Harmonica Practice – a bit will help a lot

Practice is generally considered the realm of classical and jazz players, leaving harmonica players to hone their skills on stage. While live performance can produce rapid improvement, thoughtful practice can also bring great dividends for harmonica players. Most instruction books include advice on practice strategies. Here I’ll outline an approach to scales.

The most basic harmonica scale comprises the notes from the 4 hole blow to the 7 hole blow. On a C harmonica, these notes form a C major scale. While some benefit will come from practicing up and down this scale, most musical passages use bits of the scale only, and not always starting from the bottom C. The following exercise is devised with this in mind, and goes as follows:

– Assuming a normal C harmonica, play the scale starting from the 4 hole blow up to the 8 hole draw and back down again. This covers one octave plus an extra note. – Play the same scale again

– Then play twice the pattern 4 blow, 4 draw, 5 blow, 4 draw, 4 blow

– Then play the scale from 4 blow up to 6 blow and back down again

– Then play twice the pattern 4 blow, 4 draw, 5 blow, 4 draw, 4 blow – Then play the scale from 4 blow up to 6 blow and back down again

– Then finish with the scale from 4 blow up to 8 draw, played twice

Clearly anyone with sense would have stopped reading this after the second line. Its actually not as hard as it sounds.

The main benefit of the exercise is that you are practicing changing direction at multiple places, rather than just at the top note, the case with a normal one octave scale.

The next step is to repeat the exact same exercise, but starting on the next note up, i.e. the number 4 hole draw. Then you repeat the exercise on the 5 hole blow, then the 5 hole draw, then the 6 hole blow.

By repeating the scale pattern with different starting points, you will cover a very wide range of single note patterns. The exercise should be started at a slow metronome speed. Don’t increase the speed until you can play the pattern perfectly.

Also try the pattern starting at the bottom note, i.e. the number 1 hole blow. This will require two bends, on the number 2 hole draw (i.e. an F on the C harmonica), and a deep bend on the number 3 hole draw (i.e. an A on the C harmonica).It is clearly more difficult, but very worthwhile.

Finally, cross position players (like myself) will want to try the exercise starting on the 2 hole draw (i.e. the “tonic” note for cross position playing).

There are many exercises like this one in the harmonica lessons in my online course, Harmonica Academy.