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June 2007 · Bimonthly

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Chromatic for Diatonic Players

Multiple Embouchure, Part 4: The Switched Leap

by Winslow Yerxa

The ability to make wide leaps cleanly and move rapidly up and down in leaps that constantly change direction has been explored very little on the harmonica. Yet the techniques that enable such freedom have huge potential. Anyone reading this and applying what they learn is taking part in a quiet revolution in harmonica technique, one that applies to all style of music and all types of harmonica.

We've been working on the fundamentals of moving between right and left sides of the embouchure while moving the embouchure. Now we take a leap - literally. This installment explores the basics of switching sides while the entire embouchure leaps more than a hole from where it started.


Last time we worked with a fixed four-hole spread. The mouth covers four holes, and the tongue covers three of them, gliding left and right to alternate between single notes on the left or right side:

We took this entire four-hole embouchure and shifted it one hole to the right or left. We always began and ended with an open hole on the same side of the mouth, either left or right. We called this leading from the right or leading from the left, and stayed on that side as we shifted to a new location one hole to the left or to the right.

Leading from the right:

Leading from the left:

This allowed us to play a lot of lines that leaped up and down, essentially creating two parallel melodic lines that moved in the same direction while alternating.

For now, let's stay with a four-hole spread. But let's start taking off the training wheels.

In the last installment, we always skipped back to our starting note before shifting. This time, let's move forward a little more aggressively.

Leading from both sides

Instead of playing an entire line that always leads from one side, let's alternate so that we start with the right, then the left, and keep alternating. Remember, the R and L above the notes indicate left or right side of the embouchure, while the brackets show a sequence of notes all played in the same place. The end of one bracket and the beginning of the next indicates a shift of the entire embouchure one hole to the right or the left.

Click Here to listen 13-01.mp3

Click Here to listen 13-02.mp3

You may notice that even though most of the action sequence on the harmonica is a pattern that repeats consistently, this does not produce a consistent pattern of musical notes. Due to the tuning layout, consistent musical patterns that extend over more than a note often require more complex actions, which we'll get to later on.

Here's a sequence where action pattern and musical pattern are both consistent. Note, however, that the shift in embouchure placement does not always occur at the beginning of the measure.

Click Here to listen 13-03.mp3

Click Here to listen 13-04.mp3

Now, let's play a tune I wrote using these materials. It's called "Stridin'."

Click Here to listen 13-05-slow-short.mp3

To play three verses with just the backing click here: 13-05-slow-long.mp3

To play along with a fast version: 13-05-fast-short.mp3

And to play a longer fast version with just the backing track: 13-05-fast-long.mp3

A Big Step: The Shifted Leap

Now comes a big step: leaping between left and right, and shifting at the same time.

Click Here to listen 13-06.mp3

Look at the leap between the second and third notes, from Hole 1 to Hole 5. This is a bigger leap than you can make by staying in the same place with the same size of embouchure.

So, do you stretch your embouchure to five holes, or do you keep a four-hole spread and just shift it over a hole?

Look at all the downward leaps - they all cover four holes. The upward leaps vary from three to five holes. Instead of a constantly varying embouchure size and dealing with the fussiness and uncertainty this creates, why not just keep a four-hole spread and shift it over by one hole as needed? That way you are always sure of the size of your spread.

But now the question becomes, how do you shift your embouchure accurately by one hole while moving the opening from left to right? Let's look at two ways that you can prepare for the shifted leap: the ghost wheel and parallel line reinforcement.

The Ghost Wheel

Let's put one of the training wheels back on the bike. This will be the ghost wheel because we'll make it invisible. Remember the exercises we did in the previous installment where we always went back to the starting note before shifting? Let's say we do that with the exercise above, like this:

Click Here to listen 13-07.mp3

The ghost note is the one in tiny notes, with the (r) above it. This is your secret training wheel. You shift back to the right side and play the note on the right side before you shift up one hole. It's like you're secretly leading with the right. Once you're familiar with the shift, you can let the ghost fade out of the picture and make the left-to-right switch while shifting the embouchure. Then you can play the exercise above this one.

Here's a ghost note exercise for secretly leading with the left:

Click Here to listen 13-08.mp3

Once you gain familiarity with the shift, you can get rid of the ghost note and make the exercise go like this:

Click Here to listen 13-09.mp3
Parallel Line Reinforcement

Another way to reinforce your familiarity and assurance is to treat the notes played on the right and left-hand sides of your embouchure as two independent lines. Learn each one separately, then go back and forth between them:

The right side line. Click Here to listen 13-10.mp3

The left side line. Click Here to listen 13-11.mp3

Now, you may be wondering about a third possibility for gaining familiarity, playing the lines together as double stops, like this:

Click Here to listen 13-12.mp3

This only works if both (or all) the notes involved are on the same breath and on the same side of the slide. If there is a breath change of a slide change involved, it won't work.

The Final Tune

If you've done your homework on all the techniques in this installment, you should be up to the challenge of the final tune, a tune of mine called "Alberto's Bossa."

Click here to hear a short version with harmonica: albertos-bossa-short.mp3

Click here for a longer version with just the backing track. albertos-bossa-long.mp3

In conclusion & What's Next

We keep inching forward through these seldom-explored techniques. I keep promising the ultimate goal, being able to move freely around the harmonica while playing out of both sides of an embouchure that varies in width. But I keep noticing that there's an essential component that needs to be explored first. So what's next? Probably pivot notes and crossovers.

Notation Key
Please visit http://www.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.

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