7 Tricks To Help You Learn to Play The Harmonica Fast

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, How to Play the Harmonica

By J.P. Allen

sugar-blue

1. Don’t Believe Your Inner Critic

I’m convinced that the main reason people give up on the harmonica is because they start to believe their inner critic when it says things like: “I sound awful”, “I’m musically hopeless”, “I’m not doing it the right way”, “I should practice more”, “I’ll never get this”. And the list goes on. Do you want the good news or the bad news?

a. Bad news: After 20 years of playing and being acknowledged as one of the fastest harmonica players on the planet, my inner critic still hasn’t gone away.

b. Good news: My inner critic hasn’t stopped me. I just ignore it and keep on playing!

2. Set a Minimum Amount of Practice Time

I recommend a minimum of 5 to 10 minutes twice a week. If you’re consistent, this will go a long way over time. If you have time to play along more, that’s great but not necessary (you’ll just learn faster). I find that most of my students underestimate the power of consistency and they get concerned that they’re not practicing enough and then just give up. Please don’t fall into this mental trap.

Think about it: imagine if you played only 5 minutes twice a week, EVERY WEEK for the next three years. If you do this and don’t give up, I promise you will show a radical improvement in your skills and your ability to play and enjoy the harmonica.

3. Practicing A Little Bit Every Day Will Accelerate Your Progress

Practice for a minimum of 30 seconds each day, alone or with my DVDs (either way is fine). This may sound easy but for a lot of people these days it’s not. If you miss a day, don’t give up. Just start again tomorrow.

Only 30 seconds, JP? Yes!! I know it doesn’t seem like much, but trust me: it will make all the difference in the world if you’re consistent over time. Many times I only intend to play for 30 seconds but once I’ve got the harmonica in my mouth I play for longer. Many of my students find that even 30 seconds can offer a rejuvenating break from a busy day. Playing harmonica pumps oxygen into the lungs and blood, which has an invigorating effect on the brain.

It is possible to practice with my DVD for only 10 minutes twice per week and you progress surely and steadily, but if you want to accelerate you progress try practicing a little bit every day.

4. Practice Multiple Times Per Day

If you really want to turbo-charge your progress, play multiple times a day. For example, play for a minimum of 30 seconds, 3 times a day. Studies also show that, if you practice something multiple times per day, it will greatly accelerate learning even if you practice for less total time on a weekly basis. For example, you will learn faster if you play 3 minutes, three times per day (63 total minutes per week) than if you play 70 minutes only one time per week. Because harmonica is a psychomotor skill that requires the development of complex neurological patterns, when the brain sees that you are doing something multiple times a day, it assumes this task must be a high priority.

So, when you go to sleep at night, the brain will allocate a high level of priority to the organization of the neurological patterns related to playing harmonica…in a sense you will be practicing in your sleep…and you’ll probably find yourself playing harmonica in your dreams…sounds like a good dream to me…and a wonderful way to utilize all those sleeping hours for creating your dream for learning to jam on the harmonica.

5. Stash Harmonicas In Multiple Locations

As the expression goes: IN SIGHT, IN MIND. What helps me play multiple times per day is I stash my harmonicas in places I will easily see them. For example, at this very moment I have a harmonica on my desk, in my bedroom, in my car, in my backpack, in the pouch on my bicycle…

If you don’t have the money to buy a bunch of Hohner Special 20s right now, that’s fine. Economical harmonicas like the Hohner Blues Band will work great. If you want a bunch of economical harmonicas in different keys, you can get the Hohner Piedmont Blues, which features 7 harmonicas in different keys. They’re not the best, but if they help you play multiple times a day, I believe this is more important right now than having the highest quality instrument.

Once again, it only becomes important to get a high quality instrument like the Special 20 when you’re ready to learn to bend (which is an advanced intermediate technique).

6. Practice Even When You Don’t Have Your Harmonica Handy

There are two great ways you can do this. And YES, if you do either of these things for a minimum of 30 seconds, it counts towards the goal of playing a little every day.

a. USE YOUR IMAGINATION: Close your eyes, imagine placing the harmonica in your mouth, and… play! Studies show that practicing in the imagination is often more helpful than actually doing for real. Sometimes I lie down on the bed and let go of my busy day by visualizing myself playing harmonica.

b. FOCUS ON THE BREATH: I like to practice my breathing alone, without the harmonica in my mouth. For a harmonica player, breath is the engine that drives rhythm. I highly recommend you focus on breathing as often as possible without being distracted by the other elements of playing harmonica. You can use any breathing pattern taught on the DVDs or make up your own. I often find myself practicing breathing patterns during everyday activities such as doing the dishes or taking a walk.

7. Find A Guitar Player To Jam With. Yes, That Means You!

I believe one of the greatest assets I had when I was first learning the harmonica was a guitar player buddy who was delighted to spend his entire evenings jamming with me. Even though I had only been playing for a few weeks, and he had been playing for years, he was happy to help me. You will find that most musicians remember the challenge of first learning and are happy to help others when they are first learning.

Many musicians will love your company and it will fill their hearts with pleasure to know they are helping you learn something that will bring you a lifetime of joy. Most musicians don’t care if you’re just a beginner. So please don’t let the inner critic in you that says, “I’m not good enough”, strip you of the opportunity to make your life and the lives of others wonderful by letting the joy of music flow through you (even if you’re just a beginner).

Within about a month of practicing along with my DVDs, you will be totally ready to jam along with a guitar player, piano player, another harmonica player, or maybe even a band or a church choir (for the sake of clarity I will call any of the above your Jamming Buddy). Having a Jamming Buddy could be a very important element in supporting your ability to stay focused on practicing, improving and really experiencing your ability to make music and enjoy feeling its spirit flow through you. So, here are some general recommendations:

a. Start looking now if you don’t already have a Jamming Buddy. Over the years, I have been surprised at how difficult it can be for my students to find a Jamming Buddy. If you have a fear that you won’t be good enough to jam along with a guitar player or piano player, you’re not alone. But I’m confident that there are tons of musicians out there who will be so happy to have your companionship.

b. Make a set weekly time to meet with your Jamming Buddy (e.g. every Tuesday evening)

c. Make sure that your Jamming Buddy’s instrument is in tune. I keep a guitar tuner in my harmonica case and insist that guitar players tune-up.

Follow those 7 tips and soon enough you’ll be harpin’ like a pro :-)

Comments (38)

  • gabbas

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    these words may make sence and im going to try it and i will do my best and i wish it will be true because im an egyptian and i dont think that their are alot of people that play harmonica and i got a one cause it makes me feel free so i will see if these words will help me

    Reply

  • des

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    No truer words were ever spoken. Took up martial arts 8 years ago. Couldn’t tell my left from my right. What a joke. But you learn two or three moves a class, two or three classes a week, weeks become years, and white belts turn black. So now the harp. I sound awful! Actually pull off some single notes now! So the world will suffer while I become average! Inner voice? Can’t hear it over my harp! Cheers

    Reply

    • Chris

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      Totally agree, Des. This article could just a well be titled… “The Keys to Learning Anything”!

      Reply

  • satinder sagu

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    hi JP. IM SO VERY HAPPY RECEIVING YOUR NEWS LETTER REGULARLY. IM AN INDIAN AND PLAYING HARMONICA FOR MORE THAN 30 YRS. IM NOT A PRO BUT A FUN PLAYER. YOUR TIPS REALLY INSPIRE ME. I PRACTICE EVERY DAY FOR ABOUT ONE HOUR ON MY DIATONIC HARPS AND CHROMATCS. I JUST LOVE HARMONICA PLAYING. I MOSTLY PLAY INDIAN MELODIES. I REALLY APPRECIATE YOUR SPIRIT OF SHARING YOUR ART WITH OTHERS. GOOD LUCK TO YOU
    SATINDER SAGU
    MUMBAI,INDIA

    Reply

  • Jim Lyall

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    JP Thanks for your encouragement about playing in public. I understand that some people are purists and think only those with great skills should be in front of an audience. I view playing as fun and not a competition so no real “ego” involvement. Keep up the great work. Love the CDs. Jim Lyall

    Reply

    • genie

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      Chromatic harmonicas are set up so that the sharps and flats of a scale are acheived mechanically, through various combinations of button/slide-in and slide-out. Chromatic harmonicas are widely used for playing classical and jazz music, and also for pop, funk and blues. Famed musician Stevie Wonder created a wonderfully distinct style of chromatic harmonica playing.

      Reply

  • Jay

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    JP, hearing comments from a veteran player like yourself were inspiring to me. Also, your simple approach to continued learning and improving your playing was also something I appreciated in hearing. I always look forward to your emails. Jay

    Reply

  • JP Allen

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    Gabbas Des Satinder, Jim, Jay –

    Thank you so much for your feedback. This has been a life dream of mine to use the harmonica to inspire people to bring music into their lives.

    When I was a kid, had some bad musical exeriences that were really challenging for me and I try to stear people away from missing out on the joy of music by encourageing them to check out harmonica as a first instrument….

    I picked up the cello at age 11 and quit, because it was too difficult for me. Then shortly after, I picked up the piano and quit that as well. Both instruments seemed to difficult and I left feeling frustrated and hopeless…

    It wasn’t until I was 22 that I happened on the harmonica, and the entire world of music reopened to me. I shortly after started playing guitar, singing, writing songs, playing drum kit, bass, and guitar … and my latest joys these days are playing the shakuhachi flute and beat boxing.

    It has been an interesting balance for me. I want to fully respect and acknowledge the professional harmonica players who have taken this instrument to mind-blowing heights and impressive levels of expertise. At the same time, I want to let the world know that if you want to get into music, harmonica is one of the greatest instruments to help open that door.

    So I want to acknowledge the harmonica both as a full-fledged professional instrument and at the same time celebrate it as one of the greatest folk instruments ever invented for getting people to actually freely enjoy expressing the spirit of music through them with this massive little inspiring instrument.

    I appreciate your comments, and I’ll be in touch.

    With Appreciation,
    JP

    Reply

    • Brian O'Neil

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      You have a beautiful philosophy. I have been dabbling with harmonicas for over 40 years and they are great. I especially like the double sided Echo types.
      My daughter (a Highland Dancer) used to “practice in her head” as well. it does work. Thanks for this excellent information

      Reply

      • JP Allen

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        Thanks Brian,
        You’ve been playing harmonica longer than me so I humbly receive your appreciation. Feeling Blessed, jp

        Reply

        • james

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          you are really great at the harmonica J.p thanks for the really helpful article

          Reply

  • Chris

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    Love this article. Thanks JP.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      You’re welcome Chris.

      jp

      Reply

  • Oriwalker

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    Hey great incouraging saying up there.
    though I have other problem.. I dont know if I haven’t heardtoo many harmonicas or its me who kinda sloppy , but I dont like feel the sound of my harminica . its called “FolkBlues” TOMBO in the key of C.
    any suggestions?

    Reply

  • Martin

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    Hi JP

    There is nothing else to say but thank you! Because, you’re lessons / tips WORK! Attitude is everything and believing is magic!

    I have not had the times to more than look at a few of your DVD lessons and I have ALL of ‘em! (I work alot) But….What little instruction I have had from your DVD and website / e mail is incredible. No one can believe I’ve only been playing for a year, and that I only have 3 songs memorized, though I can read tabs / play more than that. In minutes you had me BENDING NOTES and playing SINGLE NOTES. I know veteren players who still have a hard time with these techniques.

    Quite simply, you are the best teacher out there. PERIOD!

    Aloha and thank you!

    Martin

    Reply

  • Minh Duc Thieu

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    it’s very helpfull for me ! thank you very much JP Allen

    Reply

  • Bad LZ

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    hyepp..i’m from Malaysia…

    I’m very interest with harmonica since 3 years ago…
    but dont know how to start…

    About your CDs,how can i get that??

    Reply

  • Alan T

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    Here’s a little story that should ring a chord. I’m a civil/structural engineer, and as a challenge, I decided to do a 1 day harmonica course at the local adult-ed (Nothing like what I normally do). So, not done the course yet, but having a beer at the local pub, I let slip my plan. Within 10 minutes the publican gave me a harmonica, that he got as a promo from a drink coy. We didn’t know what ‘key’ it was (it had no markings), but one of the guys from the band, who were playing that night, started it, matched it to his guitar, and told me it was a ‘c’. Such open fun co-operation is lovelly. I think I’ll enjoy myself, even though I’m tone deaf, and 1/2 deaf.
    Regards
    Alan

    Reply

  • HILDA HALL

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    HI J.P.
    THANX SO MUCH FOR THE UPLIFTING WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT. I HAVE BEEN IN A SLUMP JUST BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE I JUST HAVEN’T BEEN IMPROVING. BUT I WILL CONTINUE TO PRACTICE A LITTLE EVERY DAY FROM NOW ON.
    BY THE WAY, IT WAS AWESOME MEETING YOU IN JUNE.
    I WILL SEND YOU THE PICTURE WE TOOK WHILE WE WERE THERE.
    HOPE “THINGS” ARE GOING WELL FOR YOU.
    SINCERELY,
    HILDA

    Reply

  • steve sun

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    i am a complete beginner but i’ll try my best at following these really helpful tricks

    Reply

  • Jeff

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    I started and stopped playing harmonica so many times over 20 years that I have a box full of beginner instruction material. Finally I found time in my day to dedicate to harmonica, and have been practicing and playing steadily for three years. Though I no longer consider myself a beginner (I still did three years ago) I like to go back to that box periodically, take out material, and go through it again. I like to think it’s keeping my basic building blocks strong. Plus, I just enjoy hearing/seeing/reading it again. The three I go to the most are JP’s, Jon Gindick’s and DeWayne Keyes. Three different methods of teaching, but all focusing on the basics first, and lots of enthusiasm and support.

    Another thing I like to do is go back to the songs I first learned to play, and play those over and over again.

    So I guess I’m adding Tip #8: the “basics” are your building blocks – don’t ignore them now, don’t forget them later…

    Reply

    • DeWayne Keyes

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      Thanks for the gracious comments. Glad to know my material is useful. I invite folks to take a look at my book on Ebay, “The Soul Of The Solo Harmonica”. I am a big believer in simplicity. Something played simply, but with sweet tonality, musicality, and good taste is so much more powerful than just soulless technical displays of virtuousity. DeWayne Keyes

      Reply

      • Jeff

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        Mr. Keyes – why not mention your CD as well? “Flying Solo” is a great demonstration of DK’s harmonica philosophy. Each song is just DeWayne, one harmonica, and “a touch of studio reverb”. Like the book, the CD is also available on EBay. Both are available individually or as a package on http://theharmonicahour.com/products/.

        (Hope you don’t mind the pub – I’m appreciative of what I have gotten out of your book and CD, and will testify to any and all who will listen.)

        Reply

  • Daniel

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    hi im practicing harmonica with the help of jon gindiks book. as it mentioned in the book “5 minutes to play and 5 years to master”. you are also said the same thing and thank you for the tips, Its very encouraging and helpful for me.

    Thank u,
    Danny

    Reply

  • Collin

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    I just started college, and the engineering program is hugely different from the art school I’m used to. I played bassoon for six years and as a senior the junior, sophomore, and freshman all held higher chairs than I did. I understood the feel and the rhythm, but I couldn’t get my fingers to land. It became so frustrating that I looked forward to my last concert and chose not to pursue my dreams of becoming a composer. Practicing playing blues (no easy task on the bassoon) instead of classical music may of had something to do with it. Anyway, I’ve come to terms with that and have new aspirations.

    After the last couple weeks of classes I’ve felt something was missing from my life. I heard a pianist in the lobby of my dorm and knew it music I was lacking. I’ve wanted to play harmonica for awhile and at this time of transition in my life, I think it’s time. I’m going out to buy a Hohner Special 20 as you’ve recommended. In my nine years as a music student I’ve never experienced such a supportive instructor as you. I’m sure it won’t belong before I purchase a DVD. I hope I have better luck with harmonica than bassoon. Thank you for your explanations, instructions, insights and support.

    Reply

  • Cliff Stephens (Australia)

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    JP, There is nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said by so many people that have tuned into your training programs. So, I’d like to ask; do you’re training DVD’S/Cd’s and instruction books help teach the student all aspects of harmonica and chromatic harmonica playing within the package. If so, just like you advocate that the Hohner special 560/20 in C is perhaps the best harmonica for a beginner to learn how to play; which of the chromatic harmonicas do you consider gives the least problems to the student and is the best for learning on?.
    Regards Cliff

    Reply

  • Buse

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    I ‘ve been practicing harmonica for more than 2 years now, and in one year I needed something else. So I bought a guitar, took me some months, but now everything is all right. I’m not a f***good guitar player, or harp player, but I’m good, and that’s enough.

    so my advice is, keep on playing most of the time, and only if you want it, don’t play because you have time, play because you like it, and in a few times you’ll progress faster than you think.

    Only keep enjoying music, that’s my thing!!!

    Reply

  • james

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    thanks jp!! i bought a harmonica from lightwater valley and i play along with my brother and dad thier on the guitar.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Hey James,

      I’m really happy for you that you have your dad an your brother to jam along with. I’m imagining that this will be a whole lot of fun for you and an awesome motivator to practice and stay focused on your harmonica journey…

      Best wishes,

      jp

      Reply

  • sage

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    Does it matter how fast you play the notes cause all the sites that I have been able to watch the videos show the players playing really fast

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Hey Sage, I don’t think speed is as important as soul/tone, do what feels natural for you.
      jp

      Reply

  • sage

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    ok thanks

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      your welcome Sage. jp

      Reply

  • HIRAL RAVAL

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    HI JP I JUST LIKE YOUR VIDEOS THAT YOU HAVE SENT TO ME, I TELL YOU IT REALLY HELPED ME IN PLAYING A HARMONICA THOUGH I’M NOT UNDER ANY PROFESIONAL TRAINING I’M ABLE TO LEARN IT SLOWLY…. THANKS ALL FOR YOUR HELP,I APPRECIATE YOU FOR THIS & GOD BLESS YOU…….
    HIRAL RAVAL,
    SURAT,INDIA.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      I’m glad you find these harmonica tricks helpful. jp

      Reply

  • HIRAL RAVAL

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    HEY J.P. I JUST WANT TO ASK YOU THAT I’M A BIGGENER SO WHAT KIND OF A HARMONICA I SHOULD USE TO PLAY & I TELL YOU I HAVE HONER BLUES BAND TYPE OF HARMONICA SO I WANT KNOW WHICH IS BETTER FOR ME …..

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Hey Hiral…the Hohner Special 20 is the way to go…it’s on my website, http://www.harmonica.com. jp

      Reply

  • anil oberoi

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    Good tips to keep beginners on track & don’t give-up regular practice.. Regards.
    anil oberoi, Pune. India

    Reply

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