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Originally published Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 9:19 AM

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Crowd packs Ellensburg harmonica workshop

After a lesson containing phrases such as fish mouth, tongue block, fat notes and curled tongue, the pupils in cowboy music performer Gary Allegretto's harmonica workshop Saturday walked away with four new songs to their repertoire. With simple instruction on how to blow into and draw from their harmonicas, the group learned "Shave and a Haircut," "Red River Valley," "You are My Sunshine," and "Home on the Range."

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ELLENSBURG, Wash. —

After a lesson containing phrases such as fish mouth, tongue block, fat notes and curled tongue, the pupils in cowboy music performer Gary Allegretto's harmonica workshop Saturday walked away with four new songs to their repertoire. With simple instruction on how to blow into and draw from their harmonicas, the group learned "Shave and a Haircut," "Red River Valley," "You are My Sunshine," and "Home on the Range."

More than 100 people signed up for the workshop, which was part of the eighth annual Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering in Ellensburg. Allegretto brought 80 harmonicas, and rounded up a couple of boxes containing 18 additional instruments to accommodate the overflow crowd. A handful of people brought their own harmonicas.

The Clymer Museum of Art was packed to the gills with people sitting on the floor and leaning up against walls. After a more than 45-minute delay, where Allegretto and his crew gathered enough harmonicas and worksheets for everyone, the workshop began.

While the crowd waited, Allegretto performed his train song called "Untrainable." Using multiple harmonicas, the song starts out slow then picks up steam like a locomotive. By the end of the song Allegretto played furiously before bringing the train to a plodding halt.

He also entertained the audience by playing the harmonica with his ear. The crowd looked puzzled after Allegretto squeezed out a few notes from his right ear. Since there were little ones in the audience, Allegretto said he felt compelled to show them the trick. With a smile, Allegretto revealed the tiny harmonica held between his teeth, the real source of music, not his ear.

"The most important thing in music is not the notes, but the spaces in between the notes," Allegretto told the class, emphasizing how important it is to keep the right pace of the songs.

He taught the class the way he learned how to play harmonica after receiving his first one from his grandfather when Allegretto was about 7 years old.

"If you find a different way (to learn harmonica), I'm not going to call you wrong," Allegretto said.

After the basic blow and draw lesson, which requires use of fingers, Allegretto demonstrated how to play the harmonica with just the mouth.

"It's called fish mouth," Allegretto said. "No pictures, this is going to be ugly."

He walked through the rows of people, showing each person his fish mouth as they laughed. Then the class did it together.

"Now take your fingers away, fish mouth, bottoms up," Allegretto said. "This is really amazing, I feel like you're all getting it pretty much."

A woman in the group asked Allegretto if his mouth ever throbbed. Yes, was the short answer. When you begin playing harmonica, you're using muscles you don't normally use, he said.

There are other drawbacks to playing harmonica.

"There is no nice way to put this; you need spit to slide along on these things," Allegretto said. "You're going to get spit in these."

To clean out the spit, he advised tapping the harmonica on your pant leg. Wash harmonicas sparingly because water can wear out the reeds, he said.

"Reeds are made for wind, not water," Allegretto said.

A harmonica will sound as good as the person playing it, he said, adding that the instrument is meant to make people happy, not sad.

"If somebody doesn't want you to play, please don't play, because then they're going to hate me," Allegretto said.

Leon Mankowski, who lives in the Sunlight Waters area west of Thorp, was among the folks in Allegretto's harmonica workshop, though he's not new to the instrument.

Mankowski bought his first harmonica when he went to Navy boot camp in 1964.

"I taught myself sitting alongside the barracks," Mankowski said. "I played and played and played and I got really good at it."

Once for a Christmas party he bought a box of harmonicas exactly like the ones Allegretto handed out for his workshop. Nobody at the party knew how to play, Mankowski said.

"It was so bad, the dogs left the room," he said, laughing.

Mankowski enjoyed Allegretto's workshop, but noted that it was for beginners. Mankowski said he wants to learn how to play the blues and would be interested in attending a more advanced class.

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Information from: Daily Record, http://www.kvnews.com

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