Sébastien Charlier is a Parisian harp player who specialises in a style complex for diatonic harp : jazz be-bop. His intensive work to integrate that style has brought him to perfect his technique. Even though he doesn't see technique as an end, he now spreads this technique through lessons, videos and methods. We have asked him to gather the most questions he is most frequently faced with. If you want to ask him some questions, don't hesitate : write to us !

Concerning scales, rather than detail the way of playing each scale when they are mentioned we recommend Mike Will's excellent Harp Layout Generator that can provide most scales in all positions.

CharlierN&B.jpg (6833 octets)

Sébastien Charlier

All harp players are faced with a certain number of questions concerning technique, breathing, sound, etc. Many excellent players still ask themselves questions, and that's how it should be since it's the best way to progress.

Questions concerning technique, breathing, maintenance, etc. are often the same from one student to another, and we have prepared some simple answers here. The problem of improvisation and its contents is much more complex : while playing for one's pleasure is fine, communicating through music is another and sooner or later you will need basic notions in harmony to tread that path. We'll get back to that...

For now, here are a few questions that are often asked in lessons given by teachers I have had a chance to meet (although 'giving' may be a badly chosen term...)


Beginners :

I manage to blow and draw in one hole only but I can't bend : no matter how I wiggle my tongue, nothing happens.

In order to understand the mechanics of bending, you need to blow or draw less air than usual (yes, that's right, less !) Your tongue must be in such a position that the airflow seems constricted. This exerts a variation in pressure and triggers the bend. Ideally, try using the tongue only, so that you use the same technique for all bends on the harmonica, even if the tongue is in different positions depending on the notes you try to obtain. The physical description of the bend is that the rear of the tongue must move upwards and towards the back of the mouth cavity while the tip naturally moves towards the bottom of the cavity (if it moves to the top you replicate swallowing your tongue... Very unpleasant !)

Start with 1 Draw which seems to respond more easily to variations of pressure. Try to focus on using the tongue only even if you feel that the bend can come from different things (lowering the jaw, augmenting the airflow, tilting the harp). If you feel like your tongue position is complicated or weird, you're going down the wrong path. Don't swallow your cheeks either and look for something that feels natural.

Remeber that once you're familiar with the mechanism, you will wonder how it could have felt so difficult to start with. The psychological side of things is also important : persuade yourself that bending is possible, and you'll find it much easier !


My 2 Draw feels muted or feeble ; the sound is unpleasant unless I draw it very very slightly.

Unfortunately, the harmonica is not responsible here : a third of beginners have a natural tendency to bend 2 Draw slightly. In order to compensate, one needs only to lift the tip of the tongue slightly towards the upper front teeth. Try "breathing in" rather than "sucking in" on hole 2 (and other holes) if you want to avoid bending. Again, with practive you will easily distinguish a bent position from an unbent position.


I practically never play high end draw notes : they squeek and sound awful...

That's a pity : if you use the same compensation mechanism describes above, you will make your notes sound rich and beautiful. The problem also is that we are less and less used to high notes in music and some frequencies sound more aggressive to us (and our neighbours and pets). Start playing high notes on low harps like G or A and I bet you'll soon be reconciled with the upper octave.


Intermediate Players :

How can I hit each bend precisely ? I feel like I'll never manage to fluidly link bent and unbent notes...

Two things to consider : 1) you need to be in tune. You can work on this by using another instrument as a reference, or even better, a chromatic tuner to check how in tune your bends are. That way you can more easily spot the level of bending necessary to hit the note properly. 2) Precision in timbre can't be dissociated from attack and articulation between notes. Try pronoucing percussive syllables during the bend (like /ta/, /da/, /la/…). The envelope of your note will be more precise and your playing clearer. When you integrate the exact tongue position for each note you will be able to link your notes and phrases more easily.

On top of that, it is worthwhile working on going from an unbent note to a bent note and from a bent note to another bent note, both in the same hole and in different holes, not necessarily adjacent ones. It's a long term job, but it pays in the end. This is how you will be able to develop non blues styles where lack of precision is not part of the style.


When I play a blues in G on my C harp, I feel like I'm breathing in way too much air. Is there a proper way to breathe in when you play the harp ?

Cross-harp position (also called 2nd) is essentially played breathing in, thus your initial feeling. Furthermore, it may be that you breathe in too much air during bends. Don't forget that bends must not be forced, whatever bends we're talking about. Also, I hope you breath 'the right way' : you must contract abdominal muscles when breathing out and push the belly out when breathing in ; the diaphragm motions are there to help you. After a while, all this will feel so natural that you'll wonder why you were out of breath...

A good way to work on cross-harp breath patterns is to do 'locomotive' type rythms, alternating a blow chord and a draw chord. For example Draw (234) then Blow (123) the Draw (123) then Blow (123) and repeat from start. You will hear a kind of DA-DA-DA pattern. This generate abdominal work and teaches you to breath less hard for the same effect. Later on, try cutting each in and out breath in half. You will now hear DA-da-DA-da-DA-da. Little by little, speed up the pattern until your abdominal muscles ache : if you can feel them, they're working out !


I mainly play cross-harp on holes 1 to 6 on my harmonica. I don't dare to move towards the high end because it doesn't sound bluesy up there. What should I do ?

You are touching on one of the key points of Harp tuition here. A lot of very good players played mainly on 1-6 and that didn't stop them from making wonderful music (Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson 2 for example). That being said, the high octave is a wonderful opportunity and if you feel a little frustrated you will need to work on it. You have a few options here :

  1. The first trick consists in changing scales from 6 blow onwards ; you can switch to a major pentatonic scale up to 9 blow with no bends no overblows. Then from 9 to 10 you switch back to the blues with the famous 'Cry of the Bluesman' : 10 blow double bend.
  2. You learn the blues scale on 6 to 10 and here it gets a tad more complicated if you don't master overblowing 6 and overdrawing 7 (and 10 if you feel saucy). You need to learn overblow technique.
  3. You realise that the G blues scale is not the only scale on the instrument and that even a simple D blues scale (3rd position on a C harp) will allow you to work on the high end with a bluesy sound.
  4. Longer, harder but safer... you will learn once and for all to play chromatically on all three octaves of the harp and never again asj such questions !!!


Advanced Players :

My overblows are systematically below pitch and my overdraws above pitch. Am I using the right technique ?

If your "overnotes" are triggered without using excessive pressure and 'easily' then you are indeed using the proper technique. Concerning the pitch, a lot of players don't push the tongue far enough towards the front of the mouth cavity when overblowing, which means they are few cents out compared to the proper pitch. Conversely a higher tongue position can trigger double "overnotes" (a semitone above the first possible "overnote"), or even triple or quadruple (where will they stop ?) without additional difficulty. This is an interesting technique to use on hole 10 because it allows an increase of the instrument range. All these notes will in any case have a different timbre from non-overnotes, especially if you slide an overnote to another overnote in the same way that you can slide conventional bends.


Do you use overblows 2 and 3 ? They seem useless. Same thing about overdraw 8.

Just a simple example : It is sometimes faster to overblow 3 than to blow 4, depending on where you are on the instrument and where you intend to go from there. Once you have perfect mastery of the overblow technique this won't be a problem anymore : the more options you have the better you can use them in specific phrases. I concede though that if speed is not an issue then you don't need these notes.


Some keys are harder than others, aren't they ? (On a givern harp)

You can have your 'favourite' keys, but remember that it's all down to work : a key that you haven't worked thoroughly will always seem harder. That being said, some phrases will probably sound better in keys that are deemed 'reasonable'. Some articulations and trills will always be impossible in certain keys, but these are not always the ones that we might expect... Remember though that the main thing is not to say 'I did it', but rather 'Did it sound good ?' You can play in all keys. That doesn't mean you can play everything in all keys !