Harmonica Creativity through Limitations

The harmonica in itself is an instruments with built in limitations. This is part of the power of it as well. If you play first position melodies or second position blues you are for the most part on safe ground. What I propose in this article is that you impose more limitations to set your harmonica creativity free.

The problem with artistic freedom

Being completely free when playing a solo for example can actually be a problem for a beginner. When we have too much to choose from we sometimes freeze. The reason for this is that our minds need boundaries to be truly creative. It is the act of working around the limitations that set your harmonica creativity free.

With experience and sufficient knowledge of structure we can handle more and more freedom. After learning how to use repetition a musician is better equipped to take advantage of playing “without rules”.

Self-imposed limitations

harmonica creativity

Self-imposed limitations can help you.

By using self-imposed limitations you challenge yourself into finding new patterns or rhythms while playing. A great way of doing this is to limit which holes you allow yourself to play. Try this as an exercise:

  1. For the first chorus of a backing track play a solo using just hole 1. This will force you to think about your phrasing and rhythmic approach.
  2. For the second chorus play a solo using holes 1 and 2.
  3. For the third chorus play a solo using holes 1-3.
  4. Continue with this patterna for as many choruses you like.

Don’t forget to record what you come up with! When you listen back to what you have played you will notice that playing just hole 1 does not sound as boring as you would think. During the exercise you will also notice how much you appreciate getting another hole to play. All in all this will make you think about the building blocks of your music in a new way.

Go do it!

Now it is time for you to try this exercise. I would also encourge you to think about other limitations to use. Maybe just play eigth notes, then only quarter notes, then only half notes and in the end everything together. With each exercise you will increase your harmonica creativity a little bit and in the end it all adds up to something great.

Let me know how it works out for you and which limitations you set. Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles!

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Different Levels of Feedback for Practice

In order to improve anything we need to understand what we trying to acheive and how close to the goal we are at the moment. To do this we need feedback when we practice to allow ourselves to judge our position. In this article I discuss the different levels of feedback we can use when practicing and how valuable they are.

The importance of feedback

levels of feedback for practice

You can use different tools to get feedback.

I would say that without feedback we cannot improve, period. Together with the end goal the feedback is what guides us through the jungle so that we can get to where we want to be. You can view yourself practicing as a control system and the input you get through various channels is the feedback signal that tell you how close to the target you are.

The different levels of feedback

The different levels of feedback you get when practicing a technique for example all have different levels of quality. Here is my classification from least valuable to most valuable.

Just playing

When we just play we may think that we are listening to what we are doing. Of course we are but we are too occupied with playing to hear the little mistakes. This is a trap many people fall into, they confuse playing with actual practice.

Practicing with a metronome

Adding a metronome to your practice routine is a huge step forward. The metronome is relentless in keeping the beat. It still puts pressure on you to really listen for how close you are to the beat and it does not tell you if you played the wrong note.

Record and review

Another step up the ladder is to use some form of recording device while practicing. This way you can review afterwards and see what you need to improve. This is best done in conjunction with a metronome. A loop pedal is a good option here as it will instantly play back what you played.

Remote offline review

If you have the option to send off a recording to an expert that reviews what you played you get even more feedback. This way you may also get feedback on things you didn’t even think about. Bluesharmonica.com offer this type of feedback in its membership. In my Udemy and Skillshare courses you get a version of this type of feedback as well.

Remote live review

Being able to consult with an expert live on something you are practicing on cuts the feedback loop shorter. It makes it easier to make corrections instantly and to ask follow up questions. Musical-U has this form of community based support.

Private lessons

At the top of the ladder of levels of feedback we have the private lessons. Having somebody listening to what you are doing, either in the room or via Skype, is the fastest way to get feedback. It is often also completmented by remote offline or remote live review to boost the results. Fo those interested in private lessons with me, please read the Courses and Lessons page.

Summary

In summary I just want to say that be mindful of how you practice and what levels of feedback you are getting. It can really make a big deffierence for your progress.

Practicing Harmonica Bending Technique

Bending notes on the harmonica is one of the tools that make the instrument so appealing for blues. Being able to create those missing notes is cruical for getting the right blues feeling. It doesn’t matter how long you play, you can always improve your harmonica bending technique. How you practice is of importance getting the right systems involved is crucial. In this article I will guide you through how to avoid some common pitfalls and give you a good start.

What to involve

Harmonica Bending Technique airflow around reeds

Manipulating the airflow around the reeds is what it is all about.

As the goal is to change the pitch we play it is important to understand a little bit of what goes on. When we bend we manipulate the air flow through the harmonica so that the draw reed slows down lowering the pitch. At some point the blow reed will start vibrating and interact with the draw reed. This is not done by force which is a common misconception among beginners. What you need is good control of your tounge and your throat. My manipulating the position of your tounge and the shape of your mouth and throat cavity you will reach the desired effect.

In order to get this going you need to be able to hear the pitch you are aiming for in your mind. This becomes the target you are trying to achieve. At the same time you need to be able to understand how you manipulate the position of your tounge and the shape of your throat. When you achieve a lowering in pitch you make a mental note of how it feels. This feeling is important to remember as it guides you in what to control. It is however not that feeling you should be targeting.

Bending will feel differently on different pithced harmonicas so you cannot rely only on the feeling of the bend. What you hear is what should guide you.

Visual cues

By using tuners or apps like Harp Ninja you can visually see how close you are to getting the right pitch. This is very important when you start practicing harmonica bending technique but it is not something you should rely on when playing. Remember that a tuner or Harp Ninja will not be available to you in the heat of battle but your ears will.

Finding the pitch

To be able to mentally hear the pitch you first need to find the pitch. To do this using a guitar or a keyboard can be very good. You can also do what Tomlin of Tomlin Harmonica Lessons does to play 3 draw whole step bend in tune and use a second harmonica as a reference.

No matter how you choose to find the pitch to aim for, you need to consider what type of bends you are aiming for. You may not always aim for exactly the pitch on the same hole.

Summary

All in all practicing harmonica bending technique comes down to using visual and sensory cues when needed, especially when starting out, but getting your ears in play as much as possible. The ears and your listening skills really are important in many aspect of music.

Let me know how you practice work out for you!

Important Harmonica Skills

No matter what level player you are there are a number of harmonica skills you need to work on. These skills should be viewed as work in progress, you can never be too good. If you are a beginning to intermediate player working on these skills will help you improve faster. These are also skills you will continue developing as long as you play. I have focused on skills that people either take for granted or tend to overlook.

Breath control

breath control - harmonica skills

Breath control is an important harmonica skill.

It is very likely that you will spend a lot of your time playing in second position if blues is your style of music. The harmonica is primarily an inhaling instrument for blues especially in second position. This is the exact opposite of what you body wants. Your survival instincts tell you to get air in whenever possible to ensure that you don’t suffocate. Good harmonica technique require that you don’t waste the space in your lungs making this one of the primary harmonica skills. You need to be able to inhale for a long time to play many inhaling notes in a row. To do this you ypu need to be comfortable with emptying your lungs completely and filling them slowly. At first this will be uncomfortable but you can train your ability.

If you have any medical condition you must consult with your physician before attempting to practice this. It is not worth hurting yourself. The two parts you can pratcice is emptying your lungs completely and them filling them slowly. To empty your lungs push hard with your diaphragm in a sharp exhale. You will notice that what you normally consider empty lungs is actually half filled lungs, unused blues potential. To practice filling up slowly empty your lungs and slowly breath in through your mouth. Try to extend this time so that you can fill up very slowly. Do not breathe through your nose. This will be a bit uncomfortable at first as your body wants you to fill up faster. If you feel dizzy or anything you need to stop, do not force yourself into a dangerous zone.

Tounge control

TBT - Tool for learning harmonica techniques

Tounge Block Trainer

I strongly believe that tounge blocking is the best embouchure for playing blues harmonica. The thing most people struggle with when moving to tounge blocking is that in everyday life we are unaware of what our tounge is doing. To remedy this we need to become aware of out tounge movements. Joe Filisko has developed a great tool for this, the Filisko Tounge Block trainer. You can either buy it ready made or make one yourself (you can find instructions here). What the TBT allows us to do is see the postion of our tounge when it touches the harmonica (or rather somethinh that resembles a harmonica). By connecting how the tounge feels in our mouths to the visiual image we see in the mirror using the TBT we become much more aware and as a result our tounge control improves.

Articulations

Tounge articulations is a way of shaping the the sound that comes out of the harmonica. I consider this would of the most overlooked harmonica skills. By articulating “who”, “do”, “te” or something similar you can get the tone or chord you play come alive. This is great chording patterns and making riffs more expresive and interesting. To improve your articulations you need to practice them very focused both with and without the harmonica in your mouth. You will most likely have to exagurate the articulation to get it through the harmonica tone or chord. Record yourself while practicing and review to find how strongly you have to articulate to get the effect you want.

Sense of rhythm

Playing out of time or sloppily is never impressive. In order to really swing and to deviate from the rhythm in a creative manner you need to first be very solid. The best way develop this is to practice with a metronome as much as possible. You can probably not overuse metronomes. You also need to be strict with yourself and not allow yourself to fall of the beat, make the necessary corrections in pratcice. It will pay off. A good way of checking how well you keep time is to use a mtronome that you can silence without turning it off, then keep tapping the rhythm for a while and turning the sound or vibration on again. This will give you a good indication of how much you stray in you are not constantly reminded of the beat.

A metronome is a great tool when practicing harmonica

You don’t need an expensive metronome.

Listening skills

harmonica skills - listening

Develop your listening skills!

Listening skills are important both for developing ideas inspired by other artists but also to be able to follow other musicians. By developing your listenings skills will highten your musical awareness and also your appreciation for music. The best way to develop this skill is to listgen to a lot of music and take note of what you hear. Transcribing music from recordings is another great way of developing this.

Improving harmonica skills

Some of these harmonica skills will be developed in your normal practice sessions but you will also benefit from specific practice. For example practicing a song over and over again with a metronome will develop both your sense of rhtythm and your breath control. However to make big improvements you should also plan some part of your pratcice sessions for a specific skill. You don’t have to pratice everything every session though. If you pratcie three times a week normally, say Monsays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, then doing a few minutes of breath control work on Modays, extra rhythm exercises on Wednesdays and articulations and tounge control on Saturdays will go a long way.

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Learn from Great YouTube Videos

When I started playing harmonica it was really a challenge to find any information on how to play. It was a big job simply finding any information and then I had to gamble on it being good. Today we sort of have the opposite problem, there is so much information out there that it can be a challenge finding the right information for you. With this page I try to fill a place in cyber space and in this article I have collected a number of helpful YouTube videos. As you will find these are not all the “usual suspects” for blues harmonica, I have tried to broaden the horizon a little bit.

Learning to swing

Aimee Nolte is a jazz musician and teacher who has a bunch of interesting YouTube videos. The first one I ran into was on the topic of swinging. I think there is a lot of things blues players can take from this video.

Improving rhythm

Let’s be honest, everybody probably need to work on their rhythm. I know I have to and that is why I am learning to play rhythm guitar and cajon. This video by Adam Neely gives you a way to improve your rhythm by connecting to your ability to speak. Not a bad idea at all.

A bit of music theory

As you might know I am a big fan of learning at least a little bit of music theory. The circle of fifths is one part of music theory that can open a lot of doors. It is a tool for song writers and musicians and teaches you about relationships between keys in music. This video by Mark Newman takes you on a deep dive of the usage of the circle of fifths.

Effective practice

Part of what I try to communicate with Blues Harmonica Kaizen is how to practice effectively and to learn new with joy. This TedEd video teaches a lot of what I have come to understand about learning and practice. A real gem among YouTube videos.

Your favorit YouTube videos?

If you have any other favorite videos or hidden gems I would love to hear about them. Drop me an e-mail or comment below!

Improvise with more than riffs

Being able to improvise is a highly sought after skill among musicians. Some blues harmonica players even regard it so highly that they don’t want to learn music theory. I have noticed that the focus on riffs sometimes mean that other forms of improvisation are overlooked. It is important to understand which tools you have at your disposal when you improvise. In this article I outline some tools you shouldn’t forget.

Chorus forms

David Barret who runs BluesHarmonica.com and who has systemitized blues instruction for a long time teaches chorus forms. They are basically patterns for how you repeat riffs in a chorus. By understanding how they work you shift your focus from finding a new riff to play to thinking about if you should repeat what you just played or play something new. Chorus forms also make it easier for the listener to follow your improvisation.

Note presentation

If you think that you might repeat yourself too much (listeners often want more repetition than you might think) you should consider how you present the notes you play. Always playing notes the same way will eventually become boring. Switch how you present the notes either between riffs, between choruses or from start to finish in your solo. Try to use clean notes, dirty notes, chords, tounge slaps, pull slaps, octaves, fake octaves, partial chords etc to keep your listeners intreseted. If you worry about repeating yourself to much then changing how you present notes when you repeat a riff might make yourself feel a little bit more at ease.

Dynamics

Dynamics is probably the most underrated and perhaps misunderstood musical tool. By changing the dynamics, that is the volume you play at, when you improvise you will envoke much more feelings in your audience. Let’s be honest, this is your most important job as a musician. The book “Let your music sore” by Corky Siegel and Peter Krammer is an excellent book/CD combo that explains this concept brilliantly.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Improvise better

If you start paying attention to these tools you will notice bif improvements when you improvise. If you need more guidance you can either contact me for lessons or take my online course “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Udemy (signup below to get a better deal and the Welcome Package) or Skillshare (two free Premium months through the link) whichever you prefer.

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Playing other Instruments to Improve Harmonica Skills

Most of us have one instrument as our main instrument. At the same time we have limited time for practice so playing other instruments isn’t a priority. Howerver by dedicating a little bit of time to learning and playing other instruments can reall make a big difference. I don’t mean you should aim for becoming a multi-instrumentalist but learn enough to grow as a harmonica player. In this article I list some ways other instruments can aid you.

Guitar

The first instrument that springs to mind is the guitar, I am treating lead guitar and rhythm guitar as one here. Playing guitar will give you another view of the scales you play. If you learn a few blues guitar licks you can use them to increase you vocabulary and learn them even deeper. If you practice rhythm guitar with a metronome you will develop your tightness against the beat which is always a good thing. I have started practicing metal rhythm guitar and my appriciation for those guys is now very high.

Electric guitar is a good choice when playing other instruments

You don’t have to buy an expensive new guitar in you want to start playing other instruments.

Electric guitar or acoustic guitar are both valid options, choose the one that suits you best.

Bass guitar

Playing bass lines is music theory in practice so learning to play bass guitar will make you a better player both on the theoretic side and the groove side. The bass guitar sets the groove together with the drums. If you learn to play a few groovy bass lines on the bass guitar that knowledge will transfer nicely on the harmonica. You can never have too much rhythm or groove!

Drums and percussion instruments

Playing drums is a great way of working on your coordination as well as your sense of rhythm. Even though the type of coordination for drums is different from the coordination needed for harmonica your brain will make use of the new knowledge by strengthening the neural networks you have built up before.

If am entire drum set seems like an excessive investment I can recommend a  cajon instead. It is basically a drum set in the form of a box and it is great fun playing it. You can even do what I did and buy kit to build it yourself. I can promise you that playing an instrument you have built yourself adds to the satisfaction.

Playing other instruments - cajon

Cajon is a great option if percussion is your choice.

Chromatic harmonica

Most people who start out with blues harmonica use a diatonic harmonica. Learning to play the chromatic harmonica may not strike you as learning another instrument but there are enough differences to make it a viable option. The great Swedish harmonica player Mikael Bäckman has written a Master’s Thesis on the subject of using two harmonicas when practicing a lick. He found great advantages of this appraoch when writing his thesis. The title is One Lick Two Harps well worth a read.

Violin or trombone?

Violind and trombone may not be the first thing that spring to mind for a blues player but the fact that you have to create the pitch yourself is very interesting. When we are bending we have to use our ears to determine when we hit the pitch and vilinists and trombonists basically do this for every note they play. These two instruments are great ear training instruments.

Ready to start playing other instruments?

I hope I have convinced you now that playing other instruments is a good idea even if you want to keep the diatonic harmonica as your main focus. It will add to your practice, not just steal your practice time. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

 

Harmonica Practice Backlash

Have you ever experiensed unwanted backlash in your harmonica practice. I am pretty sure you have and you are definately not alone. It is quite natural to want to move forward all the time and when we don’t, we get frustrated. In this articel I will briefly tell you why you sometimes experience backlash and what you can do about it.

When does progress happen?

Even though it is the act of practicing that leads to progress it is actually not during practice that the real improvements take place. What we do when we practice is that we fire the neurons involved in the activity. The act of repeting something will make it permenent in the end. However, just like with exercising your muscles, the real growth happens between the harmonica practice sessions. When we sleep our brains clear out toxins that are the byproduct of our everyday thinking and at the same time the neural pathways we have fired during the day are stengthened. Our new pathways can also be connected to other networks of neural pathways and make use of their stored knowledge. On the flip side of this, pathways that are not fired are pruned after some time. This is why it is so important to be consistent in your practice routines.

Why do we expereince backlash in our harmonica practice?

From time to time we experience that what we are learning seems to go away. It doesn’t matter if you are learning harmonica songs or techniques, it will happen after some time. Basically what is happening is that after a new network has grown for some time and perhaps has been connected to several other networks in our brains that it benefits from it has become a bit of a mess. Our brains then figues out a more efficient way of building up that network or neural pathway. Before the network is rebuilt, it will be torn down. It is exactly during this time that we experience our backlash. Things that seemed easy a few days ago are near impossible to do. This is extremely frustrating.

What to do

Anytime you experience this kind of backlash the best thing you can do is acknowledge that it has happened and power through. When you acknowledge what is happening you will stop yourself from being too frustrated, it is just a part of learning. Continuing to power through will restate that the technique or song is important and that the neural pathways needs to be rebuilt. It will take some time but you will come back stronger than before.

Benefits of Practicing Harmonica Fast and Slow

When practicing harmonica it is very easy to get too comfortable. When this happens we tend to practice the same things over and over and not challenge yourselves. I find that this is especially true when it comes to tempo. We all seem to have a tempor range which is where we feel most comfortable. For me it is usually between 85 bpm and 110 bpm. If I just start playing something, this is the range I end up in.

The dangers of middle ground

when we end up in this middle ground we seem to fool oursleves that everything is going according to plan. We stop listening to what we are doing and everything sounds right. What is really happening is that we fall back into assuming things are good because we are relaxed. For practice, being relaxed is not always good. We want to practice until we can do something in a relaxed fashion but to get there we need to be challenged.

Practicing harmonica at “very” low tempo

Not everyone knows this but to become really fast, practicing a really low tempo is the key. The reasone for this is that the very low tempo will reveal all errors and you can adress them with full attention. Then when you speed things up it is much easier to keep the precision you are aiming for. This in itself is a very nice reason to practice with the metronome set at a low tempo. It gets even better because when you practice like this you really have to mind the tempo.

At sort of medium to higher tempos you can rush the beat without it becoming apparent. Doing so will retract from the groove but it can be hard to pin point. You just won’t sound as good as you might. When the metronome (part of my essential gear list) is set at 42 bpm there will be lots of space between the swing eigths. You will become painfully aware that you are rushing.

A metronome is a great tool when practicing harmonica

You don’t need an expensive metronome.

Practicing at high tempo

Even though low tempo practice is important to playing fast with precision high tempo practice is still important. The thing I find it helps me the most with is changing my mind’s perspective of what fast is. If I am studying a song that I want to play at 120 bpm, I will start out at very low tempo to get the precision as mentioned above. Then I increase the tempo to get closer to the target. However I often find that I get stuck at somewhere around 110 bpm if the target is 120 bpm.

What I do then is set the metronome or jam track to well above the target tempo. Practicing this fast will make me miss a lot of the riffs and kind of stress me out. The magic happens when I then reset the tempo to 120 bpm. Now the target tempo will feel much slower than before and I can get pass the plateue.

Make it routine

If you make it part of your practice routine to both practice at very low tempos and use high tempos when appropriate you will super charge your practice sessions. Never let a good idea pass you bye when you are practicing harmonica.

Let me know how this works out for you. If you have any other tempo hacks, I am very interested in hearing about them.

I just recently published my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare, sign up through this link to get a great deal on the Skillshare membership fee.

Harmonica Practice without the Harmonica

You may already have figuered out that I am a big advocate for practice, especially efficient practice and excercises. The more you practice the better you become, it is as simple as that. In this article I will give some ideas about how to increase your harmonica practice sessions without even touching a harmonica. It is easy to become caught up in believing that only your pure scale practice time will make you better. Good news, although scale practice, bending practice etc is important there are other forms of practice you may have not considered.

Fill up on good ideas

It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to be a modern player or if you don’t want to copy the masters. Learning from the great masters like Little Walter, Walter Horton or Sonny Boy Williamson is essential. An excellent way of doing this is to listen to them as much as you can. By constantly filling your ears with good ideas from the past, your future ideas will become better. Don’t fall in the trap of ignoring good riffs from the past in your effort of developing your own style. Your own style develops from you absorbe ideas from others and rework them. Ignoring good input will not help you. So, get those ear plugs in and listen to good harmonica players when you can’t practice yourself.

Creative MuVo MP3 player can be filled up with songs for harmonica practice

Load up whatever music player you use with great songs to learn from.

Mental model harmonica practice

Lee Sankey is a harmonica player and instructor who has done very interesting research into the mental models musicians use while playing. He calls these models Brainstruments. The idea behind the mental model is that the musician is not playing the physical instrument bur rather his Brainstrument and the brain then translates everything into the physical world. Developing a mental model of the harmonica of course requires quite a bit of harmonica practice but it is worth while trying to figure out what your mental model is. With a mental model in place, you can think your way to becoming a better harmonica player.

Myelin

A very closely related topic to the Brainstruments is the work of Daniel Coyle which he put forward in “The Talent Code”. My short explanation would be that while practicing you develop neural pathways that are insulated with myelin which makes them faster and thereby stronger. When the pathways are in place they can be fired without the muscles moving. This means more support for mental harmonica practice.

One additional note on mental practice, if you do not do the physical “normal” practice you will not develop the mental model and the myelin will not form. You cannot just think about playing, you have to do it too.

Study theory

Theory studies may not be the your favorite thing and I know some people see it as a little bit dirty for harmonica players. I don’t understand that view at all. I think you should make an effort to understand as much as possible about what you are interested in. Understanding more about music theory will not only make you a better player, you will also appreciate the music more. It is also a perfect thing to do when you are travelling and not really want to listen to more music. Take out a theory book or do some Google searches to elevate your knowledge. If you are a complete beginner then “Music Theory for Dummies” is a good starting book.

Conclusion

I hope I have opened your eyes about what harmonica practice is and how you can apply these ideas to your own practice. Even if you don’t adapt all of these ideas, try at least one. Let me know how it works out. If you have any other ways of practicing without touching a harmonica I would love to hear about them.