Kitchener’s Happy Harmonica Band - champions of community music for 40 years
By Carrie Debrone
April 12, 2017
On Tuesday mornings at Kitchener’s Rockway Community Centre a special group of musicians participate in what could be considered a down-home-style Waterloo Region ‘kitchen party’ – producing music that will have you tapping your toes and maybe even singing along in a matter of minutes.
The Happy Harmonica Band, a group of 12 harmonica players (including one bass harmonica player), two guitarists and a banjo player, a button accordion player and a piano player gather to rehearse upstairs at the centre. The atmosphere is casual -- the players playing because they are truly having
a great time making music together.
Started in 1978, the community band has been championing community music for 40 years. Michel Allard, who took over last June after long-time director Irene Watt passed away, now directs the band.
Obtaining Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Education degrees from the University of Toronto, Allard taught music at elementary schools in the Peel Regional School Board for many years. Now retired, Allard is the Music Director at Calvin Presbyterian Church.
Playing many types of music during his life, including classical and jazz, Allard enjoys presenting solo piano and chamber concerts, accompanying and composing. He has been a volunteer at the Community Music School of Waterloo Region and at the Westmount LTC facility in Kitchener. He also presents ‘The Versatile Piano’ series of piano concerts at the Rockway Community Centre and performs in the Dixie Doodle Band.
He also has experience teaching how to play many different instruments through his work with schools.
Because the harmonica band plays in only two keys (C and G), Allard has arranged many of its songs to remove chromatic scale notes. He learned how to make these types of alterations in music when he played a 15-bell chime at the St. James Anglican Church in Stratford. There he had to arrange songs to fit the notes that could be made by the small number of bell chimes.
Isolde Rigby, who has been a Happy Harmonica Band member from its beginning, plays the button accordion and harmonica.
“You know, I can come in here grouchy in the morning, but once I play I’m happy. I’m humming all the way home,” Rigby said with a smile.
Harmonica player Axel Schoenemann, who had heart surgery six years ago and lost about 90 per cent of his lung capacity, credits playing with the band for improving his health. Problems with his hips keep him from exercising, but blowing the harmonica has helped him regain more than 20 per cent of his lost lung capacity in just two years.
“I’m still trying to improve, but if it wasn’t for this group and my harmonica I don’t think I would have improved at all,” Schoenemann said.
The band’s varied repertoire includes traditional folk and pop music. As Allard accompanies the players on the piano in rehearsal, they get to hear the tune clearly. Then he steps away from the piano to direct, encouraging the players and keeping tempo and even singing with the band at times. As the song ends, Allard discusses the outcome of the playing, what changes could be made and how it could be played when they perform it for community groups, taking suggestions from the players.
At a typical practice you might hear Turkey in the Straw followed by Zippity Doo Dah, a Beatles tune, then Camp Town Races, a theme song from a movie, then on to I Love to Go A Wandering followed by a Hank William’s song – all popular tunes that anyone can enjoy playing and hearing.
The fun group vibe is something band director Michel Allard is very proud of.
“For many people there seems to be an aura around musicians. We feel that they are not accessible,” Allard said.
“But music is for everyone and everyone has a right to learn to play it. Often in our society we celebrate the achievers or the people who get to their goals, but we don’t celebrate the action taken by people on their way to achieve a goal,” he said, adding that we need to remember to support those who are trying – in all areas of life whether it be in sports, business or the arts.
“I just love community music and helping others to learn how to play. It must be my music education background,” Allard said. “I want to promote music to everyone in the community.”
“This group embodies the elements of learning to play music together and community music,” he said, adding that most of the songs the band plays can be learned by ear.
“Maybe I like this band so much because I’m trying to make up for all the years that I didn’t use my ears to make music,” he joked.
Allard’s goals for the Happy Harmonica Band include giving spotlight opportunities to players who are becoming more accomplished in the style of music they like to play such as the blues or jazz. He and the band have also committed to ‘playing out’ at least once a month at various locations in Waterloo Region.
The band’s 16 members come from Waterloo, Guelph, Kitchener, St. Mary’s and the surrounding areas. Past performances have been at local nursing and retirement homes, churches and community centers, and they recently played at the Trinity Village Adult Day Program, which includes music in its programming. The band will be featured April 20 at the Chartwell Westmount Long Term Care Residence.
The Happy Harmonica Band practices weekly from 9:15 to 10:30am each Tuesday at the Rockway Community Centre (September to June). The band is accepting new members and anyone interested in joining can contact Michel Allard at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 226-476-2330. Some knowledge of playing the harmonica is required. Reading music is also a plus, but not required.
The Happy Harmonica Band members gather Tuesday mornings at the Rockway Community Centre to practice. From left: front, Henry Epp, Director Michel Allard, Isolde Rigby, Chuck Carney, back, Guenther Haas, Dale Sider, Dave Allen, Ron Johnston, Richard Charbonneau, Danny Graham, Gerry Nentwig, Axel Schoenemann, Fran Gordon.