Will a custom harmonica help students make progress faster?
Some would say that a custom harp should be reserved for experienced players who have learned breath control. I disagree. I think it's easier to learn breath control from the very start. Playing with too much force is a bad habit and it can be hard to correct these behaviours.
A custom harmonica is extremely responsive and allows you to focus on fine motor control. It's also more fun to play which can lead to a better outlook and more hours spent practising.
Will a custom harmonica make you a better player?
Some pro players use custom harmonicas, some don't. Many professional players can make music on any harp - no matter how bad it is.
But will they play each harp exactly the same? Will they play the same riffs? Will they take as many risks? I'm sure they can find a way to express a feeling no matter what instrument they've got because they've put in the years of practice.
A stock harp has the notes, it's just harder to play them. I think it's easier to play a cheap harp once you have developed fine motor control using a responsive harp like a custom harmonica. An unresponsive harp just needs more force.
I believe the opposite is harder - It's a greater challenge to develop fine control if you start off with lots of force.
We need an evidence-based study to shed light on these questions.
Some would say that it will always be a subjective experience and therefore the question can never be answered (all answers are correct.)
It is possible to get an objective assessment of something subjective. Take pain for example. You cannot tell exactly what someone's pain feels like but you can objectively compare treatments and rate how pain scores change. This is what inspired 'the assessment': https://harp.andrewzajac.ca/TheAssessment
As for an objective study, I've started the conversation with a few instructors. It would require a lot of work over several years.
My idea so far is as follows:
- recruit several top instructors to have their students enter the study.
- all levels of progress would be welcome but I think the least experienced students would provide the best data because they would have developed fewer bad habits.
- each student will receive two harps from me. On the outside, they will be identical. One will be defect-free stock and the second will be high-performance (custom). Which harp is which will be randomised. The student's won't know nor will the instructors. (Randomised, double-blind.)
- each student is given a schedule to use a particular harp exclusively for study and practice that week. The schedule will give equal time to both harps over a period of a few months.
- after each lesson, both the student and the teacher complete an evaluation. Questions are about objective (teacher evaluated) progress (did they achieve the lesson goal? ) , subjective (student evaluated) progress (how do you think you did?) How may hours did you practice this week, how fun was practising this week, etc...
Possible outcomes to look for are:
- do students make better progress with custom or stock harps?
- do they put in more hours when using one harp over the other
- do they have more fun?
- can the evaluator guess which harp they are playing without asking or getting any hints?
- which type of harp has a greater propensity for blowing out a reed?
I think we would need to gather data from 50-100 students being followed over a few months of lessons to reach significance.
I estimate I would be able to provide both harps for CAD $200.00 which is slightly more that the retail price of two performance level instruments.
Possible weaknesses include:
- Bias from instructors evaluating their own students.
I feel that this would be controlled because both the student and teacher are blinded to the type of harp. It would be ideal to have an independent evaluator measure progress, but this would be complicated and I fear compliance rates would be low due to the extra time and effort required after each lesson. Using the instructors for evaluation would be straightforward since it's something that could be done in the final minute of each lesson.
- Different instructors would have different criteria, lesson plans and teaching styles and therefore absolute progress would not be expected to be the same between instructors.
I feel that this would be controlled because we could measure relative improvement instead of absolute improvement.
- The expense of the instruments and lessons may correlate with the level of interest or emotional investment of the student. If instructors charge different rates for lessons, this introduces another variable that can have an impact on outcomes.
Contact me if you have any suggestions or questions about this idea. I'd love to hear from you.
Q: I've got a question for you about position numbers.
I get that if I play in first position I'm on a C harp in the key of C. Simple enough. And I get that if I use a C harp and change the tonal center to A minor that I can play a C harp easily enough in the key of A minor. It's just the relative minor game. But what I don't understand is how they've come up with the position numbers. So first position is C harp in C major. And now they call fourth position C harp in A minor. Why call it fourth position? Or take third position playing a C harp in D minor. Why is that called third position. And then again if I use the relative major of D minor and play a C harp in the key of F major they call that 12th position. I get that there's 12 notes in our western chromatic scale. But I don't get how these numbers get assigned to the positions.
The answer is the reason why the diatonic harmonica is the coolest instrument.
It's because it's diatonic.
Diatonic means the instrument is tied to one key. In comes down to the fact the instrument was made to play simply in that key.
But each key has many scales. Some scales are related to others. And some scale degrees are more closely related to others. Fifths, for example, are the interval that are the most consonant with and have the strongest affinity for the tonic.
So the answer to your question is: Harmonica positions get their names from their position on the Circle of Fifths.
The Circle of Fifths is a concept of music theory that helps one see the relationships among pitches.
It makes sense that if you play a diatonic instrument in the key that's a fifth from the tonic, you have a pretty good chance that you can work something out.
Bent notes were not taken into account in the layout of the notes of the diatonic harmonica. Draw bends have a particularly close connection with the player.
Second position taps into those notes very well and happens to offer the strongest and most expressive scale choice for playing the blues scale as well as major and minor Pentatonic and Myxolidian scales. Second position is by far the most widely used position for diatonic harp.
Third position - the next step in the Circle of Fifths - also has a very strong layout (I would say the next strongest from second position....) The bottom octave makes great use of the available draw bends again in third position.
In second position, a I, IV, V (12 bar blues) progression uses scales from the tonic (I - second position breath pattern), one step backwards in the Circle of Fifths (IV - which would be first position breath pattern) and one step forwards in the Circle of Fifths (V - which would be third position breath pattern).
There is a lot of potential there for Jazz, too. You can play a ii, V, I progression quite effectively on a diatonic harp because of the interrelationship between the scales. Using second position, the ii is the relative minor of the 1 blow note (so you can use the same breath pattern as first position major, just use the relative minor as the tonic), the V is the major scale played starting from the 1 Draw note (so you can use the breath pattern of Third position major) and the tonic is 2 Draw (or three Blow) using the breath pattern of Second position.
So by framing the positions using the Circle of Fifths, we are using an existing tool to help us see how each scale is related with the next.
In what order should you do things to make the perfect harp?
I think everyone is a little different and should come up with a checklist that works best for them. With that in mind, here is what I consider best practice:
(use these ideas to make your own checklist)
Always do framework before reedwork. Always complete the reedwork before tuning. Never tune the same day as you do reedwork - unless you are tuning to ET which means you are not looking for precision. Wait as long as it takes. How long depends on how you work the reeds. Start by waiting two weeks. You may need to wait longer.
Framework includes correcting defects, flattening, embossing, etc.... It won't matter that the reed is perfectly straight if the slot is higher on one side than the other or the base of the reed is not centered. By bringing in the edges of the slot, embossing may be useful to help make the frame perfect. For example, some reeds are off-center but that doesn't become noticeable until you emboss. (Don't try to fix an off-center reed with embossing!)
You should be able to do reedwork in one sitting. That is, you set the shape (and gap) of the reed and you are done. That being said, I go back the next day to check my work because I may have missed something the first time around. But it's not because the reeds decided to change shape spontaneously. If you find you need to go back and forth gapping and checking for many sittings before you get it right, I think you should focus on your frame. For example, if you set the reed work relative to the view of the reed from one side but once you put the instrument together, it doesn't perform as expected. You then go back and try setting the shape of the reed relative to the view from the other side. If that doesn't work you try going halfway between both.... Round and round we go! If the frame is perfect and the reed is perfect, no need to fiddle. It will perform as expected whether the plate is on or off the comb, covers on or off. In the long run, this is by far the fastest way to achieve success.
Once it's time to tune, your reeds are perfect and ALL respond the same. This will help you tune. If some reeds need more air than the others, forget about precise tuning. Absolute pitch is never accurate on the harmonica but relative pitch is. Tune notes relative to one another.
Proper tuning technique will not affect the shape of the reed so no need to go back and make corrections to reed shape after you tune. Just like reed work, you should be able to tune to perfection in one sitting. That being said, I go back a little later to check my work because I may have missed something the first time around. Don't check the next day. Reeds can temporarily go sharp. Don't chase your tail. Give yourself a realistic time frame for tuning.
I did a little experiment to see what would happen if I decreased the density of my Dark Combs™. I modified the design to make the non-essential parts lighter (i.e. not there.)
Results: The combs are lighter but there is no difference in tone or power.
This experiment was not a failure despite not having created a better comb. The fact that less density in the non-participating areas doesn't contribute to tone, volume or performance is a good thing to have found out.
I won't be making more of these "holey" combs; I've found out what I need to know from doing this. I hope others find this info useful too.
A harmonica won't "break" or sound wrong if you tune it a little differently than how it came from the factory. Harmonicas are said to conform to a certain temperament but most off-the-shelf harmonicas are not tuned precisely enough for the temperament to matter all that much anyway.
These days, if any chords are in harmony, it's usually limited to the bottom end of the instrument.
Before the 1960s, harmonicas were in much better tune because it seems that making a perfectly-tuned instrument was the primary focus at the factory. (Little did they know the same things they were doing to the instrument to help make the chords play well also helped make it easy to bend notes!) By making today's harmonicas play with harder breath and try to last longer, we've moved away from factory-made instruments that are in perfect tune.
Putting that aside, imagine that you do indeed get an instrument that is tuned with a lot of accuracy from the factory. What does that mean?
What is temperament?
Equal Temperament is a configuration where the pitches of all notes are divided up equally. In this configuration, chords don't sound in harmony. Tuning your harp to this configuration doesn't really require a lot of precision.
7-limit Just Intonation is a configuration where notes are slightly off-pitch to make the major chord of the scale play in perfect harmony. This configuration requires the most precision because each reed needs to resonate at an exact frequency to produce the strongest harmony.
Compromise tuning is anything in the middle, including "19-limit Just Intonation". Chords can be in tune and the notes can still sound fine when played alone. There are a few different "recipes" for Compromise tuning however there is not one best way to compromise between the two extremes.
Are octaves in tune? Compromise-tuned harmonicas are supposed to provide smooth octaves, but they often fall short. Most Equal Temperament harmonicas don't even try. What if you play octaves but don't play major chords? (Example: Playing in the style of William Clarke requires lots of octaves but hardly any chords.) You'd be very happy with Equal Temperament along with in-tune octaves which is less work than tuning for chords and octaves.
The tuning of some Equal Temperament configured harmonicas is so imprecise that some of the notes are farther out of tune than if configured for strong sounding chords.
The conclusion is: Your playing style may not align with one particular temperament. There's no need to conform to any particular configuration. You can tune a harmonica any way you like. Spend time working on the elements you need and save time by not worrying about the rest.
What should I use instead of temperament?
Decide which chords, octaves / intervals and single notes you need to be in tune.
- Do you need chords to be in tune? Which ones? Who says you can't tune half the harp for chords and the other half for single notes?
- Do you need octaves to be in tune? Do you prefer them wet*?
- Do you need the intervals of the Fifths and Thirds to be in harmony? Don't worry about any intervals other than octave, thirds and fifths.
- Lastly, does tuning for major chord harmony make the thirds sound too flat when played as single notes to your ear? If so, choose between the chord or the single note.
(*) Wetness is when an octave beats intentionally. Example: Tremolo harmonicas have two identical reeds playing the same pitch but slightly off-tune from the factory. On a 10-hole diatonic harmonica, tuning the reeds to be in perfect tune is ideal. You can hit the octave dry and if you want some wetness, you can phase out the pitch with your embouchure. You probably can't take a wet octave back in tune using your embouchure though.
I've created The Tuning Card to help you tune a harmonica freestyle - without necessarily using temperament. The Tuning Card helps you tune what you need.
Lay the plate (or the assembled harmonica) on the Tuning card. Use the colors to help you map out which reed you need to adjust.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I do not advocate tuning "by the numbers." You won't end up with chords or octaves in tune if you simply play each note into a tuner and adjust the pitch. The pitch of a single reed played on a harmonica is not stable - it's influenced by our embouchure, our breath force and a few other factors.
Pick the method that meets your requirements:
Simple: If you never play chords or octaves, accuracy is not required. Use Equal Temperament. It's the easiest configuration. Simply use a tuner to tune all the notes to an offset of zero on your tuner. This is how most budget/inexpensive harmonicas are tuned. You can expect the accuracy of each note to be about + or - 6 cents.
Intermediate: If you like chords and octaves but are not skilled at tuning, tune only the elements you need. Tune the chords on the low end of the harmonica. Tune the rest for either smooth octaves or Equal Temperament. Chords and octaves can sound fine when tuned with an accuracy of + or - 2 cents.
Advanced: Perfect harmony gives your chords more power. Build a chord using dynamic breath for extra precision. Double check each note with the fifths and thirds. Use the octaves to tune the other chords and use their thirds and fifths to "square" - double or even triple check each reed for maximum precision. This process takes more time, skill and attention to detail. It requires accuracy and notes should be accurate to within a fraction of a cent.
Most people - even those with perfect pitch - can't pick up on 13 cents difference in absolute pitch. But relative pitch - when two notes are played together - is much more obvious to everybody, even those not gifted with perfect pitch.
The Tuning Card helps you through the process of tuning using relative values instead of absolute ones.
Reedwork is the work we do to make the shape of the reed such that it passes through the slot in the best possible way. The reed is curved at rest and will straighten out at the exact moment is travels through the slot.
Reedword is very precise work. It takes time.
All the time and effort to do reed work is wasted if the slots are not straight or level.
This is a reed at rest:
This is the reed the moment it travels through the slot. It's well set up and the most of the reed passes through the slot at the exact same time:
Framework is the work we do to make the slot perfectly straight and level. The slot is simply the rectangular hole in the reed plate.
If the reed plate or comb is curved front-to-back, that will mean that the slots will be curved too. The reed doesn't stand a chance of passing through perfectly under these conditions:
Not to mention this can also cause an air leak which will make the harp feel stiff.
Likewise, if the reed plate or comb is warped or bumpy left-to-right, one side of the slot will be higher than the other - again the reed will never pass through the slot optimally.
When I upgrade a harmonica's comb, the goal is to provide a foundation for the framework. If the comb is defective, you will never get the harp to provide a wide dynamic range or deliver its maximum tone.
This is an example of a comb that is bright and shiny on the surface but it lacks the fundamental qualities we really need. It's made of aluminium. I have never found an aluminium comb that meets my standards.
Its tines are very thin and don't provide a lot of surface contact.
But most importantly, it's bowed front-to-back. I measured flatness. This thing leaks air and has rotten tone. The tone is bright but thin.
I'm using my flatness tool™ as a reference. The light you see between the tool and the comb is where it's bowed.
Here is what the comb look like after being properly flattened:
It can be a challenge to hold the blow plate and draw plate together onto the comb and play a single note (or an interval) without affecting the pitch with your embouchure. The draw plate is easy because the reeds are on the outside of the plate. You can screw the parts together and work away!
The blow plate has the reeds on the inside so you will continuously need to take the blow plate off to make changes, then reassemble the instrument and test again.
The French Tuner™ helps you do that. Use it to play octaves. The Extended French Tuner™ allows you to tune octaves, thirds and fifths. Use it to tune the major chords. It's easiest to focus on the major chords on the lower end of the harmonica and only focus on octaves for the rest of the plate.