Marching to the Beat of His Own Drum
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 11:11
Photo courtesy of Josh Harmon '18
For Harmon, a French major who developed a love of drumming as a child, making music at Amherst has been a formative experience.

“What to say about Josh?” began Professor of English Anston Bosman, whom Josh Harmon worked for as a research assistant during his junior year. “There’s his signature blend of smart and goofy. Crazy talented but always modest. Hard working though he never seems to break a sweat.”

Anyone close to Josh knows these things to be true. During his time at Amherst, Josh has developed a reputation for organizing incredible concerts purely out of passion, performing excellent music in front of his classmates with a genuine smile on his face and making puns that make you groan and laugh at the same time.

The Birth of a Performer
Growing up in Short Hills, New Jersey, Josh was a bit of a renaissance man. Early on, he was interested in film, making videos for a YouTube channel he ran with his friend (the partnership fell apart in middle school due to “creative differences”).

He also enjoyed sports, playing Little League baseball (in which he once threw a no-hitter) and later high school tennis. But Josh’s main passion — and what he is now perhaps most known for at Amherst — was drumming. He began taking lessons at the age of four, and his skills quickly developed.

It was his experience at summer camp in the Berkshires, which he attended at age nine with his brother Michael Harmon ’16, that drove home his passion for the instrument. There, Josh impressed the older kids with his talents, eventually earning the opportunity to close the annual talent show along with Michael.

“Performing at camp, especially when Michael and I would play as a duo, was incredibly exciting,” Josh said. “I started to realize how fun performing was. I began to think ‘This is more than just something I do with a teacher.’”

Josh especially loves the connection he can create with an audience through drumming.

“What I’ve come to realize is that the drummer has control over what’s going on more than anyone else on stage,” he said. “People are dancing to the beat, so when playing the drums, I feel most connected to the audience.”

Arrival at Amherst
Josh’s love of performance followed him to Amherst. Upon arriving, he joined the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble (ACJE) and a jazz combo, playing in both with his brother. No one was more excited for Josh’s arrival to Amherst than Michael.

“After Val introduced all-day Honey Bunches of Oats, I didn’t think it could get any better,” Michael said. “Then Josh arrived. It was a dream come true to spend those two years together — making music, cracking jokes and eating our honeyed oat bunches with reckless abandon.”

After playing in college-run jazz bands together for a year, the brothers decided to create their own band, one in which they could replicate the pop medleys they had played together at summer camp.

Along with Michael, Josh recruited talented musicians they’d met through the Amherst jazz programs and formed a pop cover band, The Brothers Harmon or TBH for short. Since its formation, TBH has been a staple of the Amherst student band scene, thanks in large part to Josh’s expertise on the drums.

“Josh is the best drummer I know,” Michael told me, bluntly. “His dedication, tenacity and chopstick stick chops are almost superhuman, and I’m lucky to just be in his band, to be honest.” With the Harmons, one must know that the pun was intended.

Josh values his experience in TBH a great deal: “Playing in TBH has been the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had here at Amherst — not only musically, but socially as well,” he explained. “From playing in that band, I’ve met some of my closest friends, been able to meet new people at Amherst and [through booking gigs on other campuses] allowed me to explore the Five Colleges.”

As a current member of TBH myself, I can say that without Josh’s passion, talent and organizational skills, the band would never have become what it is today.

A Passion for Live Music
Josh’s love for performance extends beyond his own concerts to watching others perform as well. While at Amherst, he has dedicated himself to bringing exciting and unique musical acts to campus for his fellow students to enjoy. Often working with his friend and fellow ACJE member Dan Langa ’18, Harmon has brought a spectacular act to campus each of the past three years.

His sophomore year it was Busty and the Bass, his junior year it was The Kennedy Administration and this past year it was Theo Katzman of Vulfpeck (for whom TBH was an opening act).

“Working with Josh on these projects was a lot of work, but Josh is always thinking three steps ahead,” said Langa. “That made our work miles easier.”
This year, Josh also took on the additional responsibility of being lead programmer of the Campus Activities Board (CAB). This meant that he was involved in nearly all of the college-sponsored activities, from Farm Fest to Spring Concert.

Coalescing Interests
In addition to Josh’s impressive extra-curricular activities, he is also a driven and talented student. Josh is a French major, much to his own surprise.

“If you had told me in high school that I was going to major in French, I would have laughed in your face,” he told me. Upon arriving at Amherst, Harmon was not sure in which area he wanted to focus, joking “I switched my major maybe 100 times.”

Early on, Josh had many ideas on what to major in, from geology to film to English. None of them stuck, though. “Through it all, I had been taking French classes, at least one every semester,” Harmon explained, “So eventually I just thought ‘why don’t I become a French major?’”

This decision proved fruitful, as it led Josh to write a thesis on the French military snare drum, which he described as “an incredibly fun process.”

“My thesis allowed me to combine many of the things that I am passionate about, including drums, European studies and film.”

Josh was able to travel to France during interterm to visit a school of French snare drum technique. He took the opportunity to make a movie about his experience, which he calls the fourth chapter of his thesis.

The thesis itself centers around the French military tambour, a topic that even his thesis advisor, Professor of French and European Studies Ronald Rosbottom, hadn’t heard of when Harmon brought it up.

“I told him I wanted to write about the French tambour, and he said ‘what is that?’ When I brought it to the department, I said ‘I think this is a good idea.’ They didn’t believe me.”

The department has since changed its tune. “Josh’s thesis turned out to be one that the French department will brag about for years,” Rosbottom said. “Part of its success came from his modesty combined with a probity that understates his formidable talents.”

Rosbottom clearly enjoyed advising Harmon’s thesis, adding that “Josh was an excellent thesis student, especially because he kept his infectious sense of humor during the entire process. I remember when he was fretting about how to start his thesis last fall. I said ‘Look, Josh, it’s only mid-October.’ His response: ‘It’s already mid-October?! I’m doomed!’”

An Exciting Future
Like his search for a major, Harmon is not exactly sure where the next chapter of his life will begin. In the short term, he is planning on working in Amherst over the summer with the Putney Pre-College, an international program for high school students that provides academic and athletic opportunities.

As for the long term, Harmon is still figuring things out. He hopes to continue playing music in some capacity, but he doesn’t yet have a clear plan. But, with his level of talent, drive and modesty, it is only a matter of time before Harmon finds a fitting and fulfilling future. Perhaps it will be in performance, perhaps it will be in concert production, perhaps it will be in academia.

But Bosman has other ideas: “I expect him to invent a new kind of snare drum, spend his fortune on a chateau in France and invite me to stay in the ‘chambre de bonne’!”