Restarting Harmonica Practice

Some time ago I wrote about how to get better harmonica practice and benefit more from the time you spend. This is all well and good when you have a practice habit and things are going smoothly. But what do you do when you temporarily lost your habit? In this article I will give you some tips and pointers when restarting harmonica practice.

Recognize where you are

First of all, don’t feel too bad about what has happened. Most hobby players will give up practice from time to time. The reason we do it doesn’t really matter. It can be loss of interest, pressing work schedule, taking care of family etc. Just make sure to recognize that you are where you are and that you may not be able to play some things you have played before.

Start easy

There is nothing more devastating to restarting harmonica practice than to try to pick up where you left off. Go easy on yourself and start with something that you know you can do. Why not a train imitation? I have noticed that doing something fairly easy to begin with will make things much more fun.

Short and often

As with all practice, short sessions often is better than one long session per week. At this stage this is even more important. Let yourself long a bit for the next session, don’t overdo it in the beginning. Also make sure that you end your training sessions on a high note. That is, you should come away with a very good feeling inspiring you to continue.

Introduce challenges

After you get going and feel that you are on your way, it is time to work on a bit more challenging material. Have a go at what you were working on before you stopped. You may very well find that it comes back quicker than expected.

If you follow these simple steps you should have little trouble restarting harmonica practice on a more regular basis.

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Better Harmonica Practice

I recently ended a beginners harmonica course in my home town. All the students were very eager to learn and we had great fn together. They all had one challenge in common though. They never seemed to get any practice done. In this article I will give my view on why many people don’t do what they enjoy and what to do about it. Simply “how do you get better harmonica practice more often?”.

Why we don’t practice

Some people may jump to the conclusion that if people don’t practice they are either lazy or not interested enough. Although it may seem logical I would argue that it is the wrong conclusion. I find that the reason people don’t practice is the fact that they are expecting too much of themselves. Learning something new takes time and effort and is slow sometimes. Many people also think that in order to get any benefits they have to practice much longer than thay actaully have to. Somebody who has the idea that a one hour practice session is the minimum requirement will very quickly get discouraged when that time is not available due to everyday life.

How to get better harmonica practice more often

The thing you need to do to get better harmonica practice more often is to realize that practice does not have to be long and all inclusive all the time. It is far better to practice a few minutes every day if that is all you can manage, than one one hour session once a week. Spaced repetition combined with thinking about what you have practiced in-between the sessions is a great way to make progress. This of course also means that you have to focus on less things for every session. Make a short 5 minute session about one thing and concetrate on that one thing very hard.

To get going like this you can use the trick I learned from Richard Sleigh to make a promise that is so easy to fulfill that it is almost impossible to fail. Promise youtself to practice for example train imitations for 30 seconds every day. This promise is easy to fulfill and will often turn into much more practice. It will make you feel good about your practice which is another key aspect to succeed.

Try it out and don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re lazy just because you don’t practice alla the time!

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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.