Run Around: Blues Traveler

It isn’t often that my two hobbies intersect — long-distance running and blues harmonica don’t really have much in common, so their venn-diagram doesn’t contain a terribly large overlap:  “0ld, world-weary boozers from the Delta sitting around a smokey bar late on a Saturday night” and “lean, bearded athletes running for 20 miles in the hills over Boulder at 6 am” meet . . . where, exactly?  Besides myself, apparently, there’s also Adam Gussow, the professional harmonica player/instructor/recreational runner who was the primary reason I stuck a C harp in my CamelBak and ran 4 miles through 90 degree heat to take part in the first annual Harmonica Madness event.


I inherited my father’s gene for falling obsessively in love with new hobbies.  I tend to find something new I’m interested in (the concertina, for instance), read about it and research it until I’m convinced I’m an expert in the field (unisonoric versus disonoric, chromatic versus diatonic), drive M insane by talking about endlessly, then suddenly “bam!” the honeymoon is over and its just another thing I do from time-to-time.  There’s nothing really wrong with this trait, other than the A) I must endure long bouts of eye-rolling from M as I insist this hobby is “different,” and B) it lends to a “jack of all trades, master of none” result (how many people do you know can play Go, Magic the Gathering, and the concertina, all with a high degree of mediocrity?  I can.).  Over the years, I’ve learned the key is to not drop large amounts of money on semi-professional equipment during the honeymoon period, although the impulse is very hard to resist; its often tricky to decide when a new obsession is just a fleeting romance and when its going to be something more long-term.

Many of these hobbies have died off to no real fault of my own:  my fencing uniform and foil were getting used weekly until my coach suddenly passed away and the class shut down; I played Go constantly until we moved to New York and all the clubs I found were dominated by skillful and intimidating old asian men; my silk-screening kit was getting me steady business on Etsy until Nat got old enough to make trying to do anything with paint a nightmare; and my climbing shoes and harness were getting regular use until Angelica came home and a triaging of free-time meant most of my spare minutes were devoted solely to running.

Playing the harmonica, however, has been the one activity, other than running, that I’ve consistently stuck with and loved for a number of years now.  I’ve fallen out of practice over the last year, namely because its been impossible to find time to play: if I wait until Nat and M are asleep, its too loud, but if I try to play during the day, I’m followed around by a toddler tugging at my leg and begging, “Nat play ‘monica?  Nat play ‘monica?  My turn!  My turn!” the second my harp comes out of its case.  I’ve tried handing him one of my other harmonicas to distract him, but needless to say it is VERY hard to keep time when a two-year old is playing random chords as loudly as he can.

For years, I carried my dad’s old harmonica around with me, occasionally picking it up to play a few melodies on it.  I taught myself some straight forward folk tunes and some Dylan, but that was it.  Then about three and a half years ago, I decided I wanted to play a blues-riff.  Nothing serious, just a cliched “da-da-da-da-dum!” to accompany some cheesy lyrics I’d come up with.  I ended up stumbling across Adam Gussow’s YouTube channel, and I was almost instantly hooked — I loved the blues.  His free videos eventually led to his site, Modern Blues Harmonica, and I began downloading his lessons and practicing regularly.  What I love about Gussow is he makes the blues a living, oral tradition — he is an amazingly accomplished performer, and as a teacher his love for the art and its history is infectious.

Then when I spent 6 months home after Nat was born, I practiced a LOT — newborns are perfect for that sort of thing, because they spend half their day asleep and the other half they just stay where you put them.  Besides, they’re a captive audience.  Now Nat just wants to play the damn thing, and thinks dad should just hand it over.


What about running?  Oh, yeah, running.  The run there was hot.  90 some degrees, left the house at 11:10, 4 miles through Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights, past the Atlantic Terminal into Gawanus, to the fringes of Red Hook and the Jalopy Theater and School of Music.  I made it in 32 minutes, which wasn’t too bad considering the heat, and was a reminder that having a deadline that forces you to push yourself a little can be a good thing.  It was also my first run in my replacement Instincts (thank Patton!), and I got there with just enough time to change shirts, grab an iced coffee and a seat on the bench inside.

I don’t have much to say about the workshop itself, both because I didn’t really learn much (sadly, the two sections were aimed at advanced students and beginners, not solidly intermediate folks like myself) and because while I might wander off my running topic to muse about myself somewhat (its my blog, I can be somewhat self-centered, right?), I don’t have a whole lot to say about the blues.

I did jot down a few things Adam Gussow said during his class, because I felt they actually pertained to running.  Rather, they were truisms about any activity — he happened to be talking about playing the harmonic, but since all almost exclusively think about running (even while at a blues workshop), to me they were about running.

The first was about how frustrating and difficult it can be to learn a new skill: in this case, I think he was talking about bending a note.  “You are take something that eventually needs to be hardwired and you are making it conscious.  When you allow the brain into the process, you’re not going to get it right at first — but that’s the only way to learn.”  For me, this was about correct running form: quick foot-turn over, lifting my feet, keeping that slight forward lean.  It’s also a rebuttal against people who don’t see the point in practicing running form, that one should just run.  Of course one should just run, but there is skill to doing it well; to do anything truly skillfully, it must be done, instinctually, but before it can be instinctual, it must be practiced.

The second thing Adam said was, “Pay attention to what you can’t do, because that’s where the new knowledge — that’s where the learning is.”  As much as I like my laid-back, run-smiley mentality, I also enjoy to throw myself against the things I innately dislike.  I enjoy running in the heat; I think I should do more speed-work.  And its its because of this idea: the learning is outside of one’s comfort zone, beyond what one is good at.  I think my education classes years ago called it the “zone of proximal development,” that sweet-spot between what is impossible and what is easy.  The challenge.  Finding the right balance between enjoyment and discomfort, reveling in what one is capable of and pushing oneself to the next level.


Then the day was over.  I quickly introduced myself to Gussow (quite awkwardly, as always when meeting someone I admire), slid my harmonica into my pack, changed back into my tank-top, and ran the 4 miles back home.  And it was still damn hot.

I’ve got my a bunch of running blog goals to catch up with in the next few days.  I’ve got to read and review “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Barefoot Running,” (second-hand swag, passed along by Vanessa after he plate was too full), and most excitingly, my Invisible Shoes hauraches, which is my first real swag: they were sent to me, by the company, free of charge, to review.  How cool is that?

I should really get to bed, both because its late but especially because my writing has wandered from my normally lofty prose into free-associative blathering.  Goodnight.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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