Genre, style and technics
This article comes from the book" The harmonica and traditional québécois music : history, techniques, scores and players" translated by Ray LAMBERT, which explains that Ray speaks about Bruno by using "HE" ; Bruno, himself, uses always "I" !!!
This is a chapter on techniques, but it is inextricably linked to genre and style - even though, for organization’s sake, we artificially separate them. So, before we describe the harmonica techniques used to play Québécois music, we will first say a few words about the musical genre called Québécois, and then a few words about style.
2.1The Québécois Music Genre
To the uninitiated, Québécois music may be indistinguishable from other traditional music; but to people who have grown up with, listened to, and played it for years, it is unmistakable, easily distinguished from closely related Irish and Scottish music. In 1984, at Ris Orangis, Philippe Bruneau introduced his concert by saying “We’re going to play some Québécois . . . It’s going to be a mix . .” However, when he started playing, the audience found itself in a very familiar world.
Just as mystery, romance, and comedy are recognizable genres of literature, so Québécois music is a recognizable genre of traditional music. It has a characteristic suite of features - even if these features are not present in every tune, and even if they vary from region to region in Québec. They include the following: Although Québécois music consists predominantly of reels, 6/8s, and waltzes (all of which are common in other musical traditions), it also has some unique forms, such as the “brandy,” “grande gigue simple,” and “valse clog.” Many tunes are “crooked:” they have a deviant number of measures (are not “square”). Québécois music is inextricably association with dance. Foot tapping and “turlute” (nonsense vocalizations - see Introduction, p. 15) are an essential element of many tunes. Much of the music involves “song and response,” with French lyrics (of course). The influence of the English is also evident. Although it is very much influenced by Irish and Scottish music, it is generally gentler, and not as tension-filled and sharp-edged as Irish music, nor as hard-driving as Scottish music. It is permeated throughout with the influence of 19th century French music. It is based more on accompaniment and arpeggios than are Irish and Scottish traditional music - no doubt due to the influence of the accordion and the harmonica, whose notes are arranged linearly. Likely for the same reason, Québécois music is strongly articulated, a feature we will discuss in detail later in this chapter (2.3.5). It is usually more complex and lyrical than is Appalachian music (though Appalachian music is not easier to play). Instruments consist primarily of the fiddle, button accor-dion, guitar, piano, spoons, occasionally the banjo, and - oh yes - the harmonica! Québécois music is not a static genre. Like life itself, it is continually evolving. Witness the introduction of brass by groups like La Bottine Souriante, the tin whistle by Daniel Roy, the unique piano style of Yvan Brault, and the original compositions of Philippe Bruneau. Finally, many of its features are intangible, consisting of subtle interpretations and rhythms that defy explanation.
No doubt, this brief characterization could be replaced by a long complicated treatise. But, we’ll stop here at the risk of stepping all over ourselves and failing to make our point - which is that Québécois music is a unique and recognizable genre.
Although Bruno, Yves Lambert, and Gilles Garand, Gabriel Labbé, Carmen Gaudet, Arina Stam, Wilbrod Boivin, and other players discussed in this book play Québécois music, they all use different techniques, play on different kinds of harmonicas, articulate notes differently, and produce a unique “sound.” They all play with a unique style. Yet, no one would contest that they all play a genre of music we call Québécois. Some of Bruno’s friends call it “wild man’s music,” but not pejoratively. Quite the contrary. They are referring to the music’s sometimes wild “physicality,” which particularly moves Bruno and his ilk, and which he tries to capture in his harmonica.
Of necessity, this book focuses on Bruno’s techniques and style (He’s co-author of the book. What do you expect?). Just as genre is difficult to analyze and define, so is style, especially when it has been developed over many years and, as in Bruno’s case, of listening to and being influenced by musicians as diverse as Marcel Messervier, “Pitou” Boudreault, and Sabin Jacques. Nevertheless, Bruno’s style is easily recognizable. He embellishes the melodies and infuses them with passion and energy by playing stretches in octaves, varying the volume and accent of certain passages, changing the rhythm, and inserting ornamentation such as triolets, glissandos, and grace notes. His sets consist of melodies in different tempos and keys, sometimes played on different kinds of harmonicas. He plays with a great deal of swing. Fundamental to his style and techniques, he plays on Tombo tremolos, superior harmonicas that increase the range, technical possibilities, diversity, and flexibility of harmonica playing to an entirely new level. Above all, his playing is very danceable, no doubt because he has spent years playing at dances all over France.
The techniques we describe below are those Bruno uses. Many of them are used by all kinds of harmonica players, no matter what kind of music they play, and are simply modified to fit tremolo harmonicas and the Québécois genre. As far as we know, two of them, “Angling” (220.127.116.11) and “Sea-Sawing” (18.104.22.168), are herein described for the first time. You may modify these techniques and develop new ones. Whenever possible, we give examples of when they are applied. Our purpose is not to be dogmatic but to guide and encourage. As you practice these techniques, be patient and gentle with yourself. With time and practice, you will master all these techniques and develop your own style.
Although we try to illustrate many of the following techniques with passages from the scores in Chapter 3, we recommend that you spend more time playing, either with or without the CD, than reading what follows.
2.3.1Holding the harmonica
There are probably as many ways to hold a harmonica as there are players. There is no “right way” to hold any instrument, and the same is true for the harmonica. Each person's hands, mouth, and ability to coordinate the two are unique: some people have long fingers and big mouths, some have stubby fingers and skinny lips, etc. Most people hold the harmonica with the low octave on the left. However, Sonny Terry held his upside down: the low octave on the right and the high one on the left. Yes, he was blind, but we don’t think that’s why he held his harps that way.
Donald Black, the ex-cellent Scot-tish tremolo player, and Gilles Gosse-lin (Chap. 4) hold their harmonicas the same way, and they’re not blind. Most people hold the harmonica with two hands, but, Terry Sullivan, a British tremo-lo player, had to learn to hold his Echo Harps and Comets with one hand after he hurt one of his hands. Once the hand was healed, he continued to hold his harps with one hand, claiming he could better manage rapid trills, slides, and triplets that way. Consult basic blues harp instruction books, look at pictures of harmonica players, observe and study how various players hold their harmonicas, talk to harmonica players, experiment with various methods, and eventually you'll find the best way for you.
Here are a few guiding principles. To play a blues harp, hold it snuggly between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand so that its left edge presses against the skin where the thumb and forefinger meet. Your left hand fingers should lay roughly parallel to and along the top plate of the harmonica, and your left thumb should be lined up parallel to and pressing up against the bottom plate. Place your right thumb against the right end, and position your right palm against the bottom edge of your left thumb. Your right-hand fingers should now be in the back of and roughly perpendicular to the harmonica. The harmonica is now in a hand “cup.” By rotating the right-hand fingers out and back, you can open and close the cup to produce warbles, mute the sound, vary the texture and color, and add some flare and style to your playing. Again, experiment with what feels right for you. Whatever holding technique you decide on, you may occasionally have to modify it to a particular tune, passage, and technique.
Because chromatics and tremolos are considerably longer than blues harps, you will not be able to cup them - unless you have very big hands. Hand effects are not as integral a part of playing tremolo harmonicas as they are for playing blues harps. To use them, you have to either modify your left hand grip so that the low octave end of the tremolo protrudes out in front of the skin where your thumb and forefinger meet, or you have to modify your right hand grip so that your right hand thumb lies parallel to and presses beneath the bottom cover plate. In either case, the “cup” you make will not be as air tight as the one you produce with a blues harp.
You can produce hand effects while playing chromatics, but you will be a bit restricted because your right hand thumb will occasionally need to manipulate the slide.
Invariably, difficulties in playing are often attributable to improper breathing techniques. To become an expert harmonica player, you have to learn to breathe from your diaphragm. When you breathe in, breathe from your nose and store the air deep in your chest. This is the air you will blow into the harmonica. If you’re breathing properly, your upper chest and shoulders don’t move. Only your lower abdomen relaxes and contracts. Like many other things you do, this breathing pattern will become a habit you “fall into.” Periodically, check yourself and make sure your blows and inhales are not merely shallow puffs and sucking actions originating from up around your throat and mouth. If they are, reprogram yourself to breathe from your diaphragm. When you're breathing properly, you can feel your diaphragm tightening and relaxing synchronously with your breath. Place your hand on your abdomen and feel it expand and contract. Breathing from your diaphragm helps you change breath direction rapidly and precisely, articulate notes crisply, produce superior tone, and play smoothly. In essence, it helps you play with much more control.
Occasionally, when you play many notes in one breath direction, you may either run out of breath or fill up with air. Filling up with air is a common problem, either when you’re learning new tunes or when you’re playing tunes in the second position (for example “Reel de village” and “Reel de Levis Beaulieu”). However, if you breathe and manage your breath properly, you should be able to play any tune. Don’t put excess energy into your breathing. It’s not how much air you breathe into your harmonica, but how well you articulate notes, phrase certain passages, and produce quality tone that will make you a good player. If you run into problems, we offer the following advice :
- When you have to play a long series of notes in the same breath direction, consciously use less air with each note. Save your air. Play economically. A runner does not use the same strategy for a 1000-meter run as for a 100-meter run. Similarly, pace yourself.
- Find places where you can either catch your breath or release air from your lungs. When you practice, anticipate those places and manage your breathing accordingly. At first, especially with a new tune, you will have to consciously think about where to breathe, but eventually you will breathe in the right places unconsciously.
- If you anticipate running out of breath, play a quarter note instead of an eighth note and use the extra time to catch your breath.
- When you come to a place where you can catch your breath, let air leak between your lips and your harmonica’s cover plates. Again, at first, you may have to plan ahead and consciously anticipate such places, but eventually you won’t have to think about it.
- When you come to a place where you can catch your breath, either play a chord or play in octaves. By doing this, you can either release or take in a lot of air at once.
- Try catching your breath through your nose.
Again, you’ll get better at this with practice.
There are two major ways of playing harmonicas: lip blocking (the whistle method), when you block holes with your lips only, and tongue blocking, where you block them with your tongue and lips. Each style has its advantages and advocates. A third method, “U-blocking,” directs air into individual holes by shaping the tongue into a “U.” Some blues players use this technique, but we aren’t aware of any Québécois players that use it. Nevertheless, it may be useful in some circumstances. Your playing will be more colorful, textural, and diverse if you learn at least the two major styles.
Because lip blocking is taught in so many basic harmonica instruction manuals we will devote a minimal amount of time discussing it. Essentially, to lip block, pucker your lips so they surround only the hole you want to sound. To get the best tone, push the harmonica as far back into your mouth as possible - not just at the tips of your lips. The trick is to allow air into only one hole and sound only one note clearly without producing any hissing and distortion. Usually, if you move the harmonica slightly to either the left or right you’ll correct any problems. Practice. One of the best Web sites for learning how to play the lip blocking method is: http://www.harmonicalessons.com/
Whereas in lip blocking you use your lips to surround the hole you want to sound, in tongue blocking, you use your lips and your tongue. Suppose you are playing a Tombo tremolo, and you want to sound the note in hole 8. Surround holes 1 through 8 with your lips (bold oval line on the diagram), and block all but hole number 8 with your tongue (black oval). It doesn't matter if you don’t completely block holes 1, 7, and 9 because they are draw holes and are silent when you blow into them (you have to be a little more precise with a blues harp, but it's no more difficult). Your tongue is not symmetrically placed over the holes: rather, it points slightly to the left. Thus, the right side, not the tip, of your tongue actually blocks the holes (when you play the lowest notes on the far side of the harmonica, your mouth has less room to move, so you tend to block holes with the tip of your tongue). Your tongue naturally assumes the correct position if you angle the left side of your harmonica away from your face.
To play tremolos, we highly recommend tongue blocking - for very important reasons:
1) Tongue block-ing produces superior tone. Tremolos are very different from blues harps. In our experience, playing tremolos by the whistle method produces rather nasal, inconsistent tone, especially when skipping across several holes to play a second note; in contrast, playing the same notes by the tongue blocking technique produces clear, fluid, crystalline, and, most importantly, consistent tones. Maybe you can produce those nice tones by using the whistle method, but we can’t.
Undoubtedly, tongue blocking produces such nice mellow tones because it changes your mouth’s “embouchure,” the configuration of your mouth and tongue around your harmonica. To tongue block, you must position the harmonica deeper into your mouth, closer to your throat, which produces a smaller and different shaped resonance chamber between your cheeks than does the whistle method. Perhaps this change helps produce a mellow tone. Perhaps the air flow, originating closer to the back of your throat than it does in the whistle method, is steadier and less subject to the vagaries of your lips than it is in the whistle method. We’re not sure. But we are sure of this : when playing tremolos, tongue blocking produces a superior tone.
2) With slight moves of your tongue, you can play accompaniment and melody at the same time (22.214.171.124).
3) By altering your embouchure, you can play in octaves (126.96.36.199).
4) Tongue blocking allows you to vary the volume of your playing with less risk of accidentally bending or distorting notes than does the whistle method.
5) Tongue blocking makes playing triplets (such as those in “Polka des écureuils”) and arpeggios (such as those in “Reel du cultivateur”) on tremolos much easier than playing them by lip blocking method : consecutive draw and blow holes on tremolos are slightly further apart than they are on blues harps.
6) Tongue blocking requires less air than does lip blocking, so you can manage your breath easier than you can with lip blocking.
7) Tongue blocking is easier on and less abusive to the reeds than is lip blocking, so you’re less likely to fatigue them than you are with lip blocking (2.3.7).
8) Tongue blocking helps keep your harmonica’s cover plates lubricated with saliva, which makes your harmonica glide easily across your lips.
In summary, tongue blocking and all the techniques derived from it diversifies your playing, and produces warm rich tone, color, and expression. It is the fundamental technique from which you should operate. If you’re a beginner, start with this technique and learn the whistle method later. In our opinion, starting with the whistle method first is more difficult. Although tongue blocking may not initially come naturally, it eventually will and is well worth learning. Give it a couple months. Chances are, you’ll always use it when playing tremolos.
“I use a tongue-blocking style. It's a style imprinted on me early in my childhood as I listened to my father and grandfather play. The sound of my father playing waltzes like this soothed me and “rocked” me to sleep when I was a child” (Bruno).
By lifting your tongue briefly and slightly to uncover all the holes surrounded by your lips and then “slapping” it down just as quickly, you can play several notes at a time - a chord. Except for the brief moments when you produce chords, keep your tongue on the harmonica. For a 3/4 time waltz, quickly remove and replace your tongue on both the second and third beats, producing an “oom pah pah,” or a “boom tah dah” rhythm. You can accommodate this accompaniment pattern to music in 2/4 and 4/4 time (reels, for example), thereby introducing some variety and spice to your playing. Be careful : playing chords can become wearisome (even downright annoying), and some chords may be dissonant with those of accompanying guitarists and pianists.
Although chords are very commonly played on harmonicas, they may sound a bit differently on double reed harmonicas than they do on blues harps – for a couple reasons. First, because tremolos have four times as many holes as blues harps do (two chambers for each reed pair, and separate chambers for the blow and draw reeds), their musical scales are spread further apart laterally than they are on blues harps. Thus, if you have a small mouth, you may not be able to produce as full or harmonious a chord on a tremolo as you can on a blues harp.
Second, not all tremolos are tuned according to the same system (see 1.3.2). The reeds of most Western-manufactured tremolos (Hohner and Weltmeister) are “just” tuned. In this system, the reeds are not all tuned to standard pitch. Rather, some are either tuned slightly flat or slightly sharp so that they harmonize well with each other when several are played together as a chord (see Appendix A on tuning and repairing harmonicas). However, they may be out-of-tune with those of other instruments. For example, although a “just” tuned diatonic C harmonica's blow notes harmonize with the tonic C chord, and all its draw notes harmonize with G, G7, and G9 chords, its F note and partial F chord may seem flat when played with either a guitar or piano F chord.
In contrast, the reeds of Oriental tremolos (Tombo, Suzuki, Huang) are “equal temperament” tuned. The reeds are all tuned to standard pitch, but they may not harmonize well together when several are played as a chord. On the other hand, they are less likely to sound out of tune when played with other instruments.
These are all theoretical principles which you won’t usually think of when you play chords. Many tremolo players integrate chords in nearly all their tunes, and they sound great. You can do the same.
While tongue blocking in the regular position (air going in and out of the right side of your mouth only), you may widen your mouth as in a broad smile and allow air to flow through the left side of your tongue and therefore play two notes - one on each side of the tongue - simultaneously. If the two notes are an octave apart, for example, the C notes in holes 2 and 8 (holes 3 to 7 are blocked with the tongue), you are “playing in octaves” (see diagram).
If the notes are not an octave apart, you are probably playing a partial chord. Playing in octaves creates a very “full” sound, adds texture and color to your playing, and, when properly integrated with other techniques, makes your playing really shine.
Playing in octaves takes practice and can initially be disconcerting, but, like everything else, if you keep practicing, you’ll get there. When playing in octaves for long stretches at a time, for example in “Hommage à Cécile Lecourt” and “Karine,” maintain that broad smile, keep the harmonica as deep in your mouth as possible, and keep your tongue perpendicular to the harmonica so that air comes out on either side. Pay attention and make sure the two notes you are sounding are an octave apart. Keep your mouth configured this way as you slide your harmonica in your mouth, playing one octave after the other. While in this position, you should be able to easily bite down on the harmonica’s cover plates. To play single notes, move your harmonica ever so slightly away from your mouth, and let your tongue assume its normal position – blocking the air flow from the left side of your mouth. To practice playing in octaves, pick a simple tune and try playing the entire melody in octaves. Initially, try this on a chromatic : the note layout is a bit more accommodating to octave playing than it is on a tremolo.
Although Bruno plays in octaves both on blow and draw notes, he plays them more frequently on the blow notes – for two reasons:
1) Whereas blow octaves on tremolos are only five holes apart, draw octaves are seven holes apart. Thus, you virtually need a frogmouth to play draw octaves (Ever wonder why Frenchmen are endearingly called “froggies”?). Bruno denies that he has such a frogmouth. Ray can’t speak for Bruno, but he definitely doesn’t have one.
2) If you accidentally “miss” one of the octave notes (because either your tongue or mouth are incorrectly placed), the two notes you do blow will likely harmonize with each other. However, if you make the same mistake while playing a draw octave, the two notes you do play could produce a Bulgarian or Tibetan harmony, definitely out of character in Québécois music. Bruno uses many octaves in “Hommage à Cécile Lecours” (below).
2.3.4 Bringing the Notes to Your Mouth
When you play your harmonica, try to bring the notes to your mouth and not your mouth to the notes - unless you’re playing on a neck rack. Bring the notes to your mouth by sliding your harmonica laterally between your lips. Although we frequently use this sliding technique, it is sometimes not very efficient for playing triolets and certain passages that involve jumping long distances from one hole to the next. We therefore combine the sliding technique with “angling” and sea-sawing,” two techniques that are particularly amenable to the way a tremolo is constructed. Remember, tremolo blow and draw notes alternate with each other: between any two successive blow notes, there is a draw note, and between any two successive draw notes, there is a blow note. Thus, the distances between either successive blow holes or draw holes are slightly longer than they are on blues harps and chromatics. Consequently, the distances between non-successive draw and blow notes become disproportionately longer than they are on blues harps and chromatics the further apart on the musical scale they are. “Angling” and “sea-sawing” are particularly good tremolo techniques for quickly and precisely positioning the desired note with a minimum amount of slide and head movement. No one taught these techniques to Bruno. He came upon them naturally through years of practice.
However, we have never seen them referred to, much less described and published, anywhere. We do not wish to take credit for them, but we do want to teach them to you because they are extremely effective.
It's the term we coined for a technique that facilitates playing quickly and precisely successive notes that are several or more holes apart. You will find this technique very useful, if not indispensable, for playing tunes like “2ème partie de quadrille” (measures 11, 12, and 15), “Galope à Bruno” (measures 20 and 22), and “Reel Ti Mé” (measures 13, 14, 17). Sea-sawing is a bit like “angling,” except that it is used to play notes that are farther apart. As in angling, you bring the notes to your mouth by pivoting the harmonica. The diagram illustrates how this pivoting motion looks as observed from overhead.
To play note 1 on the left, angle the harmonica to position A so that its right side is away from your face: this brings note 1 to your mouth, M. To play note 2 to the far right, quickly pivot the harmonica on an imaginary point (just above the M, your mouth) to position B so that it angles away from the left side of your face, bringing note 2 to your mouth. If the tune calls for you to immediately play another distant note to the left, quickly pivot the harmonica back to original position A. Unless notes 1 and 2 are very far apart, your mouth does not move; if the two notes are quite far apart, your mouth moves, but as little as possible. No matter how far apart the two notes are, the mouth and head remain as stationary as possible.
While he was working on this book, Bruno learned a new trick - tongue switching - from James Conway, a Chicago Irishman who primarily plays Irish music. Tongue switching has been around a while but was popularized by blues/rock harmonica player Dave Gage, designer and author of the web site “harmonicalessons.com.” Fundamentally, it’s an advanced tongue-blocking technique for rapidly moving long distances between notes. It is especially useful for playing drone notes.
For example, you can use it instead of sea-sawing to sound the three drone notes in the “11 (drone) – 8 – 11 (drone) –7 – 11 (drone) – 5” sequence in the first measure of “Reel à Mathieu” (see diagram below). Those drone notes, when played to speed, are very difficult to hit precisely. Play the first drone on the right side of your mouth as you normally would, your tongue blocking the holes to the left. Play the next note, in hole 8, by quickly shifting your tongue over to the right so that air moves through hole 8 from the left side of your mouth. To return to hole 11, reverse the process. In the diagram, “Rs” are placed above notes played through the right side of your mouth, and “Ls” above notes played on those played through the left side (the “Gs” and “Ds” are the French initials for “gauche” (left) and “droite” (right).
In some instances, when distances between notes are great, you may have to move your head a little too. As with all the techniques in this book, you’ll have to adapt this one to your mouth, tongue, how you hold the harmonica, etc. As usual, what initially seems impossible – coordinating your tongue, your lips, and the harmonica – becomes easier - a reflex - with practice. The best way to learn tongue switching is to practice it on a new tune, for it is hard to get rid of old reflexes on a tune you already know.
You may benefit from practicing the following exercise (courtesy of James Conway) on a ten-hole blues harp in the key of C (notes are on the top line; “L” and “R” (for “left” and “right”) indicate which side of your mouth you play the notes from.
If you ever have the opportunity to listen to the same reel played by an Irish person and then by a person from Québec, you may notice that whereas the Irish person tends to slur notes together, the person from Québec clearly separates or ‘articulates” them. Just as certain accents and speech mannerisms constitute the regional dialect of the French language in Québec, so articulation is integral to its musical dialect. Nearly all the tune commentaries in Chapter 3 mention the need to articulate or “attack” notes, not an easy task when they are played in rapid succession. Essentially, you articulate notes by interrupting the flow of air between them.
In the whistle method, you interrupt the flow of air between notes by using your tongue to mouth “ta, ta, ta, ta.” You can’t do that when you’re tongue blocking because your tongue is occupied. Rather, you have to use slightly different techniques depending on whether you are articulating blow or draw notes.
To articulate blow notes, imagine you are a Québécois lumberjack chopping wood. With every chop, you mouth a “Han!” Similarly, with every blow note on the harmonica, you mouth a “Han!” and simultaneously release a “mini-explosion” of air from deep in your chest. It is as if you are “coughing” the notes up. You say “Han!” or you “cough up” for every single note. Try this : repeatedly mouth a series of “Hans!” Get a good rhythm going. Now continue the pattern as you put the harmonica in your mouth. When you’ve perfected the technique, go buy yourself a hatchet and get naturalized as a Canadian citizen.
To articulate draw notes, imagine you are surprised - by a monster - and you gasp. You articulate draw notes in the same way - by gasping short breaths.
Force yourself to articulate as many notes as you can this way. Soon, the technique will become second nature. Although Bruno’s style of articulating notes is greatly influenced by Québécois melodeon players (who, by articulating virtually every note, infuse a great deal of energy into a tune), the technique is as innate to him as is his French accent.
There are no rules concerning which notes to articulate and which ones not to. Québécois music is essentially articulated music. Listen to it over and over, and soon you’ll acquire an innate sense about articulating notes.
On the next page, we put slash marks (/) over notes that Bruno articulates when he plays the first seven measures of “Hommage à Edmond Pariseau.” As you can see, he doesn’t articulate every single note; however, even those he slurs together sound separate.
Often, varying the volume of either a single note or a series of notes adds a nice lyrical touch to a tune, especially tunes in 6/8 time (like “2ème partie de quadrille”), which are often a bit solemn and majestic. Generally, vary the volume of single notes by initially playing them softly. Vary the volume of suites of notes according to how you feel.
Diatonic harmonicas have missing notes: the sharps and flats (equivalent to the black keys on a piano). The discovery that notes on a harmonica could be “bent” down, or flattened, to produce missing ones was probably an accident, and a very fortuitous one for blues and rock players: It gives them the ability not only to produce missing notes but to infuse a great deal of emotional intensity into those notes.
Bending notes involves changing your embouchure while blowing or drawing into a hole. Changing your embouchure not only changes the shape and size of your mouth chamber (which plays a very important part in producing good tone), but it changes the angle of the air stream flowing through your harmonica. The concept of “bending” a note is a strange one, for, really, how can you bend a musical note? It was only recently discovered that what really happens, at least in blues harps, is that changing your embouchure while either drawing or blowing in a hole changes the direction of your airflow in the hole, effects an inter-action between the top and bottom reeds of that hole, and changes the normal frequency at which one of the reeds vibrates. Thus, you can bend a G note down to an F#, a D to a D flat, etc.
The reed interactions and the “bendability” of various notes depend on how far apart on the diatonic scale the top and bottom reed notes are. For example, on a C harp, the B at hole 3 draw is further away on the diatonic scale from the G at hole 3 blow than is the F at hole 5 draw from the E at hole 5 blow. The B is therefore more bendable than is the F. Any alteration in the normal Richter scheme layout affects this principle. That's why the ability to bend certain notes changes when the Richter scheme layout is modified to produce country, natural minor, melody maker, and other “special tunings.”
The ability to bend notes varies within a particular harmonica, among different keys of the same harmonica manufacturer, and among harmonica manufacturers. For examples: the hole 5 draw note can be bent very little, and bending notes in hole three draw is usually more difficult than bending them in hole 4 draw; bending notes of lower-pitched diatonics (the keys of A and G) is noticeably harder than bending them on higher-pitched diatonics (the keys D and F). In his book, “The Harp Handbook,” blues harmonica player Steve Baker explains in detail the physical principles underlying note bending in blues harps.
The same principles that allow notes to be bent on a blues harp apply to bending them on tremolos. However, keep several things in mind.
First, because every reed of a double reed harmonica receives air from its own chamber (whereas the top and bottom reeds in a blues harp hole receive air from a common chamber), interactions between reeds are different than those in blues harps.
Second, the various and unique note layouts among double reed harmonicas (some Richter, some Oriental) means that bendable notes on one harmonica are not bendable on another.
Third and most importantly, even though with a little experimenting and practice some notes on some double reed harmonicas can be bent, bend them gently - for several reasons:
- The reeds of a tremolo are smaller, softer, and more delicate than those of a blues harp. Playing the harmonica, contrary to what many instructors and manuals say, can be very expensive. Any blues harmonica player will tell you that harmonicas wear out after a month or two, sometimes much sooner (if you play the blues, you already know this). The reeds simply fatigue. You then have several options: buy a new harmonica, retune the fatigued reeds (eventually, you can't even do that because the reeds fatigue beyond repair), replace the reeds, or send the harmonica to a repair shop (harmonica manufacturers make replaceable reed plates for some blues harps, but not for tremolos). Sadly, most players throw away harmonicas with fatigued reeds. Tremolo har-monicas are expensive, and they can’t take as much “bending abuse” as blues harps can. Unless you have lots of money to throw away (or you work for Hohner), bend tremolo reeds very carefully and infrequently.
- There isn’t a consensus about bending notes on tremolos. Several players report that bent tremolo notes sound nasal, are not as loud as unbent ones, and that only one reed of a pair may be bent at a time. However, Greg Slapczynski, a blues-rock player from France, reputedly bends the two reeds of a tremolo simultaneously while using the tongue blocking technique.
- It is often difficult, some-times impossible, to bend some notes, and it may be extremely difficult to bend them quickly enough to play fast-paced music.
2.3.8 Playing in Different Positions and Modes
Because their notes are more bendable than those of tremolos, blues harps can be played in many positions - keys other than that of the harmonica. For example, bending and overbending notes on a C blues harp can produce all the notes of a chromatic scale and allow a player to play just about any tune in any key. In other words, bending and overbending notes can virtually turn a blues harp into a chromatic harmonica.
Tremolo players rarely bend notes and almost always play in first position. Occasionally, and quite effectively, they do play in the second position (Québécois melodeon players refer to playing in the second position as “playing in reverse”). The second position lends itself particularly well to some music, such as Irish polkas, imparting a certain energy to these tunes and allowing some ornamentations to be fluidly played on either all draw or blow notes. “The Wishful Lover,” played by the Murphy family, is a good example. Just for the heck of it, get out of the “first position rut” and try playing a tune you know well on one harmonica in a different position on another harmonica. It’s seldom possible (and when it is, it may give you a headache - so have a bottle of aspirin ready). By the way, “Hommage aux ancêtres” is scored in the key of A but is played on a D harmonica - in the second position. Once you learn it on that harmonica, learn it on an A harmonica - in the first position. This tune is an excellent example for illustrating the difference between positions and modes. In either position, it’s in the same key, A (F#m), and mode, aolian.
Tremolos can definitely be played in various “modes.” Without delving too much into the concept of modes, most tunes in this book are in the “ionian” mode : their “root” notes are the same as the key of the harmonica used to play them. On the other hand, “Reel de Village” and “Reel Levis Beaulieu” are in the “mixolydian” mode : their “root” notes, A in each case, are five tones higher than the key of the harmonica used to play them, D in both cases. Thus, the chords that accompany these tunes are those generally played for tunes in the key of A. The first two parts of “Reel Béatrice” are in the “aeolian” mode: the A root note for both parts is six tones higher than the key of the key of the tune, which is C. Although the first two parts can be played on a C tremolo, Bruno plays them on a slightly retuned natural minor blues harp.
Many times, you’ll need to play either a tune or a set of tunes with several harmonicas, each of a different key, sometimes, as in “Galope de Lionel Simard,” and “Reel Béatrice,” with two different kinds of harmonicas. There are probably as many ways to switch from one harmonica to another as there are harmonica players. Here’s how Bruno does it :
At concerts, Bruno always play into a microphone, a Shure SM58, a very good microphone for the harmonica. He never plays into a stationary microphone. He holds the first harp and the microphone in his left hand. The harp is between his thumb and index finger. His right hand forms a resonance cup and holds the second harp between his index and middle finger. That harp points upward with its bass notes pointing upward. To switch harmonicas, he rotates the second harp down and to the left and puts it where the first harp was. While he’s playing with the second harp, he positions the first harp for the next switch. He uses this system almost exclusively, whether he plays into a mike or not, and it works well. At some concerts, he places his harmonicas in their playing order on a small table nearby. He takes them and replaces them as needed. This system can require a little more concentration than the previous one.
When he needs to use three harmonicas, as in “Reel de Rimouski,” he holds one in each hand and places one in his pocket, bass notes pointing downward. There are even a few times when he has to switch among four harmonicas. Then, he holds one harmonica in each hand, and puts one in each pocket. If there should ever be a time when he needs five harmonicas, . . . . Have any ideas?
We realize that ornamentation is not a technique, but we introduce it here because various ornamentations are best executed by using certain techniques. Ornamentation consists of either filling out or embellishing a melody by introducing notes that usually borrow or steal some time from the notes that either precede or follow them. As a rule, Québécois music is not as ornamented as is Irish music, but there are many exceptions.
Ornamentation is not an end in itself. It should not disrupt a tune’s basic timing and rhythm. As time goes on, you will develop your own ornamentation styles (for example, the way you play and introduce grace notes into a melody) quite naturally and unconsciously. Always have fun ornamenting your tunes, and remember that real living is not in your work.
Below, we discuss some common types of ornamentation encountered in Québécois music, and the techniques Bruno uses to accomplish them.Grace notes are one of the commonest types of ornamentation used in Québécois music, so common that musicians often don’t realize they are playing them. They can be either single or double. In either case, they are always played before the main note.
Single grace notes are rapidly played (usually by using the “angling” technique (188.8.131.52).
They are introduced between two notes of the same pitch - for example the A introduced between the two Fs in the 1st measure of “Hommage aux ancêtres” below.
Double grace notes are similarly produced. Below are two versions of the anacrouse (the measure before the 1st measure) and the first measure of “Brandy de Kedgwick.” The top example illustrates how these measures are scored in Chapter 3; the bottom example illustrates how double grace notes are introduced in the two measures. Essentially, triplets have replaced eighth notes.
Drone notes are notes from the chord accompaniment introduced between the melody notes. They are so called because they contrast from the melody the way the droning, buzzing sound of a hovering bumblebee contrasts with the whirring sound it makes when it darts off in flight. They originated from accordion and bagpipe music.
Drone notes are difficult to play on the harmonica. Practice them slowly and repeatedly. They are found in a several of the tunes in this book, for example in measure 11 (1st, 2nd, and 3rd upbeats) of “Reel de village.” To play these drone notes, try tongue switching (184.108.40.206).
Triolets are another common ornamentation of Québécois music, infusing a tune with rhythmic variety and energy. They are simply triplets of three identical notes, which together take up the same amount of time as either one quarter note or two eighth notes. The three notes are each allotted the same amount of time. To articulate triolet notes in fast-tempoed reels, Bruno switches to the whistle method, using his tongue to pronounce “ta-ga-da” (“tu-gu-du” will do, but it’s not as funny… to French people, that is). The same effect, which we call “occlusion” in linguistics, is produced when you pronounce the letter “t.” Each time your tongue flaps against your upper dentures, your air is cut off ; when your tongue comes back down, your air “explodes” back out.
To practice articulating triolet notes by using the whistle method, repeatedly pronounce “ta-ga-da” until you establish a nice rhythm. Continue as you bring the harmonica to your mouth. The notes (either blow or draw) will automatically be articulated. (Stop after a couple of days.)
Bruno uses this technique in measure 41 of “Hommage à Luc Lavallée.”
To articulate triolet notes in a reel played with a chromatic, for example, measures 1 and 2 of “Reel de l'étoile filante,” quickly flick the slide.
To articulate triolets in waltzes, Bruno continues to tongue block, but cuts the airflow by the “gasping” technique described in the articulation section. He uses this technique throughout “Hommage à Cécile Lecours,” measures 1 through 7, which are shown below. It’s as if he pronounces the letter “a” four times: once for each note (or octave) of the triolet and once for each of the two eighth notes (or octaves) that follow them.
Mordant ornamentation, often used by accordion players, is essentially the same as the triolet, except that the middle note in a mordant is different than the other two. Play mordants by using the angling technique (220.127.116.11). Bruno plays them far more often than he does triolets, finding them more refined, esthetic, and more amenable to his style of playing. The first and many other measures in “Hommage à Edmond Pariseau” have this type of ornamentation.
You can produce a trill by rapidly moving your harmonica, head, or both laterally back and forth from the melody note to the one immediately to its right. Below, we illustrate how measure 25 of “Karine” is played both without (top) and with (bottom) trills.
You’ll find another example of a trill in measure 8 of “3ème partie de Calédonia.”
A glissando is merely a series of notes played rapidly to lead up to a desired note. For example, in measure 21 of “Hommage à Edmond Pariseau,” Bruno begins at the low A (hole 6) and, without interrupting his breath, glides the harmonica across his lips until he reaches the desired note (the “strong” note), the high D (hole 14), playing, for just a fraction of a second, the notes in holes 8, 10, and 12. You can start at either hole 2 or 4 if you want; you just have to start a day or two earlier.
Notice that there is a shorter glissando in measure 20, a triplet beginning at hole 9 and ending at hole 13.
Bruno frequently uses glissandos to begin a tune (for example, “Hommage à Luc Lavallée”), repeat a part of a tune (for example to repeat part B of “Reel du faubourg”), or to repeat an entire tune.
Vibrato consists of rapidly varying the pitch and/or volume of a note, thus adding depth and variety to your style. It is used almost exclusively for slow airs (there are none in the Québécois repertoire!) and waltzes. (Try playing vibratos for a string of eighth notes in a reel. Good Luck!) Vibratos can be produced in a variety of ways (see any blues harp instruction manual), but we will describe only the two simplest ways. If you’re using the whistle method to play either a waltz or a slow air, the simplest way to produce a vibrato is to wiggle your tongue rapidly backward and forward while you’re playing a note.
If you’re using the tongue blocking method, you can’t produce a vibrato by using your tongue. Instead, you must produce one by rapidly contracting and relaxing your deep throat muscles, effectively interrupting your breath each time. Obviously, you can use this technique in the whistle method too.
2.4 Swing, Accents, and Rhythmic Variations
When you listen to Québécois music (actually, any kind of dance music) that is well played, you cannot help but be infected with an energy that makes you want to get up and dance - at least tap your feet. When played by a good musician, dance music comes alive. More than likely, when you first learn a tune - either from a score, a recording, or a friend - it will not have that energy. It will come with practice. In part, the energy of a dance tune is a function of swing, accents, syncopation, and rhythmic variations - all of which are difficult to communicate in a score. However, we try to give examples of each below.
Many Québécois tunes have a certain swing to them: some notes are played for a little more time than others. For example, observe how we changed the timing of the notes in “Reel du cultivateur” below. Instead of being written, as they are in the score of the next chapter, as strings of eighth notes, they are written as alternating dotted quarter notes and sixteenth notes. Not all Québécois tunes lend themselves to such alteration. After listening to the traditional music of Québec for a while, you will acquire an inner sense about when and when not to add swing to a tune. Be careful. Don’t turn a reel into a hornpipe!
Just as words are pronounced by accenting certain syllables more than others (for example, the “syl” in “syllable” receives more accent than do the “la” and the “ble”), so some musical notes receive greater accents than others.
One of the characteristics of traditional music is that it is not played linearly: certain notes are given more emphasis or accent than are others, a phenomenon known as “syncopation.” Usually, the strong beat in a 2/2 melody is the 1st beat; that in a 3/4 melody is the 1st beat. The weak beat in a 2/2 melody is the 2nd beat; those in a 3/4 melody are the 2nd and 3rd beats. However, in traditional music, the weak beats of a 4/4 melody generally receive more of an accent than do those on the strong beats. For convenience, we scored our reels in 4/4 time. Had we scored them in 2/2 time, we could, as they do in Canada, speak of “contretemps,” which means syncopation. Below, to illustrate how syncopation livens up a tune, we placed accents (/) on the 2nd and 4th beats of measures 1 to 7 of “Reel des ouvriers.” When played with both swing and syncopation, this tune really grooves.
18.104.22.168 Straight Time
Irregular accenting is also found on the 1st, 4th, and 7th notes in measure 12 of “Reel Montebello.”
These passages are not easy to play. The secret is to try to play them linearly or straight, without any syncopation, and observe how their natural rhythms reveal themselves to you.
One of the great charms of Québec’s traditional music is that it lends itself particularly well to improvisation and rhythmic freedom. We don’t mean freedom from keeping time : the tempo of this music, especially if it’s played as dance music, must be strictly conserved. We are speaking of what and how notes are played between the beats : filling in with eighth and double notes, leaving notes out, substituting with dotted eighth notes, inserting octaves, not playing certain notes (introducing silence), etc. For example, here are seven different rhythmic variations of the first measure of “Hommage à Luc Lavallée.”
Chances are, no one tune will exemplify all the techniques and styles discussed in this chapter. However, many are found in “Hommage à Edmond Pariseau.” Below, we have dissected (like true Cartesians) this tune and indicated where some of the styles are used.
- Articulation : see examples in 2.3.5.
- Mordants : M 2, 8, 10, 16 24, 25, 42, 50, 68, 69
- Octaves : M 18, 36, 37, 38, 44, 45, 46, 53, 55, 58, 59, 60, 62, 63, 66, 70
- Long Glissando : M 21, 29
- Short Glissando : M 23, 28
- Syncopation : M 6, 7, 14, 15, 36, 37,38
- Triolets : M1, 42
- Angling : M 1
- Sea-sawing : M 38, 40; 41
Improvisation: Listen to the instructional CD and then to “C’est pas pire.” Not only is this tune played a bit differently on these two CDs, but no one musician plays the repeated parts the same ways twice on either CD. But they are all on the beat.