Harmonica Practice

From "Harmonica World" Aug-Sep 2008

This series of articles will discuss how to become the player you want to be, and ideas for the practice needed to get there. Perhaps you would like to play faster, develop a fatter tone, explore 1st and 3rd position, think more easily outside the square. Or just get a decent bend on the 2 hole draw. Those interested in any of these - please read on...

It is good to have long term goals, with short term ones to help you get there. The long term goals could be making CDs, playing on big stages, holding down a spot at a local pub session, or just being able to join with some friends. The short term goal is the next skill you need to develop along the way.

Practice is the path to reaching these goals. Just a little done often is better than a lot done occasionally, however both are better than none at all! Try to identify something you can't yet do, and make it the focus of your effort. Practice becomes mesmorising after a while, then time moves quickly and improvement is swift. Getting started is the challenge. The rest of this article outlines one area to get started on.

The major scale is the cornerstone of western music. It is not clear why this series of notes is pleasing to us, but it is. Of course many focus on the blues scale, to be discused another day. Here we examine the major scale, and an exercises to explore its possibilities.

First we need a notation, or tab. There are many harmonica tab variations, some using arrows to indicate draw or blow. The approach here is to use standard characters instead, with a B indicating a blow note, a D indicating a draw note. So 4B means blow into into hole 4, 4D means draw on hole 4. A half bend is a single apostrophe, a full bend is a double apostrophe. So, the full bend on the 2 hole draw is written as 2D", the half bend (assuming you can do this one!) is written 2D'.

Now to apply this notation to the major scale. The tab is 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B. The scale is simple enough (if not, it eventually will be!). The 4D and 6D can both be bent. Play the scale slowly, bending up to both notes (if you're not up to bending yet, again, one day you will be). You may find that you put this bend in each time. If so, try playing the scale without the bend.

Also, the 5D note has a more strident tone to the notes around it. This is because it is only a half step above the 5B. Try playing the scale again. slowly, but this time matching the 5D tone to its neighbouring notes. You can do this by either cupping your hands tightly, or making a wider cavity in your mouth when playing the 5D.

It is often hard to find harmonica teachers. I had none, many peers likewise. However I play baroque recorder as well, and studied with a great German master called Han-Dieter Michatz. Hans taught me many things, one being the major scale exercise that follows.

Start by playing the scale up and down, twice, adding an extra note at the top. The tab for this is

4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 7B 7D 6D 6B 5D 5B 4D

Then play the next phrase, twice:

4B 4D 5B 4D 4B 4D 5B 4D 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 5D 5B 4D

Then finish with the first phrase, again played twice.

This is a powerful exercise, which I have used for many years. I call it the Hans Scale.

Blues player focus more on the lower draw notes, and may question the benefit of this exercise. It certainly doesn't sound like blues. However it will strengthen your blow notes, and develop accuracy. Often players are stuck within a few well known riffs. One escape route is exercises which cover unfamilar ground. If this exercise feels awkward, then it is probably doing you good.

The harmonica tab above shows the notes only, with no indication of rhythm. Most tabs are like this. The ideal situation is to hear the phrase over and over while watching the tab. Harmonica University, my online course, provides this feature. Online udio players are located next to most of the tabs, so you can hear what to play.

When learning it is best to get each new phrase into your head as soon as possible, using the tab as a guide. Then put the tab aside and play from memory. Very few diatonic harmonica players read tab or scores when playing. The sooner you can memorise exercies, tunes and solos, the faster you will progress.

Future articles will provide exercises for blues and other styles. These will to lead you (gently) outside your comfort zone, enlarging it as a result. The aim, hopefully, is to practise today then play better tomorrow.