Kids tune in to visiting ‘harmonica guru’

150 harmonicas donated to Mt. Eccles students

Phil Douglass teaches Mt. Eccles Elementary School students to play harmonica. (Aug. 31, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

During the week of Monday, Aug. 30, music instructor Phil Douglass taught students how to play — and compose for — the harmonica. Participants in Douglass’s workshops, hosted at Mt. Eccles Elementary School, also received harmonicas donated by Douglass.

Now nominally retired, Douglass spent his 32-year career not at a music conservatory, but with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, as a biologist, refuge manager and wildlife program manager supporting animal conservation efforts. Through his Campfire Companion program, Douglass has promoted the harmonica as an accessible way to learn self-expression through music. Previously, Douglass brought the program to Utah Schools For the Deaf and Blind and other Utah educational and youth organizations, and to the Vancouver Island-based music event Special Woodstock.

“The harmonica is a great instrument because you don’t have to have any musical training,” Douglass said. “I always say, ‘If you can breathe, you can play the harmonica.’”

Douglass’s interest in Cordova began while he was researching migrating waterbirds during his work with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. After reading about the shorebirds that visit the Copper River Delta, Douglass began building a file on Cordova and its environment.

“All of that time, of those six years of keeping that file, by the time I flew in here, it felt familiar,” Douglass said. “I knew the lakes and peaks and streams.”

A pair of harmonicas like those donated to Cordova students. The harmonica on the left has a protective cover. (Aug. 30, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

In preparation for his current visit, Douglass reached out to the Cordova Chamber of Commerce. Chamber business support specialist Cobilynn Rogers, acting in a personal capacity, helped facilitate the visit. The Rev. Belle Mickelson, an organizer of the Cordova 4H Music Camp, also helped bring together a Tuesday, Aug. 31 harmonica event.

“We’re gonna get them all playing like Phil, and they’re gonna love it,” Rogers said. “We have such a musical town here.”

Though a COVID-19 outbreak that began in July threw Douglass’s plans into doubt, the visit went ahead as local infection rates fell to just a few new cases per week. Douglass’s visit also included a birding excursion alongside a local guide, he said.

At his Mt. Eccles workshops, Douglass taught students the fundamentals of the harmonica, including how to play and compose simple tunes without the necessity of reading music from a page. These lessons also included an introduction to blues music. The harmonicas provided to students were Campfire Companion-branded models intended to be easy for beginners to pick up and play.

“This world needs some calming and soothing, and I happen to believe the harmonica can do that,” Douglass said. “Music can do it. Music is a great universal language.”

More information on the Campfire Companion program is available at www.campfirecompanion.com.