Talk about the blind leading the blind! Elwood the Apprentice has a rant about amateur hour out there on the Internet
It’s not in the Harp Surgery’s nature to be negative. The reason for that is the Good Doctor: he’s a relentlessly positive guy who’s always looking for the best in people. It’s kind of rubbing off on me. We try to dole out the best advice possible to users, but when it comes to reviewing the goods and services in the rest of the harmonica world, we often go by the “Elwood’s Mom” Policy: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If someone isn’t worth our time, we’re more likely to hold our tongue and look the other way than strip ’em naked and throw them into the flood lights, if you catch my meaning.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the best teachers who are using the web to broadcast their lessons. To whit: the recent emergence of a web-savvy harp enthusiast whose product invites you to “Learn Harmonica in 30 Days”. (See this MBH Forum discussion.)
It’s a great concept that’s been slickly produced, and he clearly knows how to tailor it for web… but he sounds like he’s only about a week ahead of his lessons, if you know what I’m saying. As an enthusiastic apprentice myself, I’m sympathetic. But when I watch Mr 30 Days’ videos, it’s never quite clear whether he’s sharing his own journey as a beginner player, or trying to push his lessons onto beginners who are still just a bit too wet behind the ears to know any better.
However, this isn’t a post to complain about our friend in the leather jacket. It’s about the general malaise of bad info out there. I subscribe to a Google Alert for harmonica related stuff, so I get sent a lot of links to questions posed on Yahoo! Answers by harmonica beginners. I never fail to be driven to an apoplectic rage by the wealth of ignorance in Yahoo! Answers, and most of the time answers seem to do more harm than good. When someone posts to ask what diatonic harmonica to get for her boyfriend, inevitably the first answer is something outlandish like, “Get a chromatic instead because diatonics break easily and are only meant for practice.”
So how do you evaluate a harmonica teacher?
Unfortunately, beginners can’t always tell the difference between good harp and bad harp. That’s why so many of us were inspired to take up harmonica by Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey (yeah, I said it). There are tonnes of good teachers out there and you probably know where to find most of them. But in case you’d like to be doubly safe, these are guidelines to test a source’s credibility.
1) Start with the author
What tools do we have to evaluate an author’s credibility? Who is the author and what’s their background? Well, my posts fall under Harp Surgery’s “Apprenticeship Blog”, so that should tell you something about me. The Good Doctor’s biography says that he’s been playing for several decades and was at one point voted UK’s national harmonica champion, so it’d be fair if you valued his words more than mine. David Barrett, Joe Filisko, Adam Gussow and Jon Gindick all carry this kind of credibility proofing. Of course, there are some players who have had a harmonica for 30 years and are still finding their way through playing Jingle Bells, so that’s not the only criteria. Does the teacher have a long history of playing in bands and if so at what level? Did they ever produce an album or win a Grammy? Has the teacher produced a book? (Many, many great teachers have not produced a book, of course.)
2) Look for outside validation
Has any reputable third-party validated the source? For example, David Barrett’s series of harmonica books are endorsed by a wide range of teachers who stand to gain nothing from the endorsement. The Good Doctor (one of the many Barrett endorsees) is a regional representative for the National Harmonica League, so he has that institutional endorsement. When I stumbled on the Harp Surgery as a first-time visitor, I saw the site had earned praise from Jason Ricci and I immediately felt like it was the real deal. But who knows, maybe Jason Ricci is too liberal with his praise? Chris Michalek is one harp fundi who I know is not famous for shovelling praise where it doesn’t belong, so whenever he endorses a harp customiser (for example, Richard Sleigh and Joe Spiers) I don’t take it lightly.
But that isn’t fool proof. One of the best teachers I’ve met is a skinny, weather-worn guy who shows up at London Harmonicas. He plays unamplified, pre-war harmonica on an almost spiritual level, has an outstanding knack for translating his approach into beginner-speak, and it almost unheard of outside the London blues scene. So as a final step…
3) Perform the harmonica competency litmus test
These are two quick tests to see if a bloke is talking out his blowhole:
1) Someone who prefers the 3 blow to the 2 draw. That’s like preferring Clark Kent to Superman!
2) Someone who plays the opening riff to ‘Juke’ without splitting the octave. Correctly played, the last note of the riff is a 3-6 split and sometimes a 6-9 split.
Other than that, just go with your gut. If someone’s working for you, they’re working for you. So how did you choose your teacher?
Elwood is running the Apprenticeship Blog. Follow him on Twitter, if you like. And if you think he’s too harsh on amateur enthusiasts, see his very fond tribute to London Harmonicas. And if you’d like to see the perfect interaction between apprenticeship and experience, visit the MBH Forum.