About Jazz Harmonica players’ intellectual masturbation
If you play jazz harmonica for more than 20 years as I do, you really forget about all the difficulties that had to be overcome. You forget about the many difficult moments, the frustrations, the search for how to, the endless experimenting and doing exercises. I remember me smashing a harmonica to the wall in several peaces … more than once.
But most of these moments I forgot about over the time until I started teaching again. Bit by bit some of those moments that I can laugh about now, came back to my mind when I started coaching other harmonica players again in 2010. It became so clear to me how much conceptual thinking was the basis of what I now can play without thinking and as something that became totally natural to me as if it always had been there. It amazes me how a human being processes factual information to create highly emotional music with it.
Related to this amount of pre-work is the problem of distraction on stage. It’s only recently that I found clear evidence of the reason why a harmonica player has to “know” so much where other type of instrumentalists like piano players and guitar players pick up things much quicker. It was in the book “This Is Your Brain On Music” by Daniel Levitin that I found the evidence for something that I already felt for a long time. The clue is here:
Why is it that most jazz harmonica players close their eyes while playing?
I can’t play really well with my eyes opened. Especially during a concert where I can see the audience (most of the times the lamps are too bright for you to see anything). It is because the harmonica player has no physical orientation about which note he plays. A piano keyboard is a-symmetrical enough to feel where you are and if necessary, the blink of an eye is enough in order to know where you are. Similarly, a saxophone players has specific fingering that is unique to the note he produces. But on the harmonica you have no physical clue at all which of the 12 holes you are playing. So, the only way to not loose track of where you are is by a visual representation of what you play and mentally connect that with what you do.
Recently I spoke with some jazz harmonica players about this topic and it’s interesting that all of the players use some kind of visual representation but the exact representation seems to be different for everyone. For me it’s simple. I started playing organ as a kid so the piano keyboard layout has always been my point of reference. But players with different backgrounds have created other mental models for themselves. Some based on harmonica layout pictures, some use very abstract visualisations, others see themselves play guitar.
Will be continued in PART 2
Interested in jazz harmonica playing? Check out this specialized site: www.jazzharmonica.org hosted by Wim Dijkgraaf himself