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The Harmonica Man

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The man who travels by that stylish nom de tune, Jim Prushankin, sits at a desk with his wife, Bishon, listening to all the reedy hums and squeaks. Beaming, he looks very much the part of the proud old master. Students here at the East Coventry Elementary School near rural Pottstown, Pa., in the shadow of the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station, think he's pretty hot stuff, too. For Prushankin, a local businessman who has turned a lifelong love of the harmonica into a crusade, did more than just teach a handful of shy schoolkids how to make music on the harmonica. Literally and figuratively in concert with their teacher, Helen Harrop, he also helped breathe new life into a class in need of a boost.

"Now, I'm absolutely not a psychotherapist, but I see a real difference in the kids,'' says Prushankin. "I see it in their bright, smiling faces, in their self-respect and respect for others, and especially in their selfconfidence.''

It's a kind of self-confidence Prushankin learned at an early age, during the Depression years, when, as an 11-year-old, he joined the Philadelphia Harmonica Band. The experience, he claims, has influenced him throughout his life. "We wore these classy blue and gold uniforms,'' he recalls. "We gave concerts all over. We even performed at Roosevelt's inaugural parade and ball! People respected us, we felt good about ourselves, and we stayed on the straight road.''

He may have learned to love the harmonica early in life, but he didn't always play. In fact, Prushankin all but forgot about harmonicas until 1977, when he suffered a near-fatal coronary. "Before that, I was a workaholic,'' recalls Prushankin, a manufacturer's representative in the plumbing and heating industry. After the heart attack, he says, "I started to take the time to smell the roses. I set my priorities. And I began to develop my hobby, the harmonica.''

He developed it enough to enter the 1987 World Harmonica Championships and be selected a finalist. "I realized I had something to give to others. And I believe in that Chinese saying that says something like, 'You don't really own anything until you give it away.''

By those ancient standards, Prushankin must hold title to every harmonica he's ever bought that has since turned up in the hands of a child. He believes that children will blossom when they feel they can do something, anything, well--even play the harmonica. And Prushankin, who likes to say that he can teach anyone how to play the harmonica in five minutes-- even adults--has been making good on his boast at schools throughout the region.

Harrop first learned of Prushankin when she heard him interviewed on a radio talk show. And because Harrop was especially concerned about her students' self-esteem, his message was music to her ears.

The next morning, she read an article in The New York Times about Prushankin's work with a 2nd grade class of slow learners at another school. By the end of the year, after experiencing success with the harmonica, most of those 2nd graders had caught up to their grade level in writing and reading. Harrop was convinced.

Prushankin, ever the musician, does requests. And one of Harrop's first was to visit her class, which Jim and Bishon Prushankin did, bringing their free harmonicas along. With Harrop, they taught the students to play, using the play-by-number books that Prushankin has created.

Now, after a month of practice, the students have invited the Prushankins back to hear them perform. Watching the students demonstrate what they've learned, they sit in one corner of the room, smiling, applauding, and calling out compliments.

Next, Bishon shows the children her "little ladies''-- one and one-half inch harmonicas hanging on rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. She passes out the harmonica cases she has made for each child, each decorated with a honeybee appliqu--for the class calls itself "Harrop's Harmonica Honeybees.''

Then Prushankin takes the floor to show his collection of many-sized harmonicas. He invites students up to try them. After displaying the harmonicas, Prushankin asks students up in pairs for an impromptu jam session; eventually, the whole class, including Harrop, is playing together.

The benefits of playing the harmonica are so obvious to Prushankin that he would like to see harmonica playing integrated into the classroom. "The harmonicas I give out are easily affordable; they cost $15 apiece,'' Prushankin says. "I'd like to see them become part of the curriculum.''

After the morning of concerts, compliments, and presents, some students talk about their friend the Harmonica Man and their newfound harmonica hobby. "When Miss Harrop told us someone was coming to help us learn, I thought she meant help with spelling,'' Mike says. "And I expected a younger guy who looked kind of loony!''

"I thought it would be hard,'' Laura says. "We practice two times a day at least. Some people even practice on recess. It's fun.''

Chrissy adds: "It keeps us occupied. If you're bored and it's a rainy day, you can just play it with a friend.''

Harrop has incorporated harmonicas into many aspects of the classroom. In one corner stands a low round table with a sign: "Prushankin Corner.'' It's a work station where questions are posted--Who invented the harmonica? Who was the first astronaut to play the harmonica in outer space?--and reference books are kept. A bulletin board is filled with photos of children playing harmonica with the Prushankins.

To Harrop, this cheap, simple musical instrument-- and a few hours of the Harmonica Man's time--has made a difference in her students.

"I can see that in some children the good feelings from the attention they are getting is really spilling over into other areas of their lives,'' she says. "The children are feeling more self-confident. And the harmonica is fostering feelings of togetherness, whereas before, they had a tendency to do things alone.''

She even thinks the harmonica is helping her students academically. "They are doing better work,'' she says. "I see more of a desire to want to excel.''

Principal Kenneth Swart, who has spent hours in Harrop's class, agrees. Says Swart: "I see a definite change in the children. Now, this is a strictly gut-level observation, but there is more cooperation, better manners.''

Swart appreciates Prushankin's commitment to the students. "Businessmen today, you know, time is money to them,'' he says. "So it's nice that he'd take the time to do this, that he thinks children are important.''

Prushankin, who accepts no money for his efforts, believes Harrop and Swart deserve most of the credit. He's just doing what a Harmonica Man has to do. "I've reached a point in my business where I can take time off without sacrificing the business,'' he says. "In a way what I do is selfish. I get back so much feedback.''

The Prushankins' goodbyes are drawn out by hugs and kisses and pleas for them to return. A boy named Scott gives Prushankin his teddy bear. And then, the students spontaneously form a sort of harmonica honor guard, each proud member clasping the raised hands of a partner, forming an arch. For the Harmonica Man, whose melodic approach to education has opened more than a few passageways for so many children, it's a fitting tribute.

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