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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > How to Practice
How to Practice
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352 posts
Oct 30, 2017
9:07 AM
While checking out the book, Effortless Mastery, discussed on the other forum, I stumbled over "First, Learn to Practice" by Tom Heany. It's an evening's read with what seems like a lot of good practical advice. Inexpensive on Kindle. It's got an interesting take on differentiating between practicing, learning, and performing. One emphasis is on patiently perfecting small segments of music and techniques at slow speed. It's not startling new advice, but he gives it a context.
Phil Pennington
177 posts
Oct 30, 2017
10:18 AM
Lot's of good info out there on how to practice.
One thing that may or may not get mentioned. is at some point we actually have to know what a particular note sounds like.
Some people are super good at that. They can recognize a note if it's played on a harp, piano , guitar etc etc. It's something I'm always trying improve on as it is not my strong point.

Sometimes we blow right by the note we are trying for and always seem to hit it flat. you see that with the 3 often we can learn how to to bend it..but another thing to hit it pretty and not something cringe worthy.

I use something to record myself..often I don't hear it right while I'm playing it..but the recorder show no mercy it's either on target or not.
On the plus side it's great when you actually sound better than you thought and can say.
man that sounds great and start to work on something else.
5112 posts
Dec 06, 2017
10:46 PM
How to practice; today I fell right into the place of not knowing what to do. Exercises, like drills are easy. Bending drills, scales. Ok.
But then I got into the licks. I was speaking with Ronnie Shellist yesterday and he suggested I get into playing ‘looping’ licks. This would include triplets for instance, and also those figures which seem quite common on the 4 chord, basically patterns which come back to the start and repeat. They are good in themselves as things to use but also for training movement patterns and building speed.
So I sat down and started listening and playing but soon hit the same problem of moving on to the next thing, without really feeling I’d learned much (too basic, or should I still work the basic?) and then deciding to work some triplets to a track until I actually fatigued and had to move on to something more practical: picking up my wife from work. Now I’m wondering if I’ll muster the energy to get back to it.
2412 posts
Dec 07, 2017
8:10 AM
This is a real problem. That's why I'd go to a teacher. On the whole they don't actually teach new things, more giving advice on which things to practice, out of the many things that need working on.

Not easy to assess on your own.
481 posts
Dec 18, 2017
11:42 PM
One thing that has worked for me is to begin each morning practice with some scales using a tuner - just for a little while. In particular, I am getting much better at hitting all of the draw notes on the three. I only do this for a couple of minutes and then do it by ear and, occasionally, record myself or listen to something from a gig to check myself. This fits my learning style and might not work for someone else. I have also found Tomlin Leckie's lessons great - anything from how play certain specific licks or songs, or strategies for improvising and structuring solos. I really like his teaching style.
5128 posts
Dec 19, 2017
4:16 AM
I’m pretty good at learning songs, note for note, presumably because that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time. That’s ok if you want to play those songs, and you quickly need to get it together. In the longer term though, it’s a drag.
Now I’m trying to re-educate myself, learn licks, smaller pieces and ways to join things up.
I find this more difficult, and I suppose it’s because I’m not used to doing it. I’m hoping that in time I’ll get better at picking things up in this way.
It’s making sense to me, but I am struggling with the process.
Sticking to 3rd position but I keep turning them into V IV I type licks.
And then forgetting them.
It’s somehow easier for me to remember the longer story.
I’m quite excited by the prospect of changing the way I think. But it’s not happening as quickly as I’d like. I’m hooked on fast food type learning, and I need to get back to basic whole foods.
Anyway, Ronnie Shellist is simultaneously inspiring and daunting, I’m gonna focus on the inspiration part. I know it will happen if I work on it consistently.
42 posts
Jul 12, 2019
6:04 AM
As a beginner I know that getting the basics and techniques learned is important. One of the books I have has a lot of technique excercises before getting to any tunes. Is there anything wrong with jumping ahead and learning tunes while working on techniques?
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.
6056 posts
Jul 12, 2019
7:53 AM
No, I don’t think there is.
You certainly don’t have to learn ‘all’ the techniques before you can play tunes. You can work on more than one thing at a time. Just don’t spread it so thin that you don’t learn anything because you are jumping around too much.
I was just thinking how I learned some important techniques through studying songs and wondering about the sounds ‘beyond the notes’...like that’s the 2 draw but it’s not like my 2 draw so what’s he doing? And then chasing the sound, in context..
There’s a thing I learned from Big Walter that way, which I didn’t even realize was so widely used and important and it just isn’t covered in any instruction I have ever seen, at least not in a way I could relate to the sound, it’s just a bend really but it’s a controlled thing and in learning to do it I got such better control of bending that it really kicked me up a notch.
114 posts
Jul 23, 2019
4:51 AM
There is a school of thought that argues for learning songs not techniques.
The techniques you need to play a song will be mastered along the way.
It also contributes to the motivational side of things.

I think it holds true for Bass Guitar but not for Blues Harp or Clawhammer Banjo. There are definitely some basic techniques you need to get down before you can do anything much.

I have seen quite a few recipes for including Scales, Songs, Improvisation say 20 mins each. I'm a bit more random than that, but I like the principle. At least its a structure.

As with most things a balanced mix is probably right.

+1 on the fast food learning
Ritchie Davies
1 post
Jul 28, 2019
12:19 AM
It is best to stick to a consistent framework and avoid distraction and jumping forward, impatiently. I have purchased a David Barrett book, recently, called, Daily Studies For Diatonic Harmonica, which promotes a structure of technique, song study and context. Also, there is a strong emphasis on learning the scale and becoming familiar with mental models of the hole groupings. I am guilty of jumping into Adam's YouTube lessons, from time to time!

I sing in a male chorus, so the scale practice and the note placing should help, especially as I move between different keys of diatonic harp, such as C, A & D.
46 posts
Jul 28, 2019
2:10 AM
After reading answers to my question, I decided to take my time and not jump around. I will continue learning the tunes in the first section of the Harmonica Primer on getting clean single notes. I also have started using Harmonica For Dummies from the beginning working on the excercises. I think this way I will stay motivated by learning the basics, tunes, and techniques.

Thanks for the suggestions.
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.
117 posts
Jul 28, 2019
6:13 AM
That sounds like a good plan.

I moved on from my own clawhammer banjo playing because learning songs and playing them repeatedly got boring. Part of the appeal of blues harmonica was the improvisational side of it.

I am good at learning stuff on my own and I instinctively resist structure. (Lots of that elsewhere in my life).

I can report that I have spent years tootling around, enjoyable but I'm not sure how much I am achieving. I certainly wouldn't call myself an improviser.

I can't bring myself to focus and invest in one line of instruction but I think it is the right approach to do so.

Have fun!
6091 posts
Jul 28, 2019
6:41 AM
No doubt it’s best to learn in a Progressive fashion, building skills in a sensible order and developing a well-rounded approach, but I wonder if many of the great players approached things that way?
I really have no idea. I’m not saying they didn’t.
I expect some did, but I also expect others just obsessively tried to copy every record they heard, and some, like Little Walter and Jr Wells and Walter Horton and probably Sonny Boy Williamson/Miller, played so much from a young age that they could pretty much say anything they felt like saying on a harp by the time they were in their mid teens.
For those of us who come to the harp in mid-30s and later, I think it can be slower to progress. Certainly it has been for me, and creatively I’m still rather ordinary after however many years. It’s only really been a couple years I’ve been able to play all the notes and started getting the tones and things like vibrato and flutters are still developing for me. I started playing in mid-1990s, and my development has been glacially slow really. I started tongue blocking about 10 years ago (12 if you count the time when I was trying but just not giving up). A couple of times when I thought I had draw bending pretty well sorted, I was told by pro players the main thing i needed to work on was draw bending.

In 2013, 18 years after I’d begun really trying to play, I still couldn’t really blow bend and draw bending was still a bit hit and miss.

I had draw bending down well enough to tackle Dave Barrett’s 1st position low end study “the tub” at some point, don’t quite recall the year. 2015-16 maybe. It was really from that point that I noticed a big improvement in my draw bending.
So that was 20 years of often not-very-organised playing.
I spent 18 months taking monthly lessons with Jimi Lee. No doubt that was the period which set me up to progress rather faster. I know Jimi said to Dave Barrett (or was it to me?) that his aim in teaching is to help the student get to a place in a short time, which would take them 10 years on their own.
He certainly helped me. If I’d been a better student, he’d have helped me more.

The other thing which has really pushed me along has been playing in a band for the last 3 years. I still feel I should be further along than I am, but I’m a much better player now than I was 3 years ago.

I’m not particularly well-rounded though. And I’m not very creative. I can probably jam an acceptable slow blues, and I’m getting the hang of improvising over other grooves. The improvement I’ve noticed in that way has really come in the time this thread has been running.
Learning to play some blues in 1st position I think helped me a lot, as did picking up some 3rd position. With 3rd position also came a decision to tackle the blues on chromatic. I have not progressed a whole lot with that, in some ways, but in other ways I’d say I’ve come quite a long way. These are the ways of getting a decent sound out of the thing rather than being able to get around on it confidently knowing what I’m doing. But I have 2 blues songs and a movie theme I can play in a memorised way.
That is the main thing which bugs me; I’m so reliant on memory instead of having a real in the moment connection. Some stuff is so deep in memory I don’t have to think and I guess that’s one way of doing it.
440 posts
Jul 28, 2019
7:34 AM
I think having a practice plan is important, or at least a list of basic things to touch on for each, or most, sessions. Bends, vibrato, scales, etc. But having a couple of songs to learn as part of a practice is just as important...for timing, technique, counting, fun. Took me a while to learn, tho, that what sounds easy and reachable in a master’s recording (Kim Wilson, William Clark, Little or Big Walter, etc, etc) ain’t necessarily so. (A bit discouraging.) And to show more respect for their chops and pick songs that were more attainable for the level I was at. As I’ve gotten better, I’ve reached for more and had more fun. But I still try to start out with a few minutes on the basic techniques. Creative improv is still work in progress, such as there is. I try to do a fair amount of noodling, keep an A in my pocket, to see what I can throw together. Wish I had a band to pull me along.

Phil Pennington

Last Edited by Fil on Jul 28, 2019 7:37 AM
119 posts
Jul 28, 2019
8:51 AM

I have had a few lessons with private tutors for Banjo and Bass.

I do have a bit of a problem with the quality of teaching in a largely unregulated trade. If these guys worked for a College or some other institution there would be a problem. A good musician does not a great teacher make!

One of the common issues was the lack of a curriculum. I would be paying these guys £25 - £35 per hour while they sat and tried to work out where I was at and to dream up something to teach me. I quickly got fed up with that.

I've not had any one to one harp instruction but been part of various group sessions which varied in usefulness from quite useful to slightly annoying. Good fun though.

I think the idea of a curriculum or structure is quite important and many harp instructors either do this explicitly or have such a large body of work that structure emerges from that. I'm sure that is true of other instruments too.

The matter of teaching style is about personal preference but having an organised approach to teaching rather than just coming up with stuff on the spot is the main thing for me.

+1 on playing with others - must do more.
47 posts
Jul 29, 2019
7:25 AM
I usually get about an hour and a half practice time most weekdays. About an hour on banjo as it is my main instrument. I started learning banjo at 62 when I retired. I get about a half hour practice weekdays on the harp. I started learning harp at almost 70. Although I like many genres of music, I enjoy bluegrass the most. Since starting to learn harp, I was jumping around a bit, my banjo picking was slipping, so I had to set a structured way to make progress. I'm one of those anti gifted musicians. When running errands and waiting for the wife at appointments, I practice in the car. The whole point for me is enjoyment.
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.
6092 posts
Jul 30, 2019
3:11 AM
agree on the point of curriculum, certainly for beginners, although i think theres a case for expectations to be different when teaching more advanced players.
For beginning players i'd expect a good teacher should have a clear idea of curriculum, and several ideas of how to approach each topic to sit the student.

For more advanced players i suppose its largely a case of discovering what they need to reach toward their aspirations, and that could be a more fluid situation
48 posts
Aug 01, 2019
6:12 AM
I'm going to use Blues Harmonica For Dummies instead of Harmonica For Dummies. I've loaded the sound files on my computer so I'm able to play the excercises with the sound file without having to use the CD each practice session.
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.

Last Edited by Pickn5 on Aug 01, 2019 6:14 AM
121 posts
Aug 01, 2019
8:04 AM
I've not used the Dummies books for Harp. But I have used them for quite a few other things from home recording to Bass Guitar. Quite good I thought. If its workin for you....

On the Teaching front I was thinking that I am being unfair as I expect teachers to be very structured and be able to account for every move they make. On the other hand I am actively resisting structure preferring a more eclectic approach to learning.

SuperBee cleared up for me with the idea of more structure for beginners, with people becoming more independent as they move on. Taking charge of their own learning.
294 posts
Aug 01, 2019
5:20 PM
Blues Harmonica for Dummies is quite good IMO. Very structured with lessons that teach ya how to get up & down & around the harp. I still use some of the exercises as warm ups.
51 posts
Aug 10, 2019
6:28 AM
Now that I'm using Blues Harmonica For Dummies, I'm working through the book, playing each excercise until comfortable, before moving to the next. I loaded the books sound files on my computer and MP3 player so I don't have to use the CD each time I practice.

I'm starting to listen to more blues music. I like Sonny Terry and have loaded his Folkways Years 1944-1963 on my MP3 player also. I listen when I take my morning walk. I'll look for some of the recommended listening music listed in the dummies book.
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.

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