Renowned trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, on a live national broadcast, once said:
“My wife hates it when I say this, but when it comes to playing trumpet, all the power comes from your @s$hole.”
Now I don’t know about you, but besides being stated in an unexpected way that made me burst out laughing, that was a revelation about playing trumpet that I wouldn’t have guessed! It’s counterintuitive.
In the same way, I’m starting to notice that many of the secrets to mastering the harmonica seem counterintuitive or paradoxical.
Breathe IN, Belly OUT Breathe OUT, Belly IN
It never ceases to amaze me how often I get comments from students of my Beginner to Boss course that go something like this:
I thought I was learning how to play the harmonica.
I didn’t know I was gonna have to learn
how TO BREATHE !
Watch any baby or young child and you’ll see it’s the way we naturally breathe when we’re born, but for some reason most of us get it reversed as adults.
To test yourself, you can lie on the ground, and put a book on your belly. When you inhale, the book should rise up to the ceiling as a result of your lungs filling with air.
Breathing is FOUNDATIONAL
to EVERYTHING in harmonica,
and getting this right is step #1.
The FASTER you wanna grow, the more you have to go SLOW.
Although you just read that sentence you WILL NOT take it to heart!
Nope. You won’t slow down. Trust me. It never fails. How can I be so certain?
Oh, just cos I’ve taught thousands of people and have seen it over and over and over…oh yeah, and because I myself am guilty.
Rather than slowing down and REALLY LEARNING something, we just roughly APPROXIMATE it before rushing on to the next thing, never having TRULY LEARNED at all.
Why are we in such a rush?
Ironically, when we DO stop and slow down, it dramatically accelerates our growth.
Try breaking things down into bite-size bits and take your time with each one and over time you will find the results are nothing less than magical.
The LESS you CARE, the BETTER you PLAY
Ever held an ice cube?
Squeeze with all your might, and
It shoots out of your hand and across the room.
This is a great metaphor to think about when learning to play the harmonica.
The more urgently we HOLD ON to the NEED to play well, the more playing well eludes us.
But if we relax our grip on that urgent sense of need, the results will come.
It doesn’t matter. There are real problems in the world: war, poverty, famine. Needing to play the harmonica better isn’t a problem at all. It couldn’t matter less.
Next time you’re working on something new, try saying, “I don’t even care whether I can do this or not” and see if you don’t find yourself acquiring new techniques with more ease.
If you’re taking my Beginner to Boss course, you’ve heard me repeat this over and over as one of the main themes of the early lessons:
“Take a deep breath. We are training ourselves to approach our instrument with RELAXATION, FEARLESSNESS & PLAYFULNESS.”
Speaking of relaxation, here’s a similar surprising tip…
The FASTER you want to play, the more you have to RELAX
How many times I’ve been working to get something up to speed, only to realize:
Wait a sec, every single muscle in my body is tense right now!!!
It’s just SO counterintuitive…but RELAXATION is the secret to speed.
We think “Oh I can’t play this as fast as I want to, so I’ll just USE BRUTE FORCE until I can achieve the speed I desire!”
No you won’t, actually.
It. Just. Won’t. Work.
There are only 3 ways you can practice getting something up to speed:
Practice just a tiny portion of it up to speed, accurately.
Practice the whole thing, below speed, accurately.
Practice the whole thing up to speed sloppily.
Focus AT LEAST 90% of your time on #1 and #2 from that list.
Just a tiny portion up to speed, OR the whole thing below speed accurately. Every once in a while, you can try playing the whole thing up to speed, but the more you focus on approaches #1 & #2, the more quickly you will achieve your goals.
The speed will come with time! Our CHALLENGE is to be patient and stay relaxed.
Playing HIGH NOTES requires LESS AIR
The physics of our ears causes the frequency of higher pitched notes to seem louder than lower pitched notes of the same volume.
Maybe that’s why we intuitively think we really need to wail on those high notes.
But of course when we blow hard on high notes, all we do is choke up the reeds!
To MAKE PEOPLE LISTEN, play more QUIETLY
How do you feel if someone YELLS AT YOU AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS?
Does it make you wanna lean in and pay attention to every word? Ha!
Not if you’re anything like me.
So when we want people to listen more to our harmonica playing, why do we think we should play LOUDER? Instead, I dare you to try the opposite approach.
How do lovers communicate? THEY WHISPER. I love you baby.
Music has been called the international language of love.
And I’ve discovered “whispering” gets people to listen more than “yelling” does.
LESS is MORE
To see the POWERFUL principle of RESTRAINT helping create an impactful harmonica solo, check out my video on YouTube called
As soon as we feel the need to play something complicated so that we can appear “impressive” to our listeners, we’ve just shot ourselves in the foot.
You don’t have to be complicated to be impactful! Anyone can be complicated. It requires genius to be simple. Where is the beauty in music? It’s hiding somewhere.
The beauty lies in the space between the notes.