The Best Harp Exercise

When it comes to practicing blues harp the top hurdle facing people is often time. In our effort to get the most out of our practice time we look for the optimal circumstances. However in doing so it is all to easy to end up not practicing at all. This was a challenge for me for a long time, I wanted to practice a lot but if I couldn’t find at least an hour of uninterupted time I just didn’t practice at all. This is of course very counter productive. For me the big change when I first learned about “kaizen” and then the best harp exercise you can do on the harmonica.

The word “kaizen” is a japanese word that means “change for better” and it is often used to describe that an organisation continuously improve all parts of its operation. What is very appealing with this is that even small improvements building on top of other small improvements will result in big improvements overall. Another way of looking at it is that if you become 1% better at something every day the formula becomes 1.01 x 1.01 x 1.01… and you wil be 2 times as good as when you started after 70 days (not 100 days) and 4 times as good after 140 days. The 1% gain is not added to where you started (day 1) but to where you were the day before. This is of course a very theoretical way of looking at things but at least it opened my eyes to the compound effect of small improvements. I personally reformulated this to “it is better to practice a little bit every day than to cram a long session once a week”. I touch on this as well in my article on great harmonica practice.

The exercise I mentioned before is known as “train imitation”. It is a very simple exercise in which you play two inhaling chords while articulating “ah-ah” followed by two exhaling chords while articulating “who-who” on holes 1-2 or 1-2-3. You start slow and accelerate and decelerate to create the sound of a steam train. You continue for as long as you like and for dramatic effect people often start and finish with a train whistle which you get by inhaling around holes 3-4-5 combined with a little bit of hand or throat tremolo. In the beginning this exercise is quite challenging and you may not get up to any great speed at all and you may find the tone weak. However this is exactly what this exercise will help you with. It will teach you to relax and balance your breathing so that you don’t fill up on air or run out of air. The rleaxation in your posture and your embouchure will greatly improve your tone.

Whenever I can I like to get instruction from my good friend Joe Filisko and he is a great proponent of the train imitation. In fact when I have taken his classes at Harmonica Masters Workshop in Trossingen he has talked about train imitations EVERY year. Unfortunately I ignored it the first couple of years but in 2012 (I believe) I made a comitment. I promised myslef that I would do train imitations every day for at least 30 seconds. The idea with 30 seconds was that it was so short that it would be almost impossible for me to skip it, you can always find 30 seconds. What happened was that it was quite easy for me to keep that promise and most days I actually practiced for quite a bit longer than the 30 seconds. Not only that I started noticing that my tone was improving and I was more relaxed than before. After about 2-3 months I felt that my tone was at least 100% better and my breath control was at a whole other level than before. I think this decision has been the single most effective for developing my own playing. When I teach people blues harp now the train imitation is the first thing I teach them and I tell them that this is something they can keep practicing for the rest of their lives.

A cool thing with the train imitation exercise is that it is actually an early blues song in itslef if you build it out a bit and add some effects. At HMW 2014 I had worked up the nerve to show my train imitation to Joe in class, see the video below.


The two main things here are the daily practice leading to smal continuos improvements and the train imitation exercise that lends itself perfectly to short practice sessions. To round things up I want to leave you with this little challenge, make time for practice every day even if it is just 30 seconds and spend at least some of that time doing the train imitation. Let me know how it goes! Stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.

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