All I need is the air that I breathe!
Each harmonica hole has two reeds inside which produce two different notes, depending on which way you breathe. And for many, it’s actually as simple as that – just breathe. However, for some newcomers to the ten hole harmonica 2D and 3D can prove difficult. They seem to scoop and it’s hard to find a clean note pitch. This is normal, so don’t panic or give up; we just need to sort things out so that playing becomes problem free. Follow these simple steps and you should start to develop the lip, tongue and jaw control (embouchure) you’ll need, along with the correct breath control for the job.
Gently does it
To begin with, when we say breathe, we mean breathe gently. Moisten your lips with a lick of your tongue, and softly purse them around the hole you wish to play. Don’t force things, or tense your lips, just relax! A slight grin should be enough. And remember you simply breathe in and out. Let the harmonica do the rest.
As you know, we call breathing out blowing when we play harmonica – but we blow gently. It’s more of a sigh or a huff! We want warm air, not cold. Hold the open palm of one hand in front of your lips and blow softly into it. Can you feel the air flowing gently?
Now imagine you have a candle on a birthday cake. Pretend to make the flame flicker without blowing it out. Now put your lips around each of the holes on your harmonica and do the same. Sigh gently from your tummy and let your breath do the rest of the work. Now decide whether you need to push a little more or a little less to get the best response from your harmonica. Eventually you’ll find the right balance.
As you also know, when we play the harmonica breathing in, we call it drawing. We could say sucking, but this gives the wrong impression. Remember everything must be done gently. Breathing in to play a musical note is a strange thing to do. Let’s be honest, there aren’t many instruments we can play by breathing in. And when we talk, except for Swedish people, we breathe out not in (our apologies to any Scandiwegians reading this).
Start by playing blow-draw-blow-draw really quickly across two holes at once, just to see if you can get a response. Now let’s focus on the draw notes. Let’s imagine it’s a cold day, we have a mug of hot chocolate and we want to taste the froth without burning our lips. How would we do it? That’s right, we’d purse our lips and position our tongue in a special way. Try it! Now apply this to each of the holes on your harmonica and breathe in gently, feeling your chest expand as you do so. Pull from your tummy and let your breath do the work. Try to find the right balance.
What’s that scooping sound?
Sometimes when we start the 10 hole harmonica, some draw notes can sound slightly out of tune or scooped. This is typical for 2D and 3D. Don’t worry, this is normal – we just need to change the way we are drawing, by changing our mouth shape, dropping our jaw slightly and not using our tongue at all.
We don’t need to suck the harmonica or treat it like a McDonald’s milkshake. If we do, we’re trying too hard and, in return, the harmonica reed will scoop. So chill! You don’t need the extra pressure, and neither do the tiny reeds in your harmonica.
Firstly try to play 2D and 3D as quietly as you can. This will help to find the right balance. Do things sound more in tune? If so, do this again and notice where your tongue is positioned. It should be lying away from the harmonica, low and relaxed, as if you are about to yawn. Don’t try to work the reed by moving your tongue around – it’s all about just breathing remember. We need to let the harmonica respond naturally.
Still not working? Well let’s imagine we have a hot new potato in our mouth and try again. Breathe in gently with your tongue low and slightly curved. If it helps, think about where you position your tongue when the Doctor says ‘open wide and say Ah’. Go ahead and try it! Your tongue is way down and out of the way right? And you can still breathe from your tummy right?
Another trick to lighten the load on the reed is to breathe in through your nose when you start to draw on the harmonica. This helps to release the pressure as well. Go ahead, try it! One way or another you’ll begin to hear the note you need. Keep aiming at it and work at finding the correct balance. Once you have this, you can start to play more loudly, but not before!
With practise and focus, you’ll find your balance on 2D and 3D, and all your draw notes, and playing the 10 hole harmonica will become much easier.