Student receives Richter Grant for researching German harmonica pedagogy

Jul 28, 2015

Jacob Prosek ’15 feels there could be an alternative teaching method for children first learning to play musical instruments. He foresees elementary schools using harmonicas, which are cheaper, more portable and more pleasing to the ear than a recorder. “Even a beginner can achieve immediate success,” he says.

Prosek is so committed to the benefits of the harmonica in music education that he traveled to Trossingen, Germany, this summer to research the culture of harmonica music. In this isolated southern German town, there are harmonica orchestras, competitions, a music school and the headquarters of Hohner, the world’s leading manufacturer of the instrument. Here a harmonica band plays in the orchestra pit for local school productions.

“With a chromatic harmonica, you can play the semi-tones—the sharps and flats—and the musicians in Trossingen were performing Bach and other composers,” explains Prosek, a music education major who will student-teach at Oak Park Elementary School in Aurora. “The level of musicianship is incredible.”

He started teaching the harmonica during summer 2014 when he was an intern with Jr./Sr. Scholars on North Central’s campus. As he planned music lessons for middle school students from East Aurora and Chicago, he proposed using inexpensive harmonicas to teach beginning music concepts and then wrote the curriculum himself.

That sparked his passion for further research into the instrument as a teaching tool. He applied for a Richter Grant to visit Trossingen to interview teachers, observe classes, view the Collection of the Deutusches Harmonika Museum and tour the Hohner company headquarters. He found that the harmonica is popular in a relatively small area of the country. “The purpose was to understand how the harmonica is taught in Germany,” he explains. Prosek received additional funding from the Dunham Fund and Apollo Music, Inc., both in Aurora, to cover additional travel and expenses.

The link of the harmonica to Germany is one reason the instrument fell out of favor with U.S. schools. “Before World War II, there were thousands of kids in the United States playing harmonica,” Prosek says. “In 1934, there were 5,000 schools with harmonica bands. But then we stopped importing goods from Germany.”

While the harmonica enjoyed a resurgence for jazz, blues and rock musicians, it never reached the same popularity among schools to use as a learning instrument.

Prosek intends to present his research on campus during fall term and demonstrate a variety of harmonicas. “From my experience, young students respond positively to the instrument,” he says. “The research in Germany shows that the harmonica has the potential to be an important component in modern music education.”