While this title might sound a bit off-color, learning to play the blues has little to do with sex. It might just have everything to do with helping you deal more skillfully with fear, anger, anxiety, and other negative thoughts and emotions. Do you sometimes feel beaten down by "the blues"? Here's how to blow them away, quite literally!
Let's start by considering how millions of people, have been turning their angst and anger into art, using what I consider to be America's greatest contribution to our planet's culture: blues music. This unique style of music developed in obscurity, where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico. There, African musical traditions such as work songs, African-American musical traditions such as spirituals, and various European musical traditions mingled and merged into a new, recognizable, and eminently enjoyable style: the blues.
By 1912 the first blues songs were being published, but no one knows who the first bluesman or blueswoman really was. Later on, the blues would give birth to rock music, soul music, R n' B, and a great deal of jazz.
From its inception, the blues has been a very personal form of music, usually communicating the emotional state of the player or singer. But it's not just about venting emotions, because by taking sad or lonely feelings and expressing them, the performer has transformed those feelings to at least some extent. The singer or player has chosen to consider her or his emotions as the components from which to create a song, rather than simply continuing to experience them.
For those of us who play blues harmonica, the connection between our music and our minds can be even stronger, since a powerful focus on the breath is such an integral part of both blues harp blowing and of developing mindfulness or a pranayama yoga practice. I've discussed the way in which thoughts trigger fight-or-flight responses, which then produce emotions or actions based on anger or fear (and which can be short-circuited via focus on the breath) at length in a previous post, "Tyrannosaurus Sex, HarmonicaYoga, and Other Odd Couplings," and in some of my other websites, especially Harmonica Yoga and The Three Minute Meditator. Mindful harmonica playing is, in my opinion, the world's greatest way to learn to short-circuit fight-or-flight responses via breath focus!
Unfortunately, just being able to play the blues -- even if you can do it very well indeed -- is not enough to blow your blues away. I wish it were so. For many years after I had become a pretty decent blues and rock harp player, my own mind (before I discovered mindfulness meditation), was still a mess. Lots of fear, anger, jealously, self-aggrandizement, most of the time. And knowing some great harp players, like Sonny Terry, Big Walter Horton, and my special mentor J.C. Burris (Sonny Terry's nephew) who had no more mental self-control than I did confirmed that simply blowing great blues was clearly not the same as being able to blow one's blues away.
One final experience -- a mercifully short stint with a harmonica concert tour headlined by the late Paul Butterfield -- confirmed this: He was a truly superlative blues harpist, but with no more mindfulness evident in the way he lived than that shown by other of my sadly short-lived harmonica idols such as "Little Walter" Jacobs or "Pigpen" McKernan or "Blind Owl" Wilson...
Playing blues harp is great. It's good for the lips and the lungs (and how can that hurt your love life?). But what's really important to me is using the Mississippi saxophone, aka blues harmonica, as a tool to develop mindfulness. To do that, we have to play mindfully! So try this.
My unique and original harmonica teaching method (I've taught more than a million people so far) is based on breathing patterns. For example, to play a standard blues harp train, you'll breathe in two times, then out two times -- thought your mouth only -- in a crisp and steady rhythm as if walking while counting "one, two, three, four."
Close off your nose during the inhaled breaths, as though you were trying to suck a thick shake through a straw, twice in a row. Do the same on the exhaled breaths, as though you were trying to blow out two candles in two quick breaths.
And that's, of course, why I use those words from the title -- "suck" and "blow" -- that best describe exactly and viscerally how a harp player must breathe.
By the way, don't worry about not having a harmonica. If you learn this breathing pattern, and eventually do get one, you'll be able to play a train instantly -- I guarantee it! Applied crisply anywhere on a standard "10-hole," starting and coming back periodically to the low end holes, it will sound both good and "trainy."
Now bring a thought into your mind that stimulates a fight-or-flight response, a thought that generally tends to bring up anger or fear. Please do it now.
Quick: Play the Train Breathing Pattern:
IN IN OUT OUT
for half a minute or so, crisply and with vigor and zest.
What happened to the anger, or the fear? If you are like most of my students, re-focusing onto the breath short-circuited the fight or flight response, and -- Poof! -- the fear or anger was gone. This is Blowing Your Blues Away, through mindful use of the humble harmonica...
I hope you found this little essay interesting, and gave the exercise a try. If anyone in the NY/CT/NJ area is interested, on August 11 I'll be doing an all day workshop on "A 'Mindful' Approach to the Art of Harmonica: Play Blues, Rock, Folk, and Classical Music...Today!" at the New York Open Center in NYC. Click here for more information.
For more by David Harp, click here.
For more on stress, click here.