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Need tips,ideas,exercises for good breath control?

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Duane C.
Mar 31, 2009 7:40 PM GMT

Since the start of my endeaver to learn to play harp, I've been aware that you do not have to play hard to get the best/good sound from the harmonica. Despite this awareness and trying to avoid that, I still have had reeds go bad. Is there a way that I can tell if, and; when I am playing to hard? Are there some specific exercises I could do? It's getting frustrating and I'm losing practise time because of it!


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Comments (24)

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Apr 01, 2009 3:38 AM GMT
John P Replied:

it's not just how HARD you play. HOW you produce the breath pressure is just as important. All air pressure should be produced from the diaphragm--NOT from themouthand/or lips. The mouth, jaw and throat should be open and relaxed and the air flow should come from thesameplace deep in your torso as a yawn. Deep embouchure helps, too.

Producing air pressurewiththe lips and/or mouth really tortures the reeds and produces weak/thin tone. Work on generatingthe air stream solely from your diaphragm. It's easier on your harps and better for your tone.


Apr 01, 2009 9:11 AM GMT
TC Slim Replied:

I have found that through experience of playing and learning to relax and playing through harps that are set up correctly greatly improves the way you play with regard to pressure and reed response. Like the previous thread says breath from the diaphragm and just relax your body. Having an upright posture and hold on the harp often helps too. you see lots of harp players contorted when they play really trying to squeeze the notes out when they play, which can result in bad tone and a forced sound.

If you watch someone like Kim Wilson look how upright and relaxed he looks when he is playing, Joe Filisko is another example for good posture and being able to play softly but get great clear, fat tone. I would also recommend studying pre war and country stlyes for learning to play with control and clarity. Too many players think that the big amplified chicago style is the way they want to sound without really learning to play unamplified and clean. As we all know the sound comes from inside and you can only get good tone through your body and harp and all other things like mics, amps, and effects are really just ways to enhance your sound and tone.

Train rhythms are a good way to practice many aspects of harmonica technique, including breathing, rhythm, and learning to use your diaphragm and mouth cavity for different tonal textures. Richard Sleigh described this far better in his live web chat on here a while ago.

Hope this rambled reply makes sense in some way.


Apr 01, 2009 10:59 AM GMT
Jawbone K Replied:

if you have a voice coach in your area, it would likely be worth the few bucks for a lesson or 3. exercises for deep breathing will get you access to the lower third of your wind potential and improve your "air column". deep embouchure and relaxed mouth and throat muscles are also a big help. since i've worked on these things i rarely flat a reed, and i used to nearly set my watch by how long it would be before i needed a fresh harp!

one sort of misconception i think many of us have unconciously, is if we can't hear ourselves over the band or partner we're playing with, we try to wring extra volume out of a harp right there at our lips. what this results in is way too much breath force over the reeds and nearly guarantees a wrecked reed. if you are in a situation where you can't quite hear what you're getting out of a harp, and you've found your way via breathing and voice exercises to better volume at the harp- if that is not enough- then it's time to find quieter partners or amplify via p.a. or harp mic and amp.

losing a few harps is pretty much par for the course as you learn to drive these things. i keep 2 each of my "high mortality" harps since i can still remember a night when i blew out 4 of my 7 harps trying to be heard over a too-loud band! that was a costly gig. and actually, these days i keep 2 different harps in the common keys because the different brand/style harp gives me a different sound, each one fitting particular songs or positions more fully.

i am an out-of-the-box player, but if you can tweak the reeds on your harps, set gaps to suit you better, and do any of the other tricks people do these days you will be better off and have easier-playing harps. and the better the instrument the easier it is to play and the less wind you will need. the down side is, if you use custom harps and blow one out through excessive breath force, it can be costly and take a while to get that harp redone and back in service.


Apr 01, 2009 5:31 PM GMT
Barbeque Bob M Replied:

You've gotten some excellent tips to start with here, and along with breath force problems, relaxation is vitally important as well and many people tend to play very physically uptight all the time, and when you're doing that, trying to force things to happen all the time, you will severly constrict your air passages, forcing you to use much more force than necessary, and then a huge cascade of other bad habits follows, and what you're doing is making tons of unnecessary extra work for yourself AKA making things needlessly more difficult for yourself.

I have always recommended that every harp player go take some breathing lessons from a reputable vocal coach because you'd be surprised at how many people have poor breathing technique and it actually effects more than just harp playing, but their everyday living as well. They stress body relaxation in a huge way because that is EXTREMELY important for proper breath support and when you learn to physically relax, your air passages a considerably more wide open and your body uses the air much more efficiently, allowing for more control, better overall tone, and playing more resonantly, and using too much breath force and not being physically relaxed 24/7/365 does nothing but hamper you, as playing with too much breath force and not being able to physically relax wastes 80% of your playing breath.

There is also another benefit, and that's the financial aspect of things because you not only will improve everything about your playing, you'll wind up spending 75% less money on harps because you won't be blowing them out at a rapid rate anymore.


Apr 05, 2009 9:07 AM GMT
gray r Replied:

great topic.thanx Bird-dog for the start and to all replies.


Apr 05, 2009 3:17 PM GMT
John P Replied:

FWIW, if a player is doing all of this right, it will almost feel like there is adirectconnectionbetween the diaphragm and the reeds that bypasses the rest of yourphysiology. Besides producing a deeper,richer, fatter tone, any small variation in the rest of yourresonancechamber will dramatically effect the sound being produced...so you get to the point where only a very subtlemovementisrequiredto bend or create other tonal or textural effects.

And Bob is so right, one must be RELAXRD to open up theresonancechamber so all of this can happen. And deep embouchure is also an important part of this equation.


Apr 06, 2009 4:35 PM GMT
Barbeque Bob M Replied:

John P's got that exactly right!!!


Apr 07, 2009 1:26 PM GMT
Duane C. Replied:

I have been including in my practice time, an excersise that focuses on the diaphragm breathing and proper posture. The right posture will help with maintaining the relaxed state that is needed. I intend to continue with these excercises until they become secound nature.

John, I have felt that connection and know what your talking about. Now I just got to make it a norm.

I want to thank all for their great responses.


May 07, 2009 4:50 PM GMT
Chris C Replied:

There is an execise I have been using for years. I borrowed it from Yoga breathing techniques. I think its the bomb. When you are walking use your steps to measure in and out breaths. Four steps in breath, Two steps hold in, Four steps out breath, Two steps Hold out, and repeat. Make sure the breaths are slow and filling up by your diaphram and not your chest. When you have been doing this for some time you are ready for 6 steps in, 3 steps hold, 6 steps out, 3 steps hold. Then try 8,4,8,4. Then 10,5,10,5. and if you can do that then 12,6,12,6 and you are better heavy breather than me thats for sure. Sounds easy but it is not.


May 07, 2009 7:01 PM GMT
Diggs Replied:

I have never done any breathing exercises outside of harmonica practice. My acoustic volume

can span the dynamic range. The only thing I can ever remember doing are long tone exercises. Try doing this going up and down the dymanic range soft to loud gradually.

I walk about two miles plus a day. Good Luck


May 08, 2009 2:03 AM GMT
Brown Ale Guy Replied:

Nice thread! Excellent advice. Gotta get back to some yogic meditation breathing exercises myself. Just need to do it. "Don't juest do something. Sit there" as they say.

"Breathing in I calm my Body Breathing out I smile Sitting in this present moment I know this is a wonderful moment" - Thich Naht Hahn

Try that for 20 minutes once or twice a day and then try to incorporate it into your music. Add some stomp boxes and a Harpgear amp and let er rip. Am hoping to follow my own advice.


May 08, 2009 2:40 AM GMT
jawbone s Replied:

Hey Chris - I gave that breathing exercisea whirl today - seems like a good idea - any insight as to the end result - is it more for relaxation, better diaghram control. Hope I'm not showing my ignorance too much. I'm not too familiar with yoga.


May 08, 2009 5:39 PM GMT
Barbeque Bob M Replied:

It's for all of the above because it all works hand in hand. When you use too much force, you also have breath moisture/saliva problems, which also leads to playing physically very uptight, which constricts your air passages, which hurts the projection, and which hurts your tone, and which hurts your agility, and hurts accuracy and intonations of both bends and overblows, and which hurts resonance. So, it is obvious, these things all work hand in hand.


May 08, 2009 10:20 PM GMT
jawbone s Replied:

Thanx Bob (appreciate the type face:-) I see what you mean, but with that exercise should one be aiming to get to a higher count as time goes by, for instance, 12, 6, 12 then 14, 7, 14, is it to slowly expand your capacity to intake air in a controlled manner with the end result, as far as harp goes, to have more control over the rate at which you intake air and not panic because you think you are at the end of your rope and you are not at the end of the riff. Now that I read this over, I'm not even sure what the question is!!!


May 09, 2009 10:42 AM GMT
Chris C Replied:

I think I know what you are asking! And the aswer is I don't realy know. I would say that I think the 4,2,4,2 exercise while easier is still just as important as the much harder 10,5,10,5 just as more reps of lower weights are just as important in bodybuilding. Not that I am qualifiedto talk about bodybuilding in any way shape or form. I think the idea of slowly building up to the harderratios is spot on. As far as harp I think this is so good because it doesn't just focus on deep breathing but also that equalibrum between in and out breath. I remember they claimed healing powers to this exercise as well. Perhaps it depends on which scented candle you carry at the time. I would recommend bergamont mixed with essence of mojo.


May 09, 2009 1:11 PM GMT
jawbone s Replied:

Oh, now I get it but I find the Bergamont is far too understated for the essence of mojo.:-) I think Lemon balm would give it a bit more zip!!!!


May 09, 2009 5:32 PM GMT
Barbeque Bob M Replied:

It's really now you're starting to realize there's many different parts to the equation now and each have specific roles to play and you're only beginning to understand how they all work and how they must work together, so that's more like harmonica, body, mind, and soul has to act as one to make everything work.


May 09, 2009 6:04 PM GMT
jawbone s Replied:

OK - I'll try putting it all together.....but I'm still going with the lemon balm!!!

In all seriousness, I have noticed that as I age (and gain a bit of weight) I don't have the breath I used to have. I do need to start doing some things to remedy that. It's a funny thing switching back and forth from trumpet to harp. The air for trumpet is let out, on the high notes, thru a very constricted passage under high pressure but not much volume (amount, not loudness) and then you switch back to harp and it's a whole new ball game.


May 09, 2009 8:07 PM GMT
Barbeque Bob M Replied:

It's the truth!!! Many horn players often have trouble transitioning to harmonica just because of the difference in the amount of breath force needed alone. Just remember, just like singing, for the draw breaths, avoid the military style of breathing where you suck the gut in on the draw breath, because for both vocals and harmonica, it's totally wrong, as it severely constricts what you can do, plus you are prevented from using your diaphragm and you waste air, even tho it may look cooly macho.


May 09, 2009 9:10 PM GMT
jawbone s Replied:

Not only that - when you try a draw note on the horn, if you're lucky you just get stale air, if you're not lucky you get green sludge, that's why I don't drink when I perform - I don't wanna forget which I am playing!!!!!

But I think the biggest difference is the fact that when you play a horn, you take a large amount of air in, tighten up the muscles and force the air out in a very controlled manner but on the harp the majority of the air is coming in and I need to let all the muscles relax to allow it in at a very controlled rate - for me the trick is to let all those muscles (I'm not really muscular) relax enough to let the airfill all those little nooks and crannys - and yes that macho look has left the building!!!!

Hey Bird-dog - have we confused the heck outta ya yet???


May 09, 2009 10:12 PM GMT
Duane C. Replied:

Horn playing, bergamont mojo, lemon balm, yogo, military style, will all this make me a (Harmonica Guru)? Do I have to sit with my legs folded, cause I'm not that flexible anymore! I think, I'm going to have to meditate on it all for awhile!!!!

Seriously though thanks for all the great advice.I have been doing some deep breathing excercises each day, and just that is making a difference.


May 10, 2009 2:04 PM GMT
jawbone s Replied:

AAAwwwwww Grasshopper - when you can snatch the hohner little lady from Bob's hand without drawing too hard - you will have truly begun your journey. Now go forth and gently bend....... but not the five, it will break.


May 31, 2009 10:04 AM GMT
blogward Replied:

Really interesting topic - especially about the horn breathing, as when you play cross harp at least, you are usually taking in more air than you can let out on the blow notes. So when I play harp blow notes I'm often letting air out through my nose at the same time. Give an exaggerated version of that a go, Duane.


May 31, 2009 2:20 PM GMT
Jawbone K Replied:

i'll guess you're using too much air volume and force. do you breathe from deep in your torso? are you as relaxed as possible? do you use only what air is necessary to sound the notes? if you can open up your air column, and focus more, you will need less air to work the reeds.

i used to get kind of hyperventilated as i played, and excited, and start hurrying and really trying to force the harp to do what i wanted. on stage, with higher volumes, this translated to playing way too hard, which translates to wrecked reeds. i had a night where i ruined 4 harps in a single gig. from that point, many years ago, i began looking for an indestructible harp. it doesn't exist. the other choice was to modify how i used a harp.

a vocal coach can give you exercises to strengthen your diaphram and throat muscles. and also to open the chest and abdomen. when these areas are relaxed and you're breathing deeper, you can attain much more control over the amount and pressure of air you pull or push over the reeds. a reed is a tiny and fairly fragile piece of metal. once it has developed microscopic stress fractures, it will never sound right again. the only solution i know is to lessen the amount of air and focus it better.

my challenge lately has been an ear infection which has reduced my hearing in one ear. but even with that, i know not to play too loud. on stage i have learned to use an amp to do the real heavy lifting sound-wise. i had to learn that no matter how hard i played, i usually could not hear my harp with drums and guitars on stage unless i had a good amp and mic. but for strictly acoustic there was a similar challenge. we play in a duo on the street when we can, and the issue is, how far away can someone hear me? but that's not really the issue. it's more, where can i find a crowd, and how well can i play so i'll attract people closer and get some smiles and some tips? the farmers' market locally is a big affair with several designated spots for buskers like us. lots of folks from restaurant chefs to tourists to regular joes and janes come out on saturday mornings to shop and just be part of the crowd. if we play well we get smiles and tips. sometimes a few people will hang around for a few minutes and listen and appreciate, most times people just going by will drop a buck in the guitar case. but i am convinced that if i play with feeling and we do a good variety, we do better. and the less harps i blow out the closer we get to financing the next cd!

get your air column in good shape and use dynamics more than force to make your notes and you will do better.



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