Wilbur's Music Tutorial #4
Putting It All Together

Defined in the most basic terms
playing music involves two main areas.
  1. You must be able to get the appropriate (and desired) musical sounds to come from your instrument at your command.
    Put another way You gotta be able to play!!! Regardless of the instrument you choose to play, you must understand and master the basic skills required to get the proper pitch (in the proper rhythm) out of your Instrument.
    On the harmonica, this involves the following....
    • Holding the harmonica correctly in your hand.
    • Using the proper mouth lip position (embouchure).
    • Holding your tongue and shaping the inside of your mouth correctly to get good tone.
    • Breath control: drawing air and blowing air.
    • Moving the harmonica back and forth in your mouth and being able to find and play the correct hole at the correct time.
      (need a refresher on harmonica basics???
      Go to the Beginning Harmonica Lessons )

  2. You must have something to play.
    You either have to make up the music as you go.. OR ...you must develop the ability to play music created by someone else. Unless you have a tremendous amount of innate musical ability and can create you own music and/or consistently play any song after only hearing it (in which case you are far too talented and should leave this web site immediately), you must learn to read and interpret the music from a written page.
    This involves the following.....
    • Understanding the basic conventions of musical notation.
    • Correctly interpreting which written note relates to which played musical pitch.
    • Correctly interpreting the rhythm (swing) of the song from the written page.
That's it!! If you can do the things listed above...you can play music.


Every new skill is acquired in phases and steps.

As children we knew this intuitively but as adults we often forget this all important concept and try to do too many new things at once. We learned to crawl before we walked, and we learned to walk before we ran. This same concept applies to learning music (or a new language, or a new sport). Do NOT try to do too many new things at once!!

If you are a total beginner on the harmonica, spend time familiarizing yourself with your instrument. If needed, go back to the Beginning Harmonica Lessons page. Spend some time practicing the mechanics of holding your instrument and getting good sound from it. Play the musical scale, using all of the blow/draw notes on the harmonica. Acquire a little skill with the instrument before you tackle anything else.

Keep your first songs SIMPLE. Don't try to play complex songs until you have some experience with the instrument. This same call for simplicity applies to your first efforts at reading music. Select simple songs that you have already heard.

It is no coincidence practically every beginning music book made has the same simple songs that we have all heard 1000 times before and can hum from memory. These beginning songs all have 4 things in common that make them good candidates for the beginner.

  1. They are short simple melodies that don't require very may notes.
  2. The rhythms are straight forward. These songs are usually 4/4 time and they play quarter notes with a smattering of half notes/whole notes.
  3. The notes are all close to each other...which means you can usually move up or down one hole (perhaps two holes) at a time on the harmonica while playing the song.
    NOTE: In case you hadn't thought about it just yet....it is much more difficult to jump up and down the harmonica multiple holes at a time and land squarely on the hole you need.
  4. You already know most of these songs from your childhood and they are little ditties that are so popular nearly everyone knows them by heart.
One primary, compelling (and not often obvious) rationale publishers choose these very simple songs, is reason #4 above. All beginning musicians have enough to learn, remember, and do, without adding the stress of trying to play songs they haven't heard before and/or don't already know. It is a basic rule of music that a song becomes infinitely easier to play on an instrument after you can hear the music in your head. In fact it has been argued that it is nearly impossible to play a song that you can't hear (visualize audibly) in your head.

The world famous Suzuki method of teaching violin to very young children is based on this key premise. In the Suzuki method the teacher plays a short phrase (several notes), and the student copies. The teacher helps the student with fingering, bowing, and which strings to play but the student learns solely by hearing and repeating the music. Only after the student is older and has learned the mechanics and basics of actually playing the violin, is music notation introduced and the student taught to read notes/key signatures/time signatures etc.     Even in more traditional methods of teaching music, the instructor nearly ALWAYS plays each new song at least once so the student can hear and understand how the song should sound.

It takes years of practice for any musician to become proficient at "sight reading" that is playing a new and unfamiliar song from the sheet music without having heard it first. This is the reason I consistently encourage the acquisition and usage of music books that include a cassette or CD so you can HEAR the songs before you start trying to play them on your own.


There is a Sequence to Learning a New Song

  1. Decipher and interpret the notes.
    Figure out which note gets played when and find them (in sequence) on your harmonica. Check the key signature (usually C for harmonica).
  2. Figure out the rhythm of the song.
    Check the time signature. Count the note values, the rests. If necessary tap you finger on the table for each note played. Don't tap for rests...do tap for notes. Ensure that you fully understand the rhythm before you spend much time playing the notes.
  3. ALWAYS practice a song at the proper rhythm starting with the very first practice session.
    Do NOT assume you can practice the notes first and get the notes learned....and then add the proper rhythm later. This approach rarely works. You have to practice proper notes and proper rhythm TOGETHER.
    You can start at a slow tempo and add speed (tempo) later... but a thing called muscle memory will cause you all sorts of problems if you try to learn the notes and rhythm separately.
  4. Begin practicing the song at a Sloooowww tempo. DON'T RUSH.
  5. Learn each new song in parts. Don't expect to always be able to practice the whole song immediately from beginning to end. Start with the first several measures, practice, and then move on to the next several measures. Continue this until you have worked your way through the entire song.
    NOTE: This does NOT conflict with Tip 3 above. Each piece of the song must be practiced using the proper notes AND the proper rhythm.


General Practice Tips

  1. Practice regularly:
    This sounds like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people expect to become adequate musicians practicing once every blue moon.
  2. Practice 3-5 times a week for 20-30 minutes a session rather than once or twice a week for hours at a time:
    More frequent, shorter practice sessions work 70-100% better than longer practice sessions that occur less frequently. There is a ton of research material available that clearly demonstrates the increased efficiency, ease of learning, and greater retention that comes from 3-5 shorter (20-30 minutes) sessions per week as opposed to 1 or 2 marathon practice sessions
    For example, three 30 minute practice sessions occurring on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday work better than one 2 hour session on Friday. Even though the Friday session has more total practice time than the whole week of 30 minute sessions, you will play better and retain more from the more frequent and shorter sessions.
  3. Practice in private:
    You need to concentrate on your music without distractions. Most importantly you need the freedom to make mistakes and sound horrible in practice without having people hear you. I know of several aspiring musicians (beginners) that inadvertently held back their own progress because they tried to practice in front of other people. They felt self-conscious, and spent more energy worrying about what the "audience" thought, than they did about learning music. If you were supposed to have an audience it would be called a "performance" and not "practice".
    NOTE: If you plan to perform in public, the time will come when you will need to practice in public...but not yet.
  4. Get a tape recorder:
    Record yourself. The tape won't lie. Listen to how you sound.   Are the notes correct??   Is your rhythm good???   Do you maintain an even tempo???   Are you playing too slow or too fast???
    WARNING: Your home made recording will NOT sound like a professional CD. Don't fret over recording quality, background noise, tape hiss, or any non-essential issues.
  5. How you practice is how you play:
    Playing music is surprisingly similar to playing sports or learning any other physical activity. The more you do it, the more your body (muscles, lungs, etc.) learn and REMEMBER. It is very important to develop good playing habits early on... because they can be difficult to modify later.
    With regard to any one song...you will be surprised at how quickly your body remembers the mouth position, breath pattern, and harmonica movements. This is a key reason why you MUST practice each new song using both the correct notes AND the correct rhythm from the beginning.

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