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I Wish I Knew THIS When I Started Playing Harmonica

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Hello! In today's harmonica lesson, I'll tell you the five things I wish I'd known when I was a beginner harmonica player.

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1. Breath control

When I was a beginner, I played way too hard. I blew the thing like hell, because I thought that's what you have to do. I was wrong. Very wrong.

Breath control is essential for any woodwind or brass player, but it is especially important for harmonica players. When you play the harmonica, you need to be able to control your breath so that you can play for long periods of time without running out of air. You also need to be able to control the volume and tone of your notes, which can be difficult if you don't have good breath control.

Top harmonica players are in complete control of their breath even when playing fast and loud. Your instinct as a beginner might be to force the air to make the instrument sound big and strong, but this is the opposite of what you need to do.

The best way to breathe for harmonica playing is to breathe from your diaphragm. Your diaphragm is a muscle which separates your chest from your abdomen. When you breathe from your diaphragm, your stomach rises and falls, rather than your chest. This type of breathing allows you to take in more air and results in deep but controlled airflow.

There are some simple breathing exercises that you can do to improve your breath control for harmonica playing:

  • Lie on your back and place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in slowly and deeply so that your stomach rises and your chest stays relatively still.

  • Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and then exhale for a count of four.

  • Play a simple scale on the harmonica, and focus on controlling your breath so that the notes are evenly spaced and of consistent volume.

With practice, you will develop better breath control and be able to play the harmonica more expressively and for longer periods of time. Here are a few tips for improving breath control while playing the harmonica:

  • Relax your body and mind - drop your shoulders and take slow breaths. When you are relaxed, it is easier to control your breath.

  • Don't force the air - when you blow or draw too hard, you will waste air and tire yourself out quickly.

  • Practice regularly - everyday playing will naturally relax your. The more you practice, the better your breath control will become.

Try my Breath Control Lesson to learn more

2. Harmonica tablature

When I first picked up the harmonica, I wondered if I would need to read music. It turns out that traditional musical notation can be used to transcribe harmonica music, but it doesn't easily capture the instrument's nuances and can be challenging for beginners. It also creates problems when playing harmonicas tuned to different keys. So an alternative is often used, and it's called tablature, or 'tabs' for short.

Tablature is a system of notation that uses symbols to represent the notes on a musical instrument. It is often used for instruments that are difficult to read sheet music for, such as the harmonica. Tabs make it really easy to learn simple melodies and songs, and get playing very quickly.

Learn 100's of songs with my Free Tabs

There are several different tablature systems for harmonica, but no single system is universally accepted. Because there isn't one organisation that has the authority to create a universal tablature system, each system has been developed independently and we don't all visualise or process information in the same way. This can be overwhelming at first, especially when you are starting out and looking online for songs to play, but it is also a great opportunity because you can find a tab system which works for you.

Ultimately, the choice of which tab system to use is up to the individual harmonica player.

The most popular tab system, and the one I use, represents blow notes with positive numbers and represents draw notes with negative numbers. Various symbols and characters represent bending, overblowing, and other techniques.

It can also be useful to watch video lessons to learn songs and techniques. Combined with tabs, videos will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the hand techniques, throat work and breath control required.

3. Using your ears

I remember getting my first harmonica and desperately trying to read the hole numbers when I played a tab. Perhaps you have felt this too. Indeed, it's natural to be drawn to the instrument's layout. Each hole corresponds to a note, and the harmonica itself has numbers above each hole to help you locate them. However, this approach has severe limitations.

A lot of harmonica technique is invisible. For example, bending notes and adding vibrato both rely on the tongue, throat and breath, none of which can be seen. Bends are achieved by altering the shape of your oral cavity and controlling your breath, resulting in a change in pitch. Vibrato, on the other hand, adds texture and expressiveness to your playing through rapid pitch fluctuations. Both techniques require a keen ear, and your eyes won't help you at all.

Music is fundamentally an auditory experience. A beautiful melody, a soulful riff, or an expressive bend all come to life through your ears. Relying solely on visual cues can hinder your ability to truly feel and interpret the music. By honing your listening skills, you open the door to a world of nuance, dynamics, and emotions that visual cues alone cannot convey.

But perhaps the biggest and most obvious reason for using your ears is a simple practical problem: no matter how you try, you can't actually see the hole you're playing, so there's no point trying. By the time the instrument is placed in your mouth, your nose will stop you seeing the hole number. I've lost count of the number of beginners who play the wrong hole but are convinced they are playing the right one. The problem is always that they are trying to look at the hole as they put the harmonica to their mouth.

On a deeper level, using your ears to guide your harmonica playing creates a deeper connection between you and the instrument. You become attuned to the instrument's unique timbre and idiosyncrasies. This connection not only enriches your playing but also allows you to explore new realms of improvisation, creativity, and musical interpretation.

With time, you can improve your musical ears and become confident at finding the right note every time. Here are some tips:

  • Active listening - immerse yourself in a variety of harmonica tunes and styles to familiarise yourself with the sound.

  • Take notes - pay attention to the way notes are phrased, the spaces between them, and the overall flow of the music.

  • The imitation game - try to replicate what you hear on your harmonica.

  • Close your eyes - if all else fails, shut your eyes so you have to use your ears!

4. Be a team player

I was gigging way before I knew what I was doing. It's embarrassing to think back to my first public performances; I played way too much, way too loud. The harmonica's distinct timbre adds colour, depth, and emotion to the overall sound, but it's crucial to remember that you're just one piece of the musical whole. Recognising your role means finding ways to complement the other instruments. You might have great chops and be able to solo like hell, but no one wants to hear non-stop harmonica drowning out the rest of the band.

So listen to the greats to get a sense of how to back up vocalists and other instruments. How did Big Walter comp behind a guitar solo? What did Junior Wells do to support a singer? When playing in a band, it's vital to show respect for your fellow musicians. This involves active listening, allowing space for others to shine, and adapting your playing to harmonise with the overall sound.

Balancing Solos and Rhythmic Elements

We've all heard a harmonica player who doesn't know when to stop. While harmonica solos are great at stealing the spotlight, the rhythm section is the backbone that holds the music together. As a harmonica player, your ability to seamlessly transition between soloing and playing rhythmic elements is key. Know when to step forward and showcase your skills, but also recognize when to step back and support the groove.

The Power of Silence

One of the most powerful tools in a musician's arsenal is silence. Knowing when not to play can be just as impactful as knowing when to play. Silence creates tension, anticipation, and space for other instruments to shine. By allowing moments of stillness, you give the music room to breathe, creating a sense of balance and dynamics that captivates listeners.

Enhancing the Collective Experience

Music is a shared experience that transcends individual contributions. Whether you're creating a soulful melody, adding a haunting background texture, or providing rhythmic support, your role contributes to the emotional tapestry that envelops the audience. By fully embracing your role and collaborating with fellow musicians, you elevate the musical journey for everyone involved.

5. Perfection doesn't exist

I'm a bit of a perfectionist. A lot of us are. (I'm the best at it! Sorry, couldn't help myself...) While aspiring to excel is admirable, the fixation on achieving flawless execution can lead to unforeseen consequences.

The very notion of perfection is both elusive and subjective. What may seem perfect to one listener might not resonate the same way with another. This illusory pursuit can lead to frustration, anxiety, and a never-ending cycle of self-critique. Most of all, it can make playing this wonderful instrument a pretty miserable experience.

Every musician possesses a unique style that arises from their personal experiences, emotions, and influences. This is especially true of the harmonica because of its emotive timbre and closeness to the human voice. Don't get too obsessed with trying to conform to predefined standards, sacrificing your distinctive sound. True musical beauty lies in embracing one's imperfections and allowing personal style to shine through. So, please keep hold of your wonder, passion and joy. The pursuit of perfection can transform this joyful journey into a high-stress endeavour. Don't let it!

If you are a musician who is struggling with perfectionism, there are things you can do to overcome it. Here are a few tips:

  • Set realistic goals. Don't expect to be an overnight virtuoso. Set small, achievable goals for yourself and gradually work your way up.

  • Learn to accept mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, it's only natuiral. Learn to accept your mistakes and move on.

  • Focus on the process, not the outcome. Don't focus on being perfect. Focus on the process of making music and enjoying the journey.

  • Take breaks. Don't try to practice or perform for hours on end. Take breaks throughout the day to relax and clear your mind. Ironically, this will actually make your progress quicker.

  • Get feedback from others. Ask other musicians for feedback on your playing. This can help you to see your playing from a different perspective and identify areas where you can improve.

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