Performance » Music

Hats Off to the Harmonica Man



Harmonica virtuoso Mike Runyan's turn as a featured soloist at this week's Star Spangled Symphony on the Prairie will be one of his last performances as a full-time Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra employee. After 28 years on staff, he will retire at the end of August. But that doesn't mean you've heard the last of him.

Because "harmonica player" isn't the career he's quitting. Runyan is leaving his day job as the ISO's principal librarian.

"My harmonica playing is a side thing," he says. "I grew up playing piano and I studied music composition in college. Harmonica playing was just one of my side interests."

And though he's enjoyed his work in the symphony's library, it's the harmonica playing and music composition that he plans to kick into full gear come fall.

Over the years Runyan has entertained everywhere from Vancouver and San Diego to Detroit and Baltimore, and he's played for legendary maestros such as Marvin Hamlisch (when he conducted the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra and guest-conducted the ISO) on numerous occasions.

ISO's Mike Runyan entertains with his energetic slapstick shtick and harmonica-playing prowess during the annual Yuletide Celebration. - TOM RUSSO
  • Tom Russo
  • ISO's Mike Runyan entertains with his energetic slapstick shtick and harmonica-playing prowess during the annual Yuletide Celebration.

Going Out With a Bang

It's fitting that the Fourth of July concert with its live artillery and fireworks finale will be Runyan's swan song, because he believes that nothing showcases Americana music quite like his signature instrument. He'll play a five-minute medley he's arranged that features some of his patriotic faves. They include Over There, Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary and Keep the Home Fires Burning. The medley's a tribute to World War I, which began 100 year ago.

His trusty harmonicas have also been a good fit at other Pops concerts, the ISO's wildly popular annual Yuletide Celebration and even for some traditional, classical shows. He's held center stage as the featured solo performer with orchestral accompaniment, but he's also played parts in the orchestra, standing amid the flutes and clarinets.

At this year's Valentine's concert, the Heart & Soul: An Evening of Romance, Runyan's rendition of Moon River and Claire de Lune moved moods of that date night to a whole other level (especially for those of us with a Breakfast at Tiffany's affinity).

"At the Valentine's concert, my role was just kind of a little bonbon there," he says. "I wasn't the featured soloist; wasn't meant to take the whole evening's focus -- just a nice touch to add a little extra excitement."

Instrumental Humor

Not that he always performs with such an imposing backup band.

"I also play things without orchestras," Runyan says. "I play little vaudeville shows and other concerts where people like novel things."

He takes those vaudeville routines seriously, often rounding out his harmonica work with juggling, magic tricks and jokes. The harmonica bands of the vaudeville days always performed with a shtick, and he's glad to keep the tradition alive. An example is his flashy red cowboy outfit and the 8-foot (prop) harmonica he wielded during the Yuletide Celebration. And patrons at Symphony on the Prairie this week (July 3-5) will catch more of that slapstick humor, as he plays Turkey in the Straw.  

Although he takes a lighthearted approach to performances, his meticulous descriptions of his various harmonicas reveal a serious devotion to and in-depth knowledge of his craft.

It takes more than strong lungs to master this deceptively simple-looking instrument. Consider the 10-hole diatonic model, at least one of which languishes at the bottom of every American grade-schooler's toy box.

"It's what most people think of when you mention this instrument," he says. "It's 4 or 5 inches long and has 10 holes in it. It plays just basically the white notes on the piano. So you can only do pretty simple songs on it." (Think: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb.) The instruments grow more complex -- vastly more complex -- from there. For instance, chromatic models play both the piano's black and white keys and are available in various sizes and ranges. And Runyan plays a brick-size bass harmonica, which hits foghorn-like low notes, plus the extra-long and very versatile chord harmonica. It features 12 inch-and-a-half regions on each of two harmonicas that are positioned together. "Depending on where you blow and draw, you get all the major and minor chords on it," he says. "So it's like strumming a guitar; you get the rhythm with it."

And for those songs that require special rhythms and ranges not typical of the standard harmonicas, Runyan modifies his models (retuning reeds and doing other such detailed tweaks) to his own specifications. He even has some that he plays for only one particular song.

 If Runyan had been born a century earlier, he might have been a celebrity heartthrob. Back in the day, there were harmonica orchestras, celebrity players, even movies featuring harmonica performances. Musicians such as Larry Adler played one while standing next to Fred Astaire in the movies. Women swooned after him. But all of that was blown away by the arrival of rock music.

If you can't make it out to Conner Prairie, you have another chance to watch Runyan's harmonica playing during this Thursday's  Lunch Break Series concert: A Musical Salute to America. - TOM RUSSO

"Elvis came along and then The Beatles, and suddenly everyone dropped their harmonicas and went running after the new things," he says. Though lately the instrument has made a modest comeback -- something Runyan is doing everything in his power to encourage.

"There are harmonica clubs and festivals, but it's not in the public eye anymore, so what I do to try to change all that is bring it to people who haven't heard it," he adds.

While his musical chops earn him kudos, Runyan's work as ISO head librarian has been yet more critical to the orchestra's success. Even though the idea of an orchestra employing a librarian sounds as counterintuitive as a library retaining a conductor. But Runyan hasn't been there to stack books since 1986. Instead, his job has been wrangling mountains of sheet music and ensuring he and his staff got the appropriate music to the musicians. He's also been in charge of renting, borrowing and securing the rights of various copies of sheet music -- and cleaning up the penciled-on pages.

"In a professional orchestra's library the sheet music gets prepared [for performances]," he says. "That sounds kind of nondescript for people who don't know what this takes."

Turns out it takes quite a lot. For example, music for the bow section may not note when the players should change bow direction. This and dozens of other notations from the ISO's section principals are penciled onto the sheet music by the library staff.

The job would be maddeningly tedious were that its only element. But there's much, much more. Particularly for Pops concerts and holiday celebrations, which often feature new arrangements for which sheet music simply doesn't exist. The conductor and the arranger might take something such as Let It Go from Frozen and sit down in front of a computer and put in all the notes the way they want them.

Runyan isn't retiring from harmonica playing. He's leaving his post as ISO's principal librarian: keeping track of all that sheet music, and ensuring it's ready for the orchestra when needed. - COURTESY MIKE RUNYAN
  • Courtesy Mike Runyan
  • Runyan isn't retiring from harmonica playing. He's leaving his post as ISO's principal librarian: keeping track of all that sheet music, and ensuring it's ready for the orchestra when needed.

"That file is given to us and we will have to manipulate it so that each instrument's part is laid out and organized, and at the end of the page there has to be a rest so they can turn the page when they're not playing," Runyan says.

Getting new arrangements down on paper is a complicated job, but working with very old sheet music presents its own set of issues. Especially when the ISO performs works that are closely held by publishers, such as Maurice Ravel's iconic Boléro. If you want to play it, you have to call the publishing company and have them send you the sheet music -- decades-old, threadbare sheet music that's been scribbled on by pretty much every musician who's ever used it.

"Sometimes it will have been used by a school orchestra where kids are still learning how to play," Runyan says. "Instead of using shorthand, they'll write a whole bunch of notes from their teachers, like 'Slow down here.' We may have to spend hours erasing junk that's just going to get in our way and slow down our rehearsal."

When Runyan lays down his pencil and eraser at the end of August, he and his wife, Pamela, plan to devote more attention to their own musical careers.

"We've been writing music for a long time," he says. "Everything from small pieces for choirs to large pieces for orchestras. After retiring I'll be able to promote my work more by playing. I intend to step down from the symphony and spend more time doing that."

Not that he rules out performing with the ISO in the future. Far from it.

"That has nothing to do with the fact that I'm not going to be doing my other job," he says. "If I provide an adequate service and they want to hire me back as a soloist, I'll do other performance for them."

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