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It's All About the Tongue
Publishing at 77
Notes on the Harmonica: It’s All About the Tongue
As my twin granddaughters’ birthday approached, I became wistful wondering how I’d be remembered. Would they treasure the great times we’ve had; hold dear to those moments from past celebrations? What could I do to make this upcoming event memorable?
I formulated a simple plan: learn how to play one song on the harmonica for the party. I picked Neil Young’s instrument for a reason—his song, “Harvest Moon” had been our song.
We’re dancing, melded together, to a solo on the French harp. I never want the song to end. In his arms, late September, the vibrato thrumming through my body. While I can never recreate the rapture, the chromatic sound might bring back the joy.
I didn’t own a harmonica, but I had three months before their birthday. I’d pick one up online and start tomorrow. How hard could it be? You just blow in it and a chord comes out, right?
My first caution came from a friend, a gifted musician, not just a plunker like me, who said,
“Um, a harmonica is a hard instrument to learn.”
Fodder right there for a perfectionist who was always looking for a challenge.
I joined an on-line class taught by the maker of the harmonica. Why I ever thought all you had to do was blow into the left side to get one cord, and the right side to get another, could only have come from putting one to my lips as a kid and blowing while brushing the plastic back and forth, humming into it just to be make sure it sounded like a real song.
All those holes you see on the face of the instrument comprise the notes. Using the lips and tongue, you blow air through the holes that contain at least one reed. Think about this: to hit a specific note, your tongue must cover up all the holes except the one you want to play. I’m talking tongue dexterity.
Always trying to connect learning to increasing longevity and health, I figure these oral exercises are going to prove to be an asset at a yet to be determined time in my life. I may be in my seventies, but you never know when an opportunity to use a new tongue skill might arise.
One afternoon as I was practicing, I started getting lightheaded. Then the realization hit me how much pressure I was putting on my lungs. So, I stopped for a few minutes, took some shallower breaths, and went right back at it.
Because I was inhaling and exhaling against resistance, lung volume increased. I later learned President Ronald Reagan used the harmonica as a therapeutic exercise after being shot and experiencing a punctured lung. Long-haul Covid patients too might improve pulmonary strength from the deep breathing required.
As the party date loomed, my play was marginal. If we had a lot of people singing, it might have sounded passable. I know the girls didn’t really care how well I played—they wanted me there because they weren’t yet old enough to be embarrassed by their Nina blowing in a mouth harp.
Unfortunately, my mind conjured up visions of a strap around my neck as I stepped up to the microphone, dropped my lips to the mouth organ, my fans looking on in awe. Why did I always have to go to a place of perfection? This needed to be about fun, celebrating with family, and maybe my granddaughters remembering the time Grandma pulled a harmonica out of her jeans, put her lips to the metal, and blew out the strains of—is that—yes, I believe it is—Happy Birthday to you!
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Remember, There’s No Expiration on Dreams,
Trish McDonald is the author of Paper Bags, a story published by Woodhall Press about a woman who learns how to live and love in spite of her fears.