The harmonica won’t jump to anyone’s mind as a particularly Chinese instrument; it is mainly used by folk singers or blues artists, such as Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. But, as the King’s College Harmonica Band shows, it is equally adept at playing The Moon Represents My Heart as is at playing Amazing Grace.
Form Five students Timothy Yip Chun-hei, Jack So Chun-yin, Tree Lo Siu-shu, and Rooney Chow Long-hin are fresh from their triumph at the eighth World Harmonica Festival, where they swept the top prizes in the youth category, as well as some in the rest of the competition.
The teenagers are surprised by their wins, but this tradition of harmonica-playing at King’s College stretches back to 1951, when their first harmonica ensemble was founded. Since then, the school has continued to bring new generations of players into the fold.
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Timothy, 17, is the leader of the ensemble. He says there are many popular misconceptions about the humble harmonica.
“Most people have not seen a harmonica outside the standard pocket-sized one; actually, there are many others in the harmonica family that help an ensemble sound [more complete].”
Like in a string quartet, each harmonica band member plays a different role in each piece. Timothy and Tree play the two normal ten hole harmonicas which play the role of the violin; since they have a higher pitch, they are mostly in charge of the melody.
The other two are more unusual; they look like two harmonicas bolted together.
Rooney, the deputy leader of the ensemble, plays the chord harmonica, which is built in a way that allows him to play chords more easily. It mostly provides more body to the sound of the ensemble, making it seem like more people are playing than there actually are.
Jack, 16, plays the double bass harmonica, which acts like a bass guitar or double bass; it provides the rhythm and backbone of each piece.
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By working together, said Rooney, the quartet have learned not only to arrange and adapt pieces for the harmonica, but also sound like an actual ensemble.
“Playing solo harmonica is relatively easy, because you can play however you’d like. But when we play in a group, it is much harder because we all have very different tones and ways of playing. We had to learn how to adjust and blend together to sound like a group.”
But how do people get started with playing the harmonica?
The members agree that the instrument is easy to play, but hard to master. Notes come easily to beginners, but lots of students give up halfway because there are many different breathing techniques to perfect.
“The most important thing is to persevere, because there are no short-cuts, and your skills must be reliable,” says Jack. They also recommend listening to audio recordings of harmonica players to see whether the sound matches your own.
But what has most helped them grow as harmonica players are the opportunities provided by their school, the quartet say.
“Most schools in Hong Kong don’t have a very welcoming environment for harmonica-playing students; you can probably count all of [them] on one hand. So I think that having a school that is willing to support you in playing the harmonica is very important,” says Jack.
The King’s College Harmonica Band will perform at Elements Mall on Monday at 3pm-3.30pm and 4pm-4.30pm.
Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge