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 Interesting People
Mark Lavoie - Harmonica Player ... and more

The auditorium of the Middlebury College Center for the Arts is hushed and quiet.  Seated on the stage is Bill Sims, legendary blues singer, with his guitar.  Next to him is Mark Lavoie, a local Monkton, Vermont resident.  Mark reaches to his side and picks one of a dozen harmonicas, raises it to his mouth, and for several seconds, there is no audible sound.

Then, almost from far, far, away, a faint sound is heard in the distance.  It begins to grow with barely perceptible presence, then slowly, ever so slowly, swells to fill the room with a single, sustaining note.

The hair on the back of our neck begins to stand up.  Goose bumps start to break out.  This is a more than just a note... it is something that stirs our soul.

If this were simply the story of a gifted musician, it would be almost over.  Mark Lavoie has been playing for decades, from Nashville to small bars and cafes in Addison County, and he's nothing short of magnificent on that small, simple instrument only four inches long which typically costs less than a really decent bottle of wine.  But the instrument in his hand is no ordinary harmonica.  It is the Stradivarius of harmonicas, and Mark Lavoie is the Antonio Stradivari of the harmonica world.

What makes two different instruments of the same type and size sound so different?  Why does a 1950's Gibson Mandolin have such a warm and subtle tone while a contemporary Kentucky fills the room with vibrant, ringing sound?  Why is a Stradivarius so much richer in tone than Grandpa's fiddle?  The answer lies in subtle harmonics which, although virtually imperceptible on their own, combine with the tonic note to produce, a unique sound unlike no other.

For 32 years, Mark traveled the road not taken on a quest for what he simply calls "The Biggest Tone".  The harmonica is the simplest of instruments:  A brass reed set, a container known as the "comb", and a couple of thin metal cover plates.  It has long been known that tweaking and bending the reeds can result in a superior instrument, and Mark had long been a talented technician in this regard.  The answer had to be in the comb, typically a simple wood or plastic holder with spaces to allow the reeds to vibrate.  He began experimenting with different materials, evaluating the result from the standpoint of being a master of the instrument who would know the sound when he heard it.  Finally, his work paid off - there was magic in a metal we call Titanium.  Titanium, although as strong as steel, has only 56% of the density of the hardest steel alloys - and therein lies the secret.  Titanium has more "give", more "flex", more ability to vibrate in response to audio frequencies and produce more harmonic coupling - in simple terms, a much "bigger" tone.

Mark labeled his discovery "The Holy Grail", and arranged to have them manufactured to his specifications.  Soon, legendary harmonica greats like Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson, Jerry Portnoy, and Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson's harmonica player) were using them and singing their praises.  A new Stradivarius had been born.  But the story doesn't end there.  Other than the larger, more complex, and more expensive "chromatic" models, straight blues harps cover only a single key per instrument and are "diatonic" - meaning when one blows on a particular reed hole, one note emerges, and when one inhales on the same reed hole, the same reed produces a second, and different note.  Thus, it takes many harmonicas to cover the major scale of keys.

While the Lavoie Titanium Comb was the answer for top-end professionals, at $160 per comb - and needing many to cover all of the major keys - it was clearly beyond the reach of most serious amateurs.  Mark began examining different woods, the classical comb material, to see if he could find a more affordable improvement to the instrument's naturally warm tone.  He found it in his own back yard, so to speak. 
Traditional harmonica combs made of wood suffer from moisture problems caused by the player's breath.  The wood absorbs moisture and the acoustic properties start to change, not usually for the better.  Mark found that Vermont maple, with it's denser, northern climate-grown structure, was an excellent tone wood, but further discovered that laser cutting the comb helped seal, or cauterize the wood pores.  Further sealing the comb with beeswax completed the waterproofing process, allowing the harmonica to be played for extended periods of time without adverse tonal change.  Now serious harmonica enthusiasts could enjoy a quality instrument without having to take out a home equity loan or sell a kidney.
The rest is history.  Although Mark continues to share his skill on the instrument with our local community, today, the world's serious professional and amateur harmonica players are beating a path to the door of his Monkton, Vermont home, where he offers both tuning and reed adjustment for 10-hole harmonicas, and, of course, his now-famous Titanium and Vermont Maple Wood harmonica combs.

He's been a long-time member of the Middlebury Community Network, where more than 90,000 harmonica aficionados have dropped into his Business Home Page.  You can, too, by clicking HERE.

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