The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Why Aren't Harmonica Players As Respected As They Should BE?

(And what, if anything, can we do about it?)

by Alan "Blackie" Schackner

Reprinted with permission from The Harmonica Educator

Anyone who plays the harmonica for a living, or even just for fun, has probably encountered this condescending attitude, or even an actual bias toward the harmonica and harmonica players in general. I personally, have run into this mindset quite often in my long career, especially from so-called "legitimate" instrumentalists. To put it another way, (with apologies to Rodney Dangerfield), "We don't get no respect!"

Let me cite some examples of what I'm talking about. Quite often I'm asked in ordinary conversation, "What do you do for a living?" I generally answer: "I'm a virtuoso!" "Oh really?" And with obvious anticipation: "What kind?" When I answer "Harmonica!" They look at me as though I've just perpetrated a fraud! If they don't walk away at this point, they almost invariably follow with: "But what do you really do?" My answer to that is always the same. "Yes, that's what I really do!" Then with a look of incredulity they continue, "From this you make a living?" Unfortunately, that seems to be the public perception concerning the mouth organ. If I had answered the first question by saying I was a violin, cello, or flute player, even a mediocre one, I can assure you that the reaction would have been completely different. Why should this be? I've had experiences with this attitude that were much more harmful.

A few years ago, I was signed to appear, with the Boston Pops as a guest artist, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The orchestra was on tour at the time. Arthur Fiedler was the conductor. When he learned that I was a harmonicist, [I heard that] he positively refused to conduct for me, saying: "I'm not accompanying any #@%A&* harmonica player!" He did not know me, had never heard me. Knew nothing about me, but his attitude and power, ended my participation in that specific job, and although they had to pay me anyway, as per my contract, it was a terrific "letdown."

To further illustrate how bizarre this mis-perception of the harmonica can be, it even extended to my daughter in school when she was ten years old. The teacher instructed the children to stand up and tell the class what their fathers did for a living. The first child said: "My father's a doctor, and when people are sick, he makes them feel better." The next child quoted: "My daddy's a lawyer, and when people are in trouble, he helps them!" Then it was my daughters turn: She stood up, and proudly stated: "My father is a harmonica player!" The class burst into laughter, the teacher became very angry, and severely admonished my daughter, saying that this was "no joke." And had her stand in the corner! Of course the child was reduced to tears.

About the Author

Alan "Blackie" Schackner is a musician, entertainer and performer of wide and varied accomplishments. He has appeared on TV, the legitimate stage, in motion pictures, and radio. Alan has been heard as a soloist in concert halls, nightclubs and theatres all over the world. As a matter of fact, the late ROBERT RIPLEY devoted a complete article to Mr. Schackner in his famous "BELIEVE IT OR NOT" feature. Alan "Blackie" Schackner is the only harmonicist ever to be so honored.

Alan started making music on the harmonica at the tender age of ten. He learned quickly, and soon was performing regularly on the CBS children's hour. This was followed by many appearances on the KATE SMITH program, after which he was chosen to play a featured part in WILLIAM SAROYAH'S play "THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE." Alan played the music he had composed especially for the play in which dancer GENE KELLY performed to his music. Incidentally, the show won the CRITICS AWARD as well as the PULITZER PRIZE!

The young harmonica virtuoso then went on to become a featured performer on the ARTHUR GODFREY & HIS FRIENDS TV show, and also toured for awhile with MILTON BERLE. Alan has written music for several motion picture and theatre productions, as well as the score for the nationally broadcast ABC TV UNICEF program. He composed some of the music for the film "PORTRAIT OF JENNIE," and also wrote the hit tune "THE HAPPY COBBLER." A lifelong ambition was realized, when he appeared as soloist at New York's TOWN HALL. Cy Coleman, the composer, was his accompanist at the time.

Alan Schackner is a graduate of the New York College of Music, as well as a thoroughly trained advocate of the Schillinger System of Musical Composition (An advanced technique, which he studied at New York University). Today, Alan, or "Blackie" as his friends call him, is one of the most successful harmonicists in the United States. He is a well established recording artist, composer and performer, who still holds the all time record for performances at the famed CONCORD HOTEL in New York (33 in a single year!). He has shared concerts with such notables as ROBERT MERRILL, SERGIO FRANCHI, BOB HOPE, BOB NEWHART, and other top ranking performers. TV appearances go back as far as THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, and include guest spots with MERVE GRIFFIN, MIKE DOUGLAS, and the TONITE SHOW. "Blackie" has even been a mystery guest on "WHAT'S MY LINE," where he taught BEVERLY SILLS AND GENE SHALIT how to play the harmonica. He has also performed for 3 presidents of the United States: Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter!

Alan is in constant demand for TV commercials, and his harmonica can be heard promoting several automobile companies, PepsiCo, Nabisco cookies, Macdonald's products, frozen foods, and many others. He has recorded albums for RCA, ABC, Paramount, Grand Award, and a "How To Album" for Columbia called "Anyone can play the Harmonica." His latest for RCA is Called, "YESTERDAY WHEN I WAS YOUNG." He is also the author of nine very popular music folios, as well as three top selling WARNER BROTHERS PUBLICATIONS called, "EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHROMATIC HARMONICA," plus two follow-ups for the blues and rock harmonica fans.

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