A Rootin’ Tootin’ Time

A close-up of a chromatic harmonica (Photos by Chris Boyle)

Not too long ago, the 40-year-old Long Island bastion of a classic musical instrument created in Europe but long-since adopted to represent the most American of sounds, was on the verge of being snuffed out forever. As the Long Island Harmonica Club’s (LIHC) waning membership has dwindled over time to a mere handful, the decline of the club, according to Charlie McDermott of Lindenhurst, vice president and long-time member, was because of older members passing away and no new blood coming in to replace them.

“I have a picture of the club that we took when I first joined 20 years ago,” he said. “Of all the guys that were in the picture, there are only four of us left. So, getting new members was vital or the club was going to die off for good.”

However, several years ago, John Devine of Massapequa joined the LIHC as its president and, determined to save this important organization, set to work on promoting and updating it to appeal to new members, both young and old. Thankfully, he is succeeding wildly. Whereas the LIHC only had 12 members a mere two years ago, due to Devine’s efforts—which included updates such as constructing a highly-trafficked website—the club now has nearly 50 members and counting.

From left: John Devine of Massapequa, Jordan Linker of Elmont, Charlie McDermott of Lindenhurst, John Savas of Malverne

Devine had been a life-long music fan and when he finally tracked down the LIHC, he said he knew he had finally found a special group of people worth joining, and ultimately, fighting for.

“I had been playing harmonica for about 10 years and I had been looking for a club when I came across the LIHC,” he said. “I was lucky when I joined, as some of their top players were still around…I remember thinking that I would have actually paid to join, the music was so good.”

Contrary to popular belief, the harmonica isn’t simply a pick-up-and-play instrument; it’s the very epitome of the saying “easy to learn, difficult to master.” Harmonicas come in two distinct types: chromatic, which has a button that allows the performer to play flat and sharp notes, and diatonic, a more basic harmonica, which has no such button. Instead, the player must manually hit specific notes utilizing lung power and mouth positioning, according to McDermott.

“With a chromatic harmonica, you can play anything that a clarinet or a saxophone can play,” he said. “But with a diatonic harmonica, it’s easier to get a nice blues-style sound on it.”

To combat the drop-off in membership and entice new people to join, effort was made to make the LIHC more accessible to newcomers, including taking the musical tastes of younger generations into account, McDermott said. This has resulted in a new influx of both young and old who are interested in learning the ins-and-outs of this fascinating air-powered instrument.

“We have a kid who is 18-years-old, and a girl who is 21…both of them excellent players,” he said. “Before John joined, the club was all chromatic, and they only played standards. John realized that we weren’t getting younger people who were interested in the blues and diatonic harmonicas. So, we play a lot of blues now, and new members are finding out about chromatics and are learning them, too. If we hadn’t made these changes, the club would have died.”

Charlie McDermott of Lindenhurst and John Savas of Malverne playing up a storm

Due to their recent and continued swell in popularity, the LIHC has built themselves up into a well-oiled machine. They hold monthly business meetings and occasional public shows at the Levittown Library, as well as regular rehearsals at the Massapequa Library’s Bar Harbour branch every Wednesday that are open to anyone and everyone who is interested in coming down to learn how to play the harmonica, regardless of age and free of charge. In addition, the club plays regular paid gigs across Long Island, with the funds raised used to pay for other club activities, such as festive summer cookouts.

Jordan Linker of Elmont is one of the club’s newest members. He’s been a multi-instrumentalist for years, but could never find any like-minded individuals to help him up his harmonica game until discovering the LIHC two years ago. He credits them with drastically improving his proficiency on the instrument.

“It’s been a lot of fun and it’s great to have met so many other players,” he said. “It’s been good for me, as it stretches me. Here, I’m surrounded by friendly, talented people so it helps me to raise the bar on my playing, and I’d recommend this club to anyone regardless of their experience or skill level. You just have to want to play the harmonica and have a good time.”

John Savas of Malverne has been with the LIHC for many years and said that he is overjoyed that the club has come back from the brink and is currently introducing a new generation to the wonders of the harmonica.

“We were down to about five people at its lowest point, but John helped shake new members from the trees,” he said. “This is a new, growing club, and in a few years it will be booming.”

If you are interested in the Long Island Harmonica Club, visit www.longislandharmonica.com.

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