Extending your riff vocabulary and adding more texture to your playing is very important as a new player. Hower what might even be more important is knowing how to learn new harmonica techniques and riffs. In this article I will take you through a simple step by step process that will show you how to learn in the most efficient way. With this knowledge you will be able to progress much faster and also retain more of what you learn. The process is also useful outside blues harmonica practice, a nice little bonus.
How to learn with chunking
At the core of learning advanced harmonica techniques and concepts is a concept known as chunking. Basically it is the process of binding small pieces of knowledge into a new automatic movement or piece of knowledge. The reason this is important is that our short term working memory has limited space. Think of it as a box with around seven compartments and each compartment can fit one chunk.
How advanced a chunk is doesn’t matter, one chunk takes up one compartment. This is why new techniques require a lot of effort before they become second nature. To do a tounge slap before it is a chunk is individual movement you make is a chunk of its own. Your working memory is filled up quickly. I learned about chunking in the Coursera course “Learning how to learn” which covers quite a bit of other concepts as well. A very interesting course.
Breakdown of the how to learn harmonica techniques process
When explaining the process I will use the 3-hole block technique as an example (holes 6 and 4 played simulatenously while hole 5 is blocked). It is a technique I had to put a lot of effort into learning when I was studying Jerry’s Cajun Blues.
Get a mental image of the goal
In order to know if you have succeeded with what you are trying to learn you need a mental image to compare against. In the case of the 3-hole block I made sure I knew what it was supposed to sound like. You either do this by listening to an instructor, a recording or you make the sound yourself on the harmonica. Since I couldn’t do the technique properly to begin with I had to cheat a little bit. I basically covered the holes around the three holes I was working on with my fingers and used my tounge for the middle hole. If you want to, you can use scotch tape to block off the any unwanted holes.
Cheating is definately OK in this step as you are only aiming to hear what the finished product should sound like. This step is a high level step where you focus on the end result and not how it is achieved.
Break down the technique
Now we go from a high level perspective to a very practical low level perspective. Now we start thinking about how we can achieve the mental goal image, in this case the sound. We already know that we want to plat holes 6 and 4 at the same time while hole 5 is silent. We don’t want any sound from holes 1-3 or 7-10 either. With a little bit of thinking we can figure out that the opening in our mouth need to be small enough to only cover holes 4, 5 and 6. Our tounge needs to be thin enough to only cover hole 5. When we know this theoretically we need to transfer this to the harmonica.
Transfer mental image to the real world
A great way to do this is by using the Filisko Tounge Block Trainer in this case. It allows us to see what is happening with our embouchure. When it looks right using the TBT we make a mental note of how it feels. The next step is to tranfer this feeling when using the harmonica instead of the TBT. When it feels right we try breathing and check the sound against the mental image we formed before. If it does not sound right we make adjustements to try to replicate the sound we are after. As soon as it sounds right it is time to make a new mental note of how everything feels.
There is now getting aroudn making repetitions to learning harmonica techniques. When it sounds right we practice over and over until it sticks. This is where most people stop. Unfortunately we are no where near finished. Even though praticing the technique in isolation is an important part of the process it is not enough. We have to know how to get to the position.
Setting harmonica techniques in context
One of the most important part of the process is getting context into the mix. A technique is never used in isolation. We never have unlimited time setting everything up and then play repeatidly. We are always coming from somwhere and we are always going somewhere. This means that we always have to practice moving into and out of the harmonica techniques. The beat way to do this is to put the technique we practice into a riff. In the song I was practicing I needed to move from a 7-4 split (4-hole split) to a 6-4 split (3-split). This became my riff.
When the riff sound right it is time to practice that as a riff or even as an individual technique. The embouchure and technique has become a chunk and moving between from the 7-4 split to the 6-4 split is the new chunk to form. The mental image also needs to be adjusted to take this movement into account. To make this practice even more effective we can add a second riff here where we move into the technique from another starting point. In my case this became another part of the song where I needed to move from 6-3 split exhale to 6-4 split inhale. Another chuck was practiced and formed. The brain then takes advantage of two similar chunks being formed in making the neural pathways as efficient as possible.
Widening the context
The next step is sort of obvious, set the technique in a wider context. When we get a short riff working we expand it. For me it was playing 4 bars instead of one of the song. When the 4 bars worked smoothly I then moved on to playing a whole chorus. All the time focusing on being as close as possible to the sound of the technique.
In the sections above where practice is mentioned, spaced repetition is an imortant concept. What it means is that you need to practice the same thing on separate occasions. The process of practicing and then resting allows your brain to make form the best neural pathways. You may even find that you can do the new technique better after you have had a pause for a few days. It is because your brain has optimised the neural network and pruned then unnecessary parts during sleep. To make this even more efficient it is a good idea to end practice on a positive note. Let the last repetition be a good one! This is part of the Hertzberg’s Rules of Practice.
The process in practice
Reading all of this may have you questioning if it is worth it. It may sound like a lot of work to learn new harmonica techniques. I know it sounds like a lot of work but no progress is for free. Also, as soon as this becomes a part of your practice strategy you will not eevn think about doing it. It will all come very natural to you. New techniques will be added to your repetoire as a part of your normal practice routine.
Let me know how this works out for you. If you have other tips or insights I would be very interested to hear about them. If you already ahven’t signed up to the newsletter you can do so below.