Interview: Tomlin Leckie, Edinburgh Harmonica Workshop

“Blow your harmonica, son.”

One of the great, mournful catchphrases of the blues that originated from one of its finest raconteurs – Lightnin’ Sim.

It’s also a phrase you might hear the highly-regarded exponents of the blues harmonica saying to fans of the reed instrument at the first-ever Edinburgh Harmonica Workshop over the course of this weekend.

Kicking off with a live show on Friday (July 22) at the Voodoo Rooms, the Edinburgh Harmonica Workshop offers a choice of 12 different sessions – from beginner to intermediate and advanced levels – as well as insight into harmonica customisation with the legendary craftsman, Cain Hamilton, at the recently converted Eric Liddell Centre in Morningside.

Organised by Tomlin Leckie, there will be a concert with all the teachers, jam sessions with an excellent house band, and two days of workshops.

The legendary harper Adam Gussow is on a rare visit to Europe from his usual Mississippi habitat, and fellow workshop presenters include Christelle Berthon (the most-viewed harmonica player on YouTube), Liam Ward (winner of the National Harmonica League Player of the Year) and Edinburgh’s Leckie (master of improvisation and founder of the popular Strollers Music School in Leith).

So, what is it about the ‘moothie’ that draws (no pun intended) so many people towards it?

“I’m always amazed by how many people totally love the quirky little instrument. People are always surprised and excited when I tell them I teach harmonica. It’s not difficult to get people to take up the instrument, but a lot of people give it up quite quickly when they realise that they need to practice as much as on a ‘big’ instrument.”

What does the new workshop offer to those who already play the instrument, or curious about picking one up for the first time? 

“For people who already play the instrument, it will give them the opportunity to play with other musicians. They will also be exposed to four teachers who play in very different styles. For people who have never played harmonica before, we will be creating a strong foundation for them to build their playing on.”

What sort of things will you be going through in the workshops? 

“During the workshops, we will be covering a wide variety of subjects – from your first time holding a harmonica, to playing advanced rock-blues. There is also a big focus on improvisation and learning how to play with other musicians.”

Adam Gussow is a big cheese within the Harmonica world. How did you manage to cajole him over to Edinburgh?

“Adam Gussow is devoted to spreading the joy of harmonica, and Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It wasn’t too hard.”

What can someone like him bring to this event? 

“There are many great harmonica players but few of them are also great teachers. Adam is both, as well as being a very innovative player. A lot of attendees will have never even had a harmonica lesson before in their lives. Being exposed to his teaching and playing will set them on a path they didn’t even know existed.”

Tell us a bit more about the other events you have lined up.

“We’ll be opening the weekend with a concert at The Voodoo Rooms (Friday 22nd July) for workshop attendees as well as people who just like harmonica. There will be performances from Adam Gussow, Christelle Berthon, Liam Ward and myself with our awesome house band. On Saturday night (23 Jul), the students will be invited to jam with the house band at The Voodoo Rooms.

In Scotland, many call the Harmonica ‘the moothie’. What’s the correct term – a mouth-organ? A French Harp? 

“It has a lot of names including the Tin Sandwich, Mississippi Saxophone and Blues Harp. Personally, I like ‘Blues Harp’.”

People often associate the Harmonica with blues music. Why is that? Do you find students wanting to play along to other styles? 

“It’s strange, isn’t it? The 10-hole diatonic harmonica was originally designed for playing Polkas until someone discovered all the tasty bends you could play on it. There is a strong history of harmonica bands playing melodic styles, but blues music seems to be the most common association people have with the instrument. Students come with many different style requests, including Jazz and Folk, but mostly people want to blow the blues.”

You need a lot of puff to play the Harmonica. What are the health/ exercise benefits to playing one?

“Harmonica is used to make breathing easier in people with COPD and asthma. Seydel have actually introduced a harmonica called the Pulmonica as a therapy aid for people with breathing problems. Breathing is the foundation of everything and harmonica can really help to solidify that foundation. The instrument helps people to learn how to control their diaphragm and breathe better. It is also imperative to play without tension so the instrument can take on an almost meditative quality.”

Edinburgh Harmonica Workshop, Eric Liddell Centre, Friday 22 – Sunday 24 July

A handful of workshop places are still available, at a cost of £200 each. There are more tickets for the opening night concert (over 18s only). They can be bought online from www.edinburghharmonica.com or by emailing [email protected] for more information.

Words: Barry Gordon