Playing LONG single notes is a GREAT exercise for any harmonica player to practice. You could blow in and out on every hole 1-10, each note playing until you run out of breath (or run out of room in your lungs on the draws.) Or, if you know how to bend, you could play the C major scale, or any other scale.
Practicing LONG TONES is magical. My wife plays trumpet and her mentor Ollie Mitchell, who was lead trumpet in the Wrecking Crew in LA (check out the movie about the Wrecking Crew if you don’t know who they are) and he turned her on to an exercise he would do 2-5 times a day playing long tones, to keep his chops in shape… She has now adopted the same practice.
But LONG TONES are GREAT for ALL MUSICIANS to practice including HARMONICA PLAYERS. Let me tell you a story….
A friend of my friend Micheal was a HUGE John Coltrane fan. (In case you didn’t know, John Coltrane is widely considered to be the preeminent modern jazz saxophone innovator of the 20th century.) Michael’s friend would frequently go and see John Coltrane play at various clubs around New York City.
One evening, after one of these performances, he approached Coltrane and said, “Hey John, I’m a huge fan of yours, and I come out to hear you play as often as I can. I was wondering if I could come and observe you practicing one day?”
“Yes, you can come by any day. I start practicing at my apartment every day, starting at 7am,” Coltrane replied.
A few days later Michael’s friend coordinated to drop by and watch John Coltrane practice. He arrived about 7:00, but Coltrane had already started practicing, and the ONLY thing he was doing was simply playing the C major scale REALLY SLOWLY. Like a whole breath on each note.
This went on for such a long time that eventually the friend had to silently excuse himself in order to go run some errands. When he came back, to his shock, Coltrane was still doing the same thing - playing LONG TONES…and this was for HOURS.
A few days later, the friend went to speak to Coltrane after again seeing him perform at a club, and said, “Hey John, I came by the other day , I don’t know if you noticed or not, but when I got there in the morning you were playing the C major scale really slowly, and I had to leave, and when I came back it seemed like you were still practicing the same thing. What’s up with that.”
Coltrane replied, “Yeah but at the beginning it sounded like a scale, and at the end, it sounded like MUSIC.”
My friend Michael who told me this story asked me, “Can you imagine how much humility he must have had to wake up at 7:00 and practice like that?”
I don’t know whether this story is true or not, but it inspired me to try and let go of all the flashy things I was practicing at the time, and to see how long I could spend playing long tones on the harmonica - one per breath for as long as I possibly could.
At that time I was doing a weekly gig with a group of Hawaiian musicians called The Brown Boys, and I had a commute that took nearly 2 hours to get to the gig. On my commute, I decided to try the exercise John Coltrane was doing in the story.
Ok here it goes. I took as deep a breath as I could and, starting on the blow 1, I played the C major scale on one full breath per note all the way up to hole 10, and then came back down. About 20 minutes into this exercise, my ears started opening up in a new way. I started noticing the sound of the note at the beginning, middle, and end in a new way.
I played with different articulations, dynamics, and endings to each note and changed the tone by moving the inside of my mouth. I began to feel like I was hearing INTO the sound, and it felt exciting.
Then the strangest thing happened. When I got to the gig, I played like I’d never played before. My playing felt more lyrical and creative. I was playing things I’d never played before. I couldn’t believe it. The other guys in the group also noticed, “wow you’re playing amazing tonight!”
I haven’t done it in a long time, but now writing this is inspiring me to try it again! I’ll let you know if I do. What about you? Do you ever play long tones? If not, I hope you’ll try it out!