Today, 32 years later, and a card carrying old cat myself, I continue to be mesmerized.
Now that I’m older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve been asking myself what other lessons in life have I learnt from this tiny little instrument – no larger than my palm.
Lesson – 1
Size does not matter
Just 4 inches long but with a sound that can cut through the night like a laser. A single note bending , quivering and oddly unwavering. A mix of apparent contradictions – precise yet plaintive. Demanding yet soulful. A sound that seared me to the marrow of my bone.
We, who been conditioned to believe that size does matter, should learn from the harp that the truth lies in creating a presence regardless of size. That the pull of seemingly opposite qualities can attract. That when there is no ambiguity about who I am or what role I play, all the world is a stage.
A limited range is no barrier
On a Blues Harp there are only so many notes that you can play with. A Piano for example has 7 octaves. The Blues harp, just three! But listen to Sonny Terry blow his Blues harp and you won’t feel sorry for the tiny instrument. Because when you know your limits you learn to play within them.The notes come out pure and focused.
And within those limits, when you cover the ground well, you learn where you can bend a note, or make it quiver or use your cupped palms as an additional chamber to vary the sound.
The lesson is clear – when you keep it simple, your efforts are focused and the results even more so. The sound of your soul it turns out, doesn’t need more than those three octaves.
Choose your Key
The Blues harp comes in different Keys and you choose the ones that you are most adept in. For example I prefer a C or a D. Which essentially means that I am most comfortable playing in the scale of G or A. So, just as all of us have our preferences i.e. eat with our right hand, write with the left, cross your left leg over the right etc., most users of the harp have their preferred scales.
This is not about operating in your comfort zone, this is about your preferred zone – and knowing the place well, performing at a level that is one step higher than normal.
So the blues harp teaches us – choose the area you want to operate in and choose the one in which you have a natural advantage .
Lesson – 4
A sense of expression matters
The Blues harp has a limited vocabulary (notes) yet it speaks so eloquently.
A blues note has a “feel” about it, a sense of having emanated from the heart without being colored in any way. A pure, uncluttered sound that carries with it all the emotion in the world. Sometimes, a single word speaks volumes. Just as a single note sucked from the air carries so much meaning.
The lesson – it’s not just what you say; it is how you say it that matters.
Innovation is king
The blues harp is made for spontaneity. To make up as you go along, to improvise, to find new musical paths. To hit the highs and scour the lows as and when you need to.
Yes, the Blues harp player has a melody in his head, but he seldom stays with it. It gives the phrase ‘blowin’ with the wind’ a whole new perspective.
Some of the best moments in life come spontaneously. And so when they unexpectedly blossom around you, relax and enjoy them.
Discipline is the anchor
Discipline and the blues – sounds paradoxical. Be it the limitation of 3 octaves or the 12 bars, the Blues, by its very structure, is rigid. But it’s this jungle gym quality that allows you to play, allows you the unbridled freedom to innovate, to take those notes where your heart wants you to take it, only to come back when the discipline of the theme beckons.
Head in the clouds, but feet firmly planted on the ground.
Make space for others
The blues harp is a solo instrument. With a clear role to play and an even clearer ”sound” to deliver. And because it can cut through and be heard above almost every other instrument, the Harp must know its place in the band and make space for the others to have their moments in the sun or their dances in the rain. To inspire and be inspired. To live and let live joyously.
All of this and then some more from this little Blues Harp.
To watch and listen to BB King sing and play the Blues at the age of 84 is to truly live. And a little something tells you that the music he has played over the decades must have something to do with it. To live a life of music that constantly thrives on one player inspiring the other to greater heights. To inspire and to be inspired must surely give one a perspective in life that says, “I am here for the moment and I am enjoying every moment of it!”