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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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.

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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