Wilbur's Intermediate Harmonica
TIPS & TROUBLESHOOTING

This page summarizes many of the "most asked" questions that I have received. This is not a comprehensive list of all possbile problems/issues, but it covers a fairly wide range. Many of the difficulties encountered by beginning harmonica players often encompass multiple issues....so in the interest of easy browsing, I have tried to separate them into categories. You will notice that several of the solutions/tips are repeated....that is...the same solution/tip applies to more than one problem.


 


Not Getting Clear Notes

  • PROBLEM: Trouble getting a clear single note on the higher notes. Notes quaver...and/or...start out sounding good and then go bad....and/or.... the note "buzzes" when you play it.
  • TIPS:
    1. Check harmonica position....make sure the harmonica is completely in your mouth...and parallel. If you are holding the hamronica at an angle, then you are not getting an even parallel airflow over the reeds.
    2. Check you mouth position (embouchure). If you use "lip blocking" make sure that you are completely covering the other holes AND make sure that you are not partially blocking the hole you want to play.
    3. Check your blow/draw technique. If you are "sucking" or "puffing" from the front of your mouth rather than "drawing" and "blowing" from your stomach and diaphram...you will not get clean notes.

  • PROBLEM: Trouble getting a clear single note on the low draw notes. COMMENT: This is a very common problem...the low draw notes #2, #3, #4 are very unforgiving if you use incorrect technique.
  • TIPS:
    1. Check your blow/draw technique. If you are "sucking" or "puffing" from the front of your mouth rather than "drawing" and "blowing" from your stomach and diaphram...you will not get clean notes.
    2. Check harmonica position....make sure the harmonica is completely in your mouth...and parallel. If you are holding the hamronica at an angle you are not getting an even parallel airflow over the reeds.     If you have "angled" the harmonica you may be inadvertantly trying to "bend" the note.
    3. Check you mouth position (embouchure). If you use "lip blocking" make sure that you are completely covering the other holes AND make sure that you are not partially blocking the hole you want to play.

  • PROBLEM: I get good notes when I just play the single notes...but when I try to play a song the notes don't sound good anymore.
  • TIPS:
    1. SLOW DOWN. If you get good, clean notes when you're "just playing" single notes....then the problem is that your technique is falling apart when you move quickly from one note to the next. Slow down your tempo.
    2. Pay attention to the movement of your harmonica. Concentrate on making the same movement up and down the harmonica each time you practice the song.     Move the harmonica NOT your head.





Not Getting Good (Full) Tone

  • PROBLEM: I regularly get clean single notes...that is...I only play one note at a time....but the tone sounds weak, reedy, and/or quavers.
  • TIPS:
    1. Lower you tongue...relax your jaw...open up the mouth cavity as much as possible without losing your embouchure (and without losing the airtight seal of your lips on the harmonica).
    2. Check harmonica position....make sure the harmonica is completely in your mouth...and parallel. If you are holding the hamronica at an angle you are not getting an even parallel airflow over the reeds.





General Breath Problems

General Mouth/Embouchure Problems

  • PROBLEM: My lips get dry and they stick to the harmonica.
  • TIPS:
    1. Check your mouth position. you may have the harmonica too far out and not deep enough in your mouth.
    2. Make sure the harmonica suface is clean. Lip balm/gloss, handling, and a whole host of other environmental things can cause a slight buildup on your harmonica. Keep it clean.
    3. Don't play right after eating. DON'T play after drinking Cokes or other softdrinks with sugar and/or syrup in them. The sugar will quickly build up on the surface....and you will blow it into the harmonica body itself.
    4. Check the environment. If it is winter and the air is dry...you may be losing lip moisture faster.
    5. Are you nervous? Beginners often have this problem because they get nervous. Anxiety often provokes "dry mouth". This problem may well show up for intermediate level players the first time you play in public (of even in front of a friend).
    6. Use your tongue and saliva to re-moisten your lips and the harmonica.
    7. If all else fails....you can use a little "vaseline" or petroleum jelly on your lips. Vaseline won't hurt the surface of your harmonica...but DON'T use too much...and don't get the vaseline inside the harmonica.
  • PROBLEM: I regularly get clean single notes...that is...I only play one note at a time....but the tone sounds weak, reedy, and/or quavers.
  • TIPS:
    1. Lower you tongue...relax your jaw...open up the mouth cavity as much as possible without losing your embouchure (and without losing the airtight seal of your lips on the harmonica).
    2. Check harmonica position....make sure the harmonica is completely in your mouth...and parallel. If you are holding the hamronica at an angle you are not getting an even parallel airflow over the reeds.




Misc Harmonica Topics

QUESTION: I love the deep sounds from the lower notes on a harmonica. I want a harmonica that plays in a lower pitch that the standard "C" Harmonica. Which harmonica should I get??

ANSWER: The following information applies specifically to Hohner...but it can be generally applied to most harmonica models.
In "normal" diatonic harmonicas...normally G is the lowest pitch for most harps. Going from low to high: G,Ab,A,Bb,B,C,Db,D,Eb,E,F.     If you look on a piano keyboard you will see "middle C"...if you go left you find B, Bb, A, etc. all the way down to G. If you go right you find Db, D, Eb, all the way to F. This should help you determine the pitch you want.
In addition to the above mentioned harmonica, several harmonica manufacturers offer special "low tuning" model harmonicas. Hohner offers the Big River, Marine Band, and Cross Harp in special low tunings that go down to Low D, Low Eb, Low E, Low F, and Low F#.




PLAYING TIPS Summary

  1. Put the harmonica as far into your mouth as possible without losing your lip blocking and without losing your airtight seal....(don't go in so far that you lose your clean single note).

  2. Keep your head UP. Don't let you head start dropping down towards your chest.

  3. When going from note to note...ALWAYS move the harmonica back and forth in your mouth.....do NOT move your head back and forth over the harmonica. This will allow you to play faster and it will lay the ground work for the more involved playing techniques to come. Watch yourself in the mirror.

  4. For clean notes and good tone...Keep your tongue down, you mouth cavity as open as possible and keep your jaw relaxed.

  5. Breath from your stomach and diaphram. Deep breathing is NOT done from the chest. Here are some guidelines for practicing deep breathing.
    • Remember...deep breathing comes from your stomach and diaphram.
    • When you "deep breathe", your stomach should expand (move out) on the inhale and move back in on exhale.     Feel your stomach area (diaphram) expand outward.
    • Your stomach should move BEFORE your chest does.
    • When you INHALE (take in a deep breath), your stomach should move first
      - your chest should start to expand only AFTER you stomach/diaphram have reached their limit.
      When you EXHALE your stomach should move first...pushing air out of your lungs.
      - Use your chest to expell the rest of the air AFTER your stomach and diaphram have already done their work.
    • Visualize filling the very lowest portion of your lungs with air.
    • Practice deep breathing standing up. If you use good upright posture and practice while standing, you should almost feel the air going into and coming from, your diaphram.
    • Stand sideways in front of a mirror and take deep breaths. You should see your stomach move out on deep inhales and go back in on exhales.
    • Do this until you can regularly reproduce the physical actions of deep breathing.

  6. Maintain good body posture while you practice and play. Don't slump. Bad body posture will contribute to incorrect and ineffective breathing along with a host of other problems.   NOTE: You don't have to sit rigidly upright...just use good posture and a little old fashioned common sense.

  7. Blow THROUGH the harmonica...DON'T puff at it.
    Draw THROUGH the harmonica...DON'T suck.
    EVERY note should start from your diaphram.
    NOTE: See #1 above....putting the harmonica deeper into your mouth seems to help people "draw" rather than "suck" air. Your lips and the front of your mouth will want to suck and blow. Don't let them...use your stomach and diaphram.

  8. Keep the harmonica level in your mouth. You MUST have an even parallel airflow over the reed to get a good sound. If you change the angle of the airflow you have change the pitch/vibration of the reed.     NOTE: This change of angle is what happens in a "bend"....so don't angle the harmonica (or your airflow) on clean notes.

  9. Articulate your single blow notes clearly. Each note should start crisply and end sharply. You may want to make a "ha" sound as you start each blow note.     NOTE: Just mimc the airflow of a "ha"...don't actually use your vocal chords to make the "ha" sound. When you end a note, end it promptly (unless you want it to linger for some artistic reaon). Don't let a blow note die out, sort of like the air escaping from a balloon. Use your tongue to end the note or physically move the harmonica.

  10. Beginning harmonica players tend to get very winded and tired when they play for more then just a few minutes. Time, and conditioning through repetition will solve this problem. Gradually increase the amount of time you practice. DON'T regularly try to practice for longer than your lips and/or concentration will stand. This will only develop and reinforce bad habits.   Please note that I put the word "regularly" in the above sentence. Occasionally you may want to push your practice sessions...if for no other reason than to make sure that you really have hit your physical limits.

  11. Stay as relaxed as possible when you play and practice. Getting tense will not only waste energy, (and reduce your practice/playing time), but tense-ness also robs you of good tone and volume. Periodically re-check your shoulders, your neck, and your jaw, tongue, and face for tension. It may help to watch yourself in the mirror.

  12. Make "muscle memory" work for you. Your body remembers whatever it repeats. Regardless of whether you practice something right or wrong your body learns it and will tend to repeat the same action again. Take your time when you practice and practice slowly and correctly. Make you breathing correct, your mouth position appropriate, and perform smooth repeateable movements of the harmonica when going note to note. Repeat as many times as necessary to learn it. REMEMBER: Developing bad habits is as easy as developing good habits....but bad habits must be "un-learned"...and that is not always so easy.

  13. Always remove excess moisture from inside the harmonica. Periodically you should firmly "rap" the harmonica, (mouthpiece down), against your palm or leg to keep excess saliva and condensation from your breath out of the harmonica. The excess moisture can stop the reeds in the harmonica from vibrating so that when you blow or draw no sound comes out. You may want to develop the habit of knocking the moisture out of your harmonica between songs.

  14. Use teaching aids. Use a mirror (or if you get real sophisticated set up the family video recorder). Check your posture, your head position, the level of tension in your body. Check if you move the harmonica or your head.
    Use a tape recorder.... Nothing teaches you so much about your sound as hearing yourself on a tape. Tape record yourself playing songs, working on new techniques, and doing anything else on the harmonica where you want to check your progress and/or your sound.
    Don't obsess over recording quality. Use the best equipment you have but it's not necessary to overspend on recording gear.





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