Harmonica Education – Courses for Chromatic and Diatonic Players

Finally, it is possible to study for a music degree. This is thanks to Gianluca Littera who has designed a syllabus for chromatic harmonica at a Music Conservatory in Rome, Italy – see end for more details.

This has been wanted for a long time and here is a summary of what I think has been tried in the past.

When Hohner established its first London headquarters in 1930, the new Managing Director, Dr Otto Meyer, realised that clubs and tuition were necessary to grow the two main sides of the business, accordion and harmonica. In 1935 he set up what became known the British College of Accordionists which produced the first draft of the BCA syllabus, now recognised as the standard of accordion achievement. Although it was discussed, no formal educational course was set up for the harmonica despite the recruitment of Captain James Reilly as Musical Director, the publishing of many tuition books and the establishment of a music school in Trossingen, Germany.

To award degrees three things are needed – an agreed syllabus, qualified teachers, and independent, respected examining body. In the UK, discussions with music colleges were unsuccessful. There is still no grade system for harmonica like those for piano, guitar etc… This may be a reason why the harmonica is often thought of as an inferior instrument or toy by other musicians.

Several exceptional students have been granted degrees by top Music Schools, after completing their normal study courses, but harmonica teachers have had to be co-opted to provide the teaching and evaluation required. Philip Achille graduated from the Royal College of Music in London, and Filip Jers graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. Some harmonica players have been able to participate in courses which focus on the music being studied, such as jazz, rather than the instrument.

There have been other attempts to establish a formal education process on a more permanent basis. In 2005 the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts launched the world’s first examination system for the study of chromatic harmonica with Yasuo Watani and Douglas Tate as examiners. This included distance, online assessment for the lower levels and in person examination for the higher levels. Unfortunately, this was stopped after a few years.

In recent years the development of the Internet has resulted in many uncontrolled teaching sites springing up, especially for diatonic harmonicas. This has been useful for beginners and for improving performance, but few have established any formal examination standards. Dave Barrett is probably the most established with his Levels of Achievement system. Rock School Ltd (RSL) have shown an interest in extending their teaching activities to instruments like the harmonica.

I am aware of two recent attempts to set up a university course for chromatic harmonica players. In 2022, Dr. George Miklas announced a brand-new course at the University of Lynchburg, USA, where college students can now study the harmonica for an applied music credit.

The most comprehensive approach I have seen is a degree course for chromatic harmonica players running at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome, established and directed by Gianluca Littera. You can learn more about Gianluca, the syllabus and how this was developed by reading my blog page about it.

Captain James Reilly, RMSM

Captain J. Reilly, R.M.S.M. (1886-1956)

Copyright – David Reilly

Captain Reilly was a conductor and taught trumpet at The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, London. Immediately after WW1, he moved to Canada to become the bandmaster of the 153rd Wellington Battalion Band that was stationed in Guelph. His son, Tommy Reilly, was born there in 1919. He set up a jazz and concert band for the military and then he took charge of the Elgin County Military band. In the late 1920s, James Reilly moved to the Elmdale Public School in St Thomas, Ontario. He was very successful and his orchestra, accordion and harmonica bands won many prizes – more here.

In the early 1930s, Captain Reilly wrote to Dr Meyer, who was head of Hohner (UK), asking if he could bring the Elmdale School harmonica band to play concerts in England. Unfortunately this was not possible.

Later, when Dr Meyer and Charles Millard were discussing setting up an organisation for harmonica players in the UK, which became “Harmonica Song Band League”, they realised that they needed a good musician who could write the necessary tutors, arrangements for bands, and supervise the training of groups which were being formed by Mr. Millard. They approached Captain Reilly about their plans for forming the National Harmonica Song Band League (HSB) and it was agreed that he was the man who could develop the musical side of it. History proved them right.

James Riley - The Right Way to Play Book

Capt. Reilly returned to the UK with his family and helped to get the new Hohner organisation going. He helped to arrange the music published by Francis Day & Hunter, he wrote the HSB Tutors, and arranged new pieces for the growing number of harmonica bands in the UK. Initially tremolo based bands but later chromatic harmonica bands. See end.

His son, Tommy Reilly, started playing harmonicaprofessionally aged 16 years.

When the British College of Accordionists (BCA) was started soon afterwards, he took a lively interest in this it too, building on his experience teaching the accordion in Canada. He also took on the training of the Junior Band of the B.C A. which very soon reached a remarkably high standard under his conductorship.

Captain James also wrote several highly successful elementary pieces like “Windsor March,” “Searchlight Tattoo.” etc., which found a ready sale amongst the many elementary bands springing up throughout the country.

When the B.C.A. set up examinations, they opened a number of Examination Centres, and Captain Reilly was appointed as one of the College Examiners, a role he carried out for many years.

After WW2, Captain Reilly was also appointed Sales Manager of the Hohner Musk Department. He persuaded a number of new composers to write for the accordion and the harmonica, and built up the largest Accordion and Harmonica Music Catalogue in this country.

As the popularity of the harmonica and accordion grew, he was much in demand as an adjudicator for Music Festivals all over the country. He also contributed a lot to the smooth running of the competition section of the annual “Accordion Day” festival.

In the early 1950s he started a Harmonica Staff Band for the Hohner Organisation He developed this into a successful orchestral group which gave many successful demonstrations and concerts.

Captain Reilly retired from Hohner in 1954, when he was a Vice President of the National Harmonica League (formerly the HSB). He died a year later.

He was probably responsible for teaching the majority of the harmonica players in the UK over his time with the HSB/NHL through the many tutors he wrote, the guidance he provided and the music he published.

This is based on an appreciation by Dr. O. Meyer, the MD of Hohner (UK), when Captain Reilly retired in 1955.

The Harmonicats 40th Anniversary Testimonial Concert 1981

It Was a Great Celebration . . . Thanks, Everyone? by Norm Dobson

This audio is taken from a cassette recording of most of the concert. Microphone placement and the age of the tape has affected the quality somewhat.

Edited from Harmonica Happenings, Spring 1981.

Well, the long awaited testimonial to the Jerry Murad Harmonicats is history. I can’t believe that back in September of 1979 when I first began to plan this event, that time would fly by so quickly. You have, I’m sure, by now heard from those who were here on there that the weekend was a complete success.

I personally am indebted to first of all, the harmonica, to SPAH and Harmonica Happenings. The harmonica, of course, has become or is the common denominator. Through SPAH and H-H. I got to know so many harmonica players across the country, and met the German Blizza Harmonica Gang and through them, met many other European players. I am especially grateful to Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats — they made it all happen.

Jerry Murad, Al Fiore, Dick Gardner, and Pete Pedersen played a selection of four tunes from their classical LP, “Harmonica Rhapsody” and several more of their hits.

The “New Harmonic Tramps” of Switzerland, Ruedi Frey on the lead, Walti Noethinger on chord, and Heinz Stampfi, on bass played on the Friday night but were not recorded on this tape. Then followed the Harmonica Brothers of West Germany. The sextet is made up of two active trios, the Blizza Harmonica Gang of Gladbeck, West Germany – Siegfried Brugier, Eugen Feltin, and Svegnar Kreitz – and the Picca Trio of Leichlingen, West Germany – Hans-Guenter Post, Adolf Nagel, and Ulrich Ott. They opened their show as a sextet playing a most impressive selection arranged by Leo Diamond entitled, “Japanese Sandman”. There then were three selections by the Picca Trio, followed by another selection by the Harmonica Brothers, and three tunes by the Blizza Harmonica Gang. It all ended with the sextet playing a Svegnar Kreitz arrangement of “Chancon d’amour.” Afterwards, the Germans presented the Harmonicats with three of the largest, ornate steins I’ve ever seen!

Among the notables in attendance were Leo Diamond. Time and space just won’t permit naming everyone. I was impressed with Joe Mass and his family of California, Al Smith , Earl Williams and Judy Simpson. Everyone was just great.

Then Jack totally surprised me with a document that left me speechless. The award read as follows:

PROCLAMATIONinsofar as the honorable NORM DOBSON never seems to run out of breath in the service of The Harmonica & Harmonica Players everywhere, he is hereby declared the Official & Perpetual WORLD AMBASSADOR FOR HARMONICA. Presented April 25, 1981, on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary Testimonial Dinner for Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats. M. Hohner, Inc. – Signed: Frank Hohner, Chariman, Lee James, President, Jack Kavoukian, Director of Marketing

There were five countries represented at the testimonial — Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Holland. Unmentioned previously, Cy Segeal, Canada; Gautam Choudhury and Piet Moerer, Holland; and our dedicated travellers from Sweden, Ulf and Jan Wahlberg.

My sincere thanks again to all for their support, and to the many who made the long trek to Danvers — especially to the Jerry Murad Harmonicats and their wives. My oh my, “Wasn’t That A Party?”

You can read a Tribute to Norm Dobson on this post.

Homage to Toots – Steven De bruyn

When I started to play the harmonica 27 years ago, Toots was big in Belgium. He did not only play on films and in concerts, but also on many local music shows and local television series. He was also the godfather of the great Jazz Middelheim Festival and played the national anthem before an International Soccer game.

When I attended a workshop by Toots I had the nerve to play him a tune. He said Cool man, let’s start the second part like that and to my disbelief we played this tune together, Toots on guitar and me on the harmonica in front of all these music students. Afterwards he give me a big hug. He was a lot of fun with his Brussels accent – a true ambassador for Belgium.

After his seventies Toots could no longer play the guitar well, due to a stroke, and only from then on he became a full time harmonica player. He constantly reinvented himself and in the last years of his public performances he really got to the essence of his playing. Very bluesy, very sparse and soulful. He made me cry and laugh at almost every concert I heard him.

Amazingly, the longer I play, the more I play the chromatic, and I realise how wonderful Toots was and will ever be as a human, as a musician and as a mentor.

Thank you Toots for your kindness, humour, passion and inspiration!

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.

Introduction to Blues on the Chromatic Harmonica by David Barrett

Here are some great examples of blues music played on the Chromatic Harmonica. They were put together by top educator and performer, David Barrett, who introduces each track, identifying the artist and indicating how it was played.

This playlist is taken from the third part of David’s series of articles about playing Blues Chromatic published in the NHL magazine, Harmonica World. David Barrett – www.bluesharmonica.com.

If you like what you hear, please press the “like” button and “share” it with your friends.

Over to you, David…

Introduction to Blues on the Chromatic Harmonica by David Barrett by The Archivist on Mixcloud

Track listing
1 – George “Harmonica” Smith – Blues in the Dark – 0:00
2 – George “Harmonica” Smith – Blues For Reverend King – 04:41
3 – George “Harmonica” Smith – Boogie’n with George – 09:45
4 – Little Walter – Fast Large One – 12:07
5 – Little Walter – Lights Out – 15:25
6 – Little Walter – Flying Saucer – 18:11
7 – William Clarke – Blowin’ Like Hell – 21:25
8 – Rod Piazza – Harpburn – 24:18
9 – Rick Estrin – Coastin’ Hank – 28:03
10 – Mark Hummel – Humble Bug – 34:38
11 – Paul deLay – Good Thing – 39:47
12 – Dennis Gruenling – Bluesmith – 44:45
13 – Mitch Kashmar – Crazy Mixed Up World – 55:00
14 – Gary Primich – The Briar Patch – 58:38
15 – Paul Oscher – Walkin’ – 63:10
16 – Steve Guyger – We’re Gonna Ride – 65:31
17 – Lynwood Slim – Oil Can Harry – 68:50
18 – Kim Wilson – Reel Eleven, Take One – 71:58
19 – Jean “Toots” Thielemans – Fundamental Frequency – 74:48
20 – Dave Barrett – Dark Night – 80:05

1) Blues in the Dark – (Blues Masters The Essential Collection, V4 Harmonica Classics, Rhino
2) Blues For Reverend King -(West Coast Down Home Harmonica, El Segundo
3) Boogie’n with George – (Now You Can Talk About Me, Blind Pig
4) Fast Large One – (The Essential Little Walter [Disc 1], Chess), C Chro in 3rd (D)
5) Lights Out -(Confessin’ the Blues, Chess)
6) Flying Saucer – (Blues With A Feelin’, Chess)
7) Blowin’ Like Hell – William Clarke (Blowin’ Like Hell, Alligator)
8) Harpburn – Rod Piazza (Harp Burn, Black Top)
9) Coastin’ Hank – Rick Estrin (That’s Big, Alligator)
10) Humble Bug – Mark Hummel (Harmonica Party, Mountain Top)
11) Good Thing – Paul deLay (The Last Of The Best, Criminal Records)
12) Bluesmith – Dennis Gruenling (History Of The Blues Harmonica Concert, Backbender)
13) Crazy Mixed Up World – Mitch Kashmar (Crazy Mixed Up World, Thumbs Up!!)
14) The Briar Patch – Gary Primich (Company Man, Black Top)
15) Walkin’ – Paul Oscher (Alone With The Blues, Electro-Fi)
16) We’re Gonna Ride – Steve Guyger (Past Life Blues, Severn)
17) Oil Can Harry – Lynwood Slim (Too Small To Dance, Big Rhythm Combo, Pacific Blues)
18) Reel Eleven, Take One – Kim Wilson (Tigerman, Antone’s)
19) Frequency by Jean “Toots” Thielemans (Legends Of Harmonica, Rhino
20) Dark Night -0 David Barret (It Takes Three)

Jazzy Harmonica Arrangements at Christmas

Arrangements of Seasonal Christmas Music featuring harmonica players, Toots Thielemans, Jason Keene, Stevie Wonder, Tommy Morgan, Norton Buffalo, Rob Paparozzi, Tollack Ollestad and Chris Bauer.

Track Listing for Modern Harmonica Arrangements at Christmas

1 – Toots Thielemans – White Christmas – 00:00
2 – Jason Keene – Christmas Time is Here – 03:48
3 – Stevie Wonder – Christmas Song – 07:41
4 – Chris Bauer – Winter Wonderland – 10:48
5 – Tommy Morgan – Angels We Have Heard on High – 15:53
5 – Toots Thielemans, James Taylor – Christmas Song – 19:56
6 – Rob Paparozzi, John Carlini, Bill Robinson – Silent Night – 22:27
7 – Chris Bauer – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – 25:50
8 – Norton Buffalo, Kenny Loggins – Christmas Time is Here – 30:25
9 – Rob Paparozzi – Christmas Song – 32:52
10 – Tollak Ollestad, Cyrus Chestnut Trio – Skating – 38:07
11 – Toots Thielemans – Silent Night – 42:41