Jazz Harmonicat Howard Levy Launches Online Harmonica School

Howard Levy c/o ArtistWorks
Howard Levy c/o ArtistWorks
Howard Levy c/o ArtistWorks

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Howard Levy, the Chicago-based pianist and harmonica player, announced today that he is launching his own harmonica school, albeit of the virtual category. The Howard Levy Harmonica School will be open for business by Dec. 1, 2009. The former Flecktone is partnering with ArtistWorks, an online video exchange company who create video-based instructional subscription sites. Among their other music instruction sites are the Andreas Oberg Guitar Universe and the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute.

School? Universe? Institute? Pretty highfalutin names for institutions with neither walls nor infrastructure, but rather with html code and interactive screens. What gives?

JT reached Levy at his home in Chicago after he’d just gotten back from a three-month reunion tour with the Flecktones. He said that Patricia and David Butler, the owners of ArtistWorks, contacted him about the program. “They had already done one with [banjoist] Tony Trischka, who was Bela Fleck’s teacher,” said Levy. “They were looking for a harmonica player who could do it and my name came up.” Indeed, it’s hard to think of anyone more qualified to give instructions in the art of harmonica playing, even though Levy himself never studied the instrument in a school. In that regard, he’s perhaps the prototypical student for ArtistWorks. “They picked those instruments because they knew that you can’t go to any school to get certification. There’s no competition from institutes of higher learning.”

Levy had done instructional videos before, but they tended to simply illustrate how he played rather than instruct other players of all different levels. In order to establish a comprehensive program, Levy and ArtistWorks had to record hundreds of “units” of instruction. “I filmed eight hours a day for five days to get the material” said Levy, sighing. “We needed to go from the most rudimentary to the most advanced so that it would be applicable to any harmonica player.”

Users of the service can subscribe for three months and view the video units, ranging from three to seven minutes, as often as they like. The units are laid out progressively. But isn’t something lost in translation here? “We’re going to be allow students to upload a video to me and then I do a video in response, and those exchanges will constitute a sort of master class,” Levy explained. How do you compensate for not being there with the student? “Sure, it’s not the same as being there in the same room. But the price of three months’ access to all of this material [approximately $60] is less than one hour of a private lesson with me. And it’s not realistic for people to travel to where I am.”

How many students can he take on? More or less than in real life? “That’s a good question,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know if I’m going to be chained to my computer or just wondering if anyone will do it. But the potential is there for me to help so many more students.” He added sardonically that harmonica players are known for their frugality. “Hey, it’s an instrument that costs less than its instructional manual!”

For Levy, the bigger issue is what he called the “invisibility of the instrument,” in that you can’t really see how it’s played, because the technique is completely internal within the mouth. “When you want to teach someone how to bend a note on a guitar, you can show them how the string moves. They can see that. To bend a note with a harmonica, it’s more abstract. They have to feel that for themselves.”

Levy said that just doing all the lesson units he learned plenty about the harmonica and his own playing. “People would often ask me stuff like ‘How do you get that vibrato?’ and I realized that I didn’t know! So I tried to figure things like that out.” He also believes in learning from his students. “When I have a student who does something a different way, it makes me wonder if there’s a different approach there I need to learn,” added Levy.

The school is said to be the first online portal for harmonica instruction, and who are we to argue with that claim? One thing for sure, Levy is widely accepted as one of the most gifted and accomplished harmonica players in the world, so whatever insight a novice can pick up is probably very useful. Levy is also a successful jazz pianist and his latest CD, Tonight and Tomorrow, is currently being released on the Chicago Sessions label. He also has two CDs on which he plays a lot of harmonica including Alone & Together and Time Capsules. The latter features his group Acoustic Express, whose instrumentation and approach is loosely based on the Hot Club style. Both CDs are available at Levy’s Web site.

For more information about the Howard Levy Harmonica School, you can go to the school’s Web site. Other instructional programs can be found at the ArtistWorks Web site.