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The Harmonica: Easy to Learn, Hard to Master

Updated: Jun 28, 2023


The harmonica is a small, portable instrument that is easy to pick up and play. However, it can be surprisingly difficult to master. This is because the harmonica requires a great deal of breath control, coordination, and embouchure mastery. In addition, the blues harp has a limited range which can make it difficult to play certain notes and chords. So how can you overcome these obstacles?


Breath Control

One of the biggest challenges of playing the harmonica is breath control. The harmonica is a wind instrument and requires a steady stream of air to produce sound. If you don't have good breath control, your notes will either be weak and inconsistent, or honky and out-of-tune. The solution is to make your breath both deep and gentle. That's not a contradiction: your breath needs to be deep because you'll be breathing from your lungs, but you should also be relaxed. Don't pull or push the air, instead see your airways as simply a passage for the air to flow through, so that you're never forcing it one way or another. This way, you'll breathe naturally, so the instrument will play as it naturally wants to, and you will sound great.


Clean Notes

The next challenge that puts people off is the difficulty with playing single notes. When you first pick it up, the harmonica will play several notes when you breathe into it. You'll probaby hear at least three, but to play melodies you need to learn to play clean, single notes. There are various ways of the achieving this, but the easiest way is lip-pursing. Try narrowing your lips so that you cover only one hole with your mouth, avoiding the holes either side of the one you're trying to play. Aim to keep your mouth narrow but without adding any tension. Your tongue, cheeks and throat muscles can affect the sound of the note, so try to stay relaxed. It will feel strange at first, and your cheeks will get tired. Don't worry, this is completely normal! The key to getting the single note is the width of your mouth: if it's narrow enough, you won't get more than one note. Check your mouthshape in a mirror and compare it with mine in the video lesson. You'll get it in the end!


Missing Notes

The final thing which puts beginners off is the missing notes. The diatonic harmonica only has 20 reeds, and one of those is a repeat note, so there are only 19 different notes. This means there are lots of missing notes so you will find some songs very difficult to play at first. You can fill in the missing notes with bends and overbends, but those are more advanced techniques. At first, you need to keep to the middle of the harmonica (holes 4-7) and try learning some nursery rhymes or pop songs that you enjoy. By keeping things simple, you will learn the foundational skills properly and be able to build on those in the future. Most importantly, you'll keep it fun. And isn't that the whole point?


Conclusion

The harmonica is a great instrument for beginners and experienced players alike. However, it is important to be aware of the challenges before you start. In a sense, the harmonica's strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin: the instrument's simplicity can be frustrating, but this is also what makes it so accessible, portable and adaptable. Please be patient; it's worth perservering in order to learn this amazing little instrument. With practice and dedication, you can become a great harmonica player!


Additional Tips

Here are a few additional tips for playing the harmonica:

  • Practice regularly. A little every day is better than long sessions every now and again.

  • Start slowly. Don't try to play too fast when you are first starting out. Focus on playing the notes correctly and in time.

  • Use a metronome. A metronome can really help you keep a steady beat, which is often overlooked by beginners.

  • Listen to other harmonica players. Listen to how other players play the harmonica and try to emulate their technique.

  • Join a harmonica club or take lessons. With an experienced teacher, you will be able to get feedback which pushes you further with your playing.


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