Zen Harmonica: Learning Mindfulness in the Key of Life
“I play the harmonica. The only way I can play is if I get my car going really fast and stick it out the window.”
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
David Harp is the Rosetta Stone of the harmonica. He has taught over a million people how to play, and holds the world’s record for teaching the most people to play at one time (2,569). How does he do it?
Mindfulness. Because that’s what he’s really interested in…
If you’re like me you probably have at least one, if not two cheap harmonicas lying in the bottom of your closet or in the back of a drawer someplace. When you see them you take them out of the box, lick your lips, wail unskillfully until you’re out of breath, tuck it back in the box, and then forget about it for another four years.
I’ve licked my lips long enough. Wailed unskillfully long enough. It was time to do something about it.
According to my astrology chart I’m in my Saturn return. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it has something to do with making good on the missed opportunities the first time around. It takes Saturn 29 ½ years to orbit the sun and these are the biggest times of upheaval in our lives. This is my second return (God willing I will have three) but this time around I am making damn sure I don’t make the mistakes of the first time. This is the time when you basically get a “do-over” in your life. Back then I deferred many things to go to grad school, then deferred them further to advance my career and raise a family. I’m now going back to reclaim those experiences. This isn’t a bucket list; it is more of a champagne-glass list. These are the experiences that I always suspected would fulfill me. Learning to play the harmonica was niggling me for nearly 30 years.
I don’t know what is on your champagne-glass list, but it may be time to start thinking about doing what you’ve always wanted to do, and learn how to do it. Gandhi had the right idea. Here is what I got from pushing to learn something I always wanted to do.
First, when you go out to learn — find a teacher with passion.
David Harp (great name for the man who has taught the world to play the harmonica, yes?) is a truly unique person. Not only are his lectures filled with the latest findings in neuroscience, meditative practices, music theory, the history of the harmonica, and mindfulness, they are also a cause for pure inspiration. David has used the harmonica to help breathing patterns in adults with problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, Alzheimer’s, terminally ill children, people in the armed forces, and hospice services. For him the harmonica isn’t a peripheral musical curiosity, nor even a way of making great blues or rock music. It is a portal into self-actualization and, no pun intended, a tool for living in harmony with yourself and others.
His joyful energy and exuberance filled the class with enthusiasm. We wanted to learn everything from him we could, and we were not alone. He has also taught harmonica to the good people at such diverse organizations as the FBI and Ben and Jerry’s, Merck and Kraft. He is a corporate speaker and, of course, consummate entertainer. He also practices what he preaches. I attended an open session he had for anyone interested in leaning to play. I was expecting him to just give them a demonstration and maybe show a film. No. Instead he brought in a crate of harmonicas and gave everyone who came a free one. He distributed more than 50. David is a man who really believes in what he does. Of the hundreds of professors I have had over the years there are only about a dozen I could say have that kind of passion.
To demonstrate techniques he introduced us to the classic harmonica players as well as the likes of J. Geils, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Wonder. Listening to him lose himself was a source of direct inspiration. Watching his mind and body instantaneously transport into a nondualistic way of being was as good as sitting at the feet of any worthy guru, yoga master, or Bodhisattva. The difference is that he communicated that space with the music made possible by his concentrated breathing. It wasn’t the solemn resonance evoked by Om, but rather the transportive delight shared through a boogie-woogie riff in C.
The mindfulness base of this weeklong course was the essence of the experience. For Harp, the harmonica is really about breathing and concentration – the core elements in mindfulness. David has trademarked what he calls the HarMantra™, a beautiful 4-note riff that does, indeed, create a mindful, meditative space. In fact, we did a deep breathing exercise that took it down to 4 breaths a minute with the Harmantra™. For those of you unfamiliar with what breathing 4 breaths a minute is like, all I can say is that there isn’t another thing you could possibly think about. You aren’t in the moment—you are the moment.
Secondly, surround yourself with other learners who want what you want at the level you want it. When you decide what it is you are going to learn, and you have found the right teacher, the students you will be with are the next most important ingredient. They become your mirrors of progress.
So who were my fellow classmates? Who takes one of their precious vacations and takes something that sounds so frivolous as an immersion course in learning to play the harmonica mindfully? The class was made up of a warm, intelligent, thoughtful group of folks invested in opening themselves to a new experience — people from different parts of the country and even those from other cultures. The harmonica is the perfect vehicle for promoting unity, togetherness and collective spirit. What became very obvious was that in learning how to navigate the ten holes of the harmonica, you also had to do this in harmony with others, and with intentional synchrony, since everyone must breathe in and breathe out simultaneously to sound right. In true bandleader style, David would keep us true to the tempo while illustrating the in-out breathing patterns that allowed us to improvise blues and rock music right away. His proprietary teaching system gave us the basics very quickly, and each day we would build upon the learned patterns of the day before. By the end of the week we all got more than we bargained for—much more. But it wasn’t just executing the breathing patterns and notes that brought us together as a group. We did yoga together—with our harmonicas. Downward Dog in the key of G using the Harmantra, The Tree, and the pigeon, in F#.
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Zen Harmonica: Learning Mindfulness in the Key of Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/zen-harmonica-learning-mindfulness-in-the-key-of-life/