Breathing Life into Music

From “Harmonica World” October-Nov 2009

With a few keystrokes a modern sequencer sequencer can produce a good harmonica sound, a few more keystrokes has it playing a tune. Another adjustment has the tune playing perfectly at any speed. It would seem that harmonica players are now out of work.

Actually no.

Humans create variations in their music which bring it to life. While computers are now imitating this, nothing matches the expression a skilled player brings to even the simplest tunes. The listener detects this expression, consciously or otherwise, enjoying the performance all the more for it. This article explores ways to bring this expression to your music.

I play baroque recorder as well as harmonica, and studied for some years under a great German master named Hans-Dieter Michatz. Amongst many things, Hans showed me how to use recorder articulation to enhance music, and to create the illusion of dynamics (i.e. soft and loud). The recorder has a limited dynamic range, too much air sends it sharp, too little makes it flat. To compensate for this recorder players vary their articulation extensively when performing.

Likewise, varying harmonica articulation (i.e. note length and attack) can breathe life into the most mundane pieces.

Like “Three Blind Mice”.

The tune (of course) is:

5B 4D 4B 5B 4D 4B
6B 5D 5D 5B 6B 5D 5D 5B
6B 7B 7B 7D 6D 7D 7B 6B 6B
6B 7B 7B 7D 6D 7D 7B 6B 6B
5D 5B 4D 4B

Note: The TAB system is 4B = blow 4 hole: 4D = draw 4 hole etc.

So. How can a tune like this be made interesting?

First, identify repeated phrases (e.g. 5B 4D 4B / 5B 4D 4B) and vary them slightly. Start by keeping the same notes but varying articulation, attack and vibrato. To see how this works try playing the first phrase, 5B 4D 4B with

– all three notes the same length
– the first note short (staccato), the remaining ones longer
– the first two notes short, the last one longer

Now add these variations to the 6B 5D 5D 5B phrase. Then go back to playing all phrases the same way. Then add different variations to each phrase.

These variations create a dialogue between you and your audience. No variations, no dialogue.

In particular, variations in repeated phrases produce a “call and answer” effect. For example, try long notes for the first 5B 4D 4B phrase, short notes for the second one. Repeat this for the 6B 5D 5D 5B. Surprisingly effective. Call and answer phrasing is common in blues.

Now add vibrato. Play a series of 4B notes, one with vibrato, the next without. Challenging perhaps? Try a single 4B note, with vibrato on the second half only. Now alternate this note with a 4B with no vibrato. Slow the notes down to ensure they are right.

When you have this working, then add it it to the tune. Add vibrato to the last note of the 5B 4D 4B phrases. Then add vibrato to the second half of the last note of the 6B 5D 5D 5B phrases. Combine all these phrases together.

Notice that we’ve not gotten far with the tune. During my recorder lessons with Hans, an hour would often be spent on just 8 bars of a slow movement, with yet more to do by the end.

Still, we continue. Consider the next tune phrase, 6B 7B 7B 7D 6D 7D 7B 6B 6B. This one is also repeated. Try playing it loud first time through, then soft the second time (a common effect with baroque music). Try creating this loud soft impression by playing long notes on the first phrase, short notes on the repeat.

Now play the whole tune through. Before starting, plan the variations that you will use. Play the tune three times, using the same phrase variations each time.

Now play the tune through three times, adding variations on the fly. Try to make the tune different each time.

Finally, listen to my version of Three Blind Mice. Pick out the variations which I’ve put in. I’m cheating a little here with double tracking.

By practising with the simplest of tunes, your entire focus can be on the variations. The subtle oness often the most engaging. Your audiences might not pick what you are doing, but they’ll like it nonetheless.