Hello and welcome to this week’s lesson which addresses an issue that is important issue for harmonica students of all levels; how much do you need to practice?
This lesson came about because of a student I was teaching last week who was struggling to speed up a short 4 note phrase and make it sound smooth. I said that he shouldn’t worry, that is was just a “1000 rep job”.
My throwaway comment led to a discussion about how I practice playing and specifically how much I practice the same thing over and over.
1000 repetitions is not an exaggeration…
Not all licks are created equal
Not all licks require this level of practice but I have found that there are certain types of short, smooth note groupings that just need to be repeated over and over; a lot!
Moving from seperate notes to one smooth movement
The purpose of repeating something over and over is so that you can merge a number of seperate micro-movements into one smooth movement. This is called muscle-memory.
For example, if I play the first four notes of ‘Have a good time’ by Big Walter Horton we have 3 draw (1/2 step bend), 4 draw, 5 blow, 6 blow. At the beginning, this is 5 different movements;
1. releasing the bent position after playing 3 draw (1/2 step bend)
2. moving to the 4 hole
3. changing breathing direction
4. moving to the 5 blow
5. moving to the 6 blow
With practice, this becomes one smooth movement which contains all these micro-movements.
Never forget how much you are actually doing while you are playing harmonica.
Hard to slow down
Often, when an accomplished player tries to slow down a phrase to teach someone else they struggle. This is because they have learnt to change micro-movements into a singular motion.
The secret to get to this stage
Now it is time for me to share the secret of how to achieve this with you. Are you ready?
You need to repeat the phrase a lot. Like a whole lot. Like at least 1000 times.
Our bodies are great at working out how to find the shortcut when you ask them to repeat a movement a 1000 times. This is what we want.
Not actually that much work
A thousand reps of a lick that lasts 2 beats is not a lot of time spent working.
Lets say you play the lick and have a beat break between repetitions at 60bpm. This means the sequence takes 3 beats. 20 repetitions a minute. 100 repetitions every 5 minutes. 1000 repetitions every 50 minutes.
If you sit and get in the zone, you can work on one of these phrases 10 minutes a day for 5 days and have it sounding a whole lot smoother and faster by the end of it.
I’ve used some examples of these kinds of phrases for you to try out.
– ‘Have a good time‘ Big Walter Horton (C harp)
– ‘Just your fool‘ Rolling Stones (D harp)
– ‘Superstition‘ Stevie Wonder (A harp)
1000 rep challenge
I challenge you to sit down and practice one of these licks or another one that you are struggling with. I want you to commit to doing a 1000 reps of it.
Record yourself at the beginning and at the end then report back to me on whether you have improved or not.
Thank you for taking part in my 1000 rep challenge. I hope you enjoyed it and would really appreciate you sharing it with your friends on Facebook and/or Twitter!
Thank you! Tomlin you are making my harmonica playing journey so much fun. I actually picked up my first harmonica when I was 10 years old. Purchased at Balboa Island Guitar California in 1971, a totally awesome 12 hole Hohner in the key of C! Through the years I have played off and on, but now my harmonica playing is starting to get real serious, and thanks to teachers like yourself I’m confident I can become not just a good harmonica player but a great harmonica player!
David MacNab says
I am 72 years old (just entering my prime) and i have loved the sound of the harmonica, especially the blues, for a long time. i am now learning to play the blues harmonica and i love it.
i have seen many on-line intructors in the last month or so and you are really an exceptional teacher/coach.
Andy Tattersall says
Challenge accepted Tomlin! Thank you (I think!) for bringing me this opportunity – I can see other areas of my life (thinking guitar playing in particular here!) where I will be able to apply it.
I’ll be back with the recording in due course!
Miguel Gus says
I totally agree!! At least 1000 !!! The problem is the people in my house. My son and wife always get crazy and shut the doors !! But you are right!!
Great stuff, thanks! I’ll definitely take the challenge. Could you please recommend one more lick – something of Paul Butterfield’s rapid licks?
Thanks a lot,
A very good advice! This is what I lack most!
FRANK HORVATH says
Tomlin, I love your teaching method and I have learned a bunch sense I signed up for your lessons- I thank you. If you remember a while back I requested you to make one of your lessons “orange blossom special” I still think it would be a excellent song to learn !! I’m sure I would utilize your 1000 rep practice method at least a 1000 times on this song …
Jim Guidry says
This is a very practical thing to bring up. Sometimes we play a lick a few times and think we’ve got it, then when we need to use it, it just isn’t there. Repetition is the only way to get it……..thanx, Jim
thank you very much for this lesson. I take it as a challenge. And I really like to play some legendary riffs, like ”I am a man” or ”Smoke on the water” and make them more perfect. Could you please show us in one of you next videos how to play ”Smoke on the water” including perhaps some improvisation around this riff. I am a fan of Deep Purple since my youth
And these great riffs, I am motivated to repeat them 10.000 times and even more (but others perhaps not….it depends if I like the song or not).
Today I have already practised ”Have a good time” and it works quite well. And I automatically tried to make it more confortable and easy to play: I slap into the halfstep bend on 3draw but I release the bend very quickly and so I can move directly from 3draw to 4 draw. This ”trick” helps me to fasten speed. Is that ok. for you?
Once again thank you for the lessons and all the stuff. Your are a most motivating teacher.
Kind regards, Ernest
fred rickert says
Wonderful, gives me a goal, love it thanks I really enjoy your instructional emails.
It would be great to get new kicks after a few tries. It seldom works that way for me. I’m working on your Pink Panther lesson. I adore that song, but before I even attempted to start, I was thinking that I will be doing great to get something recognisable after a few thousand attempts! (While grumbling, ‘darn that Tomlin!’)
MIKE DANFORTH says
THAT MAKES A LOT OF SENSE WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT LEARNING.. I THOUGHT I WAS JUST PLANE DUMB.. IT TOOK ME A WEEK TO LEARN BYE BYE BIRD. I HAVE IT NOW WHICH IS GREAT.. THANK YOU.. I THINK YOU ARE HANDS DOWN THE BEST HARP TEACHER ON THE WEB.. DO YOU HAVE ANY CD’S OF YOU OR YOU AND A BAND BLOWING THE BLUES? THANKS MIKE
Ric Carter says
Tomlin, like your lessons very much, particularly this lesson on practice. I am not very musically inclined, so it is a struggle as I am 70 yo, and want to play well immediately. That does not happen without much practice. Keep up the lessons, they are great. Thanks again.
Hi Rusty, That is awesome to hear. I love how peoples’ relationships grow with the instrument over time. Happy harping! Tomlin
Hi David, awesome to have you on board and I’m glad you like the lessons :-). Happy harping! Tomlin
Good luck Andy! I promise you it will be worthwhile 🙂
Yes, this is why I used to practice on the roof 😉
Hi Konrad, I would do Born in Chicago. Good luck, Tomlin
Thanks Mac 🙂
Thanks for your kind words Frank – it is on the request list which is quite a long list so hopefully I will get to it one day 😉
So true Jim 🙂
Hi Ernest, here is “Smoke on the water for you” – click here. Glad you like the lessons 🙂
Thank you Fred!
I know what you mean Rustin – one thing that I can say is that the more of these “tricks” you have completely nailed the faster you will be able to learn things down the line. Good luck! Tomlin
A week to learn Bye Bye Bird is great – I think it took me longer than that 😉
I don’t have any harmonica CDs out yet… Cheers, T
Tomlin, this is a fantastic resource as pick up my harmonica again after a 25 year break! How do you avoid getting facial hair caught and pulled? As a clean shaved youth, I had no problem with my Hohner Special 20. My middle aged moustache occasionally gets stuck in the seam of my top cover plate. Any suggestions short of shaving to adapt grip or block that seam most appreciated…
Hiya, the moustache hair problem is a big one. Part of the solution is playing harmonicas that don’t have bits that catch hair. Some recommendations – Golden Melody, Suzuki Olive, Lee Oskar, Suzuki Bluesmaster, Suzuki Promaster. Good luck!