About Glenn Weiser
Sometimes mere words just won't do. Sometimes you need a harmonica.
Glenn Weiser is expounding on the practice of playing fiddle tunes on the harmonica, and
before I can say "Hohner" he's whipped out a harp and is playing the bouncy
traditional tune "Turkey in the Straw." A few heads turn in the dining room at
Lulu, the downtown Albany cafe, as Wesier, harmonica tucked underneath his bushy mustache,
his beret-topped head bopping up and down, knocks off the tune. What do you do at a cafe
when someone in your party just up and plays a harmonica for a good 30 seconds about three
feet from your nose? Well, you listen.
A visit with Weiser is always, above all, instructive.
The 43 year old resident of Delmar and proprietor of the Banjo,
Guitar, and Harmonica Studio is a music teacher, arranger and author, but more than
anything he's a student of history. A clasically trained guitarist in his youth, Weiser
has spent most of his musical career exploring whatever has caught his fancy, usually folk
music of some kind, often by artists who've long since passed on. In a number of books
he's published over the years, Weiser has adapted Celtic tunes originally played on the
fiddle for solo guitar and harmonica, and he has also adapted Celtic harp songs for the
guitar. He's published an instruction book for blues harmonica, and he's a veteran
harmonica columnist for Sing Out!, the noted folk magazine.
"I can absolutely guarantee," Weiser boasts, "that
I'm the only musician in the Capital Region ever to go through the Khyber Pass."
Well, I can almost guarantee that Weiser is one of the few local
musicians who know what the Khyber Pass is. But in the early 70s, Weiser, on a travel kick
after shunning the limits of classical music study, actually negotiated the legendary
route through t he mountains that separate Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of his many
explorations - albeit a non-musical one - over the years.
Weiser delves into the history behind music not only to preserve it
but to entertain students and audience members while educating them. In introducing the
tune "Carolan's Receipt" by Celtic harp composer Turlough O'Carolan, whose work
Weiser adapted for guitar in a book released last year, Weiser is wont to tell the tale
behind the song's composition. Seems O'Carolan wasn't feeling too well, so he went to the
doctor, who told him he had to stop drinking. The harpist did - but he felt worse. So he
sought a second opinion, and the doctor told him he'd give him a prescription - or
"receipt" - for whiskey in exchange for a little impromptu performance.
O'Carolan obliged, and "Carolan's Receipt" was born.
Weiser grew up in suburban New Jersey, a place with "no
cultural tradition," he notes with a laugh - ironically, in that he's spent most of
his life immersing himself in cultural traditions. Weiser began his musical career in a
rather precipitous time in cultural history. As a teen, he was active in the anti-war
movement of the 60s, and he saw Jimi Hendrix's legendary Woodstock performance. It was at
a peace rally that he first saw fingerstyle guitar playing up close, an influence that
would later lead him away from strict classical study and into a varitey of folk styles.
He studied with fingerpicking virtuoso Eric Shoenberg and began
learning how to play Joplin-style rags on guitar. After moving to Albany in 1976, Weiser
encountered some bad luck that, as it turned out, would actually help launch his book
career: he got tendinitis and had to stop playing guitar. Weiser was in despair. He turned
to harmonica and became so interested in the instrument that he decided to do a book of
fiddle music for harmonica.
"You'll see," he says, "that I tend to throw myself
into a project when I get in despair."
Other books followed. Though Weiser has mostly worked with other
artist' music, he has created what he considers original works because the music had never
been adapted for a particular instrument, such as the guitar.
"You have created new music on the guitar," he explains.
"You can go out and play music that is yours. If you're going to get anywhere in the
music business, you have to have something of your own."
He's also proud of the fact that, though he skirted a conservatory
education, he began to operate like a coomposer in books such 1989's The Minstrel Boy, a
collection of 85 fiddle tunes for guitar. Although certainly not the first to do it,
Weiser took advantage of his classical and folk backgrounds and married elements of the
two. Most important, however, as reviews of the book noted, he did it in a way that was
accessible to intermediate players.
"Folk music shouldn't be that hard to play," he says.
"Otherwise, it's not folk music."
In his own playing, Weiser has always taken the approach that
there's pretty much nothing he can't do with a lot of practice. He plays guitar, banjo,
mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and tin whistle. Next to an excellent ear and, er, a lot of
confidence, Weiser's biggest advantage may be his open mind. By his count, he owns
thousands of books and about 1,000 records. He takes all kinds of music in, doesn't like
it all but recognizes its validity. In a conversation with Weiser, you're as likely to
discuss Ozzy Osbourne as you are Handel.
"I mean, Ozzy's a great singer," he beams, " and
Randy Rhoads was a great guitar player."
Weiser is rarely daunted by a musical challenge. He has meticulously
transcribed 70 solos by the late legendary bluse harmonica play Little Walter Jacobs,
harp-blower for Muddy Waters, sometimes taking an hour to finish just one measure. He
hopes to publish the transcriptions some day as a means to preserve what almost certainly
had never been written down.
These days, Weiser is still plugging away at a fairly new challenge
- singing. Discouraged by the lack of performance opportunities for instumentalists,
Weiser began taking voice lessons three years ago - at the age of 40.
"I haven't found anything yet that I can't do," he says.
"I'm a full time teacher....If I know how to teach, I should know how to learn,
-Mike Goudreau, Metroland, February 1996
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