RE: Confessions of a Gusser

Allen Stratyner commented on my "Confession":
>           You've said some things in your post that have really helped me
> better understand your motivation in doing what you did. I want to
> apologize to you for having come down so hard on you in my earlier
> to your "Confession".

Thanks!  I am beginning to feel like a harp-l pariah.

>          However, I do disagree with on several things you stated. For the
> most part, I think your playing in a corner of the club with the live band
> isn't much different then playing along with a recording.

Gotta disagree wichya here, Allen.  I've played along with so many
harmonica-based CD recordings, including a few dozen of my teacher's, that I
can't count them.  That's how I got to the point where Harry didn't feel
like I'd be an embarrassment to him or myself at his gigs, which I'm sure
was a key factor in his decision to allow it to happen.  There is a world of
difference between sitting in your home with a fast-forward/reverse CD
player and playing along with a live performance.  One of the biggest
differences is in selecting the correct keyed harp (the first time),
something that comes only with experience.  You don't have all day to try
different ones and the "feedback" is immediate and profound if you are
wrong.  Then, of course, there is the fact you are in public, not
sequestered in the safety and privacy of your own home.  Learning how to
comp to the extemporaneous playing of a professional musician in a live
performance is far different from playing along with a CD.  Learning how to
accompany the performer by complementing his play and singing is a whole
different matter than learning how to parrot phrases from a CD.

Escaping from the self-limiting nature of playing along with a CD was all
about my reasoning for thinking this cockeyed idea up in the first place.
And, BTW, it worked.

> There are definite
> dangers in that kind of practice unless you are very careful. I've had
> students play along with a CD, and they get the false impression that they
> are playing on a level equal to that of the artist they are playing along
> with. In some cases I've had them turn down the volume of the CD, and then
> recorded them playing along with the recorded accompaniment. When I played
> it back so they could get a better Idea of how they actually sounded they
> were very surprised at what they heard. Yes, that is a hard lesson to
> but an important one if you want to improve.

I agree with you completely about mis-impressions about one's playing along
with a CD.  In my recent post on the Telluride Acoustic Blues Camp, I
mentioned my incredible opportunity to play with and learn from Phil Wiggins
for 4 days.  I can assure you that I had done my Cephas and Wiggins homework
prior to showing up at the Camp.  I was pretty proud of my ability to parrot
most of Phil's play until I got in the same room with the Master. I very
quickly realized that what I had studied so hard from his recordings was
only a tiny facet of the man's talent and ability.  Very humbling, indeed.

I neglected to mention in my original confession that I routinely brought
along my cassette recorder to record my playing along with Harry's. In fact,
this was how the whole thing got started.  I've got dozens of cassettes
filled with examples of my play along with Harry's.  It's a treasure trove
of learning material and I can trace my progress from when I started to when
Harry left my area.  I'd study those tapes earnestly from one gig to the
next, and learn from my mistakes and successes in the effort to improve for
the next opportunity.  This was not a lark or a whim.  It was a year-long
masterclass in blues harp.

My efforts were directed at the very point you make: making the difficult
transition from the ability to parrot a recording by playing it over and
over to being able to be a productive, complementary, and creative player in
a live setting.  A ~huge~ difference in anybody's opinion.

>         You mention things like "blending in, and how and when to avoid
> stepping on the main performer", but I don't think playing off-stage like
> you did in a live venue is the best route to gaining skill in those
> This is because you are not really "playing off of" the other band
> In other words no one in the band was following you in terms of your
> and phrasing, and you were not affecting the timing of the band or a
> at any time. You need that instant feedback you get when actually playing
> with a live band to really gain those skills.

You make a point, here, Allen, and I agree at least partially.  I do take
exception to your comment that I wasn't playing off the other players.  That
was the ~whole~ point of my efforts!  Where I do agree with you is that
Harry and his band mates weren't playing off of ~me~.  That's my next step,
and I feel infinitely better equipped to handle that challenge after my
experiences at Harry's gigs.

I also disagree with your assessment that what I did was not the best way to
go about gaining relevant live playing experience.  You clearly understand
that there is a gulf between CD play-along harp and playing in a live band.
In my case, and I suspect in other's who are fortunate enough to have a
mentor as generous as Harry, "Gussing" afforded me an ideal opportunity to
begin to cross that barrier.  It made an ideal stepping stone on the way to
playing ~in~ a real band on a real stage.  That's why I subjected myself to
the harangue I anticipated when I posted my original confession.  I think
that, for those who are so fortunate to have a teacher like Harry and are
not scared off by the strong negative sentiments portrayed in this thread,
"introverted gussing" is a terrific learning tool.  That's my opinion and I
have not been swayed by the numerous emotional negative responses I have
been met with.

As an aside, I know that when I met Harry, I had never played a harmonica in
front of another person.  I was terrified when I first played for ~him~.  I
am no longer terrified about playing in front of other people.  This alone
may be my greatest truimph.  In fact, I will share a little kudo I got from
a couple of my gussing "fans".  They are the DJ's of the local Public Radio
station's weekly blues program (KVNF, Tuesdays from 1:00 to 4:00 PM; they
web-cast on  They've invited me to play solo and tell my story
about Harry, etc. next Tuesday on air for the annual fall pledge drive.  I'm
sacred sh*tless, but I'm gonna do it.  Turns out it was these DJ's who got
me in touch with Harry in the first place.  A bit of a success story for the
local Public Radio station.  And for me!

>   I would also suggest that you have to be careful about the kind of
> audience feedback you got. Yes, it might build your confidence, and that
> positive, but I don't think it's a really good source of feedback on your
> technique or performance.

Well, I'm still cherishing the praise that I received.  And I suspect I'll
get plenty more feedback when I play on the radio.

>         Michelle, do take that next step, and find some people you can
> actually play with. Continued success,
> Allen

Allen, I appreciate your constructive criticism as I feel it was genuine and
well-motivated.  My hopes are that more than a few people will hear me on
the radio next week, and that that will lead to some opportunities to
"actually play with" some of the great local musicians.  On stage!  Time
will tell...



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