This year when I was in Trossingen for the Harmonica Masters Workshops I had a discussion with my friend Hendrik, aka Bigharmonicaman, about learning scales. He wanted my opinion on what he could do to learn scales. Hendrik is a great player and has a great ear for music. I actually questioned if he needed to learn scales, I think he knows them intuitively. After discussing it for a while I understood that what he was looking for was to increase his understanding of music. Scales is definately in tool in that respect. In this article I will share what I suggested to him.
A common problem
For many musicians learning scales is a pre-requisite for more advanced studies. Often people approach it as something to pass and be done with. Like many things learning new patterns take a lot of repetitions. If you don’t enjoy those repetitions you may just skip it and move on. Later on you may find that the work you didn’t do now hinders your application of music theory for example. I suggest getting out of the blind repetition method.
Making learning scales fun and challenging
I am not saying that you don’t need to do a lot of repetitions, what I suggest is a way of making those repetitions more enjoyable. What we are looking for is a way of getting lots of repetitions and keep your interest up.
What I suggest is combining setting limitations at the same time as you use a scale. Basically you choose a subset of the scale and then improvise using that subset. You can either make up the subsets in advance or make it random. To make it random you write the scale degrees on pieces of paper and draw a few from a bowl. Whichever scale degress you get you use for solos over a number of 12 bar rounds.
This process will challenge your creativity (especially when you only have a few notes to choose from, engrain the placement of the scale degrees and teach you how the notes sound over the chords.
Go do it!
If learning scales has been a problem for you before, I now hope I have given you a reason to pick it up again. Try this method and let me know how it works for you!
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The diatonic harmonica is a very interesting instrument. It produces sound both when we are breathing in and we are breathing out. However if you are interested in blues, the bluesiest sounds are available when breathing in (second position for example). As human beings we are very good at taking air into our lungs but we are not very comfortable keeping the air out. This fact is what causes a lot of the common breathing problems for harmonica players. In this article I point out these problems and suggest how you might solve them.
There are basically two main categories of breathing problems for harmonica, not getting rid of air and filling up on air too quickly. In the end both categories result in the same thing, your lungs being filled with air and you being very tense. Joe Filisko talked a lot about this in his class at Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018.
Filling up too quickly
By far the most common of the breathing problems for harmonica when filling up too quickly is breathing in through the nose. When you breathe in through the nose you take in air that does not contribute to your playing. It is basically waste. To fix this you first need to become aware of that you are doing it. Set your focus on your nose and play for a while, can you feel any air going in through your nose? If so you need to practice not doing that. A nose clamp is a good place to start. When you can play comfortably with a nose clamp, try removing it and see if you have rectified the problem. This will take time, but it is really essential to get right.
Another problem may be that you are leaking air in around the harmonica. If this is your problem you need to practice in front of a mirror and try to locate where the leak is. Make sure that your lips form a tight seal around the harmonica. This is especially common if you have just taken up tongue blocking.
If you are not taking in air throught the nose or leaking air around the harmonica and still fill up too quickly, you may be playing too hard. Practice playing both softly and hard to get used to both “gears”. In practical situations don’t play harder than you need to. Save your breath for when you need to be louder.
Not getting rid of air
As we want to play as many in notes as possible to get the bluesiest sound we need to figure out ways of getting rid of air. The first thing we can do is make sure that we don’t start playing with out lungs half full (may also be a reason for filling up too quickly). When we are relaxed after breathing out are lungs are not empty, they are actually about half full. Try first breathing out until you feel relaxed and then really push out all the air. You will notice that there is quite a bit of air still to get rid of.
It is a good idea to get into the habit of first pushing out all the air before you start playing a phrase, especially if it is a long phrase with lots of in notes. You also need to be mindful of not taking a breath immediately before placing th ahrmonica on your lips, this is a quite common error.
The next step to solving these breathing problems for harmonica is to find spots in the music where you can dump air. If there is a pause between phrases, simply take the harmonica out and push the air out without it going through the harmonica.
You can also use any out notes and breathe out through the nose at the same time (out is OK but not in). This will make playing a long passage of in-notes a whole lot easier.
To help with most of the breathing problems for harmonica above there is a great exercise you can do easily. Start by pushing all the air out of your lungs, pause for a brief moment before slowly letting the air in again through your mouth. Experiment with your breathing here. This will allow you to notice how you are breathing and how quickly you fill up. You will feel some discomfort that you can get use to but you please make sure not to cause dizzines or blacking out. The idea is to get use to some discomfort and teach your body that it doesn’t have to get air in as fast as possible.
Summary of common breathing problems for harmonica players
Basically if you can teach your body to slowly take in air through the mouth and quickly push aor out throught the nose when possible you will have solved most common brathing problems. This will result in a big improvement in your playing.
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Since 2007 I have been attending the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen. I did miss 2008 but after that I have been a regular (every 4th year is skipped dut to the World Harmonica Festival). This was the 12th edition of the event and it was bigger than ever. I am recently back from Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 and this is my trip report.
Planning for this trip actually started in November 2016, since there was no event in 2017 it was a long wait but the calender was marked already back then. In December of 2017 I made my booking to Hotel Bären which is my ususal spot when I go. In may the flight was booked during October the final travel arrangements were made. Getting from Stuttgart Airport to Trossingen takes some planning, either by train/bus (4-5 changes), or by taxi (a bit pricey). This year we were lucky that our friend Thomas from Denmark was already in Germany and had a rental car.
Trip to Trossingen
On Tuesday October 30th my trip to Harmonica Masters workshops 2018 started for real. I took the train from Landskrona around lunch my friend Mattias joined me on the crowded train. We got to Kastrup Airport in good time to get through security where our harmonica cases are always taken aside as they look ver strange in the x-ray machine. It has been a tradition to start with a burger (or ribs) and a beer (or two) while waitning for boarding. During this time we were joined by our friend Jolo who took a later train. We had a great time as always waiting for boarding, although airport prices are HIGH!!!!
Pre flight meal.
Our plane trip to Trossingen was quite OK, had a few laughs and Jolo’s guitar actually got to ride in “business class” in front of us. We landed on schedule and our friend Thomas picked us up and we headed for Trossingen. Now Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 was close!
When we arrived in Trossingen we immediately checked in at Hotel Bären and then went to Hotel Traube close by, where most HMW veterans gather on the night before the event. This time is a time of great joy when you meet all your friends from previous years and also make some new friends. These nights never end early.
Some of the ususal suspects.
Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 kick-off
The event itself started on Wednesday afternoon with registration at the Music Conservatory. We were all greeted by the mastermind of the event Steve Baker who also presented all the teachers. This year there were 148 students and workshops by Joe Filisko, Eric Noden (guitar), Greg Zlap, Marko Jovanovic, David Barrett, Mitch Kashmar and Riedel Diegel. There is basically something for everyone. Steve Baker himself taught private lessons to a few students.
After the introductions we all went to our respective class rooms for our first workshops. I attended Joe Filisko‘s class, he is a great teacher and has a lot of focus on getting great big harmonica sound. In his teaching method he uses original study songs that allow the students to dig deep on the different topics.
The workshops start
On Wednesday we had two workshop sessions. Joe started with explaining the key elements to develop to get a good sound and how to effectively use what you know. We also started working on the first study song. The first task was to work on a short riff with basically no technique at all, then we built it out with more and more complex tqchniques added. It really kept us working. Something seemingly simple can in fact be really complex and to execute it well you need everything in order.
The evening in Kesselhouse started with a meet and greet hosted by Hohner. They treated us to pizza, beer, wine, t-shirts and competitions (everybody won!). It was a very nice event. Hohner is really supportive of the harmonica community and a great sponsor of Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018.
The first musical event of the evening was Joe Filisko’s informal acoustic jam. I participated on a few songs and Joe asked if I would sing as well. I sang “How many more years” which I have done on stage 2016. It was all great fun. After the jam we had an opportunity to go onstage and perform with the help of Christian Rannenberg and Eric Noden. I wanted to try a new song I had been working on so I got up, see it below. The song is in Dm and I played third position on the harmonica.
There were lots of great performances in the sessions as always. One of them was Rohan Singhal who turned 13 that night. Very inspiring to see. It had been a long day so after the last session performance was over I went back to my hotel to get some sleep.
Before the classes started I got a chance to look at the products from Lone Wolf Blues Company who had a stand with their equipment on display. I am not a big advocate of pedals or buying new equipment but they have some interesting stuff. Heinz Jörres was also there with pictures from previous years. I was very happy to find one of me that I could buy.
The Lone Wolf Blues Company display.
The workshops contunied with the material from Wednesday and we worked hard on the box shuffle song before the lunch break. In the afternoon there was an opening of an exbition of blues pictures by Heinz at the Harmonica Museum. Joe, Eric and Steve performed a few songs as well.
In the last workshop of the day Joe opened the floor for people to perform and get feedback. There were some amazing performances during that hour and a half. Joe creates a safe place and people get a lot out of the feedback. I have played in class 2016, 2015, 2014 (Born Blind and Train Imitation), 2011 and 2010 but hadn’t prepared anything for this year.
Thursday night followed the same patterna as Wednesday night with acoustic jam followed by an on stage session. As on Wednesday we got to see some amazing performances. I performed again on stage but was not very happy with my performance. It is a very safe environment though, so I didn’t feel too bad. I decided to be smart and go to bad reasonably early this night as well.
Friday morning I left a little earlier to go and see the demo room for Marble amps. They had a small room where players could test their equipment. Great sound in that room! There were so many people there that I didn’t get to play but it was fun to listen to.
Some of the amps.
In the workshops we continued working on the material from before and Joe introduced the “Inhale Only Blues” that really challenged us to step us our breathing and get as much blues tone out as possible. The great thing about this is that it is easy to pinpoint what you need to work on yourself depending on what your goal is.
Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 had less extra curicular activities due to the holidays but one thing that was very interesting was the exihbiyion in the harmonica museum. There was a special exhibition about sonny Terry with lots of cool things from his estate. His glasses, a shirt, a harmonica and many pictures and stories. It was my first time in the museum and I am happy I got to see that.
One of Sonny Terry’s harmonicas.
After the tour I decided to get some extra rest before the evening and skipped the last workshop of the day. I heard there were some great performances there.
After a nice supper at Hotel Traube I went to Kesselhaus for the Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 Friday teacher concerts. Kesselhouse was already full when I got there, it was impossible to get in front of the stage. The top floor was also full from what I heard. There were three concerts, first David Barrett who played a great selection of tunes highlighting the old masters of blues harmonica. Second was Marko Jovanovic who has a different approach and mixes a lot of styles into an interestin blend. Last up was Steve Baker who was on fire and played material from his latest CD release.
Steve Baker with the band.
Unfortunately there were no onstage session after the concerts due to the packed program. This was really missed by a lot of the workshop participants.
Saturday was the last day of teaching. Joe continued with the drills based on the study songs. A new study song in the style of Walter’s Boogie was introduced and we worked on key riffs and breathing. After lunch I had a nice rest in the hotel before going to the last workshop of Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018. It was a workshops with all intructors and all students. It was a Q&A session with all instructors mixed with jamming. A good way to end the teaching.
Joe teaching in class.
Saturday night followed the same pattern with Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 instructor concerts. Once again Kesselhaus was filled to capacity. The evnng started with Greg Zlap who played with lots of enegry and captivated the audience. Second was Filisko & Noden who played material from their latest album “Destination unknown”. This was the highlight for me. The concerts ended with Mitch Kashmar who brought his students onstage for one song.
Filisko & Noden on stage.
Once again we missed the open stage sessions after the concerts. satyed on an talked to a lot of friends as it was the last evening and some people would leave early.
Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 ended with a chill out brunch before most people headed back home. It is always sad to say good bye to everyone but we were all looking forward to 2019.
Joe and I at the chill out brunch.
The trip home went smoothly although with a lot of waiting.
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When most people think about blues harmonica they often think of the cool solos they have heard. Maybe this is what got you into playing as well? It was certainly of of the things that drew me to the instrument many years ago. However the more I play the more interested I get in playing backup. The training I have received by David Barrett has really opened up my eyes on this topic. In this article I will highlight how playing backup can make you a better soloist.
Types of backup
When you are playing backup you can choose a number of different approaches. These types are generally categorized something like this:
A hook is a riff that gives a special character to a song, something that needs to be there for people to recognize the song. A good example is Hoochie Coochie Man, I think we can agree that if you take that out the song lose too much.
Playing riffs that are not hooks is another way often used, the key then is to match the complexity of the riff with repetition. You can use complex/busy riffs if they are repeated over and over again. The riffs also need to work beneath the vocal lines without disturbing them.
A sonic approach is when you play long droning sustained chords that sound a bit like organ chords.
The rhytmich approach calls for ghost chords that add rhythm without too much pitch sound. Kind of like hand percussion.
Horn lines are riffs that sound very much like the stabbibg lines horn sections often play.
Bass lines are what we are going to be focusing here, they are riffs based mainly on chord tones that follow the chord progression closely. Think of it as what the bass player would play.
The magic of bass line for playing backup
The reason bass lines are so great for making you a better soloist is that they are music theory in practice as David Barrett puts it. Bass lines form the outline that the rest of the music can rest in. Since bass lines also both follow the chord structure and rely heavily on chord and scale tones, where to find these tones will become engrained into your mind. When you instinctically know where the chord tones are you can easily adapt your playing to the chord the band plays. Also, the chord tones should make up the bulk of the notes you use in your solo to sound professional. If you play too many outside you notes you will sound original but also very weird.
Other benefits of using bass lines for backup is that you learn to communicate with the band, especially the bass player. You will tighten up your sense of rhythm which is always good. And last but not least, if you get into the habit of playing backup you will play more during the songs and when it is time to solo you will be more into the groove. This last thing is true for when using the other approaches as well and has become super important to me.
I hope I have inspired you to start playing backup (or more if you already do some) and now I want you to go and learn more about it. Let me know how it goes and don’t hesitate to send me any questions.
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