How to Develop Your Speed on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

Learning to play the harmonica fast is a little like learning to talk. First you learn to mouth sounds. Then you learn to shape the sounds into words, connect the words into simple sentences, and have conversations. At that point, you become fluent — and your language can flow.

When you learn to play the harp fluently, you start with individual notes. You learn to connect the notes to form short phrases (like words). Then the short phrases turn into longer ones until you can play in a way that flows. In other words, you become fluent.

Becoming fluent on the harmonica is also like cutting a pathway through thick brush. Cutting brush, shifting logs, and moving rocks is hard work. But after you’ve done the heavy labor, you have a quick, easy way to pass through the forest.

When you play the harmonica, you’re cutting new neural pathways in your brain. The well-traveled ones get stronger, while the seldom-traveled ones get overgrown with brush. Repetition is the key to developing fluency because it keeps those neural pathways open and clear.

Start slow and know each individual move

When you move from one note to another, you need to know three things:

  • Where you’re at on the harmonica. In other words, you need to know what hole you’re playing.

  • What actions you take to get to the next note. For example, you may have to change holes to the left or right, change breath direction, or bend up or down.

  • What the new note will sound like when you get there. After all, how will you know you’re in the right place if you don’t know what the right place is?

To make your move, you need time to think about what you’re going to do, and then you need time to do it. Playing slowly gives you that time. The newer a move is, the more time you need to play it.

Most musical actions involve several notes played in a sequence. Some moves are more complex or may be less familiar to you than some other moves. The new, complex moves take the most time to plan and execute, so you need to play the whole sequence slowly.

Don’t rush through the easy parts and then slam on the brakes for the hard parts. Always set a tempo (the speed of the beat) with a metronome that’s slow enough to perform the trickiest move, and play the whole sequence at that tempo.

Learn in small chunks

When you’re learning moves that are unfamiliar, break up long sequences into shorter segments of two, three, or four notes. Practice each short chunk. If the moves are really unfamiliar, you may have to practice that short chunk over and over at a very slow tempo until it becomes familiar. Then you can move on to the next chunk.

If you come across a longer sequence that’s mostly easy, play through it, identify any problem areas, and then isolate and practice just those bits through slow repetition. Before you put them back in the context of a longer sequence, try adding only the notes that come just before and just after the segment.

As you reintegrate the problem area, play the entire passage at a tempo that allows you to play through the problem area with confidence.

Speed it up — slowly

When you can play a new or difficult passage at a slow, steady tempo, try to speed it up by a very small amount. If you increase the tempo too much too soon, you may find yourself gliding and faking your way through the difficult bits, pretending to play them instead of playing them cleanly, accurately, and with confidence.

Slowly increasing the tempo and being sure you can play through each new increase builds your confidence and your ability.

Think and play in larger units

Notes are like individual sounds, and short sequences of notes are like words. As you get familiar with scales, arpeggios, and characteristic licks and riffs in your chosen style of music, you can play them without having to think about individual notes or sequences of notes. You’ll be able to string together longer and longer sequences made up of shorter ones.