Harmonica Techniques: Lip Pursing Versus Tongue Blocking
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Harmonica Techniques: Lip Pursing Versus Tongue Blocking

The budding harmonica player will inevitably be confronted with important technical choices as he learns how to master his instrument. One of these choices concerns the way he positions the harmonica to his mouth to produce single notes. Two methods are especially widespread: the first is known as puckering or lip pursing, and the second is called tongue blocking. In this article, I will focus on some of the characteristics of each technique that come to my attention.

This Factoidz article is part of a series I am currently writing on the technique of the harmonica, both chromatic and diatonic. Here is a complete list of my harmonica-related Factoidz articles:

I have also written two articles on musical theory:

The budding harmonica player will inevitably be confronted with important technical choices as he learns how to master his instrument. One of these choices concerns the way he positions the harmonica to his mouth to produce single notes. Two methods are especially widespread: the first is known as puckering or lip pursing, and the second is called tongue blocking. In this article, I will focus on some of the characteristics of each technique that come to my attention.

The player learning harmonica will often adopt one of the two former single-note techniques according to personal preference. I personally started by using the puckering technique, which requires the player use his lips to manage the air flow (kind of like when whistling) into a single hole of the harmonica. A second more challenging technique, however, may be more advantageous in the long term: this technique is tongue blocking. This technique, often associated with a "Chicago" blues style [cf. Ricci, 3:00], requires the player cover a greater part of the instrument's mouthpiece with his lips and to block unneeded holes with his tongue.

Virtuoso classical harmonica player Franz Chmel is particularly fond of this last technique, and strongly recommends players to master it for technical reasons. In his June 2001 lecture for the International Course for Concert Harmonica, Chmel expresses some of his basic opinions about the puckering vs. tongue blocking problem. He lists four major advantages tongue blocking offers over puckering: volume, tone production, breathing and vibrato. Here's an extract from his lecture:

1 Volume

If you really want to play loudly [...] you can only achieve this with the tongue blocking method. Because your tongue is blocking the holes, your lips can create much higher pressure on the mouth piece, and as a result there is higher pressure inside your mouth cavity.

(The louder you play in the puckering position -- and thus the higher the pressure is inside your mouth -- the firmer your lips need to be pressed onto the mouth piece, which substantially restricts tone production possibilities. In the tongue blocking position, however, your tongue supports your lips considerably. By putting your tongue on the mouth piece the whole mouth cavity is available for tone production.) [p.13]

2 Tone production

[...] Changing the oral cavity allows for many different ton colours, ranging from hard to soft and delicate, from dark to light... [p.13]

3 Breathing technique

[...] Players who use tongue blocking can compensate [a lack or surplus of air] by letting the air flow through their mouths while playing. [p.13]

4 Vibrato

The most common vibrato of the harmonica is the hand vibrato which, however, is not a real vibrato in the true sense of the word. In fact, the hand vibrato is a tremolo rather than a vibrato. [p.13]

[...] The throat vibrato has a serious disadvantage: it cannot be produced over the whole range of the instrument. While it is possible to produce in the octave above middle C, it is of limited use two octaves above middle C and, as far as I know, almost impossible to achieve outside these ranges. [p.19]

Hence, if the player can master tongue blocking, it is in his opinion the technique which may allow the player to exploit the potentialities of the harmonica to the very highest degree. If Chmel admits using the puckering technique as well, he encourages players to learn tongue blocking first because of how lip pursers generally find tongue blocking more difficult. Here is how he describes his tongue blocking method:

I use the right side of my tongue to block the holes rather than the tip of my tongue, which clings to the left corner of my mouth (so that air cannot escape on the left side unintentionally). [p.13]

Hence, if one grants an authoritative quality to Chmel's opinions, inasmuch his playing can be considered exemplary, tongue blocking appears to offer several advantages over the puckering technique. Also, his lecture destroys the myth that tongue blocking is a technique which only applies to "Chicago blues harp players". A third single-note technique, often referred to as "U-block" also exists, for which documentation is unfortunately very difficult to find. But Chmel simply considers it an intermediary technique for advanced players, somewhere in between puckering and tongue blocking.

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