Hello! In today's harmonica lesson we're talking about tongue blocking. I'll tell you the things to do - and NOT do - when learning to tongue block.
You might also want to try my full step-by-step tongue blocking course.
#1: DON'T... jump in at the deep end
Tongue blocking gives you access to loads of new textures (slaps, octaves, flutters, sweeps) but you have to start with the basics of playing single notes to give you a solid foundation. It can be very tempting to skip ahead (especially if you've learned quite a lot as a lip purser) but you will make more progress if you're patient from the start. Don't jump in at the deep end!
#2: DO... re-learn songs you can pucker
Adapting songs that you can already play with a lip-purse mouthshape (also called puckering) means you don't have to worry about whether you are playing the tab right or trying to remember how the song sounds. This allows you to totally focus on your tongue block shape and getting clean, clear notes consistently. Record your practice where possible and listen back, making notes of where you went wrong so you can improve next time.
#3: DON'T... force the air
This is obviously important no matter what mouthshape you're using, but tongue blocking can make you want to force the air more. Perhaps it's the bigger mouthshape or the unusual tongue position; whatever the reason, there can be a tendency to force the air too much. The harp then sounds horrible, or doesn't play at all, so you blow harder and harder, and it becomes a vicious circle. Break that habit, relax and breathe naturally, and you'll get to grips with tongue blocking a lot quicker.
#4: DO... experiment with head posture
You'll sometimes notice harp players pressing the instrument to their cheek. This is to create a tight seal allowing a more efficient airflow. This is especially apparent when playing amplified, as you need to make sure all the air makes its way through the microphone. Try this out and see if it makes a difference to your sound and comfort level. Everyone's different, so find out what works for you!
#5: DON'T... press your tongue too hard
With a tongue block embouchure, your tongue sits on the harp to block out certain notes. If you press hard with it, you're wasting energy, tensing your muscles and risking affecting the sound you produce. Work on being mindful of what you're doing at all times, try to relax as much as possible and let the tongue sit precisely but gently on the instrument. This will allow you to produce clean notes with a fuller tone and save you lots of energy.
#6: DO... work on the full range of notes
You will need to get used to playing all the holes of the harp, and there are different considerations depending on where you are on the instrument. The basic tongue block shape is a four-hole mouth width, with your tongue blocking the lower three holes. This lets you play the highest of the four holes. But what do you do with the lower three holes, where you can't have a four hole width? Some people narrow their mouth to a three- and then two-hole width, some people switch their mouthshape so that they are blocking the higher notes and playing the lower ones, and some people just play lip pursed on the lower holes. It's up to you, but you will have to consider your options if you want to be able to play the full range of the harmonica.
#7: DON'T... soak your harmonicas
Even if you see Neil Young doing this, don't do it! This is an old school technique for making the wooden comb more airtight. This works in the short term, but then the wood swells when it dries and can crack or just become uncomfortable to play. This is a problem no matter your embouchure, but can become a bigger problem for tongue blockers become your tongue may end up getting ripped to shreds by splintered wood!
#8: DO... listen to tongue block legends
Listen to classic blues harmonica legends like Little Walter, Big Walter and William Clarke, who are known for their tongue blocking technique. By studying their songs, you can get inside the minds of the best tongue blockers ever. Even learning a lick or two, you'll find new and exciting ways to use tongue blocking textures.
#9: DON'T feel you have to tongue block everything
It's great practice to try tongue blocking everything, but don't be put off if you can't seem to get everything to work with this new mouthshape. There's nothing wrong with being a "mouthshape mongrel" who uses tongue blocking along with puckering and/or U-blocking. There are loads of players who do this. I'm one of them! If it sounds good, you're doing it right!
#10: DO... enjoy the journey
Tongue blocking can be frustrating, especially if you've lip pursed for several years previously. Don't get bogged down and miserable if some techniques take you a long time. Remember to enjoy the journey - that's the whole point of music!
#11: DON'T... expect miracles
The most important thing to remember when learning to tongue block on harmonica is that it's just a foundation for your playing, like any other mouthshape. It will not suddenly make you the best harp player on earth. You still have to develop your timing, your ear, your repertoire and a whole lot more. That takes years. Maybe a lifetime. Accept this and learn to see tongue blocking as a lift-off for exploring your musical passions.
Thanks for studying with me today. I hope you enjoyed the lesson!
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