Bending

Bending is a basic diatonic harmonica playing technique used to produce notes not otherwise available in the standard tuning of the harp, and to provide various sliding-note effects.  Bends are, in large part, what give the diatonic harp its unique character, and are intimately related to the blues tradition.

Bends, whether draw bends or blow bends, produce notes lower in pitch than the natural, unbent note.  I think that part of the "trick" to bending is knowing what note will result, and unconsciously anticipating that sound. If you think about singing for a second, paying attention to your vocal tract, when you sing a low note versus a high note your body sort-of automatically adjusts according to the pitch of the note. You get the note in your "mind's ear" and your body tends to adjust without thinking about what you're doing. Try to feel how there are more physical actions than merely your vocal cords buzzing at a different frequency. You tend to "sink" lower and open up "bigger" for singing low notes as opposed to high notes, and it's similar for harp. What is happening is that your body is naturally adjusting to a shape that is more suitable to the pitch you know ahead of time you want to sing. Bending notes on the harp is much the same way. You have to adjust your vocal tract shape-the position of your mouth, tongue, jaw, throat, and soft palette, to be suitable for the pitch of the bent note. It's easier to do that if you have a mental idea of what the note will sound like ahead of time. If you've never done bends before, that can be tough! How do you know what the note will sound like? It helps to play the note on another instrument, like a piano or guitar, to get it in your ear while you are working on trying to bend. Various computer programs can play different pitches, so that's another way to try to get the pitch in your ear if you don't have any other instruments available.

The amount you can bend a note depends on the pitches of the two reeds in the hole.  The higher pitch note in the hole can be bent down to just above the lower pitch note in the hole.  For example, the notes on a C harp in hole 2 are: blow-E, draw-G.  The higher G note can be bent down to Gb and F--and just a little lower.  It is best to only bend down to the desired note, and not further, in order to minimize stress on the reeds.  When you practice your bends, it is good to use a piano, guitar, pitch pipe, electronic tuner or whatever to check that you're hitting the correct pitch.

Bending is not something that is easy to describe how to do-and it is difficult to show because all the movements are hidden inside the mouth and throat.  It takes practice to be able to do bends at all, and lots more practice to do them well.  Bends are the first major hurdle in playing the harp, and you should not expect to "get it" in a few minutes. It may take months. That's okay. Don't be in a hurry, and don't get discouraged. If you keep at it, you'll get it. You're learning new control of your breath and your mouth, your breathing and your body's resonance, your tongue and throat, and of your focus. Bends are something you'll keep working on, probably for as long as you play the harp. Bends aren't hard, but like anything else you have to get familiar with how to do it. You have to get familiar with how the harp responds to different vocal tract positions, and if you're just starting you're not yet familiar with how to set your mouth, tongue, and throat in different positions, much less particular positions needed to modify the air stream to produce different pitches. If you're not "getting it" don't get down on yourself! You just haven't put in the practice to get familiar with what your need to do yet.

There are draw bends available on holes 1 through 6, and blow bends available on holes 7 through 10, each of which require different playing techniques.  To make matters more interesting, different key harps require different bending techniques, depending on the pitch range of the harp.  Lower key harps (e.g. A, Ab, G, and low F) require more mouth/throat/tongue (or simply "vocal tract") movement than the same holes on higher key harps (e.g. C, D, E, and F). Learning your bends not only gives you more notes and effects, it gives you more control over your notes, air stream, resonance, and tone.

So, celebrate when you finally get your first bends!  But remember--that's only just the beginning.

Draw Bends

Draw bends are available on holes 1 through 6--but hole 5 will not bend as much as a full half step. 

Here are some tips for getting your first draw bends. Remember these are tips to help you get started with bending since I can't show you what's going on in my mouth (and if probably wouldn't help if I could, since you can't see what's happening inside your mouth!) These are things to help you get the right feel, to help get your mouth, tongue, and throat in the right bending position.

Requires Strong Single Notes

First, be sure you can get a good, clean, pure, loud, single note before going any further! Don't even worry about bends if you can't get a consistent pure single note. All of the following bending tips assume that you start with a strong single note, then modify your mouth/tongue/throat position to get the bend.

One good approach to strong single notes is to use the "lip block" embouchure. It helps you relax and get your mouth open, which helps improve your resonance and makes bending easier.

Open your mouth wide enough to cover about 3 holes, with your upper lip coming about 2/3 the way back over the top cover. Tilt the harp up in back at around 30-45 degrees, and let the holes nestle into your lower lip. Relax. Breathe slowly in and out, deeply. First, empty your lungs and as slowly as you can, breathe in, with the harp settled onto your bottom lip. With a little fiddling with the harp position, not trying to force anything, you should be able to easily get a clean single note. Once you've mastered that, try your bending from this mouth position embouchure.

Set Mouth Shape from Speaking Articulations

While breathing in slowly from your diaphragm, shape your mouth and vocal tract as if you were making a long "eeee" sound followed by a long "oh" sound. Notice how your jaw drops on the "oh" sound, and pay attention to the feeling of "opening up" in your throat. Feel the "oh" drop down as deep in the back of your throat as you can. The bend happens when you change your vocal tract shape from the "eee" position to the "oh" position. Try holes 2, 3, and 4 for your first bends.  You can also try holes 1 and 6.

The "Oh" articulation should feel like you're singing a deep full low note. Try saying "Orange", and exaggerate your mouth movement and enunciation.  Your throat should feel like the first "Or" part.   Whisper it.  Orange.  Whisper it louder.  Whisper it breathing in.  Try bending with the mouth/throat position of the "Or" part.

Go back to the "eee" position. Feel how much tighter your throat is. Say "sweet orange" over and over. Concentrate on your throat. Feel how it closes and opens. Accentuate the opening, and drop the pitch on the word "orange". Sing "sweet orange" while breathing in.

Now, play a strong clear draw note on hole 4 with your mouth in the "eee" shape. Very slowly change to the whispered "orange". The pitch not the note should bend down when you articulate the "or" part of orange, and bend smoothly back up as you articulate the "an" part. The final "ge" sound isn't part of the bend, but the word orange seems to open up the throat more than the name "Orin". (It might depend on what part of the country you're from?)

Another thing to do is try articulating the word "TOE" to bend and clear draw note on hole 2, 3 or 4. Start with a nice pure single draw note, then suddenly say a deep pitched TOE, still breathing in. The "T" in toe gets your tongue tip in action, and this ticking the top of your mouth with your tongue just as you go to the deep "Oh" mouth/throat/tongue positioning can help get the bend started. Draw with "eee", then pronounce "toe". Another articulation you can try is "YO", as in yoyo.

Say NO! as if giving a command to your dog. Bark it out there, as if the dog was about to chew up your expensive sofa, or was ready to snatch your favorite harp off the coffee table. Notice how your voice naturally gets lower and deeper in pitch when you're giving a command? Use that feeling from your diaphragm, the strong breath, the drop in pitch to command your bend to work. Start playing a clean steady single draw note on hole 2, 3, or 4, and then just say No! as if commanding your dog, while still breathing in. (If you don't have a dog, pretend it's your child doing something wrong, or the neighbor's kid about ready to pluck your favorite flower from your garden, or steal your newspaper..).

Whistle Practice

Whistle a little bit. Now try whistling while breathing in.  Now bend the pitch of your whistled note down.  That's what it feels like to do draw bends. Practice bending notes while whistling breathing in. Focus on your mouth and jaw position. Match the pitch of your whistle to the pitch of the natural unbent note you're practicing bending, then bend the pitch of your whistle note down (while breathing in!). Now go back to working on your harmonica bend, while applying the feelings and vocal tract changes you used to bend your whistle down.

Don't Pinch Your Lips

Don't let the whistle practice fool you into thinking you have to pucker up or pinch your lips. You don't, and you shouldn't. The danger is that you can actually get a note to bend a little by pinching your lips, but that's usually not the right way to play a bend. If you find yourself pinching your lips to get your bends, stop it. You're only learning something wrong that you'll eventually have to unlearn. The sooner you stop, the easier it'll be.

No Air Leaks

Make sure NO AIR leaks in through your nose.  This is very important, and a very common cause of problems.  If air leaks in through your nose it essentially prevents a bend from being able to occur. Try gently pinching your nostrils closed. Does it make any difference to your normal draw note? If air is coming in while you play, you need to work on controlling that air leak before you proceed with trying to bend. Focus your awareness on your nose, and practice breathing just through your mouth from your diaphragm. Control of your breathing, and of your venting of air in or out while you play is a basic requirement of playing the harp, so any practice time you put in now working on those muscles, that focus and control, is not wasted time, but valuable practice.

Also, make sure you have an air tight seal of your mouth on the harp.  Any air leaks get in the way of bends, whatever their cause.

Air Direction

Hold the harp in your left hand and put it in playing position. Hold out the index finger of your right hand like you're making the number 1 sign, then point to the left so your finger is parallel to the back of the harp. Put your pointing index finger a few inches behind the harp, parallel to it.

Now, hold your head up, look straight ahead, draw a natural note and visualize that you are pulling the air straight from your finger. When you do a draw bend, visualize that you are pulling the air from underneath your finger. The farther below your finger you draw from, the lower the pitch of the bend. Visualize pulling the air from 45 degrees below your finger, then from 30 degrees, 15 degrees, and so on.

Warm vs. Cool Air

Blow on the back of your hand. Blow warm air. Blow cool air. Feel how your mouth and throat change.  For draw bends, focus on the warm air. Keep your mouth/throat position the same and breathe in. Try this on hole 2. Try going back and forth between cool air (no bend) and warm air.

Bending All the Way Down Should Feel Effortless

Don't try to force it.  Bending doesn't require force, or loud hard play.  If your mouth/throat/tongue shape are right the bend will naturally happen.  Think about holding an egg in your mouth during a bend.  Keep playing with the shape of your mouth and your tongue position.  Very minor changes in mouth/throat/tongue position make all the difference. Higher notes use smaller eggs, or even yolks. Low holes on special low harp tunings need ostrich eggs?

Still having problems?

The tongue is the key (for beginners). Start with it flat and forward in your mouth. While drawing in with the "eee" mouth shape, slowly pull your tongue back, keeping the front low and flat in the mouth, and humping it gradually more and more in the back as your tongue pulls in. At some point the sound should begin to choke a little. That's the crucial spot. Treat it like the "friction point" on a clutch car... if you move too fast you'll stall the car-or in our case miss the bend.  At that crucial spot, adjust your mouth position from "eee" to "oh", or say orange or toe or no (still breathing in).  At first, it may help to increase the air pressure a little. But, you don't have to play loud or hard to get bends. You can bend notes playing quite softly.

Breathe in while making a hard "K" sound, as in Coke. Notice where you make that sound in your throat. That's one place in your vocal tract from which you can get a draw bend. Focus on that spot, and articulate the "Co" part of Coke, or cocoa. The hard K articulation, like the T articulation discussed with saying "toe" above, can help kick-start the bend into action.

Breathe from deep within your body--from your diaphragm.  Feel your stomach push out a little bit. This will help your resonance and make bending easier.  Lie on your back and slowly breathe in.  Put your hand on your stomach and notice how it moves up and down--that's the location of your diaphragm.  Draw in your air from there. Try playing the harp while lying on your back, and get the feel of your diaphragm in action.

Try different key harps.  The mouth position is different for different pitch notes, and if you're having trouble with one key harp, another key might work better; might be a better fit to the particular degree of mouth changes you're doing.  For example, if you can't seem to get it on a C harp, try an A harp or a D harp.

It ain't as easy as it looks! Don't give up! It can take a while to get it, and you just have to practice, practice, practice.  And remember, don't try bending unless you can get consistent pure clean single notes-you have to master that first.

Exercises

Practice smooth dip bends here, and work on your speed for this exercise. You also need to be able to hit each bend cleanly, without bending the pitch to get to the note.
 
4~4'~4 5
4~4' 3'
3~3"~3' 4
3' 3" 2
2~2"~2 3'
2~2" 1
2"~2 3' 
2
Draw Dip-Bend Exercise

Intermediate Bends

The intermediate draw bends (2', 3', and 3") are more advanced techniques because it is difficult to hit them cleanly on pitch with good tone. It takes good diaphragm support, resonance, and control of your playing pressure. You need to develop your ear so you know the correct pitches and can easily recognize the note relationships. Repeat these patterns over and over, paying attention to distinguishing the bends in the same hole from each other. It's good to use a tuner or a piano to check that your are hitting each note on pitch.
 
1 2
1 2'
1 2"
1 2'
Exercise for Hole 2 Bends


2 3
2 3'
2 3"
2 3'"
2 3"
2 3'
Exercise for Hole 3 Bends


1 2"
2 3'"
3" 3'"
2 2"
1
Exercise for Hole 2 and 3 Bends

It is extremely valuable to play simple little tunes you are well familiar with utilizing the intermediate bends, because you know how each note should sound before you play it. For example, try it with "Mary Had a Little Lamb", and try to make it sound good. Don't forget that part, making it sound good. Don't just stumble through the exercise quickly. Take your time with this or some other simple tune, and work to make it sound right, and good. Come back to practice like this from time to time, and see how well you're doing. Don't expect to get it sounding good right away, and don't get discouraged because is "should" be so simple. It's not easy to play simple things and make them sound good. It's a major goal.
 

3 3" 3> 3"
3 3 3_3
3" 3" 3"_3"
3 4 4_4
3 3" 3> 3"
3 3 3 3
 3" 3" 3 3"
3>
Draw Bend Exercise - "Mary Had a Little Lamb"

Here's something a little blusier. As you get better at it, double up on each note and swing the beat. Repeat these each over and over, don't just play it once and go on.
 

1> 2> 3> 3"
3' 3" 3> 2>
1> 2> 3> 3"
3' 3" 3> 2>
Exercise for Hole 3 Intermediate Bends


2"
3"
4>
4
5
4
4>
3"
Exercise for Whole Step Bends

Blow Bends

Blow bends are normally learned after draw bends, because the low end of the harp (holes 1 through 6) are used more, especially by beginners, than the top end of the harp, holes 7 through 10, where the blow bends are available.  Note that hole 7 will not bend as much as a full half step.
Blow bends are done by manipulating the air stream with tiny movements toward the front of the tongue. Smooth downward bends can also be controlled with a very slight tightening at the back of the throat. Sometimes the blow bends have a tendency to "snap" into place, with little indication that a smooth bend is lurking there, but smooth blow bends are indeed possible. A well set up air tight harp helps, and remember, the tongue movements are very slow and very tiny indeed.

Start the natural blow note with your tongue flat in the bottom of your mouth.  Slowly, keeping the tongue flat, lift the tongue toward the roof of the mouth.  Keep the air stream constant, and where you feel the note start to choke--that's the crucial spot.  Very tiny changes to your tongue position cause the note to transition from the natural note to the bent note.  You have to experiment and remember your exact mouth position.  The vocal tract is more constricted in the mouth and throat for blow bends than for draw bends.

Try whistling a note and bending the pitch upwards.  A similar tongue movement happens when doing blow bends on the harp.

Exercises

The blow bends are easier on lower key harps, so I suggest practicing them at first with an A or a G harp. After you can play them on the low keys, then move to higher key harps like C and D. I show smooth dip bends in this exercise. You also must be able to play each bend cleanly, without sliding down to the bent note.
 
9>~9>'~9>
8>~8>'~8>
9>~9>'~9>
10
Exercise for Blow Bends


7> 8> 9> 10
10>' 10 9> 8>
7> 8> 9> 10
10>' 10 9> 8>
Exercise for Hole 10 Whole Step Bend

How Bends Work

In a normal bend on a diatonic harmonica, both reeds can participate in making the sound.  Consider a draw bend (blow bends work the same only the reeds are the other way around).  At first, the draw reed is doing most of the speaking.  As the bend gets lower the blow reed starts taking over, and at the bottom of the bend the blow reed is producing almost all of the sound.

Bending lowers the pitch of the natural note of the highest reed in the hole.  However, since both reeds participate in producing the bent note, the natural note of the lower pitch reed in the hole actually raises while the higher pitch reed lowers in pitch.  For example, for a draw bend the pitch of the draw reed gets lower while the pitch of the blow reed gets higher.

The note in a hole can be bent down to about a semitone higher than the lower pitched reed in the cell.

This is the best I've been able to determine on the physics of how bends work on a diatonic harp.

  1. The blow/draw air flow contains a broad spectrum of air compression wave frequencies.
  2. Each reed has a range of vibration frequencies to which it will respond.
  3. Resonance adds energy to a frequency because of reinforcing wave forms.
  4. The range of frequencies to which a reed will respond overlaps for both reeds in a cell.
  5. By adjusting the resonant frequency of the "playing tract" (tongue, mouth, throat, and other airways) we alter the frequency that has the most energy.
  6. This frequency with the most energy will dominate the random broad spectrum of frequencies produced by the blow/draw air flow.
  7. The reed will respond to the driving compression wave frequency with the highest energy.
  8. Both reeds in a 2-reed cell will respond to the same driving frequency because that driving frequency falls in the range of frequencies to with each reed will respond, that is, where the response frequencies overlap for the two reeds.
  9. So the note that sounds depends on the resonant frequency of the airway tract, subject to the mechanical response characteristics of the reed pair.
Thus, bends are induced by changing resonance characteristics in the vocal tract, and the reed vibration rate is coupled to the playing tract.

If one uses only mouth adjustments to the resonance chamber, the range of resonant frequencies is smaller than if adjustments to other parts of the airway are included.  When the other airways in the vocal tract, e.g. the throat and below, are tuned to the same resonant frequency as the mouth, this will accentuate the frequency energy advantage, and the bending range and tone of the note will improve.  This is why it is best to play "from the diaphragm", using as much of the vocal tract as possible.

One of the few scientific papers on the physics of harmonicas is at:
http://www.bs.monash.edu.au/staff/johno/acust2.html

Also, see the section on "Harp Physics" for some interesting experimental results.