, and I open my mouth and don’t put my tongue on the harmonica, I get a nice chord (music). I draw, I inhale into the harmonica, I get another nice chord (music). Even if you don’t know anything about music but you can breathe (music) you can make music. You can think of that as like the rhythm guitarist or the snare drum. Creating a nice rhythm (music).

Then little by little developing the skill to play single notes, and even if you can’t play single notes (music), you can hear the melody in there. We’re all around music enough to be able to see (music), “Oh yeah, I can figure out these melodies by ear.” (music) As your single notes get better (music), all the right notes are there and none of the wrong notes are there.

That really is nice. It’s kind of like a teacher going into their earlier grades and working with kids for the first time in music, and they use these educator bells. Instead of being a full length xylophone for example, which has all the notes just like a piano keyboard. This instructor pulls out these little tone blocks that have these tone bars that are on top. They’ll hand out the bars that actually sound good. “I’m going to give you this C note and this D note and this E note and this G.” They’re able to orchestrate it. They can bang away, but they’re not going to play any “wrong” notes. The harmonica is that way.

The next level is, “Okay, just because you aren’t going to play any wrong notes, does that mean you’re playing the right notes at the right time?” That’s the next step, is building musicality. From there, then you start noticing there’s a lot of different things going on besides just the notes, and maybe simple two note combinations and shakes, trills where you move between two notes.

That’s really where the study begins, and that’s been my lifelong passion to figure out what these players, and even myself … There’s so many techniques that just happened in me, my subconscious mind, figuring out, and pretty much all the great blues harmonica players of today, minus the younger players who did have the books to learn from. Our bodies and minds figured out in a subconscious way and it was fun going through and figuring out, “Oh, yeah. My tongue was doing this, and it’s doing it here, and I wonder how other players do that.” That’s pretty much been my lifelong work is kind of codifying that, and then figuring out when’s the best time to teach this stuff, et cetera, et cetera.

What’s neat about it is you have this progression. You can have pretty immediate success with the harmonica, and you can take it as far as you wish to take it. Your okay plateau, that’s fine. Wherever that okay plateau is, there’s a lot of different levels in which that plateau can happen and we’ve got our lifelong learners of course like myself and yourself, on an instrument. You just keep on going down that path. You can be 80 years old and still be talking to someone and saying, “Yeah, I’m still learning new stuff on this instrument.”

Christopher: It was such an important thing for me personally, that diatonic aspect to the instrument. I had literally been learning music for 10 plus years by the time I picked up the harmonica and it’s safe to say that with saxophone, piano, guitar I had never been able to play by ear. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times on the show I think before that the harmonica was the first time I actually got that feeling of, “Oh wait, I can figure stuff out by ear.” A large part of it was because, like you’re saying, all the right notes are there for the most part. If we’re talking about simple folk songs or simple pop music. The right notes are there, the wrong notes are not. That makes it incredibly easier.

Of course any of my teachers on the other instruments could have explained to me how playing by ear based on the scale works and of course I could have discovered solfa and that kind of thing very early on, but I didn’t, because music education doesn’t really cover that stuff.

I’d love to circle back in a minute and talk about improv, as well as playing by ear because I think the diatonic thing comes into play there as well, and for me the harmonica was definitely a gateway to those worlds. Suddenly I didn’t have the overwhelm of piano keys and having to think carefully about what key I was in. I just kind of had something I could play around with and be mostly right most of the time.

David: I think that’s a great point and there are a lot of harmonica players who do come to it from another instrument. One of my students, for example, that comes to mind, he was a trumpet player, was a music major. He came to me, it was his first lesson. He said, “I don’t want to learn to read. As little as possible, do I want …” Even though I provide transcriptions and everything written down for my students. It’s not like we do everything by ear. I have everything written out. Actually, a lot of students like working with me because I do. He says, “I want to do everything, as much as possible, by ear. I went through the scholastic training. As my hobby, I want to do this by ear and explore that and enjoy this instrument in a different way.”

He did. Within about a year or two, as he started to develop his skills and little by little get more vocabulary and start improvising over the twelve-bar blues, I would increasingly see larger and larger smiles on his face. He specifically said one day, “You know what? I feel a connection with this instrument and the way in which I learned, but I have a freedom that I’ve never had on the trumpet. I’m able to express myself way better on this instrument with only two years of study compared to,” I think at that time was over twelve years of study on the trumpet.

I think it’s also interesting and positive for all of us music instructors to understand that there are different ways to focus the studies, even for someone who focuses on the reading music and the music theory, which I do that with my students as well, and following, especially like our jazz players. We’re focusing on the chords and the chord scales and really locked into how those work.

When I work with my jazz students, and I’ve even taught classes, like at San Jose State University for example, I very much enjoyed teaching a class to all jazz educators to show them how phrasing works in the blues and say, “Get your students to learn some basic licks. I’m going to show you how they can phrase with them without even thinking so much about the chords and the chord tones so they can get a first step into improvising that is intuitive and exciting. You can then little by little start approaching the chords and the chord scales and getting more technical.”

I think it is very valuable in all styles of music. For a style of music to “be a style,” there is vernacular, there is a language within that style. If someone focuses too much on the music theory and the technical side of things, you get a soloist and a result their solos are fairly bland. They’re musically correct, not inspired by the tradition.

If I have to be on a desert island, would I rather have a music theory book that taught me everything that I need to know, or would I want a Little Walter CD? Give me a Little Walter CD. Let me listen, copy and try to play. I might have some rough areas in my solo, playing over certain chords and such like that, but there’s some great value in that.
We try to find that balance between the two. The licks that are important and the idiom, how to phrase with those, and then also of course how to deal with the chord changes so that when we’re playing with other musicians, simply, we’re all playing the same notes together.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well I would like to circle back and maybe dig into that question a little bit more in a moment, but before that, we’ve mentioned blues a lot. Blues and harmonica go hand in hand to a large extent, kind of like sax and jazz. People just associate the two.

David: Very true.

Christopher: In your experience, do you think there are a lot of harmonica players who end up getting into the blues, or do you think there are a lot of blues bands who end up picking up the harmonica? What’s the balance for one bringing people to the other?

David: It’s probably both. I definitely get at my school … Well, I am School of the Blues, but I’m also a harmonica teacher, which is still to this day a pretty rare breed. I actually have to make a point when they come in. In the past, I used to just assume they want to learn blues. Then sometimes, a year later, they’d say, “No, actually blues is not my thing.” I’m like, “What?” So I make a point to say “What style inspires you?” Then I’ll tell them, let’s use the blues as a catalyst for that. There’s so much technique in the blues. They can apply that technique to any style that they wish. Once their technique starts to get stronger, then there’s a little reminder, in my head or in my notes for that student, that we need to start curving that lesson toward the style of music that inspires them.

One thing that’s pretty simple. I remember when heavy metal started coming around, the drummers really loved to play it because they had their double kicks. They got to play so much, and loudly, unfortunately. They got to get these big trap sets that were big and impressive. Players will definitely gravitate toward styles where they get a lot of play time. For blues, harmonica is not a side instrument. In country for example, country music has quite a bit of harmonica, but when you listen to country music, how long is that harmonica solo? Four bars. For the blues you get 24, 36. Harmonica is a feature instrument. We are on equal footing with the other musicians in the band and there are plenty of harmonica leaders out there. Singer harmonica players. A lot of them actually are more harmonica players than singers. They learned that to lead a band and have a viable career, they also need to sing.

There’s a lot of pictures on the wall behind me that are of famous harmonica players. When you listen to them, maybe only one or two of them on this wall are like, “Yeah, they’re great vocalists.” Harmonica players have equal footing in the blues. Because we get so much play time, the best players will gravitate towards the blues and that all helped to really raise the art form to have, again, so many of those techniques that we talked about, and allows me, as an instructor, to focus on instrumental song writing, for example.

How do we keep the interest of the listener for three to five minutes, for example? How do you tell that story? Especially with the harmonica. Remember, it’s a diatonic instrument. It is missing the other notes. Those other notes, those black keys on the keyboard are notes that add expression. We can regain some of those notes through the technique of bending, but it is not equivalent on each octave of a harmonica. We have a little instrument with missing notes, kind of like having a keyboard where your pulling out some white keys and almost all the black keys. Or a guitar where you break a string or two and pull out some frets. That’s what a harmonica player has to do. We not only are trying to phrase and play musically like other instruments that have all the notes available to them, we’re learning how to maneuver within an instrument with its limitations, which is also kind of fun.

Christopher: Stepping back from the harmonica, you are also an expert in blues music in general and I felt like you speak from the history of the blues, I feel like we could have a whole lot of separate fascinating conversations about the evolution of the blues. I wonder if you could just tackle the topic of the musical character of the blues and maybe some harmonica. In general, what is it that characterizes and defines blues as a genre, given that we’ve been talking so much about it, and if the listener only has a very limited idea of what blues music is or can be?

David: Sure. One thing is not all blues is sad. Blues encompasses of course very emotional, “blue” music, and we have notes that we call our blue notes. Those blue notes would be outside of our simple major scale, do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. Our basic scale. We have some notes, some black keys on the keyboard, that help to bring in tension to the music. That tension is part of our reality, part of our existence on this planet. What blues is using those notes for is to build tension, and then you release that tension within your phrases. It’s this graceful dance of building tension to evoke emotion and to release that tension. It is a folk style and a folk style uses more repetition than, say, other styles of music. Repetition is key. When you listen to jazz and blues, a very strong characteristic of the blues is that there is more repetition.

Like jump and swing blues, for example, or early jazz music, early swing music if you’re a jazz man. You listen back to that and there’s a lot of repetitive type of phrases. That happens in the blues. We’re using this repetition to draw the listener in. We’re using these “blue” notes to add emotion to our music. A good overall statement for blues musicians is we want less notes but more tone and more feeling in those notes.
As I was recently working with one of my jazz saxophonists to teach him how to improvise in the blues, I was pretty consistently saying less notes. What he was playing was wonderful. He was actually playing some really wonderful phrases in the blues. And I told him that, said, “I really like what you’re playing.” I was trying to teach him phrasing, and what was happening was one of the phrasing types in the blues, if you play a line that’s say four bars long, and you repeat that three times. C jam blues would be a good example, for our jazz musicians out there. You play this line, and the problem was he was playing too much in his opening four bars. He couldn’t remember it to repeat it two more times.

One of the things is, that we try to do is bring it down to the essence, then adding as much tone and feeling as possible into the music. Of course blues can be very active as well, but I would say that’s a general tenet of blues is one note played beautifully with great tone and emotion is better than a thousand without.

Christopher: Amazing. That’s really well explained I think it comes back to what you were saying before also, about instrumental song writing. It gives people a glimpse into what goes into crafting a compelling solo in a blues context or any context, I think, for an instrumentalist.

You gave us a sense of how you might approach teaching improv I think when you talked about the importance of the vernacular of particular styles. On this podcast before, we talked a little bit about different schools of thought when it comes to improvising and learning to improvise, some of which is very theory-based and you’re following rules and making sure your notes are always ticking the boxes. Others are heavily into memorizing vocab or some of the jazz, where you’d really study the greats and transcribe by ear and that is then your palette for improvising with.

Across the spectrum of Musical U, we lean more toward the approach where you develop your ear, getting to the point where you can imagine anything you want to, and then translate that onto your instrument. I’d love to hear your perspective and how you help your students, if you take a harmonica player, for example who is intermediate in terms of technique, but they’ve never done any improvisation before. How would you guide them, and what parts of what I just mentioned would be a part of your approach?

David: All great questions, and I would say that’s my most common student. Of course I work with beginning and advanced. I have many students who are currently with me who have their own CD’s and such who are still trying to take their playing to the next level but the bulk of them are players who have learned on their own, which would be through books and maybe now online training, picked up some stuff by ear, and they feel like they can move around the instrument pretty well, and they sound okay but after playing one or two times around the form, they feel like they run out of ideas very quickly.

Here’s what I would first say to the student and the students out there. The most important element in music is repetition. If you don’t repeat anything, you’re telling the listener that nothing you’re playing is worth remembering. If what you’re playing is not worth remembering, that means it’s forgettable, and who wants to play a forgettable solo?

Repetition is key. We need to give the listener a melody, something to grab onto. We’re not dumbing it down. We’re just giving them something that they can appreciate. It’s just like having a conversation, and you’re having a conversation with someone who’s talking about a subject matter you have no reference to whatsoever. It goes on and on and on. It’s not engaging, because they’re not engaging you in a way, or using examples in a way that will help you to get it and to be part of this moment.

That’s the most important thing to understand, especially if you grew up in an era like I did where you had guitar solos that were flashy and going crazy or at least seemed that way. Actually when you go back and listen to some of them, you start to realize, “Wow, they’re using a lot more repetition than I would have thought as well.”

People will remember the peripherals, the highest notes, the lowest notes, the loudest notes, the first things, the last things. It’s repetition that’s most important. A good example would be study phrasing. Of course licks are very important because, again, those are your words. Let’s use language for example. We start with gobbledygook. That’s the way a lot of soloists start. Especially if they make a point not to listen to the great masters that came before them. When people come in and say “I don’t really want to study that because I want to have my own voice,” it’s a voice that nobody wants to listen to. It just doesn’t make any sense. You can imagine a child out in the woods not able to have a conversation with any of the masters of the language that came before them, they’re not going to be saying anything.

What we do as children is that we learn these words. We make mistakes along the way in how we pronounce certain things, and our diction’s not quite right, but we get corrected over time. These are our teachers helping us along the way, or as you develop your own ear, you realize, “Hmm. That’s not exactly the way it should go.”

Vocabulary is very important. We do need these words. And we think about an early language speaker, they’re not able to create very good sentences at first. That’s where I focus. I have an early learner who has some words. They’ve studied some songs. If they haven’t I say, “You need to start having a voracious appetite for learning songs, whether you’ve memorized them or not. Memorize the ones that are important to you, but making sure that you’re spending a lot of time learning the songs. Learning licks or full instrumentals for example that have a lot of cool licks in your style of music, whatever that may be.”

Here’s a good example of studying phrasing. In the blues you might play a lick and there’s a little bit of time left in the first line and you throw a little filler there. That doesn’t mean anything to the listener, because you haven’t told them it means anything. It’s just ear candy so far. Let’s say you go to the next line. There’s three lines in the blues.

The blues is twelve bars long. There’s four beats in each bar, so 48 beats total. Twelve bars, and we divide those twelve bars into three lines of four bars. You can think of it as like a vocal line. “I’m so sad and lonely, lonely as I can be.” Then it repeats for the second line, “I’m so sad and lonely, lonely as I can be.” The last line brings it home. “Cuz my baby left me, left me in misery.” Obviously I’m a harmonica player, not a singer. You can get the idea that’s an AAB type of rhyme scheme.

Anyway, I play a lick, on the first line there’s a little bit of time so I through a filler in there. Doesn’t mean anything to the listener. The next line, I’m going to repeat that first lick. We’ll call that People’s Exhibit A. You repeat your A lick. Now they’re like, “Oh yeah, I remember that lick.” They can’t hum it yet because you haven’t repeated it enough for them to really internalize it, but yeah, there’s some familiarity there.

Then you change your fill. Remember there’s a little fill at the very end of the first line? You change it, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. I like how he went up there and did that.” You just set them up to hear repetition. You just set them up because they’re hearing you repeat and they’re expecting you to repeat the whole thing. So you surprised them a little bit.

The last line, you repeat the lick again. Now they’re starting to hum it because it’s the third time they heard it. Now they’re thinking, “You know what? You changed at the end of that last line. I wonder where he’s going to go now?” Now you’ve engaged them.
We have what turns from ear candy, good sounding music, to something they can start to get into the conversation. A little bit of surprise, because you changed the end of the lick. Now they’re really brought in, the third time they heard it. Now there’s anticipation. That’s the full engagement. Whether this is conscious or subconscious … It’s subconscious, right? In the listeners mind. We have two part of our mind: our conscious mind which is talking to itself. It’s your analysis of what’s going on at the moment. There’s the subconscious mind, which is analyzing a lot more stuff.

Who knows what makes the music that we like? What are the elements that are in the music that we like. Of course repetition’s going to be an important part of that, among other things. Obviously it’ll be different for other people. Some people like to have strong beats, some people like to have very dissonant music because there’s something cool about that. Some people like music that’s more lighthearted, less dissonance, more notes relative to the chord, for example. Not so much of those tension or blue notes.

What we just did, was in twelve bars, what we call one chorus in the blues, and a common instrumental might have seven to nine choruses, you’ve created this little composition that is in the subconscious mind of the listener, they’re following along and they’re being able to have this enjoyment because you’re helping them to get it and to also have these little surprises and thinking about where the music’s going to go next.
What’s nice about this too is it does take a style of music, the blues, which is a mystery, or jazz, which is a mystery, and says, “You know, this is pretty cool. If I play one lick, and then throw a couple notes at the end, I repeat that lick and move down my instrument, throw another couple of notes at the end of it, and then change it, I really only have one, two main licks, and two or three little supporting licks and I can now play twelve bars.

There’s five common ways. That’s one example of how to phrase in the 12 bar blues. There’s five common ways. The first one is just playing the same lick three times. It’s like, “Wow, I can just know one lick, and I just played one chorus.” That’s what’s so exciting for blues musicians and jazz musicians too who are using the blues as a foundation for their improvising which is always a good place to start, and most people do start.

You’re now connecting the vocabulary. Hey, I can take these and like movable parts like legos in your set, you can build something easily with that. That’s a good entry point and it’s something that stays with you the rest of your life as a musician, because, really, it’s not just an entry point. That’s good song writing. That’s what we use as professional players to engage the listener. Each chorus has its own theme, its own A lick. A lot of times song writing can be as simple as having maybe six or seven really cool licks that fit over, say, a certain jam track or a groove that you’ve been working with, and using this, what I call, chorus forms, this concept of repetition, using this to kind of help guide your thoughts. After a little bit of work, you’ve got an instrumental. Phrasing is where I put most of my time.

Christopher: Man, that was like a little mini master class in improvising. The beauty of a podcast is that everyone can pause now, rewind and listen to that all again, because there was a ton there, I think for any instrument and probably for any stage you’re at for improvising. Plenty of ideas there that you can apply immediately. Wow, thank you for that, David.

David: My pleasure. I love talking about this, obviously.

Christopher: I am always quick to recommend the harmonica as a starter instrument for people, even though as we’ve touched on, it’s certainly far from simple if you really get into it. I think it’s probably clear why at this point there is such rich depth to it, but it also has this kind of diatonic playground for you that can make a lot of the ear skills and ear developments easier, or at least give you a head start.

I would love if you could provide some pointers, if someone’s listening to this, and maybe they’ve been playing a different instrument for years, or maybe they’re listening and thinking about starting playing an instrument for the first time. If they want to buy their first harmonica and get started, what would you recommend? How can they make sure they do it in a smart way?

David: Sounds good. There’s a couple options. One, the C harmonica’s very common. I like the Hohner Marine Band, very specifically the Crossover model, or the Marine Band Deluxe. Those are wonderful instruments. The harmonica I was using was the Marine Band harmonica, actually customized by Joe Filisko, the same person I mentioned before. A very talented musician, and believe it or not, yes, you can customize harmonicas. You can take anything in this world and make it better, for those who are way into it, right?

Anyway, the Hohner Marine Band Crossover, or Marine Band Deluxe is fantastic. Where that’s great, you can spend, the Crossover for example, I think street price is about $85.00. You can get a professional instrument for 85 bucks. That’s a great thing, to be able to get started with an instrument and not have to spend so much money. You can even spend as little as $40.00 for a Hohner Special 20, and get started with a very high quality instrument.

The C harmonica, if you are coming from another style of music, with the C harmonica, the nice thing is you can just think relative to the C scale. There’s no flats, there’s no sharps, and that’s easier to deal with.

When I teach on my website, bluesharmonica.com, I might use the A harmonica. The only reason is it’s the most common harmonica. They’ll learn this later, but the A harmonica actually plays in a different key, it’s called second position or cross harp. That plays in the key of E, and that’s our most common blues key.

The harmonicas come in different keys. Some are higher pitch, some are lower. The A harmonica has a really nice, mellow sound. Also, the techniques we learn on your first harmonica, especially bending, you’ll tend to do best on that key. You’ll feel most comfortable on the key of harmonica that you learn those techniques on. Why not learn that technique on the most common harmonica, the A.

I guess I’m giving two different recommendations. If you’re going to study with me, for example, on bluesharmonica.com, I’d get the A harmonica for those reasons. If you’re a music student and are interested in using something that’s maybe a little easier to think on, then probably a C harmonica would be a smart choice.

An important thing is to get the embouchure dialed in first. When people see the little holes in the harmonica, and they purse their lips up to be able to play that single note, again, like they’re sucking on a straw, that’s all they have as their reference. They see a little hole and like, “How am I going to get just one of them?” They pucker their lips up.
There’s nothing wrong with that. You can definitely play the harmonica that way, and actually I did for quite a long time, for a couple years until I learned about this tongue blocking thing, and there are great players out there who play with that style, but there’s more technique available to you in the tongue block embouchure. For the new harmonica players out there, explore the tongue block embouchure. That’s where, again, you’re having your mouth larger. More of a harmonica in your mouth, which is also very good for tone. We want our mouth large because our mouth cavity is the resonant chamber of the harmonica, just like the wood body box of the guitar is the resonant chamber for the guitar. Big mouth is good. Then you’re placing your tongue on the left to cover the holes that you don’t want to play, and using a light touch of course. You don’t want to push or create tension on any instrument that you play.

I would explore, and make sure you’re getting this tongue embouchure down. It’ll feel a little strange at first, but like any instrument, when you play clarinet you’re going to be squeaking and squawking. It takes a couple of months not to sound like an injured goose. The same thing for trumpet or other mouthpiece instruments where it’s kind of the same thing. Have your expectations in check for the first couple of months. You can move around the harmonica but it’ll take a little while to get used to the embouchure and playing single notes.

I’d say that would be a good focus. Learn how to play those single notes. Learn how to isolate getting those single notes and the tongue block embouchure so that you can explore the harmonica and play folk melodies and such. If you are having fun with the instrument, and you want to take it to the next step, that’s where you start studying in earnest, figuring out or studying the process of learning the cool sounds the harmonica has to offer. At first, it can be an exploratory thing. I would definitely research the embouchure thing to make sure you get started on the right foot.

Christopher: Cool. Great advice there, and I wish you could have given me advice in my 20’s because I definitely went down the pucker embouchure route for a while there before realizing why so many people did it the other way. I also wish you could have had your website, bluesharmonica.com up and running sort of at 2005, 2006, which I think predates it.

David: Yeah.

Christopher: I had a blast learning harmonica but a lot of it was helpful and some lessons with one of the few in-person teachers in my area in the UK at the time. Looking at your website now, it’s a phenomenal resource. I wonder if you could just tell listeners a little bit about what you offer there and how that can factor into the journey you just described?

David: Sure. The interesting thing about the harmonica, and you bring this up about education, you were in a time where actually books were available and there were some teachers out there who knew a little bit about the harmonica. When I started, there weren’t any books on the harmonica, for blues harmonica, at least teaching the techniques that we blues musicians use.

That was why I started writing the material, and I was very fortunate to get published by Mel Bay Publications. My first book was Building Harmonica Technique, then Classic Chicago Blues Harp and now to this day, close to 70 books, CD’s and DVD’s. They really were very supportive and there’s a lot of material out there. People, if they’re interested in learning the harmonica, they can look at the Mel Bay website, melbay.com, and then type in David Barrett, and it has my books there.

The nice thing about the website … By the time I started the website, which I started work on the website around 2007 in earnest, and it released in December of 2009. I put a lot of time before even releasing the website because by that time, I’d already written a tremendous amount of material. It was both exciting and daunting to say, “Okay, I’m going to write everything over again. How am I going to approach this? How am I going to make this better?” The wonderful thing about online education, as you know, with Musical U, is that you have so many different ways in which to convey the information that you want to convey. For a music teacher it’s fantastic.

What I do is I write my study songs for the students, etudes for our classical students, our study songs. I provide recordings for them, MP3 recordings at full tempo, 15% slow, 30% slow, and then the jam track, once they’re able to play along.

I give them the PDF of the harmonica music, both in standard music notation for those who read standard music notation, and tablature. Tablature shows you which hole to blow or draw upon.

In the lessons, then, I can walk them through in the video, teaching them the technique, what the focus of the study song is. What technique are you going to be able to play well by the time you’re able to finish the study song. Then I walk them through the individual choruses of the study song.

I also teach them how to play with a band, for example. A lot of harmonica players want to go to jam sessions, so I teach them what’s the speech you give to the other musicians.
I also have interviews with today’s great harmonica players that talk about those techniques. For example, if you’re just learning how to bend, of course I’ll give you all the information that I can for you. Then, what do these great harmonica players have to say about bending? I have a very large catalog of interviews, so you get to hear what Gary Primich, or Kim Wilson or Rod Piazza or Charlie Musselwhite have to say about bending. It really adds a lot of perspective, besides me as your core instructor, to be able to hear what other players did, what challenges others had.

What’s fun about the website is I get to cover a lot of other stuff too that’s in support, like performance training classes, equipment, for people who want to learn how to work on the harmonicas, to amplifiers and mics. I have students, for example, my wife Sharon Barrett, she actually takes lessons with me at bluesharmonica.com. She’s done five submissions so far, and she’s doing fantastic. I have my three HD cameras on, we have our lipo mix on and we’re in the room that I’m actually recording this interview in. People will get to watch Sharon go through the learning process from being a brand spanking new beginner in harmonica, and walk through that same material. There’s also [Hob Visole 01:02:04], another student. They have two students that they can also watch go through the same material and they get to see their progress and hear their questions and answers.

What I try to do is just immerse the student, almost as if they were going to a school where they had interaction with the other students, and having these lessons where people can watch Sharon and Hob go through their lessons. It creates that experience. There’s as much as someone would want to have, or as little as they need. That’s what I love about the online learning process. Anyway, that’s bluesharmonica.com. It’s a subscription basis, so they pay a certain fee each month. What’s nice too is when they’re done with their study songs, they can record it, they can send it to me and I’ll go ahead and critique them. It’s all part of the low monthly fee.

Christopher: Awesome. I was saying to you, just before we hit record that I still always travel with an A and D harmonica, wherever I go in the world. The things you’ve talked about have rebolstered my enthusiasm. I’m definitely not allowed to take my focus away from learning drums at the moment. I might do it anyway because you provide such a fantastic roadmap for people there, and really great resources and support. I may well be signing up myself and turning my attention to the blues harmonica.

David: Hey, fantastic.

Christopher: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you also have an in-person school, School of the Blues in San Jose. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s on offer there?

David: Sure. School of Blues in San Jose California is the only school in the world that focuses on blues. In 2000 I thought, I want to bring other blues instructors together and to be able to provide an experience for our students that isn’t just … What I saw the problem was, actually I managed a music store for six years, is students would come in to their lesson, into these little cereal box size lesson studios. Then they would walk out.

At the place I was managing, we had 21 instructors. I would always think, if this instructor and this instructor and this instructor got together and made a point, like on a monthly basis, to get the students together, they could learn to jam together and create relationships and go to each other’s houses and play music. I wanted to provide an atmosphere, a community, that I saw which could be, with a little bit of effort, easily done. That’s what School of the Blues did and does. I teach harmonica and improvising. We also work with bands that take their skills to the next level.

We currently have harmonica, guitar, bass, drums. We don’t have any vocal or piano instructors on site, but if people live local to the San Jose area, we can help recommend them. If you’re a harmonica player out there, or any of the other instruments, and want to fly in and do some fly-in lessons, we also offer that. They can contact us through our website.

At the school we do our private lessons. We also record the lessons. For all the students out there, if you don’t do this already, and you’re working with a private instructor, record your lessons. I feel it’s so important. When I took lessons with Gary Smith, remember I brought that boom box and recorded it. Man, I wore those tapes out. I knew, even at 16 years old, that if I didn’t have that tape recorder, I would have probably only got about five percent value out of that lesson. I provide, actually, a digital recording. Students bring in the thumb drive. At the end of every lesson, here’s our whole lesson. Some students have been with me for over 20 years. It just depends on how far people want to take their music. At that time I was recording on tapes, eventually CD’s. I’ve got ginormous stacks and CD’s from my lessons.

What that allows them to do is to go home, listen to the lesson, make little notes. “Okay, at 20 minutes in, this is an important thing,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Really dive into their lessons. There, a little sidetrack. If you’re out there taking private music lessons, which I hope a lot of you are, or hopefully you have access to it, or if you’re even taking Skype lessons. Figure out a way to record it so that you can review that. You’re going to get a lot more from your lessons.

Besides that we do … Actually, tonight, is a [Hut 01:06:12] night at School of the Blues. Every fifth week, Tuesday, we get together with the students. It’s a social thing. We play a little bit. We do jam sessions every month. We do student concerts every six months.
We even have house bands, for teachers out there who are listening to this, one of the fun things you can do if you have enough students of various instruments is we actually put bands together. We have two house bands. They go through a training program.

They get together once a month and work with, right now Frank DeRose, who’s our bass instructor. We walk them through the process. What it means to be in a band. How to chart songs. How to choose songs. They actually provide the backing for other students at the jam sessions. Our two house bands get six months of intense playing as a band together, and also backing the students of School of the Blues. They do a set at the student concert and also back the other students. Then we start a new rotation.

For those instructors out there who have multiple instruments, this is a great way to get your students engaged and involved. For me, that’s the type of community that I wanted School of the Blues to be. What started this, what would I want? What would my 14 year old self want? At my 45 year old self, what opportunities can I offer the students? More so, to me it feels like an obligation is that as we as music educators have been around long enough, we have enough connections to be able to help the next generation of players, whatever the age may be. It’s not just a business thing. It’s a giving back thing in the music world. We have the ability to offer experiences and opportunities to our students, and we should definitely do that. That’s what I feel. School of the Blues is an embodiment of that.

Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us today, David. You’ve been so generous with your insights and wisdom and I have no doubt you have inspired in all of our listeners, a new appreciation and enthusiasm for both the harmonica and blues, as well as sharing a ton of insight on improv. A big thank you, and we’ll definitely be recommending, if you want to check out the show notes to visit bluesharmonica.com, and also School of the Blues if they happen to be in San Jose, or planning to visit. I’m sure they might now want to. A big thank you again, David.

David: Thank you, Christopher. It was my pleasure to be on The Musicality Podcast.

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The post What You May Not Know About Blues Harmonica, with David Barrett appeared first on Musical U.