Harmonica Takes Centre Stage at UCSI

As the first private institution in Malaysia to offer degrees in music, UCSI University’s Institute of Music is no stranger to breaking new ground. All efforts thus far have focused on pushing the envelope on the local front but early next year, UCSI will set its sights on the global stage when it becomes the first in the world to offer studies in chromatic harmonica on a tertiary level. 

Students pursuing UCSI’s Bachelor of Classical Music (Hons) or Foundation in Music with a classical specialisation will be able to choose the harmonica as their major instrument. 

A project which has been in the pipeline for more than a year, the syllabus was written from scratch with the combined efforts of Professor Dr P’ng Tean Hwa, Director of UCSI IMus; Ysan Suit Yin, Head of the Classical Music programme; and Ho Chee Kin, UCSI alumnus and award-winning harmonica artiste. 

“The harmonica has been a niche instrument but over the years, we have seen it rise in popularity,” said Prof P’ng. “Our students have even participated and won in a few harmonica competitions. A formalised study has been a long time coming and I am pleased that UCSI is able to take the lead.” 

Ho, who has been playing the harmonica since he was 14, concurs. “I think this is fantastic news whether for students who love the harmonica and want to study it or for those who want to start learning.” 

In building the syllabus, Ho incorporated all of his playing techniques that he had perfected over the past 22 years. 

A well-known musician in this growing industry, his distinctive playing skills has taken him all over the world where he bested the competition in Germany, Japan and the UK and performed at concert halls in Beijing, Hong Kong and South Korea. Most notably, he swept four Champion titles at the International Harmonica Festival and Competition in Great Britain. For being the first to represent Malaysia at an international harmonica competition, he was awarded a place in the Malaysia Book of Records. 

Ho will be passing on what he has gained from these experiences to his students as he will be assuming the lead teaching position of this very study at UCSI. 

A pocket-sized instrument, the harmonica has many types but players usually go for tremolo, diatonic or chromatic. The tremolo is known for its distinctive accordion sound while the diatonic is favoured by Blues players as the tuning fits the musical style perfectly. Both will need to be played with a fellow musician if there is a need for more than one key in a song. 

The chromatic, however, stands out as the easiest to play. “It is adaptable to just about any variety of musical style,” said Ho. “A simple button on the side allows players to slide into any key of their choice making it ideal for solo performers.” 

Ho highly recommends the harmonica to everyone, especially students. “What makes it special is that you play completely by touch. Every time I practice or perform, I have to imagine the position of every note while interpreting musicality at the same time. This helps to develop one’s imagination and that is equally as important as knowledge.” 

While the harmonica may not be the first instrument to come to mind when one thinks about playing music, its popularity is certainly gaining ground. 

“At the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival in 1998, there were about 500 participants,” he said, having won several awards at that very event with his team members. “This year, at the same Festival, there were 3,500 of us and I believe this upward trend will continue.” 

This is in no doubt largely due to the musicians who have been working hard to elevate the harmonica’s prominence in the music industry. On the home front, UCSI alumna Evelyn Choong of Fresco Harmonica – a leading harmonica band in Malaysia – is able to look back and trace the difference in public perception a decade ago. 

“We had to give a lot of performances just to create awareness,” said Choong, who founded the band in 2006 with fellow coursemate Aiden Soon when they were in their second year of study at UCSI. “We worked very hard to build up the harmonica’s image as a serious instrument and thankfully, more now have started to appreciate the harmonica’s unique sound and the musicality involved.” 

And Fresco Harmonica has much to show for. They have expanded from a performing duo to an ensemble of 10 and have established the first harmonica symphony orchestra in Malaysia. They have won several championship titles in competitions held in Germany, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan and have shared the stage with Asia's most prominent artistes like Shila Amzah, Nicholas Teo and Alan Tam. 

Their success paves the road for future players who Choong urges to join the fray. “I’m very happy to hear that UCSI will finally be offering harmonica studies. If more people do what we do, this industry will grow even faster so be patient and stay passionate.” 

UCSI’s defining Classical Music programme first put the University on the map. Since then, the introduction of the Bachelor of Contemporary Music (Hons) and Master of Music (Performance Studies) have equally served to contribute to the Institute’s standing as Malaysia’s foremost music force. 

Students have won competitions centred around a variety of instruments, performed on grandest stages including Carnegie Hall in New York and as part of UCSI’s 120-strong student choir, have lent their vocals to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra twice – all before their graduation. 

With UCSI expanding its Kuala Lumpur campus to encompass two new academic blocks, the Institute will continue to train future musicians in dedicated teaching studios, practice rooms and a 500-seat recital hall.