What Is This Thing Called Harp?
In This Chapter
* Discovering what makes the harmonica such a cool little instrument
* Considering what it takes to play
* Understanding how to take your playing beyond the basics
* Sharing your music with others and visiting the virtual harmonica village
Maybe you're attracted to the sweet yet wailing sound of a harmonica. Or maybe you dig the image of a harmonica player onstage who somehow manages to strike a hip-looking pose while apparently eating a sandwich that's hidden in his or her hands. Either way, you know you love harmonica, and you're dying to find out more. For a little background on the harmonica (or as players call it, the harp) and why it's such a great instrument to play, read on.
Considering the Harmonica's Coolness
What makes the harmonica one of the world's best-selling musical instruments? Let me count the ways! Here are just a few reasons that the harp is so cool:
Becoming the Next Harmonica Idol: What It Takes to Play
Playing a musical instrument doesn't take supernatural abilities. It simply takes desire and application (and, okay, maybe a little talent). So, if you want to play the harmonica, trust your desire - you can totally do this. Once you're willing to try, you just need a few things:
Make sure to have fun and experiment. A regular practice session with goals is great, and I encourage it. But set some time aside for unstructured play. When you explore the instrument, you can have fun discovering new sounds, and you'll learn things about the harmonica that you won't get by sticking to the guided tour.
Taking Your Talent to the Next Level
After you can play some chords and melody, you're ready to take your harmonica skills on the road. You may not be ready for the 30-cities-in-15-days kind of road, but you're definitely prepared to travel the road to greater mastery and satisfaction.
When you're ready to take your talent to the next level, consider mastering tonguing techniques, which allow you to take full advantage of rhythmic chording to accompany, vary, and accentuate melodies. (Check out Chapters 4 and 7 for more information on these techniques.) Your lungs, throat, tongue, and hands all play a part in making the harmonica one of the most expressive, voice-like musical instruments you can play. So be sure to explore ways to use your body to shape your sound as you advance. (Chapter 6 can help.)
Other important techniques include bending notes up and down in pitch, both to make an expressive wailing sound and to create notes that weren't designed into the harmonica. Experienced players also regularly play the harmonica in keys that it was never designed for, which works surprisingly well. (Chapter 9 has more information on the art of playing in positions, or multiple keys.)
As you master harmonica techniques, you'll likely want to start using them to play tunes. To work up your melody chops (your playing ability) in the high, low, and middle registers of the harmonica, spend some time with Chapter 10.
To see how song structures work, go to Chapter 11. Then you're all set for choosing songs and tunes to include in your repertoire (Chapter 16).
Hanging Out in the Harmonica Village
Wouldn't it be nice to step out of your practice room and amble down to the main street of the nearest harmonica village? There, you could chill at a harmonica coffeehouse where you make music with your friends, visit a harmonica accessories boutique with all the latest harmonica belts and cases, hit the music store to find great harmonica CDs or get new harps, and maybe hang out at the local harmonica garage to check out the vintage models that have come in for a wash and wax or the hot rods that are being souped up for horsepower and speed. Some parts of this ideal village probably exist in your town, while some parts may require a trip to far-off cities. Still others exist only online. So the village is a virtual place, and one you have to assemble for yourself. The following list sheds light on some tips for finding (or creating) parts of the village, and it shows you how to deal with what you find when you get there.
An important part of playing for audiences is using sound systems and amplifiers (although playing amplified is also just plain fun). Chapter 17 guides you through the workings of microphones, speakers, amplifiers, and sound systems so you can deal with sound technicians, hear and be heard, and sound great while you strut your stuff.
Harp techs usually live in out-of-the-way places where they can concentrate on their work. Instead of shipping your harps away and waiting for several weeks, why not fix them yourself? You can save time and money (and feel empowered by your self-reliance). Check out Chapter 18 for some hints on fixing and upgrading your harmonicas. When you're ready to purchase some accessories to make playing even more fun, check out your local music store. However, you may find a greater selection from online specialty retailers and manufacturers. (Check out Chapter 19 for some information on available harmonica gear.)
Harmonica ancestors in the Stone Age
Possibly as early as the Stone Age (and probably in Southeast Asia), someone discovered that if you plucked a bow string and held it up to your open lips, your mouth would amplify the vibrations. Eventually, a clever musician developed a more compact sound source. This person made a simple jaw harp by taking a flat piece of bamboo and cutting a narrow flap (or reed) into its surface. When plucked or blown, the reed would swing freely and its vibration would sound a note. Eventually, people made these free reeds out of metal and installed them in bamboo tubes to create mouth-blown instruments, such as the khaen (several tubes bound together in rows like a pan pipe) and the sheng (a cluster of tubes inserted into a gourd, which looks like a forest of bamboo growing out of a teapot). To this day, the khaen is used in Thai and Laotian social music and courtship rituals, while the sheng remains an esteemed instrument in Chinese opera. The metal free reeds used in khaens and shengs are thought to be the ancestors of the reeds used in harmonicas today.
Harmonica in the Western World
No one really knows when the free reed made it from Asia to Europe (see the sidebar "Harmonica ancestors in the Stone Age" for more on the free reed's start in Asia). However, it had certainly arrived by 1636, when a khaen-like instrument was clearly described by French philosopher Marin Mersenne.
Then, in the mid-1700s, a Russian organ builder named Franz Kirschnik fashioned a new kind of free reed. Instead of being cut from the surface that surrounded it, the reed was made separately and attached above the surface. This new type of reed could respond to air flow without being mounted in a tube, which created all sorts of new possibilities. Kirschnik's reed was incorporated into organs, pitch pipes, and (starting in the 1820s) harmonicas and accordions.
Credit for inventing the harmonica usually goes to a German teenager named Friedrich Buschmann, who in 1821 strung together a series of pitch pipes to play a scale. By the 1870s, when mass production began and the Hohner company started aggressive overseas marketing, the harmonica had taken on today's familiar form. By the 1920s, Hohner was making 20 million harmonicas a year, and people worldwide were using them to play folk, popular, and even classical music. Since then, the harmonica has been a fixture on the world music scene.
Why is it called a harp when it doesn't have strings?
Both "harmonica" and "harp" are borrowed names, and neither one is the only correct name. The harmonica was invented during the Romantic era of Beethoven and Schubert. This was an era when home and garden decor included the Aeolian harp, which is a stringed harp that you set outdoors where the wind makes the strings vibrate. Even though the harmonica has reeds sounded by a player's breath instead of strings sounded by the wind, some early harmonica makers referred to their instruments as Aeolian harps by way of poetic association. Other early makers used the term "mouth harp." Still others borrowed the name of the glass harmonica, which is played with a moistened fingertip rubbed on the rim of a glass. Since those early days, Germans have referred to the harmonica both as a mundharmonika (mouth harmonica) and as a mundharfe (mouth harp). Meanwhile, American books were comparing the harmonica to a harp as early as 1830, and the introduction of a model called the "French Harp" in the 1880s may have helped to popularize calling it a "harp" in the American South.