When Pat Carey plays the harmonica, his Parkinson’s symptoms go away.
This is the third in a series of articles profiling musicians in Moorestown. This week’s article highlights local harmonica player Pat Carey.
Nearly five years ago, Pat Carey was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Since that time, he said he’s become a bit shaky and his memory isn’t what it once was. But something special happens when Carey plays his harmonica. His Parkinson’s symptoms go away for as long as he is playing.
“When I’m playing I don’t have it,” Carey said. “That’s why I keep doing it.”
Carey has an unabashedly self-deprecating sense of humor. He said he knows he’s not the best harmonica player. Does it matter? According to Carey, no. He jokes there are so few harmonica players out there he doesn’t have to be that good to get asked to play.
He first picked up the harmonica, also known as the French harp or mouth organ, in college. He said his roommates were all guitar players, and the harp seemed like the easiest instrument to learn.
Carey played on and off for the next 20 years and would get together with a band based out of Philly to play about four times a year. After he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Carey stopped working. One of his fellow bandmates decided he was going to take a year sabbatical from work to explore music and asked Carey if he was interested in joining him. Together, the pair made a goal to be on a stage by April 1.
On March 31, the pair went to an open mic night and played together. Carey said after the pair played almost every subsequent band approached him and asked if he was interested in playing on stage with their group.
After that night, Carey’s bandmate went back to work, but Carey felt inspired. He started playing nearly every day, and he said with the consistent playing, he rapidly got good at the instrument.
Carey said he can’t read music and plays entirely by ear — which in his eyes is probably for the best. He said with his Parkinson’s impairing his memory loss, he’d have a difficult time remembering the notes if he had to memorize them.
He said he doesn’t play the instrument like anyone else he knows. He’s not interested in playing the blues, and he treats the harmonica a bit more like a woodwind than most do.
“It used to really bother me that I didn’t sound like anybody else,” Carey said. “Now it’s a major plus.”
These days, Carey usually plays as a duo with his friend John Limanni. He said his friend pulled him out of the trash — quite literally. The pair met at an open mic night at the Cubby Hole on Main Street. Carey said he approached the first few musicians who were up that night and asked about playing with them only to be rejected.
So, Carey went behind the restaurant about 20 yards, sat on a trashcan and played along to the music of the next guitarist up. He said he thought he was far enough back that no one would hear him, but the guitarist, Limanni, came walking up to him asking if it was he who had been playing along with him. Carey said he quickly apologized for bothering him, but Limanni said he loved what he heard and was trying to signal him to come up and play. The pair have played together ever since.
At gigs, Limanni sings and plays guitar while Carey plays harp. They never have a set list and usually just play whatever they feel like. They pull from a wide variety of genres and artists including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Chicago, Louis Armstrong, Etta James and Van Morrison.
These days, Carey plays out at least once a week. He said he plays local bars, charity functions and still jams with the Philly band a couple times a year.
Carey said these days he’s unable to drive at night because of his disease. He said the amount of support he’s received from the Moorestown community has helped him through, and his friends are there for him when his lawn needs mowing or he needs help carrying something into the house.
He said often finds himself writing to Parkinson’s websites to talk about how playing has helped his disease. He said the amount of feedback he receives is incredible, and he’s had doctors ask him if they can share his story with their patients.
“I truly believe that everybody has something in them that does that to them what it [playing the harmonica] does to me,” Carey said.
He said no one is more shocked than him that he became a musician at the age of 57 and is out playing weekly gigs at the age of 60.
“Every time I think about not doing it anymore all of my friends are like, ‘This is your medicine.You can’t stop doing it.’” Carey said.
Carey and Limanni will play the Train Wreck Distillery in Mount Holly on Saturday, Oct. 20, from 6 to 9 p.m. To follow the pair’s upcoming shows, visit https://www.facebook.com/John-Pat-2036338483311239.
Know a local band, vocalist or performer who should get featured in the series? Email Kelly Flynn at email@example.com with suggestions.