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Music Professor Spends Summer Harping at Faneuil Hall

John Shirley Offers Free Harmonica Lessons

John Shirley teaches a harmonica class at Faneuil Hall Photo by Christopher Sargent
John Shirley teaches a free Monday night harmonica class in Boston.

By David Perry

Some professors travel during the summer; some undertake research or continue to teach.

Music Professor John Shirley decided to spend his summer instead harping away at one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.

Shirley, an accomplished harmonica player, is teaming up with harmonica maker and series sponsor Hohner to offer weekly harmonica classes outside Faneuil Hall in Boston. It’s all free and open to anyone each Monday night from 6 to 7 p.m. through July 10. Beginners through accomplished players are welcome, and harmonicas are available for free to children under age 12 or for a reduced price during the sessions.

After the first two weeks, said Shirley, it has been “crazy and exciting stuff.”

Shirley, a sort of pied piper of harmonica, has already brought the instrument to campus in a number of ways. But this was different.

“Faneuil Hall has been wanting to sponsor music lessons for a few years now,” said Shirley. “They had been looking for a harmonica teacher.”

Faneuil Hall Marketplace reached out to the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH), of which Shirley is a longtime member.

“They knew about our many harmonica activities at UMass Lowell,” said Shirley, who also led a harmonica jam at the June 21 Make Music Boston event at Magazine Beach Park.

He brought Hohner on board; the company donated 100 free harmonicas and offered deep discounts to more accomplished players who wished to upgrade.

“So far, it’s been going great,” said Shirley, who released a five-song harmonica recording in 2015. “In just two weeks, we’ve given harmonicas and free lessons to some 60 children and 25 adults.

“Some folks do just happen to walk by while we’re playing and are drawn in. Others come specifically for these lessons as they hear about them through social media, friends or other music instructors.”

The first lesson covers the basics – function, technique, a couple of simple grooves to play.

The lessons aren’t just for the musically inclined. Shirley says diatonic harmonica “is a very easy instrument to get started making music on, and was designed to be that way.” Breathing in and out renders separate, complementary fundamental chords. The way the instrument is made, “it’s hard to play a wrong note,” he says.

He loves harmonica for its portability, its expressive tone and its ability to allow him to bend notes.

Shirley only began playing harmonica in 2012, but he was a fast learner and released a five-song, genre-hopping recording, “Not So Blue,” in 2015. 

He’s been on a mission to teach the instrument in Lowell. The first lessons he offered were on campus, at an informal gathering of 15 undergrads. He has taught group lessons at the university’s Mary Jo Leahy Symphonic Band Camp for the past two summers and has also led several group classes of Music Studies majors. Shirley has also taught two dozen Lowell-area retirees as part of the Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA) program, done professional development workshops for Lowell middle school teachers and offered informal private lessons to UML undergrads.

Shirley notes that the Music Department offers a Bachelor’s of Music degree with harmonica as the major instrument.

This summer, he’s been busking around Faneuil Hall with his harmonica – but just for fun. “I don’t think I’ll be giving up the professorship for the street performer life,” he says.