Mastery Tools For Improvisation…

Yesterday I was reminded of a practice strategy that i think you will find very useful. One of the names for my website is Harmonica Mastery Tools, and this morning I was struck by the way you can use thoughts as tools.

I’ve been doing something I stubbornly call “Musical Mind Training” in the morning. I call it that to keep my own mind more focused on what I am doing, which is training my own mind to get better at letting thoughts float around me without me taking the bait to dwell on them.

I call it “Musical Mind Training” because that phrase does not remind me of sitars and LSD and girls with kaleidoscope eyes….

I set a timer for 21 minutes ( got up to this length over a period of months, started with 3 minutes) Then the game is to hold one note in my mind as I breathe in and out and keep my back straight.

It’s like a doo – wop group from the fifties humming the first note of a tune, and then never leaving that note for 20 minutes.

While this goes on, my mind goes insane and then sane and then insane, and I do my best to watch the show without getting caught up in it. Of course, I get caught up in it, and then somehow remind myself that I want to be able to let it go, and then I go back to the mmmmmmmmmm of the note again.

The definition of the word (or sound) I focus on is “tool of the mind”. One name for this tool of the mind is mantra.

By picking up that tool, I can let go of the other thoughts, which are also tools, but ones I don’t need at the moment. When you start thinking of thoughts as tools that you can learn to pick up and put down as needed, your game changes and you feel more powerful.

It’s like the difference between trying to unlock your front door when the key is on the ground and you are holding a pipe wrench. You put the wrong tool down and pick up the right one.

When you think of practicing the harmonica as a series of operations that use mind tools, you can experiment with your thought tools and then put down the ones that don’t work.

The mind tool I want to talk about today is called “interleaved practice”. It is a way to make your practice sessions more uncomfortable and productive at the same time. Doesn’t that sound awesome?

Interleaved practice means structuring your practice so you change what you are focusing on much more frequently. For example, instead of repeating scale A over and over for 6 minutes, you do three 2 minute sessions with scale B practice in between.

This forces you to re-boot more frequently, make your mind re-create the pathway to play scale A from scratch say three times during a practice session instead of just once. It gives you a middle way between getting in your repetitions for muscle memory of the scale and giving your mind practice at retrieving the scale (or whatever it is you are working on).

So you don’t get the satisfaction of going into some zone where you are playing the same riff over and over till you are really cooking. You are now practicing getting yourself cooking faster. You don’t have the luxury of knowing that you can just keep on keeping on.

I have found one way to make interleaved practice less tedious. That is to turn switching from one scale to another into a game.

So I will play the C major pentatonic scale up and down and then when I get to the G note the second time around I will switch to the G major pentatonic scale.

You can use this basic idea to go from one scale to any number of other scales. It’s a great mental workout and a lot closer to what you will eventually be doing on stage when you improvise.

When you are on stage you usually only get one shot at booting up and doing some sequence right. So – getting more practice in at booting up right the first time is a good thing.

This kind of practice is much easier to do if you plan it in advance. All you need is a simple list of things to mix up and work on. A practice journal of some sort helps a lot for generating ideas and keeping notes on your progress.

I hope you find this strategy useful- I know it has transformed the way I practice.  If you feel like it please leave a comment below with your thoughts. I get great ideas and questions from people just like you and sometimes the comments and my replies  are better than the original article. You never know what is going to happen once you start working those mind tools…

Harpe Diem!


  1. Mike

    March 17, 2017 - 4:27 pm

    This sounds good, I will try it. I’m also studying violin with emphasis on blues violin. Scales are a regular part of my day

  2. Richard Sleigh

    March 17, 2017 - 4:54 pm

    Hi Mike,


    Check out Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – plays blues on the Guitar, violin & harmonica – he is mostly known for Texas / Jump blues on the guitar but i have seen him (long time ago) playing on the other instruments & he kicks ass no matter what he’s playing.

  3. Robert O'Brien

    March 19, 2017 - 1:13 pm

    Always great stuff. Keeping our minds in a focused “walkabout” mode.
    Thanks for always keeping us on our toes. It is great to hear a POV other than what’s rattling around in my gourd.

    All my best,


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