Whistle a Happy Tune
The pied piper of Oswego touts the harmonica as a gateway to music
If you could pick up a new musical instrument and immediately make a pleasant sound, then play a whole song within 15 minutes or so, you’d probably want to stick with it.
That’s what Jacob Prosek, music teacher at Lombard’s Westmore Elementary School and an Oswego native, figured. Since that epiphany, he’s become something of a harmonica education expert.
Turns out, the little tin thing with holes on the side is not just a toy.
Though his family wasn’t particularly musical, Prosek enjoyed piano lessons as a kid and played high school saxophone. He was a college psychology major . . . until he realized he missed music.
“Musical inclinations are very natural; humankind always made music,” says Prosek. “They are evolutionary, vital to our existence, very much a part of who we are.”
He joined the university choir and began participating in musical theater activities, considering a career in performance. But that summer’s musical theater camp job was a revelation — he loved to teach music.
Prosek transferred to North Central College. At his first music educator conference, Prosek read an article that included just a few paragraphs about harmonica curricula. It inspired him to try to teach junior high students to play the harmonica at a summer internship. The kids loved it and Prosek was hooked.
Researching harmonicas, he learned the German folk instrument was invented in the 1800s. In the early 1900s, harmonica competitions and even harmonica bands were all the rage in the U.S.
“John Phillips Sousa touted harmonicas as the gateway to get children into the symphony orchestras of tomorrow,” says Prosek. “It was a big trend.”
Since most harmonicas were imported from Germany, when German imports ceased during World War II, interest waned. Recorders newly made of plastic instead of the more expensive wood became the entry-level instrument of choice.
Intrigued with re-introducing harmonicas to Americans, Prosek won a grant to visit Germany, spending part of the summer of 2015 observing harmonica students, learning curricula and researching.
“I saw harmonica orchestras — full ensembles of just harmonicas. It’s a really cool sound, much better than you’d expect,” he says. “Adults and kids in southern Germany — it was just like any
instrumental ensemble rehearsal anywhere.”
Some notable advantages for the often time-, cost- and space-conscious music curricula in U.S. schools: “There’s no tuning, so that part of warm-up isn’t needed. There’s less space — you don’t need lockers. And it never gets too loud,” says Prosek.
Even non-music educators can teach harmonica. And that matters.
“There’s a connection between music and high academic performance,” says Prosek. “And it’s wonderful to give children an instrument and have it be theirs. It’s empowering. Recorders are a great prep for band, but no one plays those instruments for leisure like they do a harmonica.”
The cost of start-up is low. Prosek pays $3-$4 for each harmonica; upgraded harmonicas cost only $44 — a small fraction of the cost of any band instrument, with no worries about losing or breaking it.
“They’re portable, inexpensive, easy to play and you can bring them with you to the park or practice at home.”
Prosek’s research was published last fall in a music educator’s journal; he has presented to music educators at Roosevelt University, North Central College and at a DuPage County conference last month — approximately 100 teachers in all.
Plenty of others are now playing his tune.
“I’ve had so much fun teaching it, showing what’s possible. Feedback has been so positive, from teachers to professors.”
The harmonica lends itself to improvisation, which can be challenging with traditional instruments — an exercise that builds confidence, encourages discovery and creates higher-level thinking. Even his first graders compose their own music.
But the best part for Prosek is how much the kids love it.
“One of the most exciting parts of my job is sparking interest in music, showing the kids how everyone can be a musician in some way. I hope I’m giving them a tool to revisit throughout their lives.”Edit Module