beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Practice
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5040 posts
Oct 18, 2017
2:32 PM
I’ve seen a few new members posting recently, and just getting into a new phase myself so thought a thread about practice might be interesting.

Personally I am practicing in 4 ways at the moment:
Song development
Repertoire maintenance

Currently the skill I am working on is bending. My bending is pretty good, relatively, to me. It is as good as its ever been but something which continues to require attention
My intonation at the high end could be better especially
But at the moment I am running a drill to improve fluency.
Maybe someone might like this; it’s recommended as a powerful exercise but you do need to be able to hit all the bends

Exercise goes like this: blow, bend, draw, beginning at hole 1, and hitting the half steps in each hole, moving up to hole 6,

Then come back down, draw bend blow.

Tabbed it’s like this:

+1 1’ 1, +2 2” 2’, +3 3’’’ 3” 3’ 3, +4 4’ 4, +5 5’ 5, +6 6’ 6 6’ +6, 5 5’ +5, 4 4’ +4, 3 3’ 3” 3’’’, 2 2’ 2” +2, 1 1’ +1

You can alternate using 2 draw or 3 blow. I find it’s easiest to use 3 blow going up and 2 draw coming down but probably use both ways.

The concept I am working on is 3rd position, which so has involved mainly taking some ‘telephone blues’ licks and jamming them with tracks. But also playing the minor pentatonic blues scale from one end of the harp to the other and using that to improvise with some songs. I have another ‘movement’ type exercise for 3rd also which involves moving from low to high and back in a patterned way.

With 3rd I really want to break out of the approach I’ve taken so far, which has been heavily based on copying and learning entire songs and solos. So this is another concept in a way, and for me is a bit more difficult to work on. I have been enjoying playing accompaniment in the band, but my solos are still very derivative or downright copied choruses in most cases.

As for songs, I have around 50 now where I think I know what I’m doing but many (all) could stand improvement. I’m starting with a couple which I’ll focus on for a couple months with help from a tutor, and then swing some more in.

This is exciting stuff for me but I do struggle to keep a routine. That is the main limiting factor for me. If I don’t make a rule to practice at set times, nothing happens except talk
348 posts
Oct 18, 2017
6:55 PM
Shxt, just lost the long response I had to your post when I messed up the code.
Here we go again....Bee, good post. Practice is something I struggle a bit with. Seems like I should get more out of it. I generally go up to the studio, aka back spare bedroom, around 3:30-4 and go at it until the start of cocktail hour, 5:30pm. Being retired helps. I'll also try to grab 15-20 minutes during the day to toot around on bends or TBing or just noodling.
On the basis of advice from Ronnie Shellist, last spring I started structuring my sessions starting with 6-8 minute sessions each on skill, currently bending, TBing/octaves, and vibrato. these are followed by the song I'm trying to learn. Right now this is Little Roger's "Going Back Home", a chugging solo kind of thing. It requires a lot of TBing, so fits. Chugging and soloing over chugging is a skill/concept(?) I want to get hold of and I'll sometimes give that its own 8 minutes as a change of pace.
Regarding bending, I use the exercise you describe above, as well as one I come across recently. It's like this:
1 2 1 2' 1 2" 1 2' 1 2 1; 3 2 3 2' 3 2" 3 2' 3 2 3
I move up the scale in similar partterns, eg, 2 3 2 3' 2 3" 2 3"' and back down: 4 3 4 3' 4 3" 4 3"' 4 3" 4 etc. No blow notes. I think it's helping me hit the bends in isolation.
I play around with third position, but intend to focus on it much as you do in the next month or so.
About the earliest serious advice I got when I picked this thing up was to listen to a LOT of blues. I take long walks for exercise and use that time either to put my long blues playlist on random or pick a few songs out that I want to get more familiar with, say of a particular groove, and let those repeat. I like an expression you used one time, about getting it in your bones. That's my intent. I love the music. My wife like it too so I get to listen to it on long drives.
To take a break from the focus on the new song, I'll go back over a couple of those I know but need to do better, or sometimes fish around for a new on to start learning. Then go back to the new song. I use a metronome a lot, the old fashion wind up kind that gives you a good visual with the swinging pendulum. I am recording a bit more as well.
Playing is a skill, but I think practicing effectively is a learned skill as well. I need to get better at it. It's a great topic for this beginners' forum.
Phil Pennington

Last Edited by Fil on Oct 18, 2017 6:56 PM
39 posts
Oct 19, 2017
7:42 AM
This is an interesting one for me also. I've been learning for about 8 months, and practicing systematically only in the last month or so.

After 8 months of learning, my repertoire is still limited to 3 songs, my speed on the harmonica is still quite slow, my accuracy is poor and my familiarity with the instrument is also quite low. All of these are improving, but there is a creeping dissatisfaction with my methods that I'm trying to fight and keep the faith.

My practice routine right now goes like this:
10 minutes bending exercises x2 for A and Bb
5 minutes major scale exercise up and down the harp
10 minutes ear training
10 minutes minor pentatonic exercise over a backing track
20 minutes on whatever song I'm working on (Work Song in second position at the moment)

Suggestions welcome.

Last Edited by pythonbeg on Oct 19, 2017 7:43 AM
170 posts
Oct 20, 2017
8:53 AM
Hey Pythonbeg - you are an ambitious harper! Attempting Work Song as your fourth tune is taking a big jump up the learning curve. Hopefully you’re doing a version that doesn’t require overblows ??
My first dozen songs were campfire songs. Learned ‘em first in 1st, then cross harp. Then I started attempting bluesy stuff. It’s taken me a few years to attempt Work Song - Grey Owl’s version- which I really like. Once upon a time, some folks were posting their versions of Summertime - slower than Work Song, but nevertheless tricky for the long bends.You might consider giving it a go.

Last Edited by Sundancer on Oct 20, 2017 4:29 PM
40 posts
Oct 20, 2017
11:40 PM
Thanks for the suggestion Sundancer, I'll try that next. I remember seeing a video of Larry Adler playing it and it's a great tune. As for attempting Work Song as my 4th song, it is just the head that I'm trying to learn and yes, it is the version without overblows. I happened to hear it a while back and have since been more or less obsessed with it. I am able to do a passable version of it already, but getting the 3 draw half step bend in tune at speed is my main frustration right now.

As for simple tunes, there's a fundamental problem - I'm Indian and all the music that I want to play is either based on ragas or blues/jazz in Western music. Neither of these map very well onto first position without overblows/half-valved blow bends. Since realizing this about 3 or 4 months ago, I've been focusing on technique, getting the bends right and in tune, getting a good tremolo and vibrato and playing in time. The natural result is that my cupboard is a little bare when it comes time to play in front of other people.
5051 posts
Oct 21, 2017
1:45 PM
That is always a problem with harmonica, when you are called on to play for others. Here is an instrument designed with 19th century european music in mind, and really just a novelty even then, and there is such s lot of technique work required to make it sound good, rather than quaint, before you even get to repertoire.

I play chicago-style almost exclusively, which is good insofar as there is a well-established repertoire and lots of examples and instruction. But its also bad, inthat its largely old-hat, without much of an audience, and kind of cultural appropriation anyway.
I get over all that by just digging it.

Anyway, work song: have you heard chris bauer and jimi lee duet this? Chris is on chrom and jl on diatonic.
work song
41 posts
Oct 21, 2017
11:12 PM
Wow, that was a fantastic performance. I've seen bits and pieces of Jimi Lee but I'm going to have to do dig in and explore more of his work.

As for our instrument, I'm just glad I didn't pick up a violin or any of the fretless string instruments.

A bit back on topic, I've recently been doing some work on something called the exploration-expoitation tradeoff in automated learning systems. The basic gist is that when you have a system that is trying to learn a strategy to maximize its reward, you have to force it to try out new strategies rather than just repeating ones it has already learned. Applied to the harmonica, I think I am now in full-on exploration mode - assembling the techniques and skills needed to be exploited later on in the form of full songs and improvisation. Whereas a more advanced player would have to find the right balance between exploiting existing skills and exploring new ones.
71 posts
Oct 22, 2017
7:00 AM
Great thread, thanks for the info on work song. Very exciting it will likely become my next endeavor.
Also thanks to those that keep this forum active, I love lurking here and there is endless knowledge.

I'm working on Junior Wells hoodoo man intro now, great split octave practice! Exciting obtainable sound. I'm Not even close to original speed but still sounds great slowed down.
If you don't cut it while it's hot......
130 posts
Oct 22, 2017
6:28 PM
I play the major scale and the minor pentatonic through the cycle of fourths until i've been through all keys. You have to be able to overblow and overdraw to a decent standard or you can't do this. i also play the major scale in third intervals again through the cycle of fourths. There's another great exercise Tinus plays where you play a major scale up and down and then play it's major 7th arpeggio. I haven't fully explored that one yet though i have played through it to a degree.
43 posts
Nov 01, 2017
12:00 AM
Just to continue this thread, I've been thinking about how to keep track of the skills I want to develop and how to make sure that the skills I'm developing are comprehensive.

As a first step, I made a basic tree structure for the skills I'm interested in and their respective sub-components. A few of these I haven't yet broken down, and for a few of them I don't even know how to break them down. For instance, what are the sub-skills needed to improvise properly? I hope to get some suggestions so that I can make this tree better. Eventually I plan to put this into a tool that keeps track of when a particular skill/sub-skill was practiced and generates a daily practice routine based on that and the priority I assign to a particular skill.

Anyway, here it is:

- Bending
-- Intonation
-- Timbre
-- Control
-- Vibrato

- Tremolo

- Ear training

- Improvisation
-- Scales
--- Major scale
--- Minor pentatonic
--- Major pentatonic

- Repertoire
-- Maintenance
-- Expansion

- Speed

- Breath control

- Tongue blocking
-- Slaps
-- Pulls
-- Octave splits
-- Flutters
-- Tongue switching

Last Edited by pythonbeg on Nov 01, 2017 12:12 AM
5065 posts
Nov 02, 2017
11:31 PM
I keep trying to reply but the topic is large and I keep losing my posts for various reasons. I will try shorter answers

Pythonbeg, are you familiar with Dave Barrett’s bluesharmonicadotcom website?

No doubt there are various approaches you could take but i think Dave has taken a good approach with many of the lessons on the site.

In the ‘tongue blocking’ and ‘bending’ lessons (at least) each lesson consists of 3 components; a technique drill, a song, and an improvisation exercise.

His recommendation is to spend a certain amount of time each day on each element.

The drills are pretty obvious, and the songs are to some extent just a way to apply the techniques in context of music.

I think the real meat is in the improvisation exercises and this would also be the part which i suspect is most often overlooked.

Last Edited by SuperBee on Nov 03, 2017 1:24 PM
44 posts
Nov 09, 2017
5:51 AM
Superbee, I was a subscriber of David Barrett's website until today - I had to cancel it because of some changing life circumstances.

However, just before I cancelled I went in and took a look at what you mentioned and you're absolutely right. He basically extracts licks from the study songs and tells you where you could possibly use them. That will be a great exercise to build the vocabulary I think. Learn new licks, learn where to use them over a 12-bar and figure out the context in which you can apply it. You're also absolutely right that I completely skipped those somehow.

As an aside, I'm continuing to build the tree that I put up before and I'm planning to invest some time in it and make it better.

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