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I'm trying to learn to play the harmonica, and one thing I haven't quite figured out is how to consistently bend notes. (I can only hit two and three draw, inconsistently, for a semitone, and can only do it with my tongue "out of position".)

  • Do you have some tips on note bending on harmonica?
  • What are some good exercises for practicing note bending?
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A tip that seems to work for many people when bending while drawing is to "pronounce" (you don't use your voice, just imagine you would) "eeeee" and "ooooo" (English pronunciation) in an alternating fashion, the former corresponding to the normal note and the latter to the bent note.

I also found that you need to be sensitive (but that might just be me) to how high you are on the harp. The third and fourth holes are the easiest for me, the second requires me to slightly move my jaw forward, and for the sixth hole it works the other way around: if you visualize your tongue as a curve, then the "peak" of that curve should be closer to the harmonica for higher notes, and closer to the back of your throat for lower notes.

You should also check out a few instructional videos by the gods of harmonica on YouTube: Jason Ricci, Adam Gussow and Paul Lassey (in French at the time, but he's starting to make a few in English) are really helpful in my opinion.

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Drawing

Picture that you are drinking milkshake through a straw that is too thin, on the third hole. Your tongue takes the form of a half-pipe. Then move slowly your tongue towards the back of your mouth, without losing pressure in your mouth.

If you can whistle by drawing in air, the feeling is quite alike, but you need more strength to hold the lower pressure.

Blowing

Try overblowing. Play one of the higher holes, and blow very hard. Hopefully you will get the feeling, then you can practice to be able to bend without playing loud.

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    It's also worth noting that for a given hole, you can bend either only when drawing or only when blowing, not both. For the lower holes, it's drawing; for the upper, it's blowing. – Alex Basson Apr 27 '11 at 10:48
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Howard Levy

Learn about the music of Howard Levy, who recently reunited with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Howard plays fully chromatic jazz exclusively on diatonic harmonicas, meaning he can effortlessly bend 7 notes into 12, with perfect intonation. He is the master.

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I first succeeded at bending notes using Gussow's "eeeee-ooooo" technique involving the shape of the tongue inside the mouth, i.e. Anthony's answer

There's another way: "choke" the note in your throat instead, a bit like if you wanted to make a snoring sound (though not as much); the deeper in your throat the "choke", the deeper the bend.

As for a good exercise for bending... try playing the standard C major scale on the first octave, starting with blow 1 instead of blow 4 - and then backwards; you'll find that you need fully-controlled bends on holes 2 and 3 (especially 3) to achieve that. Then get another harp, in another key. Bending on a C harp doesn't feel the same as bending on an A harp, for example.

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