The diatonic harmonica is a very interesting instrument. It produces sound both when we are breathing in and we are breathing out. However if you are interested in blues, the bluesiest sounds are available when breathing in (second position for example). As human beings we are very good at taking air into our lungs but we are not very comfortable keeping the air out. This fact is what causes a lot of the common breathing problems for harmonica players. In this article I point out these problems and suggest how you might solve them.
There are basically two main categories of breathing problems for harmonica, not getting rid of air and filling up on air too quickly. In the end both categories result in the same thing, your lungs being filled with air and you being very tense. Joe Filisko talked a lot about this in his class at Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018.
Filling up too quickly
By far the most common of the breathing problems for harmonica when filling up too quickly is breathing in through the nose. When you breathe in through the nose you take in air that does not contribute to your playing. It is basically waste. To fix this you first need to become aware of that you are doing it. Set your focus on your nose and play for a while, can you feel any air going in through your nose? If so you need to practice not doing that. A nose clamp is a good place to start. When you can play comfortably with a nose clamp, try removing it and see if you have rectified the problem. This will take time, but it is really essential to get right.
Another problem may be that you are leaking air in around the harmonica. If this is your problem you need to practice in front of a mirror and try to locate where the leak is. Make sure that your lips form a tight seal around the harmonica. This is especially common if you have just taken up tongue blocking.
If you are not taking in air throught the nose or leaking air around the harmonica and still fill up too quickly, you may be playing too hard. Practice playing both softly and hard to get used to both “gears”. In practical situations don’t play harder than you need to. Save your breath for when you need to be louder.
Not getting rid of air
As we want to play as many in notes as possible to get the bluesiest sound we need to figure out ways of getting rid of air. The first thing we can do is make sure that we don’t start playing with out lungs half full (may also be a reason for filling up too quickly). When we are relaxed after breathing out are lungs are not empty, they are actually about half full. Try first breathing out until you feel relaxed and then really push out all the air. You will notice that there is quite a bit of air still to get rid of.
It is a good idea to get into the habit of first pushing out all the air before you start playing a phrase, especially if it is a long phrase with lots of in notes. You also need to be mindful of not taking a breath immediately before placing th ahrmonica on your lips, this is a quite common error.
The next step to solving these breathing problems for harmonica is to find spots in the music where you can dump air. If there is a pause between phrases, simply take the harmonica out and push the air out without it going through the harmonica.
You can also use any out notes and breathe out through the nose at the same time (out is OK but not in). This will make playing a long passage of in-notes a whole lot easier.
To help with most of the breathing problems for harmonica above there is a great exercise you can do easily. Start by pushing all the air out of your lungs, pause for a brief moment before slowly letting the air in again through your mouth. Experiment with your breathing here. This will allow you to notice how you are breathing and how quickly you fill up. You will feel some discomfort that you can get use to but you please make sure not to cause dizzines or blacking out. The idea is to get use to some discomfort and teach your body that it doesn’t have to get air in as fast as possible.
Summary of common breathing problems for harmonica players
Basically if you can teach your body to slowly take in air through the mouth and quickly push aor out throught the nose when possible you will have solved most common brathing problems. This will result in a big improvement in your playing.
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