Quest For Tone - and the invisible monster

Robb Bingham writes:

>The only reason this thread interests me [besides for
>having pretty lousy tone when I'm nervous- my Studio
>stuff has great tone :->] is that I have been
>a lot about the psychological factors that can
>determine tone. I don't know about anyone else but I
>find myself having a little resitance to several
>things that would give me better tone. The number ~2
>draw hole~ is a good example of a note that almost
>everyone- as they work on their tone- can milk. It's
>quite often the tonic and it lends itself to sticking
>the harp deep in your mouth and adding a little
>vibrato. But I feel pretentious doing that with many
>other notes and I find myself gliding right past
>opportunities to produce better tone.

Feeling pretentious?

A couple of things.

I had a similar feling about using vibrato in what
seemed to me to be an exaggerated way (this was on
chromatic playing a pseudo-Irish tune). It felt nice
to do but I thought it sounded silly - until I
recorded it. In comparision with a lighter vibrato, or
none at all, it sounded great! What seemed exaggerated
to my ears behind the harp sounded just right on the
other side of the harp, and lifted the tune off the
page and made it sing. But I never would have known
that if I hadn't recorded it and listened back.

The other thing, of course, is that in the end it's
about being musical. Just because you *can make a
throbbing vibrato or bend a note or whatever, doesn't
mean that it will make the tune sound any better. I
often hear harmonica players with great chops
exercising poor judgment by using techniques out of
habit in places where they either aren't musical or
sound like clichés. The result is often embarrassing.

We all nod our heads when hearing about the player who
can execute dazzling licks and lightning speed - and
bores everyone by doing it too much. Yet, at least
with the harmonica, the same thing happens with less
flashy aspects of technique like playing with vibrato,
tone, tongue effects, bends and other things.

What to do? Experiment, and record yourself doing it.
What may seem pretentious and over the top may in fact
be just right - or too much. Even things you don't
notive yourself doing in the act of playing may
surprise you when you listen back.

As this applies to tone, well, there's the right tone
for everything. Thick, rich tone that excites the
bowels and bounces off the walls with a vibrato six
different ways may be perfect for some things and
laughably wrong for others, like Pavarotti singing Bob
Dylan. A wispy sound with no wave or warmth that seems
to vanish two inches in front of the harp may seem
hopelessly weak in some contexts, and just right in

Most of us don't strive to be chameleons to the extent
indicated in the above paragraph (at least I don't
think so), but even within the limits of the tonal
identity each of us strives to cultivate, we can find
adjustments that let us work with a range of material,
styles, and moods. The greatest tone may simply be the
one the listener never notices because it's exactly
right for the tune and arrangement. Some of the
greatest accompanists -and even soloists - vanish
right into the wallpaper for this reason.


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