For the first time, students at the University of Lynchburg can add harmonica to their class schedules. This fall, the University launched a harmonica program — thought to be the only one of its kind in the U.S. The half-credit course, Applied Music-Harmonica, is taught by world-renowned musician and adjunct music instructor Dr. George Miklas.
Miklas, who also teaches tuba at Lynchburg, has played the harmonica for as long as he can remember. He was 4 years old when his dad — a World War II veteran who played harmonica for Generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower — first put a harmonica in his hand.
While on a family camping trip, the young Miklas asked his dad for arcade money. Instead, he was handed a hat and a harmonica. “[He] told me to ‘play the harmonica, entertain the campers, and hold the hat,’” he said.
Miklas stuck with it and started playing professionally in high school. He went on to the Dana School of Music at Youngstown State University, where he officially studied tuba but was well known for his harmonica skills.
After his freshman year, Miklas took a leave of absence to tour with Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, an American harmonica band formed in 1947. He described the 13-month tour as the “experience of a lifetime.”
He later pursued a master’s and doctorate in music and wrote two books, “Harmonica Pedagogy for K-12 Music Educators” and “Harmonica Pedagogy for the Full Inclusion Instrumental Music Classroom, Expanding Opportunities for Students with Disabilities.” Along the way, he performed across the U.S. and in Canada, Germany, and Taiwan.
At Lynchburg, Miklas plays with the faculty brass quintet and Wind Symphony and Orchestra. This past spring, he had his first faculty recital, a classical piece by Maurice Ravel. He was accompanied by Dr. Cynthia Ramsey, chair of the music department.
“George has such a unique talent,” Ramsey said. “I’m excited that he will be able to share his knowledge and experiences with our students.”
This past summer, Miklas approached Ramsey about offering harmonica at Lynchburg. “I … told her about my desire to develop a curriculum for the harmonica, suitable for undergraduate and graduate degrees, just like we already have for any other musical instrument,” he said. “She told me, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Miklas currently has three harmonica students, including Sam Lipert ’23, a Westover Honors Fellow and history major from Chesapeake, Virginia. On a recent Tuesday afternoon in Snidow Chapel, Lipert was taking their third harmonica lesson.
Lipert had just finished playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” when they earned a bit of praise from Miklas. “Sam, there are so many good things going on,” he said. “I really like the progress you’ve made.”
Prior to this fall, Lipert had never played harmonica, other than blowing on a little Hohner Blues Band harmonica they had as a child. Lipert had played violin for 10 years, but the harmonica — at least the serious study of it — was new.
After seeing a mass email from Miklas about the harmonica class, Lipert said, “[I] thought it might be something fun to pick up spontaneously.”
About halfway through the lesson, Miklas asked Lipert to play a baroque piece with him. “I enjoy the classical pieces Dr. Miklas is teaching, and I’m very comfortable with classical music because of my background as a violinist,” Lipert said later.
“In the future, I hope to learn some more current pieces that have harmonica parts, such as ‘Piano Man.’”
Lipert added, “Dr. Miklas is an excellent instructor and I enjoy his lessons. He is always very energetic and excited to teach, and he offers good feedback.”
After the baroque piece, Lipert played some scales, joined Miklas for some Mozart, and did some sight reading — playing a piece without having seen it beforehand. Miklas then asked Lipert to play the baroque piece with him again.
After they played together, their harmonies filling Snidow Chapel, Miklas was again enrapt. “I wish we’d recorded that,” he said.