Getting ready to rumble
Ever wondered how to warm up those harp muscles, learn breath control, hone your tone and perfect your chops? Look no further. This is a short guide to how we begin sessions at the Harp Surgery. The aim is to blow out the ‘cobwebs’, focus the mind and get the engine ticking over nicely before venturing into more specialist areas. You should find this regime handy no matter what level you play at.
Warming yourself up
Sit upright in your chair, or stand. Place your feet flat on the ground, don’t cross your legs. Adopt a positive posture. Your goal is to open up the airways and free up your abdomen. If you’re hunched or slouched, your diaphragm has no room to work efficiently and your output will be compromised. The abdomen is the engine room for all things harmonica, so give it plenty of space in which to operate.
Now you need to focus. Divest yourself of those worldly worries and their associated physical tensions by adopting this short breathing exercise. Lay your harp to one side. Now take a deep breath in through your open mouth, fill your lungs and hold it there until you’ve counted four heartbeats. Feel your rib cage expand, your shoulders raise and your diaphragm pull in as you do so. Now exhale slowly through pursed lips, counting down from 10 to 0 as you do. Feel your shoulders fall and your rib cage relax. Repeat the process, only this time focus your thoughts on your music and your instrument, telling yourself you are going to enjoy becoming the best player you can be. This is time for you and your harmonica. You are the greatest harmonica player in the world. (As an aside this exercise works well before an interview, public speaking, any performance and speaking to your mother-in-law on the phone). You’re done.
Warming your harp up
The important parts of your harmonica are made of metal. If you go honking your harp from cold, it’s life span is gradually reduced. Metal can suffer from fatigue, fracture or loss of flexibility if it’s not warmed up properly. Remember that every harp enjoys three essentials in order to perform well; warmth, humidity and a good cuddle. Sounds like your last Caribbean vacation! Hold the harp in warm hands, keep it in a trouser pocket or slip it under your arm for few moments. When you play, get your chops right round the harp and cup it in your hands. Get intimate and show it you love it. The tone will sound ten times better. Breath life into it, use your tongue and get sweaty. It will sound better still. As they say in this part of the world, ‘get stuck in!’. Now don’t forget to tap out the moisture when you are done (but forget the cigarette!).
The following exercises have accompanying sound files. A C major diatonic is used in each recording.
So now you’re loose as a goose, you’re focussed and your harp is ready to go. Time to get those turbos charging. Students often ask about correct breathing. The Doctor’s advice is simple. You’ve been doing it since you were born, so don’t stop. Alternatively, when you run out of air, you’ll remember what to do next. Trust me. In the meantime there is one particular ‘cardio-vascular’ breathing exercise we use which helps get the diaphragm pumping and the mask muscles (embouchure) toned up. We call it 7 shillings and sixpence in old money, or the 7/6 exercise. Here’s the tab:
7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B
The bold blow notes should be gently emphasised. This is one repetition (rep), and sounds like this:
Now try two reps:
7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B
Well done. Now let’s build up to three reps.
7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B
You get the picture. Now build this up to five reps and notice how your diaphragm powers everything. You can also begin to feel your mask muscles. Once you can manage five reps, up the ante to ten reps. But don’t try this all at once. Build up in stages day by day. As you do so it is important to ensure the end product is symmetrical. You should hear a see-saw pattern; out-in-in-out-in-in-out. If the pattern is stilted, jerky or asymmetrical, slow down and focus on passing your breath across the divider (or bridge) between the two holes in a controlled manner. Once things are swaying evenly, start to increase the tempo. Now, over ten reps, speed up further still. You’ll really feel your diaphragm pushing and pulling and your mask muscles working hard.
Where else can we take this? Up to the next hole is the answer. Start with a couple of reps again, then increase them over time until you can manage ten comfortably. Here’s the basic rep:
8B 8D 7D 7B 7D 8D 8B
And finally, up to the next hole, again working up the reps over time. Here’s the basic rep:
9B 9D 8D 8B 8D 9D 9B
And finally it’s time to showboat. We’re going to run the whole thing together and really go for it. Here’s a combined rep:
9B 9D 8D 8B 8D 7D 7B 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B 7D 8D 8B 8D 9D 9B
Try running through the combined rep three times or more. Remember to maintain symmetry – that see-saw feel with emphasis on the blow notes – as you do so.
Before we look at three more useful exercises that will assist with breathing, co-ordination and navigation, it’s time for some basic pattern building – the bit we all love, scales. The aim here is to connect the whole harmonica from hole 1 to hole 10 and back. To complete the exercise, you will need to develop full command of blow and draw bends. Until you do, work with the section(s) you can manage, but don’t be satisfied with ‘cheap imitations’. Ensure each note is rich in tone and is accurate – no interference from adjacent holes.
Work towards connecting the whole harp. This avoids succumbing to that nasty ailment BECZS or ‘bottom end’ comfort zone syndrome. Visit the draw and blow bend Harp Skills pages for instruction on how to find your bends. Incidentally, if you have trouble with the 10 hole blow bend on a C harp or higher, that’s normal. You’re messing with a very short reed. Give yourself a break and try it out on a lower key to start with.
The central octave major scale in first position involves no bends and runs thus:
4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B 7D 6D 6B 5D 5B 4D 4B
The upper octave major scale requires one blow bend and runs thus:
7B 8D 8B 9D 9B 10D 10B’ 10B 10B’ 10D 9B 9D 8B 8D 7B
Now the lower octave major scale, which requires two draw bends:
1B 1D 2B 2D” 2D 3D” 3D 4B 3D 3D” 2D 2D” 2B 1D 1B
And finally, showboat time again. Connect the whole harp like so:
1B 1D 2B 2D” 2D 3D” 3D 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 8B 9D 9B 10D 10B’ 10B
10B 10B’ 10D 9B 9D 8B 8D 7B 7D 6D 6B 5D 5B 4D 4B 3D 3D” 2D 2D” 2B 1D 1B
And…relax. Well done! And if you are wondering why there is that awkward change in pattern across 6D and 7D, check out our explanation here. As you progress, you can of course move into scales using alternative modes, different playing positions, blues scales, jazz scales, overbends and so on. But these are the specialist areas we referred to at the top of the page. Here we are laying out the basic apparatus for you to warm up, stretch, sweat and pump iron with.
Coordination in couplets
Now you’re warmed up nicely and so is your harp. You’re breathing is going well. You’ve worked out the doh-ray-me’s and you’ve connected the harp from top to bottom. You’ve also reviewed a few bends in the process. Now we’re going to work at navigation skills and challenge the grey matter. Still based on the major scale, let’s move in batches of two and produce an attractive melody at the same time. Beware the pattern change at the end, which is for the sake of the tune:
3B..4B 3D..4D 4B..5B 4D..5D 5B..6B 5D..6D 6B….
6D..5D 6B..5B 5D..4D 5B..4B 4D..4B 3D..4D 4B…
To complete this exercise speed up, weight the first of each couplet (emboldened) and shorten the second to create a jig. The result sounds kind of Celtic or folky.You should feel the harp twitch in your hand as you navigate through (rather than your head).
Coordination in triplets
This time we’re using the major scale in batches of three. Once you are familiar with the layout, try to flow through the whole sequence adding weight to first of each triplet (emboldened). Finally speed up, feel your diaphragm working and listen to the end product – it sounds like a mouse ascending/descending a staircase. Watch out for the pattern change at the end again, which is made for the sake of the tune.
4B..4D..5B 4D..5B..5D 5B..5D..6B 5D..6B..6D 6B..6D..7D 6D..7D..7B 7D..7B..8D..7B
7B..7D..6D 7D..6D..6B 6D..6B..5D 6B..5D..5B 5D..5B..4D 5B..4D..4B 3D..4B..4D..4B
Coordination and navigation in couplets
This exercise builds on movement in couplets and carries us across the nasty changes in holes 6 and 7
4B..5B 4D..5D 5B..6B 5D..6D 6B..7D 6D..7B 7D..8D 7B…
7B..6D 7D..6B 6D..5D 6B..5B 5D..4D 5B..4B 4D..3D 4B
To complete the exercise, increase your tempo, weight the first of each couplet (emboldened) and shorten the second to create another jig. Again, you should feel the harp twitch in your hand as you navigate through (rather than the head).
Here’s a simple two-part exercise to help strengthen your 4 draw bend. Afterwards you can move on to other draw bends using the same principles. We’ll work from the assumption you have already found your draw bend, but you haven’t really perfected playing it in isolation without scooping down from a clean draw. If you have already perfected it, you should still find this exercise useful in sustaining your bending muscles so stay with us. Hitting a bend accurately and without scooping is known as direct bending – a skill which is central to controlled playing. If you haven’t yet attempted any bends, why not take a look at the draw bend page from my Harp Skills menu.
Stage One: We start by moving from the draw note down to the draw bend as slowly as possible. The objectives are to maintain good tone (no loose air), a respectable amount of volume and to control the descent. Now do this again, but save enough lung capacity to hold the bend down as long as you can. Then let it go and relax. Remember to descend as slowly as possible first. Now let’s extend the exercise by moving slowly down to the bend, holding the bend without wavering and then releasing the bend by degree (slowly) back to the clean draw. Don’t worry if this last part is harder than the descent, that’s normal. Keep working at it, building control as you progress. The more slowly you do this exercise, the more muscle control you develop, along with improved muscle memory for direct bending. You are effectively imprinting the required positioning into your chops, jaw and vocal tract machinery.
Stage Two: Transfer slowly from the straight draw note down to the draw bend, then out to the blow note and back again, sounding each tone individually without any scooping, before finishing back at the straight draw. The tab is: 4D 4D’ 4B 4D’ 4D. The difficult part is returning from the blow note to the draw bend without relying on an interim scoop down. You need to direct bend using all your newly acquired control. If this doesn’t happen at first, don’t despair. Go back to stage one and complete the muscle education. Then try stage two again. Once you have cracked the process, why not repeat it in holes 1 and 6 and get used to the different character of the reeds.Then on to hole 2 and the dreaded 3, taking into account the two and three bent tone ‘stations’ in each case. Go on – you can do it! It’s now or never. Take a deep breath and attack.
Assuming you are conversant with the mechanics of blow bending, the first position blues scale in holes 7 to 10 is great for getting your chops working. The notes are:
7B 8B’ 9D 9B’ 9B 10B’ 10B
10B 10B’ 9B 9B’ 9D 8B’ 7B
Structured and unstructured practice
This completes your workout. Good job! You can now continue with more advanced or specialist technique building, or move into studying specific styles, musicians and pieces. Or not.. It’s as important to remain at one with you harmonica by just going where the mood takes you. Forget all the other stuff for now. Experiment, move off-piste, get messy and use your own imagination. What would happen if…? Go there!