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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Practice idea
Practice idea
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6434 posts
Jan 20, 2020
1:37 AM
I had a new practice idea this morning. It’s hardly revolutionary but I found it helpful in just the few minutes I spent with it. I would expect some regular sessions, say a few minutes every day for 2 or 3 weeks, might show good results.
I know some people use apps and tuners or other references for help with bending to pitch. I usually get distracted by those things, but I see the value especially using a tuner at first and then using a keyboard (for instance) to train your hearing more keenly.

This idea isn’t really a replacement for ear training but it should be quite good in that way, especially if you have well tuned and probably ET harps.

I had an A harp, and I played the major scale up and back, 4 blow to 7 blow. I didn’t repeat the end notes, but you could. I just preferred the sound of going up and back without doubling any notes.

Anyway, that was just a prelude. I went to play that scale in the low end, 1 blow to 4 blow.
Obviously more challenging because it needs the 2 draw and 3 draw whole step bends.

Then I thought about the Mixolydian version of that scale, which is the version often used with blues harp, and one reason 2nd position is so popular.

It’s just the major scale, with one change. The 7th scale degree “ti” is flattened by 1 semitone. So in C for instance it’s C D E F G A Bb C.
On a C harp, in 2nd position (so key is G) it’s G A B C D E F G

It’s easy enough in 2nd position, commonly played from 2 draw to 6 blow

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

You could play this from 6 blow up to 9 blow too, which might be helpful in hearing the relativity of the notes. I’m thinking of particularly the 3” and the 6 draw, which I often reference anyway as a quick tune up for my 3“

But then I thought about playing the Mixolydian in 1st position.

That’s C on a C harmonica. I had an A, so the scale was A B C# D E F# G A

It’s slightly more challenging.
+1 1 +2 2” 2 3” 3’ 3 +4, 3 3‘ 3“ 2 2” +2 1 +1 etc

For me the challenge is to get the 3” 3’ nice and clean and in tune.

I played this a few times and gradually it became more fluent and satisfying. I started to feel it was more trumpet-like, and I enjoy that very much. After a few repeats I went back to 2nd position. All the while listening carefully to the key tones.

By key tones I mean mainly the chord tones. I’m talking about the 1st 3rd and 5th degrees of the scale (do, mi, so), and also the 7th, which in this case is the dominant aka “flat” 7th.

Then it occurred to me that I could also do this in 3rd position, which would involve a different challenge; the 2’.

1 +2 2’ 2 3” 3 +4 4, +4 3 3” 2 2’ +2 1, etc

So this is all very good. If you play the 2’ too deep it’ll sound minor. Go up to the 4 draw and play 4 +5 5 +6 6 7 +7 8, +7 7 6 +6 5 +5 4

That’s minor because the 5 draw is the minor 3rd. That’s the note you get if you bend the 2 draw to 2”. You can play it in the lower end and deliberately make it minor just to get the contrast.

Anyway, this is the process I went through but in the end I thought yes, great, play the mixolydian scale in 3 positions on an A harp, and tune up your ability to move from 3” to 3’ and vice versa, also your ability to hear the 2’ versus the 2” and generally just focus in on the sound and tone and at the same time train yourself in the 3 most used positions in blues harp.

And then I thought about playing this exercise using 3 harps, so you can hear the same key in 3 positions.

Maybe Low F, Bb and C. This would place you in C, and all in the same octave. Play 2nd on the Low F, 3rd on the Bb and 1st on the C

If you don’t have any low harps, I think the next best is G (3rd) A (1st) D (2nd).
The D harp will be an octave sharper but it will still sound in tune and that’s pretty cool in its own way.

I think this is potentially a good exercise. Not an absolute beginner exercise because you need to have enough bend control for it to be satisfying but for finding your way around and hearing the pitch in the bends I think it’s valuable.

Oh, also you can play games with the 2draw 3 blow decision. Try it both ways, see if you can alternate between repetitions. This will help focus your mind on where you are on the harp.
311 posts
Jan 20, 2020
5:12 AM
Looks like some nice things to check out.

but for now just thought I would ask about the
"... Mixolydian version of that scale".

Whenever I mention that to other musicians they just give me a blank stare and ask what the .. I'm talking about.
over the years I'm wondering is it mostly just harmonica players that talk that way ?

..sorry a bit off topic but curious..

Last Edited by Spderyak on Jan 20, 2020 5:14 AM
6435 posts
Jan 20, 2020
11:28 AM
It might be more common to use ‘dominant 7th scale’ rather than ‘mixolydian’. It’s fractionally easier to type mixolydian than ‘dominant 7th’.

I think I encountered the term in a book; possibly ‘the complete idiots’ guiDe to the harmonica’.
Later I had a tutor who used the term so I have just picked it up. I have noticed that modal terminology is a bit hit and miss with others. I expect it has to do with the common learning paths of various instruments. If people come from chordal instruments they might have more of a focus on building scales based on chords.
I didn’t have any background, and I remember how mind blowing it was when I was introduced to the idea of improvisation using chord tones. I’m still not very conversant with it in practice but the idea was very important in helping me make sense of the pieces of information I’d gathered at that time.

I got sidetracked by a blues band and that really changed my direction.

This exercise of playing the same scales in different ‘positions’ can probably be extended. I think you could do it in 5th position for instance. If you took an Ab harp, play +2 2” 3’’’ 3” 3 4’ 4 +5, 4 4’ 3 3” 3’’’ 2” +2, etc

I have described a 5 note variation on this idea in the past, which is bAsically just do re mi fa so fa mi re do in a many different keys as you can find, and then experimenting with changing mi to the minor 3rd. It’s the same idea in most ways.

I like these as exercises for learning. Recently watched Liam Ward lesson on blow bending and he remarked on a careless attitude among some players towards tuneful playing of the squeaky reeds. I know I have a tendency to play flat, and then sometimes become aware of it and start playing sharp which is just as bad. So I’m aware I need to keep working on hearing these intervals

Playing amplified blues all the time, and listening to people playing it, is a bit of a hazard I think, because it’s not uncommon to hear these notes played really flat, and also lots of ‘sliding’ movement between pitches.

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jan 20, 2020 2:31 PM
312 posts
Jan 21, 2020
5:29 AM
I think I 1st saw the term in some of the harmonica books and I did have one teacher that tended to use the term. Also I think the "harp ninja" app uses all the various names along that line.

I remember particular in the early days I spent a fair amount of time learning the dominate sub dom and tonic chords and what they mean but found I didn't use them when talking to others.

Mostly the people I meet seem to use the 1-4-5 for blues, or 1-6-2-5 and variations for jazz.
So as one teacher explained to me that one particular song was a 1-4-5 with the 7th flatted.
(actual he said the 5th would always be a 7th, whether it is minor or major)
Sometimes I see it written in books using all roman numerals maybe it's 1-IV-V with the 7th.

I also like playing nice and clean on the 3 draws and again on the 2 draw. I think the 2 shallow bend is a note I often miss.
On the high end I'm always telling myself to "play em pretty" usually I visualize playin up through the top of my head or roof of my mouth something along those lines it seems.

Nice practice ideas..thanks

Last Edited by Spderyak on Jan 21, 2020 5:30 AM
72 posts
Jan 22, 2020
4:22 AM
SuperBee, to get a better understanding of your posts, I need some instruction on your hole number symbols. My current guess is the ' and " are half and whole bends. The + before a hole number confuses me. My current guess is that 4 means 4 blow and +4 means 4 draw.

Your posts here are always informative and appreciated by me.
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.
6439 posts
Jan 22, 2020
5:31 AM
Hi Jeff
You are on right track with the apostrophes
‘ = 1 semitone
“ = 2 semitones
‘’’ = 3 semitones

Don’t worry about which way up they are, I don’t seem able to control that

The + in front of a number indicates to exhale in that chamber

A plain number indicates an inhaled note

An * indicates an overblow or overdraw. You won’t see many of those in my descriptions but it could happen

I think that’s it.
6441 posts
Jan 22, 2020
5:55 PM
Here’s another variation I just thought of.

I was playing 3rd position on my A harp, and went to the middle octave. I played the ‘default’ 3rd position scale you get just playing the naturally available notes in order from 4draw up to 8 draw.
I thought about playing that same scale in 2nd position.

Ordinarily people play a full octave scale in 2nd from 2 draw up to 6 blow, bending the 3draw a whole step as the second note in the scale.

To play that 2nd position key with a scale using the same intervals as the 3rd position key as described means instead of playing the 3rd note as a straight 3 draw, it needs to be the 3draw semitone bend

So 2 3” 3’ +4 4 +5 5 +6

Instead of 2 3” 3 +4 4 +5 5 +6

That’s all, but it’s the same bending skill as I was using before in playing 1st position mixolydian (or Dominant 7, if you prefer) ie the movement between 3” and 3’

I harp on these bending skills a bit, but I think maybe not enough.

Every encounter with a harp teacher I’ve had has involved a focus on bending skills. Maybe with the exception of Mark Hummel, but I’m sure he would have gone there in time. Actually he did address it as part of a triplet lick he was showing me.
Most recently Ronnie Shellist said to me that while my bending ability was quite good, it could still be better, and then assigned me some exercises.

More recently I saw Ronnie in a video making the point that on average every 3rd or 4th note he plays while soloing is a bent note, thus highlighting the importance of being very comfortable with being able to hit them at will.

When I started blowing 1st position blues licks on the low end, I noticed my bending skills really lifted.
This is just through having to use the notes so frequently and in context.
If you can draw bend, 1st position is almost fully chromatic in the low octave. 11 of the 12 notes are available, just missing the minor 3rd (which is a bummer but still, 11 out of 12 is pretty good on a diatonic instrument!)

Think about 2nd position and the common move draw 4, draw 4 bend, blow 4

In first there is an equivalent which is draw 2, draw 2 half step bend, draw 2 whole step bend

Playing 1st I found I was using the 2 draw half step and moving between the half step and whole step bends more often.
Little Walter made almost an entire solo out of this move. Have a listen to John Brim’s Original recording of Ice Cream Man, which features Little Walter blowing some full on 1st position. There’s a whole course of study in Little Walter’s 1st position work as a sideman, but listen to his 12 bar solo in ice cream man. The first 4 bars are basically +2 2” 2’ 2, +2 2” 2’ 2, +2 2” 2’ 2, +2 2” 2’ 2,
And the next 4 bars are the same

He changes it in the final 4 bars

2” 2’ 2, 2” 2’ 2, 2” +2 +1, +2 2” 2’ 2 3’ 2

There are some articulations which are not described in that basic tab, and my turnaround might be a variation, I can’t quite recall, but you can see how important the movement between 2” and 2’ is.

Of itself that is just a tremendous exercise, and playing along with ice cream man to get the hang of it is fun.

Ok, for now, Roger and out.

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jan 23, 2020 4:30 AM
73 posts
Jan 23, 2020
2:27 AM
Thanks SuperBee, I got it now. I've been in a bit of a musical slump and seem to be coming out of it. Man, I've got to practice more.
Jeff B

Just enjoying the music journey.
6442 posts
Jan 24, 2020
12:15 AM
There might be an easier way to tab out the stuff with typing, but I don’t know it. I think I am copying Dave Barrett’s code. For songs you’ll have to listen carefully to get the timing but I think that’s a good thing anyway. I don’t tab all the tongue stuff. Dave B does that in his books and proper music script. It’s good as a heads up but it makes for a pretty complicated-looking page.

On the practice front, that’s really the big deal. I’ve got so much instructional material and recorded examples, but actually getting the harp in hand and the mind engaged is the foundation block. Nothing else happens without that.

I’ve got 3 gigs lined up through February and a list of stuff to get into presentable shape by the start of the month. Only one more rehearsal with the band before the first gig, then maybe 2 more before the next, which is going to be fairly high profile for us, on a festival type bill with national touring acts and one US band, so that should be plenty motivation to pull my finger out...yet I’ve been procrastinating until a couple days ago when I began this thread.

I saw a video this morning on the topic of practice and I’m thinking about what the guy was trying to say.
I think his point really was that there are maybe 3 different aspects to practice, and they are all important.

There’s the very focused type of practice where you are picking up a new skill or maybe learning a specific pattern or lick, or even working on scales or bending, or vibrato etc...really putting the brain to the task, using a lot of focus and discipline.

Then there is a kind of more fluent but still very focused level where you might be just drilling stuff you’ve learned, that kind of place where you know exactly what you’re doing and you’re just doing repetition with it, burning it into memory as habit, so you don’t have to think about it, you just know it.

All that stuff is important and it’s not exactly a drag, but it might feel like a chore at times I suppose, and require a certain mindset to get oneself up for it.

The other aspect of practice this bloke was talking about was jamming, for want of a better term. Playing for fun, maybe just playing a track and improvising for the sake of it, with nothing at stake except your own enjoyment.

I reckon I might forget to do that for too long, and then maybe the harp seems more like work because I’m neglecting to appreciate the relaxation aspect, taking it all a bit too seriously.
459 posts
Jan 24, 2020
5:04 AM
Your last sentence says a lot. I have to step back and think about it. A little less grind and a little more 'for the sake of it.'
There's a YouTube video I've ripped off and put in my slow downer, "Sarcastic Scales". A little bit of grind, but quite a bit of fun so far.
Phil Pennington

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