Practicing Riffs

I have written before about expanding your riff bank to have more tools in your improvisation tool box. However simply memorizing a new riff is not enough. They way you are practicing riffs have a big impact on how useful they become.

Make it stick

There is no way around repetitive work to commit it to memory. However you can add to your learning by introducing variations in your practice. Practice on different key harmonicas, practice with a metronome, practice at different tempos and make sure that you can recall the riff without the need for notation. Also try using different techniques to color the sound.

Practicing riffs in context

The real killer when practicing riffs though is to put it into context. You will never just play one riff and then be done with it. You will play it as part of a bigger whole. To do that effectively you need to understand when the riff sound good and when not to use it.

A great way of getting context is to pratcie with different patterns of repetition. Repetition is an important tool to let your audience know that what you play is important, use it!

Put the repetition in relation to the 12 bar blues and practice with a jam track. The simplest form is to repeat the riff for as many times as you can over a chorus. If it is a 2 bar riff you can repeat it 6 times. Listen to how it sounds over the chord changes, where does it fit best? Maybe it is great over the I-chord, OK over the IV-chord but sounds horrible over the V-IV-I transition.

Try changing between the riff you are practicing and other riffs, play the riff over bars 1 and 2, then play a fill over bars 2 and 4. Repeat the riff again over bars 5 and 6 and another fill over bars 7 and 8. Repeat the riff over bars 9 and 10 and finish off with a turnaround riff.

Listen to how other players are using repetition and emulate what they do in your practice. David Barrett calls this chorus forms and have included a number of these patterns in his books. It is all based on what the old masters used to do. It is wise to do the same.

Summary

Simply comitting a riff to memory you need to be practicing riffs in context and basing that context on different patterns of repetition is a great idea.

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Practice Session Plan

I have previously written about how often you should practice and for how long. In this article I will outline what my practice session plan looks like. With a little bit of planning you can progress a lot faster. Depending how the duration of your session different setups are suitable.

Short sessions

If you only have time for a very short session, say 2 minutes, I recommend you spend that on train imitations. The reason for this is that you get a complete musical workout in the shortest possible time. Especially if you practice with a metronome and keep your ears open. It is also a good idea to start slow, accelerat, maintain the speed and then slow down slowly. This will give you good control over changing your tempo. This is the simplest form of practice session plan for up to 5-10 minutes.

Medium length sessions

If your session is between 10-25 minutes your practice session plan has room for a few more elements. My suggestion is a setup like this:

  1. Warm up with train imitation
  2. Scale practice or riff practice with metronome
  3. Rehersal of one song, this means playing a song you know and want to keep fresh

Longer sessions

When your sessions are longer than 30 minutes your practice session plan should be even longer. You should take advantage of being able to work on several things as well as switching your focus to keep your mind alert. I recommend something like this:

  1. Warm up with train imitation
  2. Scale practice with metronome
  3. Technique study
  4. Riff practice, use the riff you are studying during different parts of the 12 bar blues. You can also utilize the technique your are currently developing to vary the riff(s)
  5. Repetoire building. Study 1-2 songs you currently cannot play fully. Pick out the parts that give you the most problems are work on them.
  6. Song rehersal of 1-2 songs.

Summary of practice session plan setup

As you can see it is pretty natural to have a longer more elaborate practice session plan for your longer practice sessions. The goal is to keep it fun, engaging and challenging. We don’t just want to play, we want to practice! Now try it out for yourself and let me know how it goes.

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Practice Frequency and Duration

I have previously written about what I consider good rules for practice and how you can practice without the harmonica. This time I want to touch upon what frequency and duration of your sessions mean for your progress.

Practice well and often

First of all I want to distinguish between practicing and playing. If you simply play stuff you already know, you are not practicing. To actually practice you need to work on techniques and songs you don’t already know, at least not fully. That being said, playing songs you already know definately has value but it is more rehearsing than practicing.

To get maximum benefit you should be practicing every day. The cycle of challenging your abilities followed by rest where your brain can optimized what you worked on is key. If you are interested in learning more about this I recommend the “Learning how to learn” course on Coursera. It is not focused on learning music but is still very interesting.

If you cannot fit a session in your daily session at all (I think you can), then at least make sure you have a fair periodicity of 3-4 times per week.

Duration

If you practice every day some of your sessions can be short for sure. This is the trick behind fitting daily sessions into a busy schedule. If you can only fit two minutes in some days then chose an exercise like train imitation, it will add up over time.

The optimum duration is around an hour I would say. That gives you enough time to work on both techniques and song repetoir. If this is too long then go for half an hour as the standard duration with at least one hour long session per week.

For the days you cannot fit 30-60 minutes in, then do what you can and try to be smart about what you practice. Work on your weaknesses first.

Summary

To progress as fast as possible one hour each day is what I recommend you shoot for. If this is too much then go for one hour 1-2 times per week, half an hour 2-4 times per week and do at least a few minutes the rest of the days. Let me know how it works out for you!

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Make Learning Scales a Game

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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When are You Done Practicing Bending?

Many beginner harmonica players are drawn to the sound of second position and bending. A lot of the cool sounds we all love come at least partly from that combination. When I was starting out I didn’t really know which techniques I needed but I soon found out that bending was important. I remember a lot of frustration practicing bending and I just couldn’t wait to ben done. I had an idea that once I had learnet to bend notes I would be done. The question I answer in this article is: “when are you done practicing bending?”.

Done?

I will cut straight to the point, you will never be done practicing beding. Even the masters like David Barrett and Joe Filisko work on keeping their technique up to par (especially on low tuned and high tuned harmonicas). I think you should see this as something positive rather than something negative. You can always improve and you will most likely improve a lot faster when you are starting out.

The progression

I have previously written about different types of bending and these types can also be seen as steps on the ladder to mastery. The very first type, fake bending, can be accomplished with very little practice. Ornamental bending takes a little bit more practice but should be feasible to accomplish within days of starting. For proper blues and melodic bending you should allow yourself a couple of months of practice before it really sinks in. Even after this point you need to work on expanding the range of harmonicas you can bend on.

Very low tuned harmonicas and the higher range such as E, F and high G require special attention and I suggest you work on those harmonicas when you need them. Practice bending over the entire range of pitches is not strictly necessary unless you use all keys in your repetoire.

Summary

All in all, you will always keep practicing bending as long as you play harmonica. The positive note is that your level of control will improve and your ability to express yourself on your instrument will improve. Figure out what level you need to be at and practice accordingly. Also make sure that you are practicing in an efficient manner.

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What to Expect as a Beginner Harmonica Player

In my opinion the diatoinic harmonica is the best instrument in the world. It is especially suited for beginners which is both a blessing and and a curse. I do find sometimes that when don’t know what to expect when they take up playing harmonica. In this article I want to set your expectations as a beginner harmonica player.

Fast start

One of the best thing with the diatonic harmonica is that you can start playing very quickly. Within a few minutes you can start with a train imitation. Building on this you can also do simple accompaniment with rhytmic patterns. This means that you can actually start playing with other musicians right from the start. You just need to be aware that you won’t be playing any advanced solos or melodies just yet. The best way to make progress is to practice daily, even if this means short sessions.

Tone development

Most blues harmonica players are looking for the big fat tone you often hear in chicago style blues. When first starting out you will most likely have a thinner tone than you would like. This is because your tongue placement and throat relaxation have not been fully developed yet. The train imitation exercise mentioned earlier is the best way to getting a relaxed embouchure that

Getting into single note playing

To give you the most options for your later playing I recommend that you use the tongue blocking embouchure. Most people find tongue blocking more difficult that puckering to begin with. For this reason you will most likely have to expect that your single note playing will not be very clean to begin with. As long as you work on getting your precision up over time this is not a big issue as a beginner harmonica player. Learning tongue blocking is definately worth the time but it may feel like it takes a lot of time. Truth be told, you will be working on your embouchure as long as your play.

Developing your technique

Playing techniques as tremolos, vibratos and tongue blocking techniques such as tongue slaps are best added as needed when learning new material. You can always start learning new material without a certain technique and then add later. For example if a riff you are studing contains a lot of tongue slaps you can first learn it clean so that you are familiar with the sequence of notes. When you know the riff you can work on the sound of the riff with the techniques you need to add.

Playing solos

If you play over 12 bar blues and play in second position you can start playing solos pretty quickly. You may want to have developed a little bit of single note precision but second position and 12 bar blues is pretty safe for a beginner harmonica player.

Summary

I hope this gives you a fair understanding of what to expect as a beginner harmonica player. Don’t forget to check out the Welcome Package for becoming a subscriber to my newsletter. Click below to sign up!

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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.

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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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