By J.P. Allen
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