i recall taking lessons with Jimi Lee, a good 5 years ago, and fairly early on he was all about teaching me to bend. one of the exercises was about '50 cents flat'. It involved an A harp and bending the 1 hole as flat as possible. JL said it was possible to bend it 50 cents beyond the semitone bend. in fact he said i should be able to make my tuner read 'A' instead of Bb.
i could never do it. i could get it about 40 cents below the Bb and i struggled to repeat that. never mind, we moved on
I had a Low F harp and i could not bend the 1 draw very well at all. at first i couldnt hit the semitone.
i asked for advice on the main board here and was given lots of advice, ranging from the very helpful ("practice") to the kind of weird ("lay on your back and practice")
and from BBQ Bob i got something like "practice, and while you practice make lots of small adjustments in the shape of your oral cavity, tongue placement, jaw etc"
i didn't get much mileage from laying on my back but i suppose at least i didnt have much risk of falling if i hyperventilated
after a year or so passed, my tutor wanted me to study a song using a Low F country-tuned harp and this would present me with challenges hitting the bends, but it also required me to practice, and gradually i found i was getting closer to the notes more regularly.
i bought a Low Eb Marine Band (clearance sale of old stock) and could not bend it at all. by then i'd become a wannabe (super-wanna-bee) harp-tech so i set out to flatten the reed plates and fit a custom comb and adjust all the reed shapes and gaps . i sanded that draw plate for such a long time. somethings just wont flatten out by sanding btw.
after id done everything i could think of to make the harp responsive, even going so afar as embossing, i still couldn't bend hole 1 and could almost barely get hole 2.
i pretty much gave up on Low harps. i did buy a Low D Big River and it was much worse than my Low Eb. it went in the drawer not long after, seldom to see the light again.
i bought a Hohner 365 Low C, but had no expectation of being able to bend the low octave and was not disappointed.
also a Seydel Solist Pro 12 which is a Low D in easy 3rd tuning which is much the same deal as the Low C. it was half-valved in the low end but it didnt make hole 1 bendable for me.
Occasionally id get the Low Eb out and have a go but i could still only manage the semitone bend in hole 1 after considerable risk of hyperventilation. i probably should have see this as progress but instead I saw it as a very low quality destination.
The Low F however had become fairly playable, so i was aware i had made some progress. i still found the Low F fairly hard work though and i didn't really care for the sound whenever i would get it out. it seemed to bring a lot of tension to my embouchure and my playing was always stiff, stiffer than usual
just recently i became interested in the low harps again after Michael Rubin did his 'harmonica meatball' series on blow bending. I realised just how much higher the 10 blow is compared to 9 blow and Michael had suggested working up to the 10 blow bend by practicing on lower key harps. i was quite comfortable with the 9 blow bend on an A harp but my 10 blow was not reliable. i could not move between 10 blow and 9 blow and all the bends with confidence. 9 blow bend on an A is E to Eb. 10 blow is A to Ab to B. Thats 5 semitones higher than the 9 blow bend. Michael suggested people work up to that.
The harp with an F in hole 10 is a Low F. so the idea is practice the 10 blow bend on the Low F
thats a digression but it meant i found the low harps and started thinking about them again and of course i began to try playing them and find them frustrating. but also it occurred to me that i could apply michael's principle in reverse. now that i could draw bend reasonably well on a Low F harp, what i needed rather than a Low Eb was a Low E.
i was going to buy some NOS marine band Low E reedplates but then i discovered i had a Bushman Soul's voice and that Seydel session reedplates would fit, and i remembered i had some Low E seydel reedplates with some bad reeds, so i built a Low E Soul's Voice. its actually fairly playable with the exception of the 1 hole and ive been playing my scale exercise which requires accurate 2 and 3 hole draw bends. to my pleasure, i've been getting those.
and now, i find i can hit the E on my Low Eb, even as much as 20 cents below it. amazing
Suddenly i recalled that '50 cents flat' exercise on the A harp. i hadnt thought of it for ages. i gave it a whirl. 65 cents flat thank you very much!
so it looks like the advice i dismissed as unhelpful (practice) was probably the key. But i already knew that. it was what to practice, and BBQ Bob's advice proved to be on the money. i just had to learn to move the right bit inside and it is probably something which cant really be described very precisely.
i didnt find laying down helped one jot btw, but more than 1 person suggested it would help
but Michael Rubin's idea of progression by degrees is possibly the most helpful concept.
Even though i'm still not really a fan of low-tuned harps it is gratifying to have made progress. Thats what learning is about and when you hit a brick wall it can take the wind out of one's sails in more ways than one. im trying to think of a few more metaphors to mix there but i'll leave it as is for now
After reading this one I just had to grab my Lucky 13 Low/A harp and give it a go. I knew I was getting a 1 hole bend on it but never actually measured how far down I could go. I haven't played a low harp in a while so I warmed up on it for a minute or two before I flipped on the tuner.
I pulled it straight to about -43 then continued down to about -50. I worked at it about a half dozen times, bounced around a bit but finally held about 3 seconds at -60. The entire test took less than 2 minutes and by the end of it the bottom of my throat was done.
I really do believe that I dialed in my very best low A 1 technique to hold the -60. I don't think I would have got that low without having the tuner in front of me.
Now I have at least some level of measurement for all the time I've spent working on those bends.
I know a lot of it is finesse, but at least for me the low ones are also very physically demanding. Like weight lifting. I often practice bends until my throat feels like this but it normally takes quite a while. That tells me practice develops the physical element as much as the necessary precision for the technique.
PS, The Lucky 13 is one that I have flat sanded and gapped, so I cant blame it for any short comings.
I’m definitely not laughing. The lowest harp i have is my Hohner Mariner Band 365 in (Low) C. I can get it 60 cents below D fairly consistently, and even get it to occasionally tip in within 20 cents of the C#, but its an exercise, not really musical. I cant get more than a momentary flicker closer toward the note but with concentration i can stay around 60 flat This harp, made in the late 70s, appears to be tuned to 440Hz which is quite flat by today’s standards. It’s consistently at this level across the harp and there are no signs of a post-factory retune.
My Low D Big river is not keen to go much below 60 cents flat either. I can just about hold it there but the slightest lapse of concentration will see it shoot back to the natural note. I can not get the whole step in hole 2 either. With an unreasonably big effort i can achieve the 3 semitone bend in hole 3.
I’m not sure if it’s strength or range of movement or strength to hold the movement at the limit for an extended period. I suppose I’ve always thought of it as a ‘range of movement’ issue or a coordination problem. I think it requires a good strong movement of the diaphragm combined with a movement in the tongue/soft palette area.Obviously you will fill up with air more quickly if you do big strong diaphragmatic inhalation so you have to get that movement at just the right time with the diaphragm movement to initiate the bend and then somehow it’s like there’s a second movement to enable the bend to be held without the need to breath quite so deeply. And maybe that’s totally wrong from a person who isn’t very good at it yet.
I’m guessing some folks are following this thread and wondering how the heck do you get a low reed bend? I would describe it as pulling the entire bulk of your tongue back and downward then pronouncing “Cooooo_” (as in Cuckoo clock) while inhaling, so that the top/hump of your tongue nearly blocks off the airway at the roof of your throat. At least that’s my perception/tip.
I like this subject, even though at some point it seems a little futile I imagine the effort would translate to more “normal” bending.
I remember attempting to bend the low end of the Lucky 13 A when I first got it. They had just hit the market. The lowest standard harp I had at that point was a LF. I really did not know where the reasonable limit to low reed bending was. That was in 2016. I was pretty reckless with my bending during that time.
I finally got tired of trashing harps and started focusing on care and control… Now when I play the low end of these low harps I’m more content with tone changes rather than trying to get to a pitch. The lowest 10 hole harp that I have is a Seydel Favorite LLF, valved.
“I’m not sure if it’s strength or range of movement or strength to hold the movement at the limit for an extended period. I suppose I’ve always thought of it as a ‘range of movement’ issue or a coordination problem. I think it requires a good strong movement of the diaphragm combined with a movement in the tongue/soft palette area. Obviously you will fill up with air more quickly if you do big strong diaphragmatic inhalation so you have to get that movement at just the right time with the diaphragm movement to initiate the bend and then somehow it’s like there’s a second movement to enable the bend to be held without the need to breath quite so deeply.”
Yes! I think that describes what I’m feeling. It’s a bit like learning to use your pinky on a manual typewriter or the first attempt at greeting a Vulcan, using undeveloped mussels for strength and coordination. The further I get from a normal range of motion the weaker and more uncoordinated I feel. At the extreme end of the low reeds the technique needed bend turns into a struggle of strength to maintain control, AKA holding that awkward position.
That is not the same for me with the 3 hole half step bend or a 10 blow bend for example. I don’t feel physically pushed, it more a matter of precise control. The air volume is clearly another issue. It takes no extra effort to play a middle range reed at a whisper using the tiniest bit of air, but I have to pull a lot of extra air to get those low reeds to tweak.
Still I’m sure some of my straining could be alleviate with better technique. But, clearly at some point the physics aren’t there. Oddly enough I can get some decent bends on my blow only Swan Bass. I don’t understand why but I can get a pretty even and sustained bend without any real straining or excessive use of air even on the 1 hole. I guess it has something to do with the dimensions and relative mass of the reeds.
“And maybe that’s totally wrong from a person who isn’t very good at it yet.” Haha, I love that comment. Especially form someone who from my perspective is clearly proficient. I was at a party last night and my wife told someone that I played harmonica and that I was “really good”. I said, “Ya, compared to her I am.” Lol
Do you have one of those Swan Bass harps?
I ordered one immediately after watching this video:
I honestly haven't spent that much time on mine but it's pretty cool and fun to play.