Jim Prushankin Believes Everyone Needs a Harmonica in His Life—and He Practices More Than He Preaches

updated 02/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Mayhem is erupting in Janet Poehlmann's-second grade class at Willow Dale Elementary School in Warminster, Pa., as 45 7-year-olds huff and puff to play "This Old Man" on their harmonicas. The cacophony is music to Poehlmann's ears. Just two years ago she could barely get the attention of her class of slow learners, let alone teach them anything. Then along came the Harmonica Man. A prosperous manufacturers' rep, Jim Prushankin claimed he could teach anybody to play the mouth organ, and presto! Using a play-by-the-numbers booklet that he created, he had Poehlmann's rowdies making music in 15 minutes.

"It gave them such a feeling of accomplishment," says Poehlmann. "For once, they felt good about themselves."

Guided by the precept that "half the world knows how to play the harmonica and the other half wants to," Prushankin roams the globe twice a year (he travels alone, with wife Bishon's blessing), spreading the harmonica message—and harmonicas—like a musical Johnny Appleseed. He has serenaded a family in their hut on the Amazon, a man panning for gold in Alaska and a group of Mexican ragamuffins, and at each encounter he has given away harmonicas. "I'm very spontaneous," he says. "If I see someone who looks like they can use a harmonica in their life, I approach them." He takes three dozen $15 Hohner diatonics everywhere and has no idea how many he has handed out. "If I kept tabs," he says, "that would take the fun out of it."

Fun is a recent find for Prushankin. A Philadelphian, he was a workaholic until 1977, when he suffered a near fatal coronary. Then and there he saw a vision of a finer, less frenetic life-style: "A harmonica! In the '30s, I had been in the Philadelphia Harmonica Band. We wore classy blue-and-gold uniforms and gave concerts all over the country." After a refresher course, he "felt like a kid again," so he began looking for others to convert.

There has been a special dividend to his efforts. Poehlmann's "slow learners" now score normally on their tests. "Once they had success with the harmonica," she says, "they really got turned on to education—all thanks to Jim Prushankin." Former Poehlmann student Willie Schmidt, 10, who sleeps with his harmonica, agrees. "I love Mr. Prushankin," Willie says. "I want to be just like him." It may be a hard act to follow.

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