Troubleshooting Common Difficulties
There are several common difficulties that you may experience when learning to play the harmonica. For example, draw 1, 2 or 3 may sound muted, airy, distorted, or flat. Other notes may sound shrill, unclear or might not play at all. Many players assume that there is something wrong with the harmonica. However, it is usually improper playing technique that is causing the problem. You can overcome these problems with practice and by learning correct playing technique, correct positioning of the tongue/oral cavity and developing proper breath control.
Difficulty with 2 & 3 draw notes is the most common problem. Beginners and even some experienced players may have problems with the 2 & 3 draw. This is because the 2 & 3 draw reeds bend more than the other draw reeds. Bending is an advanced playing technique that occurs when we constrict the air flow. This results in varying tones and notes, delivering greater musical expression. Bending notes does not refer to bending the reeds physically.
Tech stuff: What makes a bend happen? And what governs whether or not a reed will bend and by how much? Each chamber shares two reeds, a blow and draw reed, which interact with each other. When the two reeds are more than a semitone apart, the higher pitched of the two reeds, as in draw hole #2 and draw hole #3 (with proper technique) will produce the bent note, or notes.
However, when a beginner constricts the air flow too much by using improper technique, the note will sound muted, airy, distorted or flat because they are bending the reed accidentally. Some brands of harmonicas are made with a less exacting design or inferior quality materials and will have air leakage and poor reed response. These leaky harmonicas require a player to use a lot of air to get the reeds to respond. Lee Oskar Harmonicas are designed and manufactured to be very airtight using a plastic comb and high quality materials that provide reeds with very responsive action. However, because our reeds are so sensitive, sometimes even an experienced player may encounter problems because they are constricting the air too much, out of habit. This is especially common if they have been playing other brands of harmonicas that are less airtight.
Refer to the chart below for further help if you are experiencing these problems.
Remember, take your time and practice each step and technique.
Embouchure is the actual method of applying your lips, tongue and mouth on the harmonica. Many beginners may have playing difficulties which can be attributed to incorrect embouchure.
Draw: 1 thru 3
(like a fog horn)
You are bending a note unintentionally by sucking the air through the harmonica in a constricted way.
Say the syllable sounds "EEE" or "UUhh" verbally, and notice the position your tongue and mouthcavity are in. The tongue and mouth in this position will cause too much suction and constrict your air flow.
Comment: Lee Oskar Harmonicas are very air tight. These reeds are very sensitive and if you are not focused on playing with a large warm embouchure, you can easily bend or distort these reeds.
Learn to unbend notes, by drawing the air through the harmonica in a more relaxed way.
With long and steady breath say the syllable sounds "Aahhh" or "Ohhh" verbally and notice the position your tongue and mouth cavity are in.
Your jaw should drop way down and your tongue should be on the bottom of your mouth (between your lower set of teeth). In this position you will have a nice, clear air passage.
To avoid sucking in too hard, also try to breath partly in through your nose, taking some of the pressure off the reed. Think of yawning; play with a yawn-like mouth cavity when drawing in air.
Pucker higher than wide; the inner part of your lips should cover a large area of the cover plates for a nice tight seal.
Tilt the back of the harmonica upward and draw gently, long and steady; open up and relax your embouchure.
Blow: 8 thru 10
- Not Clean
Blowing too hard without proper air flow and embouchure.
With long and steady breath say the syllable sound "EEE" or "SSS" verbally and notice the position your tongue and mouth cavity are in. Use this position while blowing in holes 8 through 10 as a reference to give you proper air flow.
Pucker higher than wide; the inner part of your lips should cover a large area of the cover plates for a tight seal.
Blow gently, long and steady; open up and relax your embouchure.
Draw: 7 thru 10
(Dog whistle sound)
Comment: Draw 7 thru 10 cannot bend notes. Do not play with constricted air passage.
Same as Draw 1 thru 3 difficulties.
Note: Another reason a reed may have poor or no response is due to not enough reed offset (gap). Refer to the harmonica maintenance overview for more info on reed offset.