One of the most infected debate in the harmonica world is the pucker vs tongue blocking debate that has been going on for ever. This article is not meant as fuel for that debate although I am a tongue blocking advocate since a number of years. What I would like to do with this articel is giving you a good foundation start tongue blocking for single notes. I find that some people stay with puckering just because they don’t know how to change.
Defining tongue blocking
First of, let’s just define what tongue blocking is. It is the embouchure where you place your mouth over three or four holes on the harmonica and then use your tongue to block the holes you don’t want to play. What you end up with is one (or more) holes that gets all the air throught the corner of your mouth. You can actually play out of both corners for the octave split but let’s save that for later.
First, no air
To get a good a start tongue blocking you need to be able to control your tongue. This is quite hard for most people as we use our tongues sub-consiously every day. I find that the best way is to start by blocking all the holes at once so that no sound comes out at all. It may sound counter intuitive but it is actually a very useful technique as a base for more advanced techniques. To effectively block all holes you will notice that the tip of the tongue is not wide enough, point the tip slightly downwards and let the top of the tip block instead.
Slight leftwards slide
The next step is to open the air flow for one hole. You do this by ever so slightly slide your tongue to the left. This will open up a hole in the right corner of your mouth that will allow air to pass through one of the holes. Don’t worry too much if you get more than one hole to begin with but spend some time finding the sweet spot where you only get one hole. Basically that is it, this is how you start tongue blocking. The sound you hear should be unobstructed and relaxed, no bend in the pitch a full tone. Use the process I outlined before on how to learn new techniques.
Here are a few problems people run into and how to remedy them
Unable to block all holes
You are probably using too much of the tip of the tongue, curve your tongue downwards a bit more to use more of the top of the tongue. It is also a good idea to tilt the harmonica slightly downwards to more easily meet the top of your tongue. You may also be opening your mouth too wide, try narrowing it a bit to cover three or four holes. No more now.
Harmonica tilted against the cheek
In this case you are likely blocking with the side of your tongue, focus on holding the harmonica directly in front of your mouth no tilt. It is also likely that you have tried compensating for not curving your tongue downwards enough by tilting the harmonica. Go back to practicing the full block until you can hold the harmonica with no tilt.
Unable to control the tongue
If you feel that you are unable to control the tongue it is probably because you have no visual cues to build a picture of what is going on. In this case practice blocking all holes without the harmonica standing in front of a mirror and then sliding your tongue to the left. Seeing what you are doing will help you control your tongue and understanding how it should feel.You can also get the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer to get a more complete picture of what is happening.
Put it all together
Once you start tongue blocking I would recommend you to try to play as much as possible with this embouchure. You may need to relearn some songs you have played before but I think it is well worth the effort.
How do you bend when tongue blocking?
Many people find this a bit tricky at first but it is very similar to bending while puckering. You need to control the position of the back of your tounge as it lays on the harmonica. The tounge hunches upwards against the roof of you mouth to control the pitch.
Try this without a harmonica place the tounge as if you would tounge block and breathe in and make a little bit of a whistling sounds, now focus your attention on the back of your tounge and move it backwards ever so slightly. You should now hear your whistling sound drop in pitch. This is the motion you are looking while the front of your tounge stays. Hope this helps, I may do a video on this later.
I’m just starting out playing the harp and you have given me a good explanation of the pitfalls of improper tonguing. Just wondering about the origin of the spelling “tounge”? Is that just a repetitive misprint/type?
Hi Kerry, I am Happy you found it helpful. ”Tounge” is a repetitive error on my part that I became blind to. I thought I had corrected most of them. Thank you for letting me know.
I am a beginner but I already had a lesson in tongue blocking (online) and I definitely want to go on with this embouchure. So now I am looking for beginners lessons in which this is practiced from the very start. But it seems most teachers start with puckering, am I right? If you know some that will use the tongue from the start… I would like to know! 😉
Hi, I am glad you want to learn tongue blocking from the beginning. I think many teachers choose the embouchure that people pick up most easily and for most people that is puckering. It may be right that it is more common for teachers to start with puckering but I don’t know for sure. Joe Filisko is a great teacher in Chicago who teaches tongue blocking from the beginning, see this link: http://www.filiskostore.com/page/480389598 . In my online beginner course tongue blocking is also the focus https://skl.sh/39j0KYH
Try watching The Tongue Block Trainer video on YouTube. I believe there are 7 videos. It was very helpful when I decided to try to learn to tongue block.
Yes, those videos are definately helpful.