ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES: Problems with draw 2 came up in a Harp Surgery lesson today, so we thought a revisit was overdue. Here’s our original post from five years ago with some important updates.
Help, my harmonica is broken!
When learning to play individual notes for the first time, 2 draw is often the hardest reed to master. ‘Is it me or is there something wrong with my harmonica?‘ is normally the question that arises. The short answer is, it ain’t the harp!
2 draw is a long old reed moving through a big old slot. And with a choice of one clean and two bent draw notes (as well as an adjacent blow reed that facilitates the bends), the draw reed itself is pretty sensitive. As a beginner, we get the feeling that 2 draw refuses to co-operate. It also seems to empty our lungs much faster than all the other reeds.
Fear not. Let’s look into this together and overcome an important hurdle in every harmonica player’s development. It’s a short process and we promise you it’s all quite painless.
So what’s going on?
It’s about finding the optimum balance of air pressure and pitch. Lower reeds respond with less effort than higher reeds because there’s more to mess around with lengthways.
Take yourself back to school and consider the time you held a ruler over the edge of a desktop to make kangaroo noises. When the projected end was shorter, you got a nice high ping when you plucked it; but you had to pluck it hard. When the same end was longer, you got a nice low boing with just a gentle finger stroke. Harmonica reeds behave the same way.
We trigger harmonica reeds by force of airflow rather than plucking however. Draw or blow a reed too hard and we may actually be moving into overbend territory. While this technique remains alien to us, we end up choking the reed, or over-stressing it. The result is a strangled note or no note at all – just the sound of a harmonica player puffing away furiously.
Furthermore, if you try to snatch a low draw reed as you play, manoeuvring your lips and manipulating your tongue as you go, this changes the air pressure and engages the reed in the wrong way. You are inadvertently telling the reed you want it to bend and it responds accordingly. The result is a low quality note that’s slurred and off pitch. Time out. You’re trying way too hard, so let’s get it fixed.
I’ll be honest. We struggled with this perennial issue at the Harp Surgery for many months. Why was it, when we asked a beginner to sustain 2 draw, it sounded out of pitch until the moment they began running out of breath? Right at the last, fleeting second, the reed moved up and into pitch. But why couldn’t they get it going right from the start? No amount of embouchure adjustment, patience or cajoling would correct the problem.
It eventually dawned on us. Things were happening back to front. The way they were finishing up, was the way they needed to start. And it was down to air pressure.
So our first piece of advice is to start out playing draw 2 as gently and as quietly as possible. This way it will stay in tune and you can register the pure pitch with your ears. By repeating this process as gently and as quietly as possible, you can also register the position for your lips, tongue and vocal tract. Your optimum embouchure.
Now take time out to consider where the control centre has moved to. Without your harp, whisper as loudly as you can: Hello Harry, how are you? Try that again, whispering harder still. Notice how the power is controlled from the back of your throat and supported by your diaphragm. Your tongue and lips are pretty much redundant, or should be. This an important concept to remember for the future.
No gas leaks
Back to basics for a moment. Are we running before we’ve learnt to walk? Let’s not forget the two fundamental skills we must learn in order to create a platform on which to build all our harp skills. Including draw 2. These are an airtight seal (no gas leaks) and the ability to play a single hole accurately. At the outset, beginners can experience a lot of loose air. Their tone is thin and notes are off pitch. If this is new to you, check out Accuracy and Tone in our Harp Skills menu.
First get a good seal around hole 2. Eliminate any peripheral windy sound. Moisten your lips and get your mouth right round the harp. Your lips should be soft and supportive, but not rigid. Don’t be shy and address the harp from afar. It wants intimacy, warmth and humidity. Start schmoozing! Get your mouth right over the numbers on the cover plate until your upper lip pushes against knuckle of your supporting forefinger. Once you have a clean, air tight response, you are better equipped to find a balanced delivery and a full tone.
Playing a single note accurately is also fundamental. If you are still developing your embouchure, this could be adding to your problems in draw 2. Do your ears tell you that you’re playing a single note or multiple notes? When you play a draw chord across holes 1 to 4, hole 2 is in the mix. You now need to single it out. Work at it. Check out Accuracy under our Harp Skills menu.
Use your nose
Remember you are not sucking in the literal sense. This is no time to suction pump your McDonald’s milkshake up a straw. We’re gently inhaling through a small chamber to gain a response. So inhale softly across the reed without tugging it.
Imagine sipping froth from a mug of very hot chocolate. Go ahead, pretend to do it now! Where’s your tongue? You need to disengage your tongue the same way with draw 2 and breath from the diaphragm. Remember we need low air pressure. Alternatively, imagine you are holding a small potato, or a hard boiled egg, in your mouth. Your tongue retires down and back. And again the focus should be on breathing through the harp, while pulling from your diaphragm and chest.
It will also help to breath through your nose momentarily as you start. This lowers the air pressure. As with our whispering technique, the reed is more likely to remain in pitch. Your nose is a natural pressure release valve. It helps to elimate the signal to bend.
Draw 2 and blow 3
One last tip – you can always blow hole 3 to see if your 2 hole draw is in pitch. It produces the same note. But don’t fall into the trap of using blow 3 as a substitute for draw 2. Both notes are there for good reason. There’s no avoiding the 2 draw, or the all important 2 draw bends that follow.
Incidentally, if you are wondering why draw 2 and blow 3 are the same note, the answers are revealed in two other Harp Surgery posts Why Are Draw 2 and Blow 3 The Same? and Why Are My Harp Notes Set Out This Way?
Be patient. In time draw 2 will become your best friend – especially when playing cross harp. Once you find pitch and balance, work at buildingtone without drifting into a bend. Remember: accuracy and tone first. Every time! This way you have the safest foundations on which to build new skills.