A few years ago, I started watching clips of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a "late night talk show" broadcast in the US. Jon Batiste and Stay Human play music to accompany the show, sometimes getting involved with what Stephen is talking about. Batiste is well known for playing the melodica, which is featured in his hands throughout many of the clips I have seen where he is present on the camera. The melodica is a keyboard with a mouthpiece. You must blow into the mouthpiece and play a key in order to make a sound. For years, I thought: what a cool instrument. There was a certain lure to the melodica; it called out to me moreso than most other instruments.
I arrived back from the London Coffee Festival earlier this year having said something about how I wanted to play the melodica to a friend. I decided that rather than continue to think about the instrument every now and again, I would purchase one and see what I could do. The stakes were low: I could stop playing if I did not find the instrument engaging. Alas, that did not turn out to be a problem. Since my first melodica arrived, I have played on most days.
When I first picked up the melodica and started playing, I didn't realise how much work it took to breathe and play a sequence of notes. While I would feel comfortable playing a melody on a keyboard, the melodica did not feel that way at the beginning. I had no experience with breathwork in music. I would often be out of breath. I tried to play longer sequences of notes only to run out of breath. The melodica was not just a keyboard: it is an instrument unto itself.
To ensure I do not run out of breath when playing sequences of notes, I have had to practice. A lot. I do not practice a specific technique, rather my breathing patterns are naturally more considerate of my needs when I am playing the instrument. I will try to take breaths when I rest. I will breath in at any opportunity when I feel I need air, without disrupting the flow of a song. I do still disrupt a note while breathing. Again, I need to practice.
There are a few features of the melodica that make me love playing the instrument (aside from its character, as aforementioned). First, I can hold notes for a longer period of time than I can on a keyboard. The length of a note is judged by how long I hold down the note and breath into the melodica. To that end, I can also control the intensity of the note and, if I want, fluctuate between different levels of intensity. I can go from quiet to loud or loud to quiet without pressing down the key again.
Second, I don't have to keep pressing keys if I want to play the same note multiple times over. I enjoy trying to play pop songs by ear with the melodica. Often, the melodies in pop songs can have lots of repetitive notes. When I am playing the melodica, I can hold my finger on the key(s) required to play a note or a chord, and then use my breath to play that same note over again. Adapting to this feature of the melodica took some period of adjustment. Now I feel a lot more comfortable holding a note or chord and using my breath to play a sound multiple times over.
Third, the melodica challenges me with a constraint on the number of keys I have available. My melodica only has roughly three octaves of notes available to me, starting and ending on an F. I like playing at the lower end of the melodica by default because I find the notes to feel more resonant. The lower end feels more reflective of a lot of the songs I like to play. However, I often find myself needing to go lower than that F note. This means I often have to improvise. I might go up an octave if I know I'm going to need more lower notes. Or I might play up a little bit in the scale in which I'm working. I am not saying I have this down to an exact science: I do what feels right.
I do need a lot of practice with the higher notes on the melodica. The lower notes are easier to play, being closer to me and thus easier to see. A few songs I play do go towards the top of the melodica which has been a good introduction to those higher notes. I find my error rate increases the higher I go as I am still building a feel for all of the notes. I cannot rely on looking at the notes on the keyboard all the time: I need to build my muscle memory. I could perhaps play songs an octave up how I usually would play them to practice working with the higher notes. I do not see myself using these notes very often but I want to feel confident playing them should I need to ascend to the top end of the melodica.
I am by all accounts a beginner at playing the melodica. There is so much for me to learn. I enjoy practicing and seeing what I can play. I often try new things out -- note sequences, ways of playing notes, chords I think might work -- to see what works and what doesn't. I enjoy taking a playful approach to music and building an intuitive sense of what I can do with an insturment.
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