Whether you’re just starting and learning to play the harmonica or are a seasoned player looking to refine your style, there are specific breathing techniques you can learn to improve your playing and comfort.
Since there are numerous breathing techniques to utilize while playing harmonica, we will discuss several of the most common and most effective methods.
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Relax Your Jaw for Comfort
Maintaining a tight and tense jaw is an incredibly common mistake that many harmonica players make. Not only does it make your notes reedy and thin, but it is also uncomfortable.
Relaxing your jaw is just as important for comfort as is it for sound when playing harmonica. With a tense jaw, you will likely experience facial fatigue, and this will create discomfort when playing for extended periods.
How to Relax your Jaw While Playing Harmonica
Dropping your jaw is easy to accomplish but takes some effort and focus in the beginning. It’s essential to make this a habit while you play. This will also relax and drop the back of your tongue, which can- when raised- obstruct airflow through the harmonica. A few tips for relaxing your jaw while playing harmonica are:
- Shape the back of your tongue as if at a doctor’s office and you’re told to say “ooh” or “aah.”
- Pull your lower jaw down toward your chest, so your teeth are as far apart as possible while still being able to maintain a seal on the harmonica
- Play softly before trying to breathe deeply into the harmonica. Sometimes this forced and heavy breathing can tighten the jaw and raise the back of the tongue.
Relaxing your jaw is just one of the many techniques that can improve the sound and comfort of your playing.
When playing harmonica, it is particularly important to maintain an airflow that is:
You generally shouldn’t feel the need to “huff and puff” while playing. Your breaths in and out of the harmonica should be natural, without any sucking or blowing effort. The forced air will result in unpleasant and hard-to-control sounds.
This advice, of course, will change depending on the volume and intensity of the playing, but a good rule of thumb is to maintain your breathing as natural as possible as often as possible.
How to Maintain a Natural Air Flow While Playing
To maintain a natural airflow, breathe from your diaphragm, or lower in your chest/abdomen area. Your shoulders shouldn’t lift and fall as you breathe, but your core should expand and contract.
It is also easier to maintain natural breath if you breathe in through your nose. Practice this breathing method several times to get a feel for it before you even begin playing your harmonica, and it’s a good idea to get into the habit of practicing your breathing regularly, even as you progress.
Belly Breathing is Important
Belly breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing. This is a natural extension of the above natural breathing, which is highly important in harmonica playing.
Making sure that your diaphragm is engaged is the best way to make sure your body is getting adequate oxygen as you play your harmonica, resulting in longer playing time and increased comfort.
How to Make Sure You are Belly Breathing as You Play
Practice this method before you even begin breathing into your harmonica, and then transition once you feel you have learned belly breathing correctly.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest
- Focus on keeping your shoulders still and extending your abdomen as you breathe in through your nose
- The hand on your chest should stay still, while the hand on your stomach will be pushed outward as you take air in and your diaphragm expands
- When you breathe out, contract your abdominal muscles to push the air out of your body
Practice this breathing consistently so that when you begin playing your harmonica it is already your go-to breathing method.
Play with Your Harmonica as Deep into Your Mouth as You Can
The physical placement of your harmonica may not sound like it fits into the “breathing technique” category, but it does. It’s important to hold your harmonica in the correct:
This allows for the airflow to move in and out of the harmonica with as little obstruction as possible. The easier your breath flows in and out, the better you will play and the less effort you will exert on breathing. This also improves the tone of your notes.
The Best Position for the Harmonica Breathing Techniques
Some things to remember when obtaining a deep mouth position with your harmonica are to
- Keep your top lip relaxed and stretched across the top of the harmonica
- Don’t curl your bottom lip into your mouth. The harmonica should rest on the inside, not the outside of the bottom lip
- Rotate the harmonica. The side away from your mouth should be angled up toward the ceiling, at about a 30-degree angle
This position should be comfortable but may take time to get used to. Its important that you are not simply puckering your lips and blowing into the harmonica. A proper setting will allow for increased airflow and better sound.
Expand Your Lung Capacity for Playing your Harmonica
Anyone who has played the harmonica will recognize the difficulty at first. Playing harmonica is just as much of a respiratory exercise as maintaining breathing during yoga or other exercises. It’s common to struggle with breaths and dry mouth when starting.
Expanding your lung capacity is important, to be able to play longer, more complicated notes. It also increases the comfort of not feeling like you’re about to pass out.
Easy Ways to Increase Your Lung Capacity
Practice, practice, practice! Just as a swimmer has to build up their lung capacity for deeper and deeper dives, so do musicians.
Try playing for just five minutes straight each day for a week. Add on a few minutes at a time each week until you can comfortably play your goal time. This may be a quick increase for some, and a lengthier process for others, just as muscle expansion in other areas of the body.
Maintaining a consistent breathing exercise regimen is the best and most efficient way to increase your lung capacity while playing.
The Balloon Method Maintains Air Flow
The balloon method, or “balloon exercise,” is a way to check and see if you are losing air through your nose while playing the harmonica. Any air that isn’t pushed or pulled through the harmonica is wasted breath while you’re playing.
How to Utilize the Balloon Method While Playing Harmonica
This method is best practiced before you are playing the harmonica. You don’t need a balloon, but this is an easy way to check if you are losing air through your nose.
- Purse your lips on the back of your hand
- Blow like you are trying to fill up a balloon
- This will expand your cheeks, but make sure not to let any breath escape from your nose
- Inhale, and let the air from your cheeks be sucked back into your lungs
If you are able to routinely and reliably do this exercise without any airflow through your nose, you are likely maintaining steady breathing without leaking any valuable breath. Check this periodically as you play and adjust your style.
Bend Your Breathing
Bending your breathing is a way to modify your airflow and mouth configuration as you play. This allows you to hit notes that aren’t possible with just one hole on the harmonica. Bending these notes and utilizing two reeds in the harmonica instead of one at a time increases your range.
How to Better your Harmonica playing by Bending your Breathing
A good way to practice this is to experiment with your tongue positions as you breathe before using the harmonica. When playing:
- Breathe in with your tongue curled, like a reverse whistle
- Move your tongue up and down and adjust the position
- Breathe more quickly and more slowly, and notice how the pitch and sound of the “whistle” changes with your facial form
This breathing adjustment can open up a whole realm of additional notes and sounds within your harmonica just by simply adjusting your breathing and tongue position.
Try Circular Breathing
This breathing technique is the ability to inhale more air at the same time that you play notes and release breath.
Circular breathing is tough to master but will drastically improve your ability to maintain notes without having to stop for a breath in between.
How to Make Sure you are Circular Breathing
To test your ability to do this, there is a popular activity.
- Fill your mouth up with water
- Release the water in a slow, steady stream from your lips
- While releasing, practice breathing in and out through your nose
You can also do the opposite of this by
- Drinking a milkshake or other thick drink through a straw
- Breathing in and out of your nose as you are sucking in with your mouth
Transition this into practice with your harmonica, playing notes while breathing out while taking air in through your nose. It’s important to keep the little extra air in your mouth stored in your cheeks because your lungs cannot inhale and exhale simultaneously. This video demonstrates the method well.
No matter your current experience or comfort level with playing harmonica, these techniques are sure to improve or jumpstart your existing talent. Choose one or all of the breathing techniques listed above to take your harmonica playing to the next level.
How to Breathe While Playing Harmonica, Final Thoughts
So there you have it, our best tips for improving your breathing while playing on the harmonica. Have you found any others that work? Let us know in the comments.