Beginning Harmonica Players – joining the music community
Beginners should consider both the technical and social aspects of playing music. The basic technical things, blowing single notes, learning bends etc won’t be covered here: harmonica lessons are elsewhere on the site. Instead some of the social aspects of music making, which are not often discussed, will be outlined.
In my view, the key reason for learning an instrument is to play with others. Fortunately the harmonica is great instrument for this. I’ll discuss how a beginning harmonica player may seek musical friends, and so become part of a music community.
Many are inspired to play an instrument by hearing great players. Eric Clapton is surely responsible for a generation of budding guitarists. Great harmonica players such as Sonny Terry, Little Walter, and more recently John Popper have similarly inspired many harmonica players to start (Jim Fitting, the great Boston based player, motivated me to learn). It is essential to keep hearing these inspirational players to maintain the urge to learn, which inevitably wanes once lessons start and difficulties arise. However, with time and persistence, the initial efforts pay off, and a new harmonica player will develop some skills. This is the time to seek musical partners.
A word of caution: make sure you understanding the meaning of music “keys”, and more importantly, the harmonica to be used with each key before seeking to join with others. Otherwise any collaborations will end in chaos! All basic harmonica instruction books have this information.
The ideal collaborator for a new harmonica player is someone who plays acoustic guitar and sings a little. These guitarists, particularly if they are also new players, will often welcome the company as much as you do. There is a natural desire of course to play with the best people as soon as possible. It is much better to seek more humble cohorts, as they will remain willing companions.
This leads to a key point: the inherent value of music making. A joyful encounter between two beginning players has the same merit as a collaboration between masters. Indeed, few things match the thrill of finding your first musical soulmate. This experience is within the reach of all beginning players, and should be a key goal.
Meeting like minded players may require some searching, but there are good places to look. Folk festivals, blues festivals and bluegrass festivals are ideal locations. Your new musical friends are to be found around the campsites and tents, rather than near the main stages and popular “picking” sessions. Also, guitar teachers may suggest pupils who would welcome your company.
In my view blues jams, commonly held in bars and clubs, are not always great for beginners. These jams often feature highly experienced musicians, who may be unkind to new players. Also, you only get to play a couple of tunes, rather than being on for the whole night (the case when you meet privately with friends). If you have had bad experiences at these jams, please do not take them to heart, and most certainly, do not give up playing. Instead, find some musical friends, and experience the joy of communal music away from critical eyes.
Assuming you have found someone to play with, and have built a repertoire, then public performance (if you feel up to it) is a good idea. The best place to start is a party with friends. You should aim for a short set, two or three songs perhaps, and leave it at that. Your guests will let you know if they want more. After a couple of parties, again assuming you are up to it, try an “open mike” at a local coffee shop or bar. The thrill of this first public performance will stay with you forever.
If you get to perform, then take it easy on yourself. In particular, don’t be surprised if you don’t play as well in front of others as you do in private (also, don’t be too hard on your partners if they let you down a little). With time, your performance skills will develop.
A most important point is this. Never announce to others (including your music partners) that you have played badly. Your own views of your performance will always be the most critical. Chances are that everyone else will think you were fine, there is no point spoiling these good impressions with your remarks. Also, NEVER criticize someone else’s playing. Music performance is a very personal thing, and players never forget disparaging remarks.
By persisting with lessons, practice, and communal playing, you may one day become a great player. While this is a wonderful thing, the journey to get there should provide as much joy as the eventual destination.