Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My Blues Name is Longblog Seth

I just stood in my living room, wearing boxers and a bathrobe, and played an ebon harmonica for some quantity of time. I honestly don't know how long I was in there, but based on the progress downloading a Joystiq Podcast I think it was about thirty minutes (I have slow wireless access). I would like to state for the record that I do not know how to play the harmonica. I have a rudimentary comprehension of its general construction, which I am capable of putting into the most clumsy of practices. I know that when I expel or draw air through the left side of a properly upright harmonica, it will produce sounds of a lower register. I understand that, generally, I want to grip the harmonica in one hand, with my thumb along the bottom and my fingers resting along the top, while my other hand sweeps around from the back of the instrument to form a tight cup, its fingers pointing toward my vulnerable eyes. I understand that opening my hands when held thusly will alter the sounds produced, and that a different alteration occurs if I open my hands toward the ceiling as opposed to the floor. I know how to block certain holes with my tongue in order to produce chords.

Succinctly, I know what someone is supposed to do with a harmonica; I just don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how to play any instrument. I don't know how to read sheet music. I don't know how to recognize notes, or sharps. I don't know what the hell a sharp is- and please understand I have read definitions multiple times. The crucial "real" musical education which many children receive is something I skipped, in order to pursue anything that wasn't music, while in middle school. The joke ended up being firmly on me because the elective option which I selected in lieu of joining band actually included a few weeks of choir; I never comprehended how the school thought this was a sensible decision. They very clearly presented the elective track (which included other classes ranging from German to Home Economics to "Study Skills") as something to do if you didn't want to experience all of the coolness and glory which would be your triumphant reward for selecting band. I picked it largely because this was how the school presented the options; they actually made everyone go to band for a week before the choice was even proffered. Small though they may have been, I cherished my little rebellions. At least, until I found out I'd signed up for choir.

I never particularly regretted not taking band while in middle school. It seemed intensely competitive to me, and in general I'm not a person of competition (many, if not all, of the people who know me would disagree with this statement). Once I had sidestepped the experience, it never seemed particularly feasible to jump back in. By high school it was a safe assumption that anyone in band had been there for three years prior to hitting 9th grade, and with my perception of the competitive elements it seemed pointless to pursue an instrument when I couldn't possibly compete with their experience and exposure. I never nursed the fantasy of being a musical prodigy, probably because it had been impressed upon me so early that I was an intellectual prodigy of some vaguely defined quality- the two seemed mutually exclusive. This is also a large part of the reason I never tried out for any sport, though the other two contributing factors to that decision were Screech and Steve Urkel. A similar principle kept me from jumping into any Art classes, though I loved and love to draw; that was compounded by the majority of the Art and Shop departments being taught by a single family which hated me, personally, with the fury of a thousand inexplicable and kind of sad suns.

I don't know when I came to realize that I regretted my lack of, and hungered for, musical training. I suppose it happened at some point in college, amidst all the other personal exploration and growth I underwent there. Even still, I maintained my innate distaste for mainstream behavior, so I refused to pick up a guitar- that's what shy, emotional fellows do in college, and it helps them to woo women. I pushed through my college years with the noble and somewhat ridiculous aspiration to avoid any of the affectations which I perceived guys donned to secure the attentions of the ladies. I wanted any woman who fell for me to fall for the real Seth, not the string-strumming seducer cradling a wooden phallic symbol. That plan worked out wonderfully.

Still, somehow I ended up with a few harmonicas including the beautiful Blackbird, with its leather case, that I was playing tonight. I also had a few instructional CDs which seemed very legitimate, and I would sit in my room the summer after my junior year, attempting to practice. I say attempting because, while I have absolute faith in the efficacy of the instructional program, I approached learning music entirely wrong. I never progressed past the third or fourth track (so maybe 12 minutes into the CD) because I never felt I had truly "gotten" the lesson. I had no clue what to listen for, meaning that what I played never sounded like what the man on the cd played. I also didn't understand proper harmonica care and know that I boiled one of my harmonicas vigorously several times before learning that's a bad thing to do (I was worried about...I don't know, killer mold?).

I liked to carry a harmonica on me anyway, though, because the mere act of screwing around on it brought a light-headed joy, which may have been oxygen deprivation. Between starting to play "the harp" in 2004 and this writing, however, effectively no one has ever heard me play. I qualify that because my roommate that first summer once commented that he had heard me practicing, at which point I stopped practicing at home. I also once drunkenly brought my harmonica into an early morning jam session in my fraternity, and was promptly but politely asked to leave. It was seriously that bad; other drunk people were able to recognize my utter lack of ability and found it so discordant they asked me to stop playing. I think we had all just finished taking body shots off the belly of a young woman that I'm not sure any of us knew, but even within that setting, my harmonica was too bad to share.

The other reason I qualify the statement that no one has heard me play is because I used to wander around the small Indiana town where I went to college, late at night, playing my harmonica. I'd walk past campus, through a few residential neighborhoods, and up onto the main drag that ran past the grocers' and the fast-food joints and the Walmart. I did this fairly often, sometimes wearing headphones and sometimes not, and I just played. Looking back now that strikes me as an immensely college thing to do, and I envy the young Seth who somehow constructed a sense of self which allowed him to be too embarrassed to practice, but confident enough to play while wandering the late night streets.

Since graduating from college, I've perhaps touched a harmonica four or five times; when I first moved out to Minnesota after school I did try practicing again, and even carried a harmonica with me as I had in school. I never felt comfortable enough in Minnesota to play it, but I was once at a bar during a concert and the lead singer called out his need for a harmonica- a need I was able to satisfy. That felt pretty great, and I enjoyed feeling like a fellow musician for a few seconds. I also enjoyed playing tonight, in an empty one-bedroom house, with walls thick enough that I'm reasonably sure none of my neighbors could hear.


  1. Bwahaha, I have a very similar relationship with the harmonica! Mine started when my gandmother passed on and bequeathed me a monstrously intimidating double decker gleaming chrome beast of an instrument. It took but one taste of that musty old thing to recognize what a mistake it would be to profane it with clumsy lips, so I bought a $2.00 one at Walmart... and promptly became too shy about it to practice anywhere but(for some reason) the playground while supervising little tykes aplay at recess in summer school. The thought of playing alone in my room would make me cringe, but I somehow had no problem tooting and drooling away like a fool in front of a bunch of delinquent 10 year olds. Huh.

  2. Delinquent 10 year olds teach us ever so much about ourselves.

    My dad has a gleaming gold double-decker harp, with the slide bar thing...I only think I've seen it once or twice, and only when I was much smaller; the object always terrified me, like it was some ancestral blade hidden away in the attic.

    Congratulations on first comment, by the way! I actually wasn't sure if I'd gotten drunk and commented on my own blog, but my grandma doesn't play harmonica so it must be legit.