Playing Fast

From “Harmonica World” June-July 2010

Beginning players are often struck by the effort needed to play. With more experience this effort decreases, as hand movements, head movements lips and breath focus better on sound production. Another puzzle for harmonica students is how to play fast. It seems that skilled players have a different set of lungs, hands and lips for fast passages.

This is true, perhaps. However the path to increased speed with less effort is based on memory. Muscle memory. Put another way, the various muscles which produce sound coordinate movements which become “hard wired” through practice, so that the brain appears not to be involved. Practice methods to build muscle memory are the topic of this article.

First thing however. To play fast you must first play slowly. And perfectly. This eludes many students, perhaps because playing a simple passage very slowly seems lame. It isn’t. The trick is to increase speed slowly, while maintaining perfect execution.

The metronome helps here. If you’ve never used one, a good learning experience awaits. A simple online metronome is here, I now use an iPhone metronome application. Because the harmonica sound is close to the ear, standard metronomes are hard to hear. A headphone fixes the problem, plus those near to you a spared the metronome sound.

Of course, they still hear your harmonica practice, a sound my 5 year old son cannot abide.

Now try this simple exercise

5B 4D 4B 5B 4D 4B 3D 4D 4B

Note: The TAB system is 2B = blow 2 hole: 3D = draw 3 hole. ‘ indicates a half bend, ” means a full bend.

This a common ending for tunes. Set your metronome at 50 beats per second and try the exercise, playing two notes per beat. If you can play it perfectly, then great. Otherwise slow the metronome further until you can.

Now extend the exercise as follows:

5B 4D 4B 5B 4D 4B 3D 4D 4B 3D 4B 4D

Play this exercise over and over, with the metronome at 50. Then move it to 55 and play it again. Then 60 and so on. Keep increasing the speed until you start to mess up. Now, back off 10, and increase the speed by 1 each time you play the exercise perfectly.

Come back to this exercise for a few days, increasing the spead each time.

When you have the speed up to 100 (this may take a while), then take it back to 50 and try the same exercise with 4 notes per metronome beat. Again increase the speed gradually.

I can manage this exercise comfortably at 140. Only possible after years of metronome work.

Now try an extended version of the exercise. It starts as before

5B 4D 4B 5B 4D 4B 3D 4D 4B


5B 6B 7D 7B 7D 7B 8D


8B 8D 7B 8B 8D 7B 7D 8D 7B


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

Play this exercise very slowly. Similar to the previous one, it can be played over and over.

Now try with the metronome. As before, start the metronome at 50 with two notes per beat. Increase the speed gradually, be stern with your execution. Don’t allow yourself a speed increase until the current speed plays perfectly.

Similar to the previous exercise, I manage this one at 140, at 4 notes per beat. Many years of lower speed practice led to this. You can do likewise.

Playing at higher speeds requires good instruments. Hohner, Suzuki, Seydel and Tombo all offer premium diatonics. These instruments speak faster, and with lighter breath than their lower cost counterparts. This extra performance is essential at high speeds.

These exercises are not musical pieces, rather parts thereof. There are many similar exercises. Together they build “muscle memory”, meaning that the exercises eventually play themsleves with little thought or effort. These exercises in turn form tunes, which, with suffient practice play themsleves without explicit direction from the brain.

Muscle memory is hard to explain, but great to have. It is why great players seem to exert little effort. The muscle memory has hard wired the shortest pathways to creating sound.

Often you will reach the limit of your speed. Examine closely what happens at this point. Almost certainly your hands, mouth and breath are doing too much. Perhaps your body and feet are moving as well. Back off the speed, try to reduce the movement needed to create sound. Watch great blues guitar players. Their hands barely move, the most efficent pathways were found long ago, and became hard wired. The same is true for harmonica. Eliminate unnecessary movement, practice perfect execution at lower speeds and you will play faster.

A final point. Fast playing sounds good only if the music is unhurried. A favorite track of mine is Ricky Skaggs playing “Boston Boy” on mandolin. It sounds brisk but not frenetic. I timed it once, the speed was 160. Ricky is so good that he still has plenty in the tank at this speed. Play fast, but keep some in reserve.