Monkton man lets the harmonica speak

Typically in an interview, the reporter asks a question and the subject answers (as best they can anyway). Well, that’s not how it happened last week when I interviewed Mark Lavoie on the phone. I (the reporter) asked the questions and Lavoie (the subject) answered through his harmonica. No joke, he played several different riffs and diddies in place of sentences and explanations. 
Cool, yes. But how am I going to put these sounds into words?
Answer: I’m not even going to try. 
Instead, go check out Lavoie’s free concert this Saturday, Sept. 17, at Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall at 8 p.m. With 44 years of performance history and 35 harmonicas in his case, Middlebury College affiliate artist Lavoie will play his authentic blues repertoire in this solo concert. 
Harmonicas are more than a hobby for Lavoie, they’re a way of life for him. This November, he’ll count 45 years as professional. It started back in 1976, when he was a driver for the late Sonny Terry, a legendary blind harmonica player. From there Lavoie played all over the country and at many accomplished blues events, including the The Legendary Blues Cruise (2012), Mississippi Valley Blues Festival (2010) and at the Blues Awards in Memphis, Tenn. (2010).
Ten years ago, he began teaching at Middlebury College as an affiliate artist, but Lavoie himself never had a lesson. 
“I’m self taught,” he said. “I don’t read music. I sing from the heart. I just feel it.”
Simple enough. 
But Lavoie’s skills are invariably complex. 
“I’m playing these new low octaves from Seydel Harmonicas,” Lavoie explained. Queue harmonica riff. “They have a big bottom end. It’s a big sound.”
Lavoie takes pretty much all of his harmonicas and “fine tunes” them and “adjusts the reed profile.” In other words, takes them apart and puts them back together so they make a better sound. 
“They started making low octaves about six years ago,” the 66-year-old East Monkton native explained. “The stainless steel reeds really project. Seydel really nailed it… and then I bring it to a different level.”
Before he got into low-octave harmonicas, Lavoie developed a titanium body for harmonicas in ’97. Then, with the help of Mike Raineville of Maple Landmark in Middlebury, Lavoie developed a wood body. “I try to get the perfect chamber size, because that’s what creates the tone and the color,” Lavoie said, and broke into another riff. “We’re all looking for the Holy Grail, so to speak.”
Behind all the music, Lavoie also had a business as a house painter. “Up until 2007, when I got off the ladder,” he said. “It was enough to keep me going. I’m old school Vermont. My grandparents came to Lake Dunmore in the early 1900s. My father bought the house in East Monkton and we had nine kids come through there in the ’50s.”
Lavoie now owns the family home and raised his own daughter there too.
Lavoie’s concert this Saturday is meant to raise awareness about what he’s doing and inspire the audience (including Midd students) to sign up for his classes. But more than a sales-pitch, it’s going to be one heck of a toe-tappin’ show. 
“I’ll be doing a lot of traditional blues and the way I play,” Lavoie explained. “My distinctive sound is improvisation. I do the same songs, but never do them the same way. It’s all in the moment.” Yes, you guessed it, another minute of tunes. “My body just leads me the way. As soon as I start one note, improvisation pulls me forward. It’s all about staying in the pocket.”
Lavoie’s not shy about sharing the secret to the harmonica: “You gotta have it in your mouth every day.”
And on that note, he broke into a final tune that left my fingers typing to the beat for the rest of the day.
Editor’s Note (fun fact): When Elsie Lynn Parini was in Jazz Band at Middlebury Union High School (2001-2005, she played trumpet), Band Director Anne Severy invited Mark Lavoie to several classes during a harmonica unit. 

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