Obviously, we love "Celtic" music, and using diatonic harmonicas is a nice "portable" way of playing the tunes we love. However, most folk quickly learn that the actual fact of "PLAYING"  tunes on the harmonicas in the "Celtic-Style" is quite another story.

For a long time, I played the jigs, reels, and ayres by myself, and in my own mind, I thought I was doing O.K.. Following tabs was a great way to start, and as long as you're playing by yourself, it's O.K., but everything changes when you begin to play with other musicians who use other types of instruments.

You quickly learn that when playing with others in practice sessions, etc., you simply HAVE to learn to read the sheet music to keep in step with everyone else or when to jump from one expression to the next. Just no way around that, and it takes a lot of practice to know what position to use on what diatonic harmonica to join into the right key.  (Whew! Just saying that sounds like a lot of work.) And ... us  diatonic harmonica players also need to mark up the sheet music to know where you have to either hold, jump or fake a note that others in the group (especially fiddle players) take for granted. 

It's worth it though, because when you "get into the groove" in playing the diatonic harmonicas with others within the "Celtic-style," it really sounds magical. THAT's when it's fun!

One other little technique I'll share is that playing Celtic tunes requires much more precision in directing air with your tongue. Don't use the technique of ACTUALLY placing your tongue around the tone hole. For one thing, when playing fast jigs, etc., you'll wear out your tongue ... in a hurry. Sorta, kinda "point" the direction of the air into or from a tone hole keeping the tongue off the instrument. May sound weird, but trust me, after a little practice, it'll sound like you're plucking the notes on a string, and you can greatly improve the speed in which you can slide from one note to the next ... without tongue burns that is.

You'll also find that by adopting that technique you can also begin to capture those trills and accents as well. I'll let someone else in our harmonica group within this forum talk about that. -- Shaun, ... that KelticDead Guy.

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Hi Shaun,

Good to see a post from you again. 

I think that the requirement of sheet music depends on a couple of factors. But let me state first that it is by no means required to be able to play each song in a session. It's good to just listen as well I'd say. 

I think the first factor is the amount of different songs that are played in a session. If over 3 sessions 100 songs are played do you have 33 or 60 different songs. What I do is that I learn these songs by ear and where I don't get the note I look for tabs. I think playing by ear is much better in the long run because it allows you to learn songs you've never heard of before. With just the sheet music you're still limited to what you have. 

If you learn to play by ear than things become a lot easier. You just need to know the key and mode of the song (Eminor/Gmajor/Adorian on G harmonica etc) and listen, try to hum the tune and depending on the difficulty of the song you might be able to play along quite fast. Tip here, let people in a session announce in which key and mode they'll be playing, makes it easy for everyone and atleast you will know the final (and usually start) note. 

In principle, if you bring enough harmonica's you don't really need to jump through hoops to play the notes. Altering your harmonica slightly so the 3 blow is one note higher is really easy to do and allows you to play major keys of the instrument, minor keys of 3 semitones lower and dorian mode of two semitones up. For playing in a session, that's like 90% of the music.  

Lastly (what I do) if I don't know a song I play the Rhythm Bones (if it fits the song), a percussion instrument. Why? Well first off, when you want to learn a song you need to get a grasp of the rhythm first either way. Than I can really listen the melody and when I feel comfortable I start playing. Works for me.. 

I've never used your tongue technique, quite curious to how that sounds. Could you upload something that illustrates the sound you're achieving? I'm quite interested. 

By the way this might have been a better fit in the harmonica group :) 

do you normally use the pucker technique? or are you using some mutated pucker/ U tongue block mix method? have you tried using tongue blocking? couldn't the latter technique be used to make more of an accordion sound? celtic harp, to me, sounds almost 'fiddly' but would that ability to play a a chord or 'tongue slap' / 'tongue pull' on and off notes give it a percussive larger sound?

when learning a song by ear do you simply hum or do you Solfege sing it? my father does this 'do dum diddle diddle dee' type thing thing that i can't figure out, but somehow he figures the note and rhythm that way.



Boyen said:

Hi Shaun,

Good to see a post from you again. 

I think that the requirement of sheet music depends on a couple of factors. But let me state first that it is by no means required to be able to play each song in a session. It's good to just listen as well I'd say. 

I think the first factor is the amount of different songs that are played in a session. If over 3 sessions 100 songs are played do you have 33 or 60 different songs. What I do is that I learn these songs by ear and where I don't get the note I look for tabs. I think playing by ear is much better in the long run because it allows you to learn songs you've never heard of before. With just the sheet music you're still limited to what you have. 

If you learn to play by ear than things become a lot easier. You just need to know the key and mode of the song (Eminor/Gmajor/Adorian on G harmonica etc) and listen, try to hum the tune and depending on the difficulty of the song you might be able to play along quite fast. Tip here, let people in a session announce in which key and mode they'll be playing, makes it easy for everyone and atleast you will know the final (and usually start) note. 

In principle, if you bring enough harmonica's you don't really need to jump through hoops to play the notes. Altering your harmonica slightly so the 3 blow is one note higher is really easy to do and allows you to play major keys of the instrument, minor keys of 3 semitones lower and dorian mode of two semitones up. For playing in a session, that's like 90% of the music.  

Lastly (what I do) if I don't know a song I play the Rhythm Bones (if it fits the song), a percussion instrument. Why? Well first off, when you want to learn a song you need to get a grasp of the rhythm first either way. Than I can really listen the melody and when I feel comfortable I start playing. Works for me.. 

I've never used your tongue technique, quite curious to how that sounds. Could you upload something that illustrates the sound you're achieving? I'm quite interested. 

By the way this might have been a better fit in the harmonica group :) 

Hi Boyen.

That's what I had hoped would happen. Good to see some interest in techniques with harmonicas.

I agree with what you said about playing by ear, and having enough keys to pick from. Sometimes though, the groups I've been in lately are rather militant, traditional-classical musician types, and sticklers for playing to the notes. I usually try to get them to announce the keys, but not always possible.

I know what you mean about the "rhythm" approach. I do that a lot ... usually starting away from the mic and walking into the mic as I pick up the melody parts. Good tip.

I'll see if I can work up some samples of my "not quite tongue-blocking" techniques and put them into the harmonica group part of this forum ... if I can find my way back to it. : ^ )

Thanks again, Boyen. Nice havin' like minded friends, no matter where we are.


Boyen said:

Hi Shaun,

Good to see a post from you again. 

I think that the requirement of sheet music depends on a couple of factors. But let me state first that it is by no means required to be able to play each song in a session. It's good to just listen as well I'd say. 

I think the first factor is the amount of different songs that are played in a session. If over 3 sessions 100 songs are played do you have 33 or 60 different songs. What I do is that I learn these songs by ear and where I don't get the note I look for tabs. I think playing by ear is much better in the long run because it allows you to learn songs you've never heard of before. With just the sheet music you're still limited to what you have. 

If you learn to play by ear than things become a lot easier. You just need to know the key and mode of the song (Eminor/Gmajor/Adorian on G harmonica etc) and listen, try to hum the tune and depending on the difficulty of the song you might be able to play along quite fast. Tip here, let people in a session announce in which key and mode they'll be playing, makes it easy for everyone and atleast you will know the final (and usually start) note. 

In principle, if you bring enough harmonica's you don't really need to jump through hoops to play the notes. Altering your harmonica slightly so the 3 blow is one note higher is really easy to do and allows you to play major keys of the instrument, minor keys of 3 semitones lower and dorian mode of two semitones up. For playing in a session, that's like 90% of the music.  

Lastly (what I do) if I don't know a song I play the Rhythm Bones (if it fits the song), a percussion instrument. Why? Well first off, when you want to learn a song you need to get a grasp of the rhythm first either way. Than I can really listen the melody and when I feel comfortable I start playing. Works for me.. 

I've never used your tongue technique, quite curious to how that sounds. Could you upload something that illustrates the sound you're achieving? I'm quite interested. 

By the way this might have been a better fit in the harmonica group :) 

I try not to pucker my lips too much. After about 20 tunes, my mouth is in need of a lubrication (... if you know what I mean? ;) . Whenever possible, I try to relax my lower lip, and sorta slide the harmonica to where I need to be, and then let the tongue direct the air to where I need the note played. 

A lot easier doin' it, than trying to explain it, so Boyen is right, I'll try to work up some samples to post into our harmonica group part of this forum.

noble savage said:

do you normally use the pucker technique? or are you using some mutated pucker/ U tongue block mix method? have you tried using tongue blocking? couldn't the latter technique be used to make more of an accordion sound? celtic harp, to me, sounds almost 'fiddly' but would that ability to play a a chord or 'tongue slap' / 'tongue pull' on and off notes give it a percussive larger sound?

a couple questions..do you think that a whistle/pucker style is more apt to use for trad harmonica? is there ever a time that you would like/need to make a chord before singling out a note (i.e. tongue slap/tongue pull)? also brendan power's (in his book) goes over a technique called the 'jaw flick' where one would move their jaw to the left or right like a hinge to make a grace note while drawing/blowing..couldn't this also be done just by 'warbling' or 'trilling' ..just a one motion shake of the head or hands ? it seems like it would be easier and less problematic for your jaw

Both chords and single notes have their place in traditional music. The advantage of TB style is that you can play both the chords and the melody. For the record, I play pucker in a way that Gussow and JP Allen teach, so deep in the mouth.

I have a video on youtube on how I do my tripplets (TradHarmonicaMusicLessons on YT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rr178mCWOkU) though I also use the head and hand movement, I think ultimately it should be a harmonica movement as it's potentially the most precise and secure. 

Not to dismiss the "jaw flick" however. Just as with every other technique, rapid movement from one position to the next in harmonica playing (especially with Celtic tunes) can be improved with a combination of a tongue flick to capture a trill before moving to the next upper or lower spot to play the next note or notes (with chording). Moving the lower jaw to the next position as you capture the trill ... AND then move the harmonica to catch up type of thing. 

And Boyen is right about chords and single notes. For example, in playing the tune Garry Owen (Garrai O'en) or Sigh-Beg, Sigh-Mor, I try to capture the "flute-like" nature of the tune initially which is typically a "pucker" part, and then do a combination of chords for a full sound in the lower octave, and then return to the "flute" part when that part is over. Keeping the harmonica "deep in the mouth" helps to smoothly go from the chording expression to the single note expression parts really helps. .... plus I occasionally do the "jaw flick" as well as I move the harmonica into position between expressions.  = ^ )  -- Shaun, That KelticDead Guy.

i kind of do a combination of everything. i think when you actually think about it is when it becomes a problem. i get alot of lip drag when i pucker..but having it set deep in my mouth and having 'fat lips' around the harp help. i just know when i'm trying to get certain notes, my mouth does the work without me thinking about it..a combination of tongue block, U block,pucker, jaw flick...it just gets there with enough practice.

Well said.  Knowing that it's possible is one thing, but there's nothing like putting the techniques into use, and that's where practice, practice, practice, practice, .... etc. comes in handy.  As we say in Texas, "finding your own ground to stand on," is what make this all fun.  -- Shaun, That KelticDead Guy.

noble savage said:

i kind of do a combination of everything. i think when you actually think about it is when it becomes a problem. i get alot of lip drag when i pucker..but having it set deep in my mouth and having 'fat lips' around the harp help. i just know when i'm trying to get certain notes, my mouth does the work without me thinking about it..a combination of tongue block, U block,pucker, jaw flick...it just gets there with enough practice.

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