What Should I Play?

From “Harmonica World” Feb-Mar 2012

“So. What are we playing?”

You’re at a festival with your harmonica case open. Sitting opposite is a famous guitar player, whose set you saw earlier. He’s done for the day, wants to relax and play with the locals. You’re it, he pops the question.

Luckily you’re prepared. Stuck to your case is laminated sheet with your repertoire, your bag has a small bound folder with chord charts. Away you go. A crowd soon gathers, someone brings you a beer. The afternoon vanishes in a haze of notes.

A dream? Perhaps not. To achieve it however you need repertoire, this is how to get it.

First, what do you currently play? Blues, pop standards, jazz tunes, traditional fiddle tunes.. Find your strength and/or, a genre you’d like to explore. If stuck for ideas, then Google harmonica and PT Gazell, Brendan Power, Kim Wilson, Mark Graham. Spend an evening with these guys, you may find new directions.

Now make two lists, tunes/solos you already know, and ones you’d like to learn. Enter these lists into Excel. You’ve probably got Excel on your computer, it is worth spending a day learning how to drive it (assuming you have a computer…).

These lists show where you’re at. Now find where you’d like to go. Dig through your music collection, impose on your friends. Search online (YouTube is a wonderful resource). Listen to clips on iTunes. Buy some CDs, or iTunes tracks. Spend a week or so listening. Start a new list, add every tune or solo which catches your ear.

Fast forward to where you have a list of new tunes/solos to learn. Cull it. If possible, pick a genre and stick with it. Aim for ten new tunes/solos.

Does your list match your capabilities? If Whammer Jammer is at the top and you’re still struggling to bend the 2 hole draw note, then another cull is needed. Certainly aim for new tunes/solos which stretch you, but stay within your technical abilities.

Now make a computer folder called New Tunes, another inside it called mp3s. Put the tracks you plan to learn in this folder. Not sure how to do this? Find where iTunes keeps music files and copy the ones you want into your new folder. Get a friend to help if need be.

As mentioned, YouTube is an immense music resource. Learn how to use the YouTube “Add to Favorites” feature, gather videos with tunes for your new repertoire. The audio from these YouTube videos needs to be in your mp3 folder. Open YouTube, then search on “How to use Audacity to record audio” for instructions on installing Audacity and using it to capture the audio from your chosen YouTubes.

Now you have a folder with mp3s for ten new tunes. Best learnt at a slower speed, another program will help with this. Go to www.ronimusic.com and install the “Amazing Slow Downer”. Use the program to open the first mp3 from your folder, pull the “Speed” slider back to 66% and play your track, Sounds exactly like the original, except 2/3 the speed. Amazing. A perfect learning tool.

The Amazing Slow Downer will play the first 1/3 of each track. Pay $50 and the program will play entire tracks. If you can afford it, the investment is worthwhile. When learning a tune I listen to the first 3 seconds, slowed down, over and over until I have it. Then the next 3 seconds and so on.

Once learnt, a new track must get it up to speed. If you can count bars, then get a stopwatch (your mobile phone probably has one) and time 16 bars from the track you’ve learnt. Get a calculator (your mobile phone again). Divide the stopwatch time by 64, then multiply by 60. This gives the tempo in beats per minute.

Now you have the actual track speed, play along with a metronome set to 2/3 this rate. A good free online metronome is here. Slowly increase the speed until your tune/solo is at the original speed. Sounds easy, but it is not. You may never reach the speed of the original track, however the metronome will ensure that whatever speed you reach is a steady one.

Continue, track by track until your ten new tunes/solos are learnt.

The Sistine Chapel was not painted in a day, likewise your new repertoire will take a while. Perhaps a year, or more. Time passes quickly enough, a steady effort will get you to where you want to be. Organising yourself as described here will hasten the journey, and help ensure it happens in the first place.