A few months ago I started doing a series on my YouTube channel called Harmonica Books in My Library where I discuss some of the books I own as well as perform demonstrations of some of the material. Was I just hard up for content? No, these presentations came from a very sincere place as I found myself returning to the bookshelf and looking at the material with fresh eyes after a few years of producing my own teaching resources. I really wanted to see how others were teaching the instrument and I was thrilled to return to some of the books I purchased as a young man that helped me develop as a student. The books remind me that I am still a student and are full of gems of knowledge. They also remind me of a simpler time before the internet when I just listened to records and purchased books at the local music store to quench my thirst for information.
I was always curious about this book by Max De Aloe and a copy fell into my hands after a student loaned it to me and then decided to give it to me. After spending some time with it I decided to include it in the YouTube series. I wound up creating two installments so, evidently, I had a lot to say.
The author’s recorded works are pretty easy to find on your favorite streaming platforms and I spent some time listening to Bjork on the Moon and some of the other albums. If you own the book and want to work through it I would strongly suggest starting here by simply listening to his discography. I would also nudge you in the direction of these studio recordings rather than his live performances on YouTube so you can really hear the tone of the instrument. Tone is obviously a big deal to the author as you can readily see in the book so the albums are not something to be skipped. You really should hear his sound.
Speaking of recordings I will point out that I got the book but not the CD with the demonstrations. So I am missing a really important part of the package however, I can read music fairly well and was able to bang out some of the etudes on the piano (melodies are written in standard notation with chord symbols). So I do have an idea of what the etudes sound like.
I’m not going to do a thorough review here I just want to focus on the order of the keys as they are presented in the book. The author seemed pretty determined to cover all the keys in the book and he does!
At first glance, I looked at the table of contents and was confused by what I thought was the order of keys presented. Chapter 6 has exercises in D and Bb major. Chapter 7 covers the keys of A and Eb major. That didn’t make sense to me that he would start with D and Bb and, of course, I was wrong so let’s start all over with chapter 1. But first, let’s look at the circle of 5ths.
You will note that the key of C sits at the top and you will see the key signature of zero sharps and flats. As we move down the left we have the “flat keys” and we add a flat as we move counterclockwise. Moving in the other direction starting from C we venture into the “sharp keys” and we add one sharp every time we move in this clockwise direction. By the time we meet in the middle at the bottom of the circle, we have 6 sharps or 6 flats.
When learning almost any musical instrument it usually makes sense to start with the keys near the top of the circle. That is why I selected the keys of C, D, F, and G for Volume 1 of my improvising harmonica method. I also discuss this topic in a 26-minute video on my YouTube channel called Why the Keys of C, F, G, and D are a Good Place to Start on C Chromatic Harmonica.
Anyway, let’s talk about Max De Aloe’s book and how he presents the keys. It made a whole lot more sense when I took a closer look at it. If I wanted to present all the keys I would start with C and then I would start moving down the left and right sides of the circle at an even pace. That is exactly what he does!
Chapters 1 through 4 don’t use the slide at all and there is a focus on getting a solid sound out of the instrument in all three octaves. Therefore the book starts with the key of C as you would expect.
Chapter 5 is titled Let’s Use the Slide and introduces the notes F# and Bb and key signatures of G and F. If you look at the circle of 5ths again you can those keys are next-door neighbors to C and he is off to a good start not showing favoritism to either the sharp or flat side of the circle.
Chapter 6 follows the same logic as he grabs one key from each side while continuing to circumnavigate the keys. This chapter introduces the keys of D and Bb.
Chapter 7 keeps the same even pacing and the next logical set of two keys is presented from each side of the circle, A, and Eb.
Chapter 8 interrupts this methodical journey around the circle and is all about several types of scales this time in all of the keys. There are no songs or exercises it’s just ascending and descending scales. Notice we start all over again in the key of C. However, this time we move clockwise around the circle (moving in 5ths) for 6 keys but then instead of continuing all the way around it jumps back up to F near the top of the circle and moves counterclockwise in 4ths for 6 more keys until we reach the bottom of the circle and all the key centers have been covered. For this section on scales, the author has put some consideration into presenting the six scales on each side of the circle in an easier-to-harder order.
(If you have a copy of this book, please try to make sense of the previous paragraph by looking at the order of scales in chapter 8 while glancing at the circle of 5ths.)
Chapter 9 is titled The Other Keys and etudes are presented in the remaining 5 keys of E, Ab, B, Db, and Gb. Again the order of presentation is impeccable in its logic as we move toward the bottom of the circle by selecting one key at a time from either side.
There is a LOT crammed into the pages of this book and my honest opinion is that 90% or more of the harmonica community is not equipped to plow through the contents of this book without learning how to read music or getting a private teacher who can read. Perhaps a flute or piano teacher can coach them through these challenging etudes. I would not recommend writing hole numbers under the notation and I don’t think the author would either. Max has laid down quite a challenge here for the serious harmonica student!
I love Max’s playing. I love his sound. I also love Sher Publications and have a few of their fake books and theory books. It’s super great stuff. This book is wonderful but the fruit is high on the branches and requires dedication and hard work to harvest it.
Am I offering my services as a coach for this specific book? Perhaps. But give me some time. I’m sitting here as I type looking at exercise 9.1. It’s an etude using the E major scale in intervals of a 6th. I can’t play that. Not right now anyway. I think if I practiced it 20-minutes a day this week I could execute it 5 days from now. But that’s just one exercise.
Take a look at the image below of the circle of 5ths. The blue numbers represent the order of presentation of the keys in the book (aside from chapter 9 which presents scales in all keys).
You will see that he never deviates from the pattern. The order of key centers consistently goes back and forth like a ping-pong game until finished.
The closer I look at this book the cooler it gets!