“The harmonica club will keep you young,” group president Howard Rothstein told The Gabber right before breaking into a “Fiddler on the Roof” classic, adding “We changed the name because it made us sound old.”
For 27 years the Gulfport Harmonica Club – formerly the Gulfport Senior Citizens Harmonica Club – has played local venues with signature folksy sounds.
Even in the face of a national pandemic, the group met at park pavilions to keep its rhythm strong.
Now, in January 2022, the group has shrunk to a handful of musicians, many of whom had never picked up a harmonica before stumbling in the doors of the Gulfport Senior Center.
In his 90s, Rothstein leads the group every Tuesday from 9 a.m.-12 p.m.; the “band” jams for the first two hours, then has lessons for the next two.
“It’s a labor of love,” he told The Gabber.
For those who don’t know the intricate language of sheet music, the songs are translated into “paint (or play) by numbers.”
This was the case for now five-year member Mary Stine, who couldn’t read music before joining the group. Today, she doesn’t miss a beat.
“A lot of songs we play by ear,” Stine says. “But we do both.”
Labor of Love
A decent harmonica can cost $200 or more these days, says Rothstein. In 1943, the 12-year-old New York native bought his first handheld instrument for $12.
Because of the cost, Rothstein lets potential members borrow his personal instruments until they know they want to play on a long-term basis. And the group wants members who want to play for a long time, considering the recent shrinkage following COVID.
“This has the same notes that a baby grand piano has,” Rothstein says. “But I can keep it in my pocket.”
The Harmonica Club has played at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, and they played the national anthem at Tropicana Field. Most recently, they played at Regency Oaks Senior Living Facility.
“When we play for older people it puts a smile on their faces,” he says. “Many of them can’t remember what happened yesterday, but they can sing along to the music.”
That’s why, says Rothstein, the Harmonica Group plays older songs and show tunes: People remember the sounds of the past.
For the club’s musical director, Larry Smith, it’s not so much about the performance, but the act of playing music.
Smith played trumpet for a lifetime before moving to Florida where he “needed to find something less noisy for a condo.”
The harmonica prevailed.
“I started playing the blues … it was simple music and a lot of fun,” Smith says. “I found this group and it worked.”
Interested in mastering the harmonica? No experience needed, and it won’t cost a penny. The group meets weekly on Tuesdays. Call 727-363-8016 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.