Artist Spotlight - Howard Levy


By Derek Crowder, Hohner Inc., USA.

Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Howard Levy has reshaped the vocabulary of the diatonic harmonica. A founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Levy has also performed or recorded with an astoundingly broad range of artists, including Donald Fagen, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and Dolly Parton, among many others. In 2000, Levy composed his “Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica & Orchestra”, the first concerto for the ten-hole harmonica. Levy continues to tour and perform internationally and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

In addition to maintaining active recording and performance schedules, Howard is also a gifted educator. Since 2009, the Howard Levy Harmonica School has afforded students of all levels the unique opportunity to receive personalized instruction directly from an undisputed master.

Howard was already an accomplished musician when he took up the harmonica in his late teens. He describes being drawn to the instrument for a number of reasons, specifically citing the harp’s portability and unique timber.

“When I was in high school, I was in a band and the drummer taught himself how to play the harmonica; he sounded really good. He played all these records for me – Paul Butterfield, James Cotton - and he learned how to imitate them. Playing the piano, you always had to go to the instrument and you couldn’t bend notes. I fell in love with the sound and whole idea of carrying an instrument in your pocket. It was a combination of all of those things.

When I started playing the harmonica, my main motivation was to be able to play blues. As soon as I bent my first note, I felt like the instrument had changed me. I was able to express all of these things through the instrument that I had never been able to express before. People fall in love with instruments for these reasons, so it was just an emotional thing in the beginning.”

Levy often looks beyond the instrument itself for artistic inspiration. “I learn from everything; applying ideas from other instruments to the harmonica is a really big thing for me.  One side of it is spirituality, and being inspired by great musicians who had a spiritual component to their playing…people like Bach or John Coltrane;

those are probably my two favorite musicians. Coltrane had a very spiritual component to his playing, as did Bach. I also play for Jewish services and I’ve composed music for Jewish worship services. I’ve just put out a cd with Trio Globo and a Jewish Cantor named Alberto Mizrahi (“Matzah to Menorah”), which consists of absolutely unique treatments of music for the holidays of Passover and Hanukkah. I don’t think anyone’s ever played any of these pieces the way that we’re playing them. It’s something that’s musical, but also cultural, spiritual, and religious.

“There’s something innately moving and emotionally compelling about the sound of this instrument. The diatonic harmonica has this organic sound quality…it’s kind of miraculous;"

Of course, I read a lot, so there are certain books that give me concepts about physics and science that make me think differently when I’m playing. Even reading some science fiction books can inspire me. Sometimes if I’m out on a beautiful day, I’ll just be inspired to write a melody. And, of course, love –that’s a big one!”

An experienced educator, Levy was nonetheless a bit skeptical when approached about teaching online. “I wasn’t sure originally, because of the invisible nature of the harmonica. You can’t show people finger positions like on a guitar, piano, or violin; I wasn’t sure it could work. I am here today to say that it does work! I am incredibly proud of this school. I have hundreds of students from all over the world, and it’s the first time I’ve ever taught every level. I get such a kick out of seeing people improve from one week to another.”

“There’s something innately moving and emotionally compelling about the sound of this instrument. The diatonic harmonica has this organic sound quality…it’s kind of miraculous; it sounds so alive. That’s what’s driven me, really – the sound of the instrument and the effect it’s had on me and the people listening.”

Visit Howard Levy's website to learn more about his harmonica playing and online harmonica school.




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