Beginning Diatonic Harmonica

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Beginning Diatonic Harmonica


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Overview & Registration



You’ll recognize the diatonic harmonica as the small harmonica used in blues, rock, folk and even jazz. In this course, you’ll learn how to hold the instrument, breathe effectively, play chords and single notes and bend notes, as well as learning song forms such as 12-bar blues and 3-chord folk, rock and country tunes. Required text: Harmonica for Dummies, second edition.

Prerequisite: Bring a 10-hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C (contact for info).

Saturdays 10 – 11:30 am
9/22 – 12/1 (10 weeks) no class 11/24

Winslow Yerxa • $415


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Week 1

Orientation: How harmonicas work; Acquiring the right type and quality of harmonica if not already possessed by student(s); Harmonica history and lore; discovering students’ individual musical backgrounds and goals.

Harmonica skills: Breathing basics; importance of posture; holding the instrument; embouchure basics; controlled and sustained inhaling and exhaling; sustaining musical tones with the breath; playing long tones; cultivating deep, relaxed breathing free of obstructions in the air column or air leakage through nose or mouth; understanding harmonica tablature.

Musical concepts and skills: Beats, meter, and counting; Sound durations; articulation and repeated notes; playing the same thing at the same time in a group; vibration, pitch, basic concept of chords and harmony.

Repertoire: Simple breathing exercises and chordal rhythm pieces.

Homework: Identify practice opportunities, including situational and short-duration “micro-opportunities” afforded by the portability of the harmonica; practice good posture, deep and relaxed breathing, relaxed and consistent holding grip; practice playing long tones; suggested listening as assigned.

References: Chapter 2 for more on the harmonica as an instrument; Chapter 3 for basic exercises

Week 2

Harmonica skills: Playing chordal rhythms using alternating breath directions; shaping tone with the hands; elements of motion. Introduction of tongue blocking (employing the tongue on the holes of the harmonica.

Musical concepts and skills: Meter; Measures; basic song structure using 12-bar blues

Repertoire: 12-bar blues chordal piece; Rhythmic train sounds

Homework: Start recording yourself and listening back for things you like or don’t like; Use train rhythm components to start making up a train piece. Suggested listening as assigned.

References: Chapter 3; Chapter 4 for understand basics pf pitch, scales, chords, and related concepts and terminology; Chapter 7 for tongue blocking.

Week 3

Harmonica skills: Playing single notes; Changing breath direction on single notes; Moving to neighboring holes in the middle register on a single sustained breath; Combining breath changes and hole changes. Motion exercises at beginning of Chapter 5.

Musical concepts and skills: Articulation and phrasing; Analyzing melodic structure of simple tunes; Memorizing tunes using simple analysis of phrases and using lyrics for placekeeping.

Repertoire: Simple middle register tunes in Chapter 5 using mostly single-element changes (pp. 85–87)

Homework: Review preparatory elements of motion exercises in Chapter 5. Work on Chapter 5 tunes up to Page 88, hone abilities to 1) isolate single notes, 2) to sustain and connect notes, and 3) to and move smoothly through simple melodies. Suggested listening as assigned.

References: Chapter 5.

Week 4

Harmonica skills: Making leaps to non-adjacent holes

Repertoire: Chapter 5: Twinkle, Twinkle, Frere Jacques, On Top of Old Smokey (pp. 88–91)

Homework: Practice tunes learned so far; review elements of motion exercises as needed. Suggested listening as assigned.

References: Chapter 5

Week 5

Harmonica skills: Moving above the middle octave and dealing with the “break”: the shift in blow-draw note alignment at the junction of the middle and upper registers (pp. 91–92); getting notes to sound easily in the upper register; finding notes in the upper register (pp. 94–95).

Repertoire: Joy to the World, Morning Has Broken, Aura Lea, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Silent Night (pp 92–93, 96–98).

Homework: Practice tunes learned so far and upper register and shift exercises. Suggested listening as assigned.

References: Review Chapter 6.

Week 6

Harmonica skills: Further focus on tonal fullness using the air column. Articulation with diaphragm, tongue, and throat. Shaping and coloring sound with tongue and hands. Exploration of vibrato.

Musical concepts and skills: Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, vibrato, tonal color and contrast.

Repertoire: Application of Chapter 6 skills to repertoire learned so far.

Homework: Refine songs learned so far using techniques learned this week. Suggested listening as assigned.

References: Chapter 6

Week 7

Harmonica skills: Altering pitch through changing oral resonance with the tongue (note bending). The four stages of bending, and achieving a first stage bend in the middle register.

Musical concepts and skills: Semitones, sharps and flat, altering pitch


Homework: Listen to note bending examples in the audio files, and imitate these sounds to develop an understanding of your goals in developing bending skills. Suggested listening as assigned.

References: Chapter 8.

Week 8

Harmonica skills: Further exploration of note bending to begin advancing beyond the first bending stage and to bend notes in the first octave.

Repertoire: As assigned

Homework: As assigned

References: Chapter 8.

Week 9

Harmonica skills: Playing the harmonica in second and third positions.

Musical concepts and skills: Modes, major and minor chords, tonic note and chord.

Repertoire: Chapter 9 licks for second and third positions. Second position songs: Since I Laid My Burden Down, Cluck Old Hen, This Train, Aura Lea in second position. Third position songs: Little Brown Island, She’s Like the Swallow, Tom Tom.

Homework: Work on assigned songs

References: Portions of Chapters 9, 13, 14, and 15.

Week 10

Continuation of work on second and third position songs and on note bending. Review of materials learned in previous 8 weeks; individual progress reports and feedback from students; individual skill assessment and advice from instructor on continuing study and development.

  1. Textbook (required):Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition, Winslow Yerxa, John Wiley & Sons, 2014
  2. Supplies and/or tools: Ten-hole single-reed diatonic harmonica in the key of C
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Winslow Yerxa (harmonica)

Author of Harmonica for Dummies, advice columnist at, and past president of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica. Over 30 years experience in a wide variety of styles. Has performed with Paula West, Muddy Waters, San Francisco Harmonica Ensemble and Tuula Tossavainen.
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