All I need is the air that I breathe
Learning breath control for any wind instrument is an important foundation skill. It will develop naturally the more you play, but at the outset it is worth identifying the different ways we breathe and how we can harness these for the harmonica.
Adding breathing exercises to our routine will greatly benefit our playing in the long term. We will manage long notes more easily, and navigate long sequences of drawn or blown notes more comfortably. We will also manage changes in dynamics more efficiently, building crescendo and diminuendo skills.
At the core of this discipline, we are learning to control our natural fear of running out of breath, or drowning. Imagine yourself as a snorkeler. You rely on a tube for breathing, but you can also resurface if you have to. There’s no need to panic. Learn to relax and manage your breath like a snorkeler, focusing instead on the underwater panorama; this is your music making.
Let’s investigate breath control first using some useful physical exercises. We can then look into scale-based exercises that will bring this into our music making.
Bending your arms, push out your elbows perpendicular to your body and yawn deeply. As you start yawning, you take in air without any interruption from your lips, tongue, or throat. As you finish, you exhale warm air uninterrupted from your chest and abdomen. This is the perfect way to open your airways and feel the column of air you’ll need for good breath control, full tone and ‘unbent’ note playing.
Remember how we use our breath to warm cold hands in the winter? The push of our diaphragm feeds a column of warm air from deep down. Once again there is nothing interrupting the airflow. This is diaphragmatic breathing. An alternative is when we steam a bathroom mirror as kids and draw funny faces with our fingers. Another is when we huff warm air on a pair of glasses, then wipe away the condensation to clean the lens.
Sustain a note
Using any note you choose, simply inhale or exhale from your diaphragm. Keep the delivery nice and steady at a medium volume for as long as you can. 10 to 15 seconds is a good start, but see if you can increase this over time. As you do so, pay attention to your tone. Could it be deeper? Could it be warmer? For lip pursers, relax your jaw and let your tongue fall down and back as it did when you yawned. For tongue blockers, relax and open up your throat.
Crescendo & Diminuendo
Take any note, blow or draw. Start playing at the lowest volume you can (pianissimo). Gradually increase the volume (crescendo) to the highest level you can manage (fortissimo) without throttling the reed. With the same breath, slowly decrease the volume (diminuendo) back to pianissimo. Try to keep the crescendo and diminuendo phases even, creating a transitional arc. This exercise promotes good breath control.
Hoberman Sphere – fun version
Using a Hoberman Sphere we can really connect with our diaphragm visually. Here’s a story I tell my younger learners about my trip to the local wildlife zoo. Stick around, it works just as well for adults.
The first animal I saw was a rabbit. Bunnies do everything really quickly. Wiggle your nose like a bunny. With lips closed now, take three sniffs in through your nose and fill your lungs. Pursing your lips and pushing from your diaphragm, empty your lungs again with three bursts of air.
Placing the open palm of one hand on your abdomen, do the whole thing again. Notice how your lips provide resistance as your diaphragm pushes from deep down. This is how we play short notes on the harmonica.
The next animal I saw was a pork pie. Let me try that again. The next animal I saw was a porcupine. It was starting to hibernate. That means it was going to sleep for the winter and breathing really slowly. Through pursed lips now, breathe in slowly and fill your lungs. Hold your breath for a count of four, then slowly exhale as I count down from 10 to 1. This is how we play the long notes on our harmonica. Let your shoulders drop and relax as you exhale. It’s great for de-stressing.
I had a lovely day at the wildlife zoo and saw lots more animals, but as I drove home something went wrong with my car. I got a puncture and my tyre started hissing like a snake. Inhale like porcupine breathing again, but this time as you slowly exhale, hiss like my punctured tyre. Feel the push from your diaphragm once again.
Fortunately I called the breakdown service and an engineer arrived with a big pump. He pumped air into the tyre three times; take three breaths in through pursed lips as he pumps. It didn’t work. Hiss out slowly through pursed lips. He tried again. Take three breaths in through pursed lips once more. But that didn’t work either. Hiss out slowly through pursed lips again. Luckily the third time everything worked fine.
Just as the breakdown engineer was leaving, a great big bumble bee buzzed past his nose. He threw his hands up and gasped in surprise. Here comes the bee. Everyone throw your hands up and fill your lungs in one big gasp of surprise. There’s your inhaled column of air.
No need to worry, it was my friendly pet, Higgledy Piggledy Bumble Bee. She came to tell me it was teatime and guide us home. I thanked the engineer and off we went. Everyone take a deep breath, hold it for a count of four, and slowly buzz out like a bee as I count down from 10 to 1. Focus on your diaphragm one last time as you control your buzzing. How long could you keep this going?