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David's Tip of the Day: Unstructured Playing

David Barrett Admin's picture

There was a desire from some of the students to re-post this dialogue from the public forum in a more prominent place... they, and I, feel it strikes a common chord with many...

"I am 53 years old and have wanted to play the harmonica since I was 15 but never knew how to approach it. I took it up two years ago, starting with lessons from Portnoy, Gindick and Gussow. I found your site last fall and found exactly what I was looking for; the rich full sound of tongue blocking in a well-structured progressing in learning.

In LOA4 Movement exercise study 2 – Essential scales, the video called Introduction to essential scales, Dave, you play a ten second intro. That’s the sounds I want to play. I don’t have plans to be on stage, but I want to play in the style you did there. And that’s where my problem lies. For the level four evaluation I was to play 3 verses of background and fills for the song “I want you with me”. I can play the song as you have written it out, I can play the other lessons where I practise the A A B chorus lines and such but I am clueless on the approach to playing the background and fills for this song.

All the lessons to date have been structured, the notes laid out there for me to play, now I am on my own. I watch the video of Ryan Walker playing “The Strut” and being able to change the ending on the fly. Wow. He’s really good. Here’s the root of my issue. Am if forcing something that isn’t there. Do I have the mental aptitude to play the harmonica. I have level five piano theory from 40 years ago, I can tell if someone is out of pitch or rhythm but does that mean I have musical talent or potential? To make a comparison, I don’t’ have the brains to become a medical doctor, so am I striving for something that is unattainable? The intro you played for level 4 - Scales, that 10 second riff, is that a pattern you have played a thousand times before and have put it to muscle memory? Is that what playing the harp comes down to? Playing over and over again so it’s remembered deep in my head? The Jimmy Cottons or Little Walter - are they playing memorized patterns or from their soul.

To this point all my lessons have been structured and I feel totally helpless when it comes to unstructured playing. Is unstructured playing a sign of a true musician or is unstructured playing something one develops over thousands of hours of practice.

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated."

My Response
"You ask some deep questions tonight, but all justified, because I, and every other student, asks these questions often through our studies.

The answer is generally pretty simple, and I feel it was best stated by Mitch Kashmar at one of my workshops. I forget what the exact question was to him from a student, but it was essentially "I tried this and it didn't seem to work for me," and Mitch said something like, "I hear ya, but I can tell you that I practiced it a LOT MORE than you did." Rick Estrin, when asked about being "talented" at songwriting (he's known as one of the best word-smiths in the blues industry... him and James Harman), he said, "the answer is simple, you just put the pen in your hand, and sit down for hours and hours until your fingers begin to bleed." I've personally worked very hard to develop my skill-set, and when someone says, "You have a gift," I feel like punching them (maybe not punching them ;-)... I worked damn hard to develop the skills that I have... and it was (or at least felt like) an excruciatingly slow process. Since the age of 18 I've put my energy into teaching, so I too lament at times that my playing is nowhere what it could be if I put all my teaching/writing time into practice, but I understand my calling as a teacher.

The answers are pretty consistent... work your butt off, but be patient, this is an art.

Your comments tonight are the same comments I hear every day teaching. We all feel like numbskulls, but if you were to record yourself today and travel back in time one year, you would say about your present self's recording "Man, if I could sound half as good as that guy I'd be set!"

To answer your question specifically... The opening lick I played was a note-for-note descending Major Pentatonic Scale. I worked that scale ascending and descending for a long time, experimenting with the rhythms so that it sounded smooth and inspiring... not just a simple scale. The second portion I played was all blues scale, turned into the coolest phrasing that I could improvise at the moment. I studied Paul Butterfield for years (he primarily used the blues scale), so that helped to give me a good vocabulary of blues scale-influenced licks. I then learned the blues scale well enough so that I could move around the harmonica without hitting the "no-no" notes. In Ryan's latest lesson (which will release soon, I'm encoding the videos as I type) we spend time on the blues scale and you'll notice that Ryan has difficulty staying in the scale now and again, which sure is a challenge, and takes time.

The question of "musical talent or potential" is a non-issue... you love playing blues harmonica, who cares how much of either you have, just play and grow. Seriously, don't compare yourself to others, it will get you nowhere, it's about YOU having great time. I love ground fighting. I've been doing it for five years. I'm not that good, but I like it, and I know that every class I go to, I'm one step closer to sucking less, and I'm cool with that.

For "muscle memory," you better believe it.

For "Playing over and over again so it’s remembered deep in my head," absolutely.

For "memorized patterns," yes, for us, since we have a history of great blues harmonica licks to supply us with now.

"From their soul," yes, but they played every day for a living, that's a big deal.

Yes, in regards to improving, "unstructured playing something one develops over thousands of hours of practice" is correct. The vocabulary we develop is a product of the hundreds of songs you've learned (or are going to learn) through the years. Licks will stop being "their licks" and will turn into "is that my lick?, I can't remember," you won't be able to tell the difference.

Alright, now for me to be the teacher. Listen to each of the study songs you've completed to this point. With sheet music in hand, when a cool lick comes up that's short, circle it, it could be a cool fill lick. Do this with all of your songs. Try these licks as fills, but keep in mind you'll need to loop them and experiment with what to add or take away... you need to be creative and take the time it takes to experiment and make it fit. Work on all of the Solo Harmonica Studies (1 and 2 for you right now) and make the connection that those receptive licks could be used under the vocals.

Lastly... experiment, experiment, experiment... and... be kind to yourself. We ALL feel like numbskulls, so you're in good company :-)"