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1:47 pm - Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007
\"This one time, at harmonica camp...\"

"This one time, at harmonica camp..."

Tues 10/16/07 (3:28 p.m.)

As is often the case, I haven’t given myself much time to write this. But anyway...

Well, “Jam Camp” has come and gone–I got back Sunday night around 6:30 or so–and while I feel like I’m still “processing the experience” somewhat, I’d say that, all-in-all, it was a good time, and I’m glad I went.

As I suspected going in, it was primarily “Middle-Aged Men On Parade”; there was one cute little blonde high-schooler, two women I’d guess were in their late forties/early fifties...and the rest of us (Though amongst the middle-aged guys, there was a lot of ethnic diversity–white, black, hispanic, asian, and at least one native-american)

I was nervous going in–starting with thinking I had to be there at 3:00, because it was slow going on the freeway and I thought I was going to be late (They didn’t actually start till 3:30, so I was fine)–but there was really no reason to be nervous. There were harmonica players there who were just starting out, and some who were on their third of fourth “camp”, and of course, there were the teachers, so the “skill level” on display pretty much ran the gamut from “none” to “virtuoso”.

And where would I put myself in the mix...?

Weds 10/17/07 (10:33 a.m.)

To continue...

I was definitely not the best harmonica player amongst the
“jam-campers”–there were at least two guys I thought were better (One of whom’s been playing less than three years), and some guys who were comparably skilled–but I was definitely amongst the best, and received very encouraging feedback from both my fellow campers and the instructors.

What I thought I did have, over pretty much anyone else there (Excepting the instructors, of course), was that I’m a well-rounded “entertainment package”–I can play some, I can sing, and I’ve got great stage-presence; Jon G., the organizer of the event, told me afterwards that I could put myself out there right now now as a “singer-who-plays-some-harp”–Sell myself primarily as a “front man” who spices things up with some harmonica playing, as opposed to being some harmonica virtuoso--which I’m not at this point–and in my off-hours, I can keep working towards harmonica virtuosity.

He was very encouraging in that regard–that I could go out and perform with the skills I currently have--as was Cheryl A., one of the other instructors–She complimented my singing as well, and told me I definitely had a talent for the instrument (In terms of actual harmonica instruction, I had a one-on-one with her on Sunday–centered around the technique of “tongue-blocking”–that was probably the most useful advice I got all weekend).

The way the weekend went was that things would start with a large group meeting (Which would begin with Jon playing guitar, and all of us playing along on harmonica. I found it quite funny–thirty people of varying abilities playing harmonica all at once is not a very pretty sound--but it was a great ice-breaker). Then things would break off into smaller groups, based on skill-level and particular interests, and we’d spend the afternoon doing those “workshops” (Which were sometimes disappointingly hit-or-miss).

In the evening, we’d “jam”; on Friday night, it was with the instructors playing guitar and keyboards, and on Saturday and Sunday, Jon brought in full bands.

Some personal highlights:

during one “jam session”, Jon was playing harmonica with people as they were coming up to play; he’d do a solo, have the camper take a solo, then go back and forth with them, having them try to copy the “licks” he was playing (To test our “ear”, and our facility with the instrument). And when I got up, he put me through paces he didn’t put anyone else through, and though I was scared to death while it was happening, I acquitted myself so well there was a big round of applause and back-slapping and hand-shaking afterwards, which was tremendously gratifying (It’s something I’ve known about myself for awhile–I’m much better aping someone else than coming up with my own thing–but it was still surprising just how good I was at “aping someone else” who’s been playing at a high level since before I knew what a harmonica was).

During another session, where all the campers formed a line, going up one or two at a time and playing 12 bars, then getting back in line to go round again, I got up on one of my turns and, partly showing off, and partly out of ideas on the harmonica, sang a verse of “Built For Comfort”, an old Howling Wolf song (It wasn’t exactly the point of the exercise-to sing-but on the other hand, the instructors had made the point that, if you sing and play the harmonica, you’re infinitely more valuable to a band than if you just play harmonica). It was both fun to have my little “moment”, and nice that it “opened the floor” for other people to try singing as well (Adding to the fun of that evening was that there was beer).

Sunday afternoon was the big four-hour jam in the hotel bar, with a full band. And I was very nervous–I wanted to do a full-on song, rather than just a two or three minute harmonica solo (Cause I thought I’d be really boring if I did that), but I couldn’t decide what to do/couldn’t figure out a good blues song I knew all the words to, other than “Steamroller Blues”. Then I remembered jamming with the Uptown Guys years and years ago, every Saturday for two years running, on a song called “Next Time You See Me”, and decided to do that. And even though I haven’t performed the song in probably 15 years, I nailed it, and it went over like gangbusters. It was probably the best pure “performing experience” I’ve had since moving away from Lansing.

Beyond that, it was fun hearing some really good people play harmonica–there were seven instructors there in all, and while one was merely okay, and another one was actually not very good, the remaining five (Jon, Jimi Lee, Cheryl, Mark, and Tadg) were on a scale from “very, very good” to “amazing”--and it was really interesting to hear their different takes on the instrument (Jimi Lee was probably the best “virtuoso” player).

And again, it was interesting and slightly odd for me to be somewhat looked up to by some of my fellow jam-campers; beginners were asking me questions about how you did this-or-that thing, and complementing my playing, and it was a mutual admiration society with some of the more intermediate-level guys (for example, I was very impressed with one guy who did these really nice “riffs”, while he was impressed with me for my “bent” notes.)

Honestly, I’m not sure I “learned” that much I didn’t know before. But I still think it was tremendously valuable to just play as much as I did that weekend, get feedback from both beginners, peers, and people much better than I am, and get that encouragement from Jon G. that I could be a viable blues performer right now.

I’m probably not done going on about “Jam Camp” and its possible lasting effects, but I’m at half-mast here, and I’ve gotta hit the sack for a little more shut-eye before continuing my day...


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