From China to Forest Hills with a harmonica
by Michael Perlman
Feb 26, 2014 | 2185 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jia-Yi He & his harmonica, Courtesy of Jia-Yi He
Jia-Yi He & his harmonica, Courtesy of Jia-Yi He
slideshow
Jia-Yi He teaching NYC Mayor Bloomberg to play harmonica
Jia-Yi He teaching NYC Mayor Bloomberg to play harmonica
slideshow
A number of celebrities large and small have called Forest Hills home. Some have played tennis or music at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, others performed at a former nightspot known as The Stratton, and some may be your next-door neighbor.

Such is the case of award-winning world-class harmonica virtuoso Jiayi He, who takes pride in calling Forest Hills home since 2012.

Some music lovers may not consider the harmonica a serious concert instrument, but the versatile He makes his harmonica resemble a full orchestra.

“Most harmonica players only play the harmonica, but I play the harmonica like other instruments,” he said. “If you are a professional pianist, its sound cannot be changed, but the harmonica’s sound can be pitched down. It could sound like a mandolin or a trumpet.”

Born in Beijing in 1953, He emigrated to New York in 1998. He is a self-taught musician who took inspiration from his older sister, who began to teach him the harmonica at age 11. Over time, he also learned how to play the erhu, a two-string Chinese violin, flute, cello, clarinet, and piano, but regards the harmonica as his calling.

He owns more than 300 harmonicas in various shapes and sizes from all over the world, including China, Korea, Brazil, Japan, and Germany. In January of last year, he displayed around 100 harmonicas at the Sachem Public Library in Suffolk County. Harmonica manufacturers recognize his virtuosity, too.

“Some manufacturers want to improve their harmonicas, so they ask me to try them out and suggest improvements,” he said.

At a typical concert, an audience may hear He play 20 different harmonicas, sometimes playing two at a time. He has written concertos for the harmonica, which he has performed with orchestras, and explores genres ranging from classical to the blues.

In 1993, He taught harmonica lessons on China Education Television that was broadcast in nearly 250,000 public schools.

“In China, most students didn’t have music training in school, unlike America,” he said. “The teachers needed to learn how to play, so they can teach their students. Now the education department requires students to learn one of two instruments, the harmonica or the recorder.”

Since 2002, he has taught at Manhattan’s Turtle Bay Music School in both classes and individualized instruction. He was also selected to perform at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in 2005, and every June he participates in a concert series called “Make Music New York.”

In 2007, along with his daughter, pianist Jenny He, he played for a pre-game audience at Shea Stadium. In summer 2012, he trained a multi-generational audience in Central Park, which included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who played alongside him.

“Mayor Bloomberg learned how to play one song in 30 minutes,” He said. “The harmonica is a simple instrument when you start out, but to play better, it does take time.”

Outside New York, he has played with the China National Symphony Orchestra and California Pops Orchestra. In addition, he is a regular at recitals throughout Asia and Europe.

On May 4, he will give a concert at the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, the proceeds of which will go to restoring the historic building.

In the interim, you can hear his fine work on YouTube, as well as receive an online lesson via Skype.

As a family man, He said, “I want whole families and seniors to learn the harmonica.”

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