How to Improvise on the Harmonica

“He not busy being born is busy dying” . Bob Dylan

“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” – Andy Dufresne

I am feeling very inspired this morning by a movie I never saw: “The Shawshank Redemption”

I read the short version of the movie, which I will now make even shorter:

The hero of this movie is Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who goes to jail and eventually escapes. He does this by digging a tunnel through the prison walls and crawling through a sewer to win his freedom in the dead of night.

He had to come up with a plan to do this, and then chip away at it for about twenty years.

I love stories about people overcoming huge obstacles and dealing with unfair conditions. I think it is the story of everyones life in a nutshell.

When It comes to playing the harmonica, I often feel like I am in a prison compared to where I want to be: improvising with nothing holding me back at all.

And I am reminded that people break out of prisons all the time when they have a plan and chip away at it, day after day, a little at a time.

The prison I am talking about now is the “I can’t do this” or some other story that sucks energy out of you and stops you from even trying.

When It comes to the freedom to improvise I am convinced that you find this by planning and then daily chipping away, digging a tunnel from where you are to a new level of freedom.

One of the best ways I have learned to feel this freedom is by deciding to limit the area that I play in. I’ll explain. When I think of trying to have the spontaneous freedom of a Charlie Parker playing in any key in a torrent of ideas, I get depressed and quit. But if I work at playing inside of a 12 bar blues using a pentatonic scale as my main pathway, I loosen up and start having fun and all the happy accidents that make improvising happen.

It is the limits that set the stage for my freedom. Weird, but true.

Last night I played along with a D minor jam track from Dennis Gruenling. I played a 16 hole chromatic harmonica and just focused on the notes that were easy to play. It was fun.

When I try to improvise on a harmonica in a key that is hard for me to play, it is not fun at all. I just bumble around doing a lot of unhappy accidents.

So rather than trying to be the Charlie Parker of the chromatic harmonica, playing the blue blazes in any key, I’ll stick to D minor for now.

This idea of setting firm limits so I can be free is one of those weird ideas that makes more sense to me the older I get.

And the same thing works for me now, inside of part of a 12 bar blues. I will start out my improvisation by limiting myself to two or three notes, and then repeating those notes a few times before changing a note or two.

So to circle around, I get busy being born by picking a small area to improvise in, and play there till I start feeling free. I am convinced that if you take this approach, you will begin to feel free and “busy being born”.

I think Andy Dufresne first felt his freedom while he was still in his prison cell, chipping away at the walls a little at a time. He had a plan and a narrow focus, and he believed he would be free.

And I believe that if you want to feel freedom as you improvise music you can do the same thing. Pick one small area to chip away at. As you get comfortable inside of playing two or three notes, then you can change a note here, an accent there, and start having “happy accidents”. Then you will find your way to the next miniature playground, the next two or three notes.

Over time, your playground gets bigger. And sometimes you may feel like you just broke out of a jail into a wide world of new experience. When you reflect on this, you will see a lot of little steps that you took before you had this “jailbreak”.

All you need to get on the road to improvising music is a plan (the limits that you choose) and the willingness to focus on one little area till you loosen up and can “play” with the notes. A good teacher can help you to choose a good “miniature playground”. Or you can do this yourself.

It beats the crap out of being “busy dying”.

I hope you choose freedom today. It comes in small steps.

Harpe Diem!

“The bird doesn’t sing because it has something to say. It sings because it has a song”. – Arab Proverb

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    Dear Mr. Sleigh, It’s been a few months since I bought your book. Today I was able to alter the tuning on a couple of my harmonicas. Nothing fancy, just Paddy Richter tuning. I am just so pleased with the book, the instruction is so clear: the graphics are well drawn and the text is to the point and easy to read. Prior to attempting this, I had no experience working on harmonicas. So far, I have learned with your book how to set up my harmonicas to play well (reed offset, etc) and now how to alter the tuning to fit my own needs. That is just great!. I also have found your videos on youtube very easy to follow and very informative. I would like to thank you for the effort you have put into the book, I can tell you truly love what you do! ---- PS- In the past, I thought the price of the book was a little high but I no longer do, I believe it is worth it’s weight in gold! — Franklin A. Villanueva Ironwood, M

    Hi Richard, I just read your article re: Just Intonation. It’s the first time I’ve read an understandable explanation. It was concise. I am slowly going through your book, “Turbocharge Your Harmonica”, which I purchased from you at SPAH’s ’09 convention, and it, too, is pretty easy to follow. I am just beginning to try my hand at rejuvenating my old collection of diatonics, so understanding what method I’m trying to tune for is important. Thanks for putting it out there. Regards, — Doug Parrish