[Harp-L] A few comments and observations on SPAH 2009

I attended SPAH 2009 this year for about 2 days--from Thursday afternoon through Saturday morning.  As always, it was a tremendously exciting and inspiring event, and it was easy to see lots of potential for improvements that would make it even better.  Following are a few of my impressions, starting with general comments and getting more specific.

The most important general comment is this: SPAH is perhaps the only musical event in the world where players in all styles and all levels of accomplishment mingle freely to play and talk about music and their instruments.  This is amazing and wonderful, and I hope it never changes.

1.  The level of players is going up, up, up

There's no question that the average harmonica player at SPAH is a lot better than he or she used to be.  The pros are generally playing stuff that is a lot more technically demanding and sophisticated than what the top players were putting out 20 years ago, and it's trickling down to the newbies.  This year, a handful of boys and girls in their early-mid teens showed up, and those kids generally played at a level that I didn't attain until I was in my early 20s.    

It was very exciting to see teenagers playing brilliantly at SPAH.  I was especially impressed by Jay Gaunt, whose blues and jazz improvisations were mature and convincing.  I jammed with him on a couple of occasions, including one "hallway" jam with Gaunt, a couple of his friends, and Randy Singer, where I found myself re-living the free improvisations I created with the English virtuoso Chris Turner in the late 1970s.  What fun! 

The overt influence of John Popper on players at this SPAH was less than I heard the last couple of times I showed up, which is a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you like Popper.  On the other hand, there is absolutely no question that the top players are putting out a lot more speed that they used to, and you can thank (or damn) Popper for that. 
It was also very exciting to see, for the first time in my memory, more than a few young women playing in the jam sessions.  

2.  The level of gear is going up, too

It was exciting to see new harmonica introductions by Hohner, Suzuki, and Bends at SPAH, as well as an extensive lineup of instruments from Seydel (of which I bought several--Blues Soloist Pros, to be exact, and they are very nice instruments for a very reasonable price).  There were new amps around, too, but if your harps aren't worth playing then there's not much point in having a great amp, and so the fact that the quality of new harmonicas is rising faster than their prices is cause for major celebration.  

Plenty of people are satisfied with an off-the-shelf Lee Oskar or Special 20, of course, and so am I much of the time.  But at this point, for a moderate increase in price--$36-$40 instead of $27--players can get stock instruments whose quality and playability is an order of magnitude better than off-the-shelf harps even 5 years ago, and if you're willing to spend even more, you can get as much quality as you're willing to pay for.  At every price point, the instruments are better quality than they used to be. 

Suzuki was demonstrating the new Manji harp, much discussed lately on harp-l, with a retail price of $40; Hohner had the new Crossharp, which is a louder, brighter instrument than the MB Deluxe, with a street price of $60.  Suzuki also had a new line of chromatics on display.  All of these instruments represent considerable investment by their manufacturers in R&D, and the net result is that the state of the art in harmonica design and manufacturing is being elevated at a much faster rate than at any time since I started playing, over 40 years ago.

3.  The level of execution for the conference hasn't much changed, and it should

SPAH is run by volunteers, and I think their overall level of expectation about the size, quality, and impact of the event is not is high as it could  be.  If SPAH is to be a global event, which it should be, then it's time to talk about what it means to run an event that meets global expectations for execution.   

My career--the one that supports me and my family, as opposed to my musical career--is with a company that (among other things) has an elaborate business running conferences globally, so I've seen a lot of very well-run conferences in the last 15 years.  SPAH has a long way to go to meet the standards of any commercial enterprise.  Basics for a conference include publishing detailed program notes as soon before the conference as possible, so people can plan their activities (and figure out whether they even want to attend).  Another very basic element of conference management is keeping score, i.e. counting how many people attended each session and what the verdict of those people is on the quality of various aspects of the session, such as the presenter's skill, the relevance of the materials presented to the interests of the audience, the amount of time devoted to Q&A, and so on.  

If you don't publish the program in advance, you're lucky if anyone even decides to show up.  I'm told that the program for SPAH 2009 was locked down 5 months ago; it's a mystery to me why it was never published on the SPAH website. When I arrived onsite, I was given a photocopied program that listed the names, times, and locations of sessions, plus the names of the presenters.  But not one of those session listings included even a one-sentence description of the content, let alone information about the presenters.  Further, signs onsite were minimal to the point of disappearing, which made it difficult even to find the sessions.

SPAH doesn't keep score, either.  I'm certain that none of the session presenters at SPAH handed out evaluation forms to the audience.  That means there's no way for anyone to know which presenters and which topics are of the greatest interest to the audience, a situation that makes it impossible to systematically test new ideas, or even to make basic improvements in the programs offered at SPAH.  (We could add that the way in which program decisions are made is not very transparent to anyone outside SPAH, which is also a little wierd in an era in which you can run a worldwide email survey for practically no cost.)  

I sensed a lot of frustration at the jam sessions this year, and no wonder. The format has a lot of problems.  Here's how it worked at the blues jams. Jammers formed a big circle, which might include anywhere from 10 to 40 people. The accompanists picked a song, typically a slow or medium tempo blues. Then the accompanists played the song while every single person in the circle, in turn, took 1-2 choruses.  Think about that: if you're the last person in the circle, you wait to hear somewhere between 39 and 78 choruses before you get a chance to play--which could be over half an hour on a slow blues--by which time you, the accompanists, and everyone else in the room is bored stiff.  Further, it's not really a jam session, because there's no interaction between anyone--it's basically karaoke with live accompaniment. I heard one very well-known player commenting at the bluegrass jam on Friday night (at about 1:00 AM) on how depressing the blues jam was. There has to be a better way.  Randy Singer's jazz jam sessions were generally better organized and more interactive, and perhaps there's a clue there.

Something that should absolutely be corrected before the next SPAH is that apparently no one was responsible for making audio or video recordings of all the sessions.  In an era where high-quality live recording devices cost $99 and up--and half the people on this list apparently own one--it's pretty shocking that most sessions had no one in charge of recording.  I recorded my own seminar on effects, but the setup was less than ideal, given that I was more interested in delivering the seminar than recording it.

Summary: I'm glad I was there

All its faults aside, SPAH is wonderful.  It's inspiring to hear so many great harmonica players and reflect on how far the players have come in the last 20 years.  The harmonica is on the verge of something amazing, I think, especially given the high level of interest and number of players working the instrument in Asia, the region that will drive much of the world's economy in the 21st century.  The fact that there is obvious room for improvement simply means that we can look forward to even better things in the future--and it's already well worth the time and expense to go to SPAH now.

Regards, Richard Hunter

author, "Jazz Harp"
latest mp3s and harmonica blog at http://myspace.com/richardhunterharp
more mp3s at http://taxi.com/rhunter
Vids at http://www.youtube.com/user/lightninrick

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