The harmonica is the world’s coolest and most portable instrument. Even a piccolo, the smallest instrument in an orchestra, won’t fit in your pocket. The harp, as it’s known by blues fans, will.
Here are a few profitable lessons from some of the most influential harmonica players, teachers and manufacturers in the world.
Relax and you’ll do better
Tomlin Leckie notes in his podcast that it’s tempting to think great harmonica players put a lot of effort into their playing, but this “couldn’t be further from the truth. If you hear a harmonica player with fantastic control and tone, it is only the product of being supremely relaxed…in every part of their body….[A]ny source of tension is going to weaken and make your tone more thin. So if you want that big, fat tone, remember to relax.”
Whatever challenge you’re facing at work now—an uncomfortable talk you need to have with someone, a new task you’re taking on, a speech you must give—you’re more likely to succeed if you’re relaxed.
Maybe the problem is you
“If I’m trying to help you learn something, and you’re not learning it,” says Joe Filisko, “there’s a strong likelihood that I failed to communicate the information correctly to you as an instructor.”
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If your team isn’t doing what you want them to, could the problem be that you haven’t effectively communicated what you want?
Joe told me that if a student of his isn’t getting the point he is making, Joe makes that point simpler and keeps breaking it down until the student does get it.
But this approach to leadership requires humility. If you’re willing to concede that a leadership problem you have might be because of you, you’re one step closer to leading effectively.
Know thy product or service
Lars Seifert, CEO of the oldest harmonica factory in the world, C.A. SEYDEL SÖHNE in Klingenthal, Germany, commands respect among his workforce because he knows how to put the instrument together himself. The head of the company not only understands how its products work but can demonstrate the correct technique for manufacturing every one of the many varieties it sells.
There may be practical reasons why you can’t follow suit. No one expects the CEO of a global bank to know how to operate a teller’s cash-counting machine.
But isn’t it possible for you to know a little more about the work that each member of your team does? How might you engender greater respect if you did?
It takes constant work to excel
As a teenager, Adam Gussow, a scholar, musician, and pioneer in teaching music online, learned a transformative lesson that has shaped his estimable career. He was invited to play at a fundraiser for Save the Children UK and shared the bill with some of the greatest players in blues, funk, and rock.
He saw backstage how hard Maceo Parker, James Brown’s legendary saxophone player, was practicing before the show. “He wasn’t phoning it in,” Gussow told me. “Anyone who wants to create a myth around a guy like this—‘He’s just naturally talented’—is deeply mistaken. It’s hard work.”
Why do the most successful people continue to practice their craft long after they’ve achieved a level of mastery? The answer is built into the question. It’s because these leaders continue to work at it that they maintain their excellence.
Know the past if you want to excel in the future
When she was in college, Annie Raines had a friend who made 10 tapes for her of great blues harmonica players. “Little Walter, Big Walter, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy, George Smith…I listened to those tapes over and over and over again for years,” she says in an interview on BluesHarmonica.com. This music “went in there and became part of my brain circuitry.” You can hear the influence of these past masters in this current master’s performances.
In the same spirit, the second editions of both Harmonica for Dummies and Blues Harmonica for Dummies by Winslow Yerxa devote a considerable amount of text to discussing the work of players who created the first harmonica recordings over 100 years ago. Why spill so much ink on history? It’s because our past is a potent force in shaping our future.
Who are the giants in your field? What are their key works, and how would studying those works make you better at what you do? Would it be a good idea to cite some of these works the next time you give a presentation to colleagues or write a post on LinkedIn, Twitter, or your blog?
No one is self-made. Successful leaders know who succeeded before them and that it’s smart to continue to learn how they did it.
Leadership is about serving others, not yourself
Michael D’Eath, president of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica, has successfully led for-profit and not-for-profit companies. Leadership of both types of organizations, he told me, should be rooted in selflessness. “This is about everybody else, not you,” he said.
The “you” he refers to is both the client or customer and everyone working at the organization. He told me that the best leaders respect other people’s time. “It starts with board meetings,” he said, by ensuring that they’re not any longer than they need to be.
“When I call somebody,” he added, he likes to begin with “Do you have time to talk right now?” It’s a simple thing to say, but it speaks volumes about your character.
To lead is to serve.
Your values don’t mean a thing if you don’t live them
Greg Jones sells and repairs Seydel harmonicas in the U.S. After I blew out a reed on one of my harps (a common rookie mistake), I checked out Greg’s website and was struck by the last item on his Q&A page.
Question: Can you classify my order as a “gift” or undervalue it so I don’t get charged taxes?
Answer: I will not lie or make any misrepresentation on a government document. It just doesn’t fit into the type of business I want to operate.
That’s the kind of person I want to do business with, and I did so. Where do you draw the line in your business? Do you let your current and prospective customers know where that line is? If not, what are you waiting for?
Enjoy the journey
The Levels of Achievement program on BluesHarmonica.com is structured like levels in martial arts classes, since its creator, David Barrett, was also a martial artist. I enjoy the challenge of learning the techniques at each level, and by passing the requisite test, I get a shiny, beautiful pin.
Still, in my virtual lessons with him, Barrett politely warns me not to focus on the outcome and to enjoy the journey. The students who view their lessons not as a means to an end but as an end in themselves do best in the long run.
One of the most striking aspects of the HBO series Succession is how little the ultra-rich characters enjoy their riches. Have you ever seen people who have so much find such little pleasure in life? The show is a cautionary tale of what can happen when we obsess over a goal and forget to savor the experience of achieving it.
Call to action
It’s hard to argue with the validity of any of the above leadership lessons. But it’s also overwhelming to think about taking all of them to heart.
Why not just choose one to work on for now? Just one. The few minutes you’ve spent reading this article will pay huge dividends if you do so.
Note: I’ve focused on the blues harmonica, but this versatile instrument is used in a wide range of music genres, including country, rock, jazz, and East Asian music, to name but a few.