This may come as a surprise, but using the harmonica to improve breathing is the latest technique pulmonologists are using to treat people suffering from asthma and chronic obstructive lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema. Playing the harmonica requires good breath control and involves pushing air from the lungs and through the instrument, and sucking air through the instrument back into the lungs. Pulmonologists believe that this repeated pattern of blowing and sucking helps patients to control and boost their breathing.
Harmonica for COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing related problems. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma. Tobacco smoke is the most common irritant that causes COPD, however breathing in other fumes and dusts may also lead to this condition. Noxious fumes trigger an abnormal inflammatory response in the lungs.
The inflammatory response in the larger airways is known as chronic bronchitis, which is diagnosed clinically when a person regularly coughs up sputum. In the alveoli, the inflammatory response causes destruction of the elastic fibers that allow the lung to stretch and then bounce back to its original shape, a process known as emphysema.
People with emphysema can get air in, but they cannot get all the air out. This makes breathing air very difficult, and sufferers have described it as like “breathing through a straw”. According to surveys, COPD was the fourth largest cause of death in the United States, and it is estimated that as many as 24 million Americans are affected by it. The damage to the lungs by COPD is permanent, and so far there is no cure. However, through proper exercise, diet and breathing exercises, it is possible to slow down or prevent further progression of the disease, reduce risk of complications and boost the patient’s ability to function.
How Can Harmonicas Help?
Even though there is no cure for COPD, anything which improves lung function can help reduce or prevent symptoms. The very nature of playing the harmonica requires breathing air in, and breathing air out. Even playing simple tunes can be a very good workout for your lungs as playing the harmonica facilitates deep breathing, and you often have to play several blow notes or draw notes to play a tune. Playing the harmonica is mostly all about breath control. While playing, our lungs work like bellows and it increases the amount of oxygen reaching the brain and also expands lung capacity. Additionally, harmonicas are very small, portable and inexpensive. You can use them to exercise your lungs anywhere and also enjoy the music you create!
Deep breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, or “the complete breath”), is breathing deep into your lungs by flexing your diaphragm, rather than breathing shallowly by puffing up your chest. Deep breathing is considered a healthier way to breathe oxygen compared to chest-breathing. In deep breathing, your belly moves first, and your chest remains still. Yogis have been practicing it for centuries and it is believed that it is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind. Professional singers, athletes, musicians and lots of other people are also aware of the benefits of deep breathing.
It is interesting to note that small babies automatically breathe diaphragmatically. This is a skill we lose as the stress in day to day life takes over. When we’re angry, or under stress, we naturally start breathing from our chest. This doesn’t allow the lungs to expel all the carbon dioxide, and consequently, the level of carbon dioxide in our bloodstream increases. This extra carbon dioxide triggers a state of alarm, and the body starts releasing adrenaline. Most people are surrounded by so much stress these days, that their normal way of breathing becomes chest-breathing instead of diaphragmatic breathing.
Here’s a wonderful way to practice deep breathing that I learned from JP Allen:
1. Make believe you have a balloon in your belly which fills up when you inhale, and deflates when you exhale.
2. Lie down flat on your back wearing anything loose and comfortable.
3. Put one hand on your stomach, and one hand on your chest.
4. Now, slowly inhale and exhale through your nose or through pursed lips.
5. The hand on your belly should rise on the inhale, and fall on the exhale. The hand on your chest should remain still.
At first, it might seem awkward to breathe from your belly instead of your chest. However, if you keep practicing, it could easily become your standard way of breathing air.
From the harmonica’s point, deep breathing is crucial for having a good tone, playing fast, and learning advanced techniques. Some people even say, “breathe from your toes”!
If your shoulders are going up and down when you play, you are breathing from your chest. Relax those muscles and focus on breathing deeper. This would really help you in getting better at playing the harmonica, and it is also good for your health and lungs.
How Can I Practice Deep Breathing With a Harmonica?
Take a harmonica, and blow in or out covering as many holes as you like with your lips. You will hear a delightful rich sound – a “chord” (these are notes which sound good when played together). This is a great thing about harmonicas…all notes sound fine when played together. This makes learning simple tunes very easy for a beginner as they don’t have to worry about getting single notes all the time. A wonderful way to incorporate deep breathing into your harmonica playing is by practicing train rhythms. It’s pretty easy. Just play a steady “in-in-out-out” pattern on the first 2-4 holes and you’ve got a simple train rhythm going!
Tips on practicing train rhythms:
Without a harmonica, try whispering “toe” as you breathe air in, and “toe” as you blow air out. Try saying it without using your vocal cords. Just whisper it. Now, take your harmonica and try whispering “toe” on the inhale, and “toe” on the exhale on the first 2-4 holes:
TOE (1 2) ↑ TOE (1 2) ↓
• The up-arrow (↑) means “suck”, and the down-arrow (↓ ) means “blow”
• The numbers in the parentheses are the holes to play. If you play holes 1,2 and 3 or even 1,2,3 and 4 instead of just 1 and 2, that would still sound fine.
More simple rhythms:
TUCKA (1 2) ↑ TICKA (1 2) ↓
TUCKA (1 2) ↑ TOODLE (1 2) ↓
HAKKA (1 2) ↑ HUKKA (1 2) ↓
HA (1 2) ↑ HA (1 2) ↑
HU (1 2) ↓ HU (1 2) ↓
TUC-KAH TUC-KAH (1,2) ↑
TIC-KAH TIC-KAH (1,2) ↓
Practice each of these rhythms for 4-5 minutes and gradually try to increase your speed.
While practicing these rhythms, remember to breathe from your belly. Your shoulders shouldn’t move up and down when you play. Only your belly should move. Practicing train rhythms everyday for 15-20 minutes would really help you a lot in becoming a good harmonica player. It’s also a great workout for your lungs!
IMPORTANT: If at any point you feel tired, exhausted or dizzy while practicing these rhythms, lie down and relax until you feel better.
Practicing train rhythms would really help you in developing a good harmonica technique. And once you can easily play rhythms while deep breathing, try playing simple tunes on your harmonica!
Which Harmonica Should I Buy?
If you plan to seriously learn to play harmonicas, then I would recommend the Hohner Special 20 or a Lee Oskar Major Diatonic harmonica. Both of these are very high quality instruments and work great for beginners. However, if you just want to get a harmonica to exercise your lungs, you can go for something inexpensive.
People say that when you create music and also listen to it, it helps you emotionally. So have fun playing your harmonica!
Check out my full report on which harmonicas I recommend here.