Recently I’ve been teaching a friend to play and it has dawned on me that my style is partly defined (and slightly hindered) by an old mistake that became habit: improper hand positioning. I first taught myself to play by cupping the harmonica in the right hand between the thumb and forefinger and using the left hand to form the bell. Sure, I suppose you could say that this isn’t “improper”, per se, but it certainly results in less control over your tone, volume, and the overall character of your sound. It has been within the past few months that I have really made inroads towards breaking my bad hand habits and more effectively using my hands as a part of the instrument. And what a difference it makes!
A common misconception I’ve come across (and believed for quite some time, myself) is that the hands are used primarily to make that sweet “wah-wah” sound. But what I’ve come to discover, both through my playing and through watching videos of other players, is that the hands can do more than make a simple effect. They shape your sound like a potter’s hands shape clay. A potter must gently massage a lump of clay with subtle changes in his hand position and pressure in order to produce a desired shape from the clay. Similarly, a harmonica player can subtley alter his hand position in order to produce a desired “shape” from the sound waves coming out of the back of the harmonica. When making a bell around the harmonica, your sound is influenced by the size and shape of the chamber your hands form, by the size of the opening you leave for sound to escape through, by the fingers that are or are not in front of the sound projection, by every flex and movement of your hand and fingers. If you hold your hands almost closed in the shape of a sphere you will get one type of sound but if you flatten that sphere down into an oval, you will get an entirely different sound.
Most often, players play with their hands in a default “open” position. and close them in order to prepare for the oncoming effect. Try something new, though: play with your hands in a default “closed” position, as though you are muting the harmonica. Play like this for the next week or two. You will inevitably forget and open your hands while playing, but try to keep them closed as much as you can. Make tiny, subtle shifts in the shape or your hands and listen for the minute changes it makes to your sound. Find your favorite sound with hands closed. Memorize this as the standard sound for your harmonica and open your hands sparingly and only with intent. You will find a whole new sound to your instrument! Practice different ways of opening your hands, whether eeking open a small hole for sound to funnel out or widening a chasm in your hands for sound to flow. Play with restraint and try not to achieve the full volume of sound you are capable of. You will find that with increased thoughtfulness your tone will improve, your awareness of the harmonica will improve and your volume control will improve.
Closed hands, open mind. That’s the mantra for this week. Practice it and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear!
Image credit goes to Flickr user Matthew Gemmell. Thanks!