Friday, February 6, 2009

Harping On: Tony Eyers

    One of the best instructional websites I've found is Harmonica Academy. The lessons are separated into different "years". Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior. Each year consists of ten detailed harmonica lessons which cover basic playing. Each year also has ten blues lessons. 
    Every lesson has audio about what you have to learn. You have to be able to play each part before you go on. 
    The founder of this site is Tony Eyers. His playing (which is superb) mostly consists of bluegrass and traditional Irish fiddle tunes. His Album, "Black Mountain Harmonica", is a great example of music which is all too often overlooked by harmonica players. 

1.  What is your background as a harmonica player?

   I went to College in the US in the '70s where I met Jim Fitting, the famous Boston based player. Jim inspired me to start, then helped me in the early stages. Through the'80's I led blues bands in Australia, and studied baroque recorder (the other end of the spectrum). During the 1990's I started going to bluegrass festivals in Australia, and was drawn to the traditional fiddle tunes. I didn't know if they could be played on harmonica, but I was determined to find out.

   2. I listened to your CD. It's all Irish folk music. Your harmonica playing through it is very much like a fiddle. How did you adapt your playing to that style?

   Actually the CD is more bluegrass. I hung around bluegrass players in the US in the early 80's, then reconnected with the music in the '90s. There are some Irish tunes on the CD, inspired partly by Brendan Power's playing on "New Irish Harmonica". I sound like a fiddle, because I'm playing fiddle tunes... I've retuned my harmonicas to more easily play the tunes at full speed, this accounts partly for my sound. Also I use very good custom harmonicas, made by Neil Graham in Australia. These make a big difference. I try to play the tunes note for note, like the good fiddle players.

   3. I understand you became a big harmonica instructor in China. How did that get started?

   I was working for the University of Wollongong, and ended up teaching engineering at Zhengzhou University in China, as part of an exchange program. The students had a great interest in Western music, but few resources for learning. I teamed up with a Chinese post graduate student named Shiwee and created a harmonica teaching web site. I wrote the lessons, Shiwee did the translations, built the site and built the Chinese community. Shiwee and I have a close working relationship, the site now has over 30000 members.

   4. How did you decide to create HarmonicaAcademy.Com? came from the Chinese site, the lessons are essentially the same. I make my living writing educational material in the IT area, so creating Internet based harmonica instruction has been a logical step.

   5. How did you come up with the lesson format?

   I started by looking at existing harmonica teaching material. There is some great stuff these days, but I found two common problems which I tried to address.

   1) Audio samples. You should be able to play the bit you are learning over and over. And it should be right next to the tab. Most instruction books have CDs, where you have to jump to track 46 then start, pause etc. The Internet allows online audio players which avoid this hassle.

   Also I wanted to avoid endless tab. Many books have a few pages of instruction, then tab for the remainder. My eyes blur over after a page or two of tab, I suspect that others feel the same.

   2) Many instruction courses lack a clear structure. You get the book, it is too easy, too hard etc. In particular, intermediate players often have trouble finding instruction books which suit their level. Creating a structured learning program is not easy. I drew on my skills as a professional educator when designing Harmonica Academy, so that players could easily find the right starting point, and progress from there.

   6. On the site, you separate harmonica lessons, from blues-harmonica lessons. What is your main reason for doing that?

   Most harmonica courses are all blues... Nothing wrong with that, unless you want to play other styles (traditional tunes, Hip Hop etc). For this reason I divided the Harmonica Academy lessons into two strands, one for blues, the other for traditional tunes. I also cover Hip Hop, country and other styles. The idea is to appeal to a wide audience, and to equip players with more performance options than just blues.

   7. Do have many students through the site?

   The site is becoming popular.

   8. What kind of feedback have you gotten?

  Pretty much all good so far. I get suggestions on improving things, which I try to incorporate. Early on someone suggested a "Click here for the next lesson" link at the end of each lesson. An obvious feature which I had overlooked, but then added. 

   9. Anything coming up?

   I've been writing a series of articles on things I do as a player. I'm also writing about common traps for beginners, and how to avoid them. Things like the two hole draw note, why you start with a C harmonica etc. I struggled with these things when I started, and didn't have the Internet to help me out. I'd like to make it easier for emerging players if I can.

  10. Any last words to members of HOOT?

  Absolutely. Texas has some of the best live music in the world. Go out and see it!


  1. great harmonica player

  2. This was interesting reading. Good info and nice history on Tony and the site.

  3. Thanks for posting this interview. i'm just beginning to learn about Tony's instructional efforts [which are most impressive, by the way], and your interview provides helpful insights.


Leave comments here:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.