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Great Listening: Harmonica Master Howard Levy on WGN Radio

ArtistWorks harmonica teacher (and recent Grammy Award winner) Howard Levy recently sat down with Bill Moller on WGN Radio to share the story behind his original Grammy-winning composition "Life in Eleven".  Howard is introduced as "one of the greatest performers on one of the smallest instruments there is" - which, if you've ever heard him play harmonica, is a pretty accurate way of describing the man. 

Long before playing with The Flecktones and teaching harmonica online, the young Howard Levy went to a Paul Butterfield and James Cotton blues show in the the New York City Village. Howard was immediately hooked.  "I thought, I gotta learn to play this stuff," Howard tells Bill Moller. Shortly after the show, Howard sat down at the piano and figured out the traditional blues progression by ear.  Howard soon became frustrated though when learning blues for harmonica at the missing notes.  It was out of this frustration that genius arose. 

As a self-proclaimed "stubborn" university student, Howard "accidentally (on purpose) discovered how to get the missing notes" out of a harmonica. "I tried to bend notes that didn't bend down," and another note "popped" out of it, Howard said. "I named them overblows." With this groundbreaking harmonica technique, Howard found a "new way of finding notes that no one had discovered".  Howard's overblowing technique enables him to play any note, in any key, on any diatonic harmonica (a la Hohner). 

With the motivation and desire to play, Howard revolutionized the harmonica's potential to do more. Howard developed his new harmonica technique in Chicago, combining blues, pop/rock, middle eastern, and jazz. "Life in Eleven" itself blends Bulgarian and Macedonian dance music with a "funk groove" in an odd 11/8 time signature.

Howard likens learning the harmonica to learning to ride a bike. "Someone can put you on the bike and you'll fall, unless you get that balance [and] feel". When playing the harmonica, Howard says, "There's all this feel inside the instrument that goes on inside your mouth and you close your eyes and you get it." It's "thrilling" and like riding a bike, "you never forget it once you learn."

Sounds intriguing? Well you too can learn how to play the harmonica when you take lessons from Howard at the Howard Levy Harmonica School. Howard has recorded hundreds of harmonica lessons in a variety of styles as diverse as Blues, Folk, Brazilian Indian and Middle Eastern. ArtistWorks' exclusive Video Exchange Learning enables students to send in videos of themselves to Howard as they work through the lessons, which Howard then reviews and responds to personally. Students can watch each others' Video Exchanges, and Howard is always available at any stage in the learning process. He actively encourages his students and gives them the tools they need to improve, whether by instructing them to "drop your lower jaw and get Neanderthal" or by breaking down the "taca-taca-tacata-taca-taca" 11/8 time signature of his Grammy-winning tune.

For more about Howard's upcoming tour dates, his upcoming premiere of an ultra modern harmonica concerto, or why the harmonica is the ideal instrument for blind people, listen to the full interview here.