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Homeless? Broke? Busted? Disgusted?

(Note to the the homeless: If you still believe you need to panhandle or steal after reading this training material, you need a comprehensive mental health assessment. Tough love. Deal with it.)

A quick, free lesson on earning tips – lots of 'em – as a street musician  playing blues harmonica, even if you've never played the harmonica or believe it's a child's toy or a tired novelty act from the Vaudeville era. (It was exactly that for more than a century after its invention, but it's hard to believe anyone would still consider it as such more than 50 years after the most famous entertainers in the world have so continually proven its positive contribution and lasting impact.)

RULE #1: Don’t try to play single-note melodies. They’re difficult to play on the harp, especially for beginners, and no one is going to tip you for playing old campfire songs or ice-cream truck tunes, anyway … although they might pay you to stop. If you really want to play these types of folk songs, as they're called - for your own practice or amusement or some high-roller who thinks you can't do it - just relax and play the tune as you remember it in your head as a chordal melody, two or three holes at a time. If you're really into playing single-note melodies or have a market for it, look into tremelo harmonicas, which also come in major or minor keys. The notes are spaced in such a way that playing single notes is both easy and intuitive. You'll be playing most any tune you can hum after just a few minutes, so they are consistent with our right-now requirement.

Tremelo harmonicas have traditionally been very large harps 21, 24 holes, etc.; we used to see them on the old Ed Sullivan Show or Lawrence Welk - kind of a novelty joke compared to our uses and impressions of harps today. The good news is that Suzuki makes a 13-hole model called Tremelo Humming that is only slightly larger than a 10-hole diatonic harp (so still very convenient to store and carry) and comes in C major or A minor, somewhere between $40 and $50, depending on the dealer. Look them up on E-bay and you'll see competing prices between several retailers. I used to think that the different note spacing would be counterproductive with trying to master the diatonic harp, but after some experience going back and forth between them I can say it's just not an issue. Many guitar players also play banjo, mandolin, etc.; many horn players switch between clarinet and saxophone, etc., with no problems.

Whether you're playing single notes or chords, don't "jump and peck" (does anybody remember the In Living Color episode where Jim Carrey is hypnotized to act like a chicken and the hypnotist, played by David Alan Grier, dies of a heart attack before snapping him out of the trance? Poor guy is stuck pecking at everything like a chicken! Hilarious mental image of a "Chicken Man" pecking at a harp like that, but definitely not good technique); keep your lips moist and glide very lightly from one note or chord to the next.

Many songs won't work at all in chordal style; a few that will work fairly well (and make you sound oh-so-cool) are You Are My Sunshine, Red River Valley, He's Got The Whole World in His Hands, Michael Row The Boat Ashore and When The Saints Go Marchin' In. Undoubtedly there are many more: experiment, work them through. It's a rush (and increased revenue [tip] potential) every time you learn a new tune, and again every time you make adjustments and improvements to your arrangements.

You’ve heard the lyric, “Money for nothing and your chicks for free”? Learn to play simple psuedo-blues on a 10-hole diatonic harp, friend. And this is for ladies, too; that popular song lyric isn't a sexist reference; it’s an analogy for the wonderful possibilities that can open up to performers at any level. (Advice to students: get involved in theatre or any performing arts at your school, even if it's just running the lights, moving props, sweeping up afterwards. You'll be surrounded by and involved with people who may spark interests in you that you hadn't even thought of, opening you up to myriad possibilities for the future.)

Here’s enough to get you started with the harp in just a few minutes; then, as soon as possible, and a little bit each chance you get, go to and search “harmonica instruction” video clips. Beck Wenger is my favorite. Unlike some other instructional videos that can talk you into a coma, this talented young lady doesn't say a word on her video . . . just lets the harp do her talkin'. And does it ever! I can't stop watching it and apparently I'm not alone. It's had over 4.7 million views! John "Arguably the Best in the World" Popper has a fresh and entertaining instructional approach that I'm anxious to examine more closely. There’s just a ton of free harp videos, both performance and instruction, out there from seasoned pros to amateurs who can really wail. All available for viewing on free computers at recreation rooms, senior centers, libraries, etc. But for now

You’re going to be playing any two or three holes at once; you’re going to alternate blowing (exhaling) and drawing (inhaling) to give it melody and interest. And you’re also going to articulate while you’re doing it. (Note: if you're giggling and making faces every time the word "blow" or "hole" is used . . . grow up or go away; this probably isn't for you.)

Articulating, talking or scatting (whispering), while playing the harp produces many interesting effects, and is used by pro harp players everywhere. Rock musicians, notably Peter Frampton, often use an electronic talk box, sometimes called a talking synth, for a similar effect. Done as a harp technique, oftentimes the words aren't even clear, nor are they supposed to be. Try something like "Wad-de-ya-do, wad-de-ya-do, wad-de-ya-do?" The result sounds like a very skillful, rapid-fire note sequence. Similar ideas and experiments are endless, easy and convenient on a harp, just about anywhere, anytime you've got a few private moments.

Below is a little example I call The Panhandler Blues: Try it right now with any cheap harmonica you can get your hands on (but don't buy one in the toy aisle in a department store; they sound terrible and often cost more than a real instrument). True beginner instruments that you can make tips with like the Suzuki Easy Rider (G) or the Swan (C) go for less than a six-pack of beer or a pack of smokes on E-bay ($5 or $6, free shipping, brand new from dealers), so don't tell me, "Can't do it; ain't got no money." That’s crap and you know it. But if you're looking for an excuse to stay in your comfort(?) zone, it'll do.

If you really want to sound like a blues pro in a hurry and can come up with about $40, get a Lee Oscar harmonic minor harp (Bbm or Cm) online or at a local music store like Sam Ash or Guitar Center. Skilled blues players do some breathing manipulations called note bending that creates a raspy, bluesy sound, as well as filling in some missing notes on a diatonic harp; it's not easy to learn (it has eluded me for more than a decade). A minor key harp can give that illusion, even when played by a beginner, but it gets old - for both artist and audience - so sooner or later you'll also want to work with major key harps. Nevertheless, the harmonic minor harp is an excellent start-right-now, stop-gap measure, and a quality instrument you won't want to part with. Well worth the investment.

Don't buy a so-called "melody maker" harp, regardless of the brand. They do have merit and special applications for experts, but their altered note arrangement makes them completely inappropriate for our goals here, which are to have absolute beginners earning tips right away.

This might be a good time to mention that harmonicas are absolutely not returnable because of the germs ("cooties?") factor, so stay within the recommendations given here and buy carefully. Best bet? Buy online (through E-bay or Amazon). The prices will be better, you'll find exactly the model you're looking for (without any pressure to buy something a retailer just wants to get rid of) and get it faster (the harps I'm recommending here will most likely be special-order items at brick-and-mortar stores, and that can take a week or more. Bummer).

Minor key harps not only let you improvise (imagine a saxophone or clarinete player - they're likely playing a lot of half-steps, minor key interjections and embellishments, not la-de-da major key whole steps) like a pro, they also let you play tunes like Summertime and Hungarian Dance Number 5 (gypsy fiddle music, rarely heard on the harmonica). I had worked on that song for a few days lately, remembering it from my piano music, wasn't really sure if I was chasing my tail; darned if I didn't see Buckwheat playing it on the harp on one of the old Little Rascals episodes - and smokin' it, too - as a chordal melody like I mentioned above. It will blow your mind once you realize how easy a simple arrangement of that can be on the harp. All you need is 30 seconds' worth of a kick-ass song like that (people don't have to know those few bars are all you've got: you're busy, your job is to play little sound bites, most of which are improvisational, not conciertos - get it?) to get a $5 tip!

Keys can seem confusing, but aren't really. Beginners can benefit from a C major harp; it makes it easy to follow lesson plans that usually have the instructor using a C; they are mass-produced, well-stocked and cheap. We like our toys (and think we "need" them) so if you want another harp later on, Bb major or harmonic minor makes sense. If you're playing with other musicians, you'll want harps that go with the keys of the music they're playing. If you get to that point, or even think you might, don't get in a panic about the potential cost. Well-known companies, Hohner for example, sell a set of three keys in a tough-looking 'gig' case for around $15.

Other than relative pitch range, high or low, if you're going to play alone the key doesn't matter. But staying in the middle range (Bb or C) helps avoid the "sick moose" sound at the low end and the "dog whistle" at the high. The sweet spot - to my ear - is Bb, any brand, major or harmonic minor key. I've been careful to specify "harmonic" minor key; I'll probably get "flames" informing me there's also a natural minor, and anything with the word natural in it sounds like it would be the best. Meh. Of the two, harmonic or natural, the harmonic - again to my taste - is a little less dark and - for our purposes here - more versatile in the long haul.

The economy harps I talked about above can certainly get you started, but won't have the volume and projection of the better harps (this can be a plus if you have to practice very quietly somewhere), and won't be available at all in minor keys. Luckily, unlike bicycles (don't get me started), cameras, computers, etc., where the sky's the limit, performance quality harps like the Suzuki Bluesmaster (soft and mellow) and the Lee Oskars (loud and brassy) come in at around $30 and $40, respectively. This needn't be an expensive endeavor.

If you're seeking financial help from a friend or family member for "gear" remind them this isn't just a pricey toy; it's a musical instrument and, effectively, a business expense. I'm not telling you to manipulate anyone; if you get money from someone for a harp or whatever be sincere about it and follow through. But I will suggest that it might help if you actually just "happen" to get them into the music store with you ("I wonder if they have those Lee Oskar minor key [a little esoteric name-dropping usually helps, too, but as I've said, use these persuasive superpowers for good, not evil, Grasshopper] harmonicas here?"), as opposed to just scoring the cash and off you go. Even if the outcome is the same as it would have been, they'll feel good about their increased involvement, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Back to the business at hand . . .

If there's a secret to success here it's to not be wimpy or bashful about your performances. Wail on that baby like you've been doing it for years! Confidence. And discretion. Let's not kid ourselves, most municipalities frown on or outright prohibit street performances of any type. Don't make a big show of staking out a location and making it "yours." Keep it mobile: that's where the harp's small size makes it shine. Yes, it may be awkward and embarrassing at first, but it can’t be any more humiliating than panhandling! If you're drinking every dollar that passes through you hands, as Dr. Phil would say on his TV program, “How’s that workin’ out for ya’?” Get it together, man; stop pushing back and looking for reasons why this won't work. People have been proving it will for more than half a century!

The Panhandler Blues . . .
Blow or draw chords using holes 3-4-5 together, then 4-5-6 together, back to 3-4-5, etc. Wah-wahs usually sound good using holes 2-3 together. Depending on a lot of factors (the key of the harp, the lower keys G and A being the worst,  the brand of harp and your experience) hole #1 can honk, buzz, sneeze, etc., especially when played as a single note, so until you've had some practice, avoid it especially in public. Words or syllables that are underlined are drawn, those that aren't are blown. Those sequences aren't written in stone, the point is in, out, in, out, etc., to give it tonal variety and interest, also to balance out your breathing so you won't be too empty or full of air. If you feel a phrase sounds better starting on a draw instead of a blow, by all means experiment with it that way and go with what you feel works better. This is just a "workshop"; the real training comes "on the job." If and when you can get constructive advice, take it. I'm no expert; I just believe in harps and street performing as a positive, creative concept and seem compelled to keep "hittin' people up 'side the head" with it.

Hoo-chee coo-chee's got no shoes

Hoo-chee coo-chee's got the blues

Hoo-chee coo-chee, what to do?

Hoo-chee coo-chee, play the blues!

Du-wah, du-wah

Diga-diga-duh-wah, Tuk-tuk-too.

Won’t you help me beat the blues?

Du-wah, du-wah.

Pause …

If you like my muzic, too, you will know just what to do!

(A small ice bucket, cup, etc., with $ sign on the side to make your intentions obvious.)

Du-wah, du-wah.

Hand cupping and opening and closing, and shaking from side to side accents the wah-wahs.

For an easy trill effect and an effective end to a performance segment, roll an R, "rrrrr," while blowing and moving from one end of the harp to the other, low to high (a glissando - you'll hear musicians just call it a "gliss") in one long, smooth motion. Wherever you stop, come back down a couple of holes, quick (staccato) draw chord (any three adjacent holes), then another quick blow chord, same location, higher, lower, it all works). Smile. Eye contact. That's it; tip time, Babalu! Don't start playing again too quickly; leave some time for the folks to "get it": music stops, put money in container, music starts again! Don't worry about the technicalities of these moves; there’s really no wrong way to do this. You've listened to music all your life, and even if you've never studied concepts like resolution, you'll know what it should sound like and improve at it quickly.

You're not going to have a lot of material just starting out - don't let it get too repetitive in front of the same folks. After your best few musical phrases, another good technique involves slowing down (ritardando in music-speak) and varying the tempo (called "rubato") and resolution (end of tune) with a sustained note or chord, pause a couple beats for effect (drama, expectation), and finish with a very light, quick "toot" at the very high end of your harp or another long, sustained chord at the low end (experiment with it - learn to watch people's reactions, responses, body language, etc.) at which point you're holding out your tip container. "Help a struggling musician, folks?" Practice the whole sequence until it feels natural and produces the result (folding money!) you're looking for. 

When you’ve got a nice blues rhythm going, invent your own scatting lyrics, accents, dynamics, trills, shakes. You’re already getting your show “down,” and it’s only been 15 minutes! Stick with it - you'll be smokin' at this, able to teach others, maybe form a duet (couples living or travelling together are naturals for this), before you know it! Think in terms of improvements, possibilities, all the while having fun with the activity in the here-and-now. Make sense?

Street musician isn't a bad gig. You're not likely to be the next Bob Dylan, but you'll make enough to get by, you’ll still have your independence – and your dignity. The harp has much of the same coolness as a guitar without the problems associated with that instrument's size and weight. Sure, it's a romantic and nostalgic notion, the old photos of beginning artists making their way to their next coffee house gig or just bummin' it around the country, guitar case strapped to their back. But nowadays, with so many incidents involving bombings, so often executed with suitcases, backpacks and similar storage gear, even if you could play the guitar, its large case would not be a welcome sight in many places. The "Mississippi saxophone," as the harp has been called, on the other hand, fits stealthily in a pocket or purse - nobody's beeswax until you want it to be. Wah-wah-waaah! 

Comments? Suggestions?


Mickey Parker,

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Dental implant promotional methods, procedures need legislative review, reform, enforcement . . .

DENTAL IMPLANTS, being offered by virtually every licensed dentist in the country (and, conceivably, even some who are unlicensed), should be much more carefully regulated. At the very least dental implant procedures should be limited to installation by oral surgeons only - and even then, only those with additional, special training in the procedures and the myriad of serious potential complications involved. Even oral surgeons should be held to strict standards regarding minimum staffing and specialized equipment for implant procedures. These complex procedures cannot be safely and effectively done in small, squalid "general practitioner" surroundings by dentists who "went to a seminar" or "read a trade magazine article about it."

Allowing inadequately trained general dentists in minimally equipped, understaffed dental clinics (I believe there are even mobile dental clinics - run from large vans - doing the work) to perform these risky, invasive implant procedures is as absurd as allowing general practitioners to perform open-heart surgery on an out-patient basis. What's next? Dental implants at the mall? Dental implant "salons" at the Big Box stores? Hey, Mom can get her nails done while Dad starts his dental implants procedure "nightmare" at the booth next door! Don't laugh - under current law it could happen!

I have permanent nerve damage because a Las Vegas dentist (who claimed to have "more than 20 years of experience with dental implants") "experimented" with these dental implant procedures on me in 2010 and BOTCHED the job . . . big time. There is no effective treatment: not implant removal, not bone reduction, not fancy-sounding laser beam treatment (ridiculous in this application, as if burning the surrounding flesh would magically make the severed nerve endings mend themselves). Bottom line: there is no cure for nerve damage received during faulty dental implant procedures. Good job, Doc!

The first of three implants was drilled so deep it pierced my mandibular nerve; I wish I could return the favor ... with a rusty railroad spike! The other two were so high, there was no clearance for the necessary abutments, and they had to be removed as well (X-rays taken the next day confirm all this). So much for those "over 20 years of implant experience" the dentist claimed to have! My implant placements looked as though they were done by an auto mechanic!

Web graphics and videos in dental waiting rooms, using the most beautiful artists' renderings of colorful, even layers of tissue, bone and nerves, depicting the bad teeth flying out and dental implants "floating gracefully up and over and into the gums," are carefully crafted to make the public believe that dental implants can be done quickly, effectively and safely by any dentist. Clearly, false and misleading advertising. Why it's not subject to Fair Claims Practices Act continues to blow my mind.

Truth be told, the symptoms only get worse: the drooling, the spitting, the lisping, the tongue and cheek and lip biting and lack of muscle control while eating (I basically have to eat with my face stuck in a bowl - like an animal - I think there's food stuck to that side of my face, and nothing's there, or I do have food stuck to my face and can't feel it), above and beyond the constant feelings alternating between numbness and electrical charges - all horrible and permanent symptoms.

My experience is not unique or even rare. The 98% success rate* cited by the implant industry sounds impressive, but that 2% failure comprises over 60,000 patients, all unfairly influenced by questionable marketing tactics, ambiguous competency standards, and subjective qualifications. Patients who experience pain, numbness, feelings of electric shock just under the skin, etc. (the collective term for which is "paraesthesia"), following implant procedures are immediately and continually told, as I was, that "it will go away - you'll be fine." And isn't is amazing that how, when pressed, they each had "one" patient with the same problem - "but it went away." Right. On one hand we're told, "this almost never happens," but then after the fact there are these supposed "professionals" who have performed myriad corrective procedures for anomalies involving dental implants. If complications are so rare, where did they get all this corrective experience? If mishaps and injuries are so unlikely, why are patients required to sign a multi-page waiver prior to the procedures?

Dental implant clinics, promoted in the most deceptive manner: "Teeth in one day," with smiling models supposedly biting into an apple immediately after the implant procedure (truth be known, you'll probably be limited to a very soft diet for a year or more), etc., ostensibly a legal and ethical violation of informed-consent obligations, are the new physician-run "pill mills" and should be approached with the same regulatory zeal as the "pushers" running those types of grey-area drug clinics. And, similar to the "feel-good clinics" that exploit the law and human weakness for the sake of obscene profits, the time can't be far off - if it's not happening already - that we're going to see implant "pushers" migrating from state to state when things get too "hot" in a particular jurisdiction.

 Anyone who thinks this doesn't affect them, because they're not senior citizens (the principle target market for dental implants) is missing the collective, downhill implications here. Traditional dental treatment as we've known it for the last several decades is being eroded by the big-buck promise of dental implants. The mantra of "Save the teeth, if at all possible" has changed to "Let 'em rot - the implant replacements will pay for my new Porsche!" (Yes, folks, a full set of uppers and lowers is $50,000+!) A local periodontist actually has "Periodontist/Implantologist" on his signage and business cards. No surprise that he wasn't "able" to do anything for my gums but "check 'em again next month" ... and suggest some implants(!) for the affected area. Is anyone so dense that they don't see the conflict of interest involved there? We're looking at a system that encourages these people to do nothing - fraudulently and deceptively - so they'll have a shot at a bigger payday on down the road. 

The current, overly permissive and irresponsible policies and actions of the dental implant industry remind me of what Harry Markopolos (chief fraud investigator and whistleblower in the Bernie Madoff case) said in his book No One Would Listen: "The health-care industry makes Wall Street look honest."

Legislators, seriously, please do what you can to introduce legislation that will re-define and restrict these dangerous procedures, especially in the hands of under-trained, under-equipped, under-staffed general dentists (or simply deem implant procedures by general dentists as "illegal practice drift" under existing regulations), and limit the negative impact on public health that will continue to rise as the current regulatory shortcomings, as well as the considerable financial incentives, make the procedures more and more widespread. Your families and friends are out there and subject to this treatment, too.

THE UNDER-REGULATED DENTAL IMPLANT INDUSTRY that continues to allow dentists to misrepresent and perform these delicate and risky procedures has caused me years of pain and suffering. The collective dental implant industry (with projected U.S. revenues - notice I didn't say "earnings" - of roughly $6.4 billion for 2018*) needs to clean up a very deceptive business model and settle my malpractice-injury claim for $3 million.

Ray Parker, Coalition for Dental Implant Reform

*Dental Facts and Figures, American Academy of Implant Dentistry

Why teeth implants may be the most painful (and costly) mistake of your life, Jane Feinmann, The Daily Mail, February 17, 2014

The hidden danger of the gray [zirconia] market, Dental Products Report, Digital Esthetics

Dental implant manufacturer Nobel Biocare to pay $1.3 million to settle $450 million lawsuit for misrepresentation of dental implant products, Law360, New York, April 16, 2013

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