Hello! In today's harmonica lesson I'll walk you through the top mistakes that I've noticed with beginner harmonica players who are learning to bend notes.
(If you're completely new to bending, check out Bending for Beginners first.)
Bending is a great technique for getting extra notes and textures on the harmonica, but there's a lot that can go wrong along the way. Here I'll give you the top 5 mistakes to avoid.
MISTAKE #1: Using a bad harmonica
You don't need to pay a fortune to get a good harmonica, but the cheapest harps (the ones that come free with a teach-yourself book, or the most basic instruments that cost just a few dollars) will make it a lot harder to bend. It's worth spending a bit more money on a mid-range instrument because it will be a lot easier to bend. I recommend the Hohner Special 20 which I actually use myself for gigs. Here's an Amazon link (note: I receive a small affiliate payment if you buy via the link).
MISTAKE #2: Pulling too hard
I sometimes talk about 'slurping the air' when learning to bend, which means adding a little bit more tension into your breath flow. If this is exaggerated too much, and you end up pulling really hard, you might get the note to move but you will get tired quickly and you may harm your harmonica as well. Think more of sipping milkshake through a straw - this will give you a good idea of the level of force needed. If in doubt, use less force!
MISTAKE #3: Pushing the harp away
An important part of the bending process is to make an 'OO' shape with your mouth, because if your mouth is too wide, you won't create the mouth cavity needed to get the bend. However, if you end up pushing the harmonica away so that your lips are barely on the instrument at all, then you've gone too far and you'll find it very hard to achieve any bends. Always maintain a good seal with your lips around the harp and this will make the airflow a lot more efficient, making the bends easier to play.
MISTAKE #4: Tilting the harmonica
Full disclosure: I do recommend tilting the harmonica to absolute beginners who are struggling to bend, but it's not a longterm solution. It helps to make the note move because we need to get both the draw- and blow-reeds to vibrate at the same time. The 'proper' way to do this is with the tongue, creating a curved shape to angle the air onto both reeds. Titling the harp is a way to mimic this change externally, but you can't move the harp every time you want to play a bend because it's just not practical. So give it a go if you want to get a sense of what a bend sounds like, but remember that it's only a temporary fix.
MISTAKE #5: Going too fast
The three parts of a successful bend are making an 'OO' shape, slurping the air, and curving the tongue. The bend will be achieved when all three of these things are combined in perfect harmony. I call that combination the 'sweet spot'. A lot of students try to make the changes too quickly. If you do that, you'll almost certainly miss the sweet spot. You need to practice in slow motion, making micro-changes to your mouth shape, air pressure and tongue position. This way, you can find a combination that is not too much, not too little, but just right (like Goldilocks and the three bears!)
I understand the enthusiasm in wanting to bend quickly - and indeed you need to learn to plug in bends fast when playing them during songs - but the learning process itself needs to be slow and patient. Believe me, you'll actually learn quicker that way than if you rush things.
Thanks for studying with me today. I hope you enjoyed the lesson! See Bending for Beginners if you want to look at bending technique in more detail.
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