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If I gently "break in" my harmonica, will it last longer and be easier to play? How long should my reeds last anyway?

There is a long established piece of advice that states if you play your new harmonica very gently when it is new, that it will somehow extend its playing life. I know of no reliable evidence to suggest that there is any truth in this. However, this does not stop people going though the ritual of playing them gently for the first week, or even gong to the extreme of holding them out of their car windows as they drive down the road, letting the wind "loosen up" the reeds - which to me just sounds like a good way to get bugs in your harp! The most often used explanation is something like "Well, when you get a new car you have to drive it gently for the first few miles, before letting it rip." This is true, but it has very little relevance to how the harmonica works. Car engines have lots of parts that come into contact with each other and everything needs to settle into place in order to work together optimally. A harmonica has free reeds that vibrate in an airstream and they do not (unless there is a problem with the harp) come into contact with other components. Here is a better example - if you take a brand new saw and only cut balsa with it for the first week, will it last any longer when you start sawing up oak with it?

When I first started playing the harmonica, I used to "break them in" very carefully and my harps would generally last a few weeks before I wore them out. After more than twenty years of playing, I now no longer bother to give them any special treatment when they are new and my harps seem to last almost indefinitely. I am still playing some of the first Lee Oskars that I bought back in 1986 and in the last twenty years, I think I have only worn out four or five reeds due to playing them (although I have damaged quite a few reeds by experimenting with them). This includes several seasons working as a street musician for three months of the year, playing for eight hours a day, six days a week. That's an awful lot of time that my poor reeds have spent vibrating back and forth. The reason that they have last so long is not that they had any magical treatment in their early life, but simply that I play with good technique, that achieves volume and projection without undue stress on the reeds. That technique is something that a good teacher should be able to explain, but it is a little beyond the scope of this web page.

I have heard many arguments to explain the process of "breaking in", but none of them have been very convincing. People with a better knowledge of metallurgy than I have, tell me that once you start to flex a piece of brass backwards and forwards, you start to fatigue it. Doing it gently for the first few hours merely delays the inevitable fatal fatigue. Of course, if you always play your harps gently, they will last much longer than if you abuse them, but reeds do not become "more flexible" if you break them in, nor do the reeds become "easier to bend". What does happen during the first few hours of playing is that the tiny gaps between the reedplates and the comb start to seal up. If the comb is made from wood, the wood absorbs the moisture and swells to form a tight seal against the brass plates; if the comb is plastic or metals, bits of gunk from your mouth start to seal up any air leaks. These things make the harp more efficient, as less of your breath is being wasted. This makes the harp more responsive and easier to play, but this is not due to any magical effect on the brass of the reeds.

Recently, the advocates of "breaking in" harmonicas have claimed that the procedure is akin to a metallurgical process called "coaxing". However, the following passage is from an authoritative textbook, Mechanical Metallurgy, by George E. Dieter:

If a specimen is tested without failure for a large number of cycles below the fatigue limit and the stress increased in small increments after allowing a large number of cycles to occur at each stress level, it is found that the resulting fatigue limit may be as much as 50 percent greater than the initial fatigue limit. This procedure is known as coaxing. An extensive investigation of coaxing (G. M. Sinclair, American Society of Testing and Materials, Proceedings vol.52, pp 743-758, 1952) showed a direct correlation between a strong coaxing effect and the ability for the material to undergo strain aging. Thus, mild steel and ingot iron show a strong coaxing effect, while brass, aluminum alloys, and heat-treated low-alloy steels show little improvement in their properties from coaxing.

So from this it can be seen that coaxing is a very precise process which is not really comparable to advice such as "play it gently for a while before you let rip", or "hold it out of your car window for a few minutes as you drive down the highway". It can also be seen the none of the materials from which harmonica reeds are typically made (various types of brass and in some very rare cases, stainless steel) are known not to benefit from the coaxing process.

One thing which certainly does happen is that the player becomes more used to the instrument. As you will have noticed if you've ever accidentally put the harp into your mouth the wrong way around (we've all done it!) each reed requires a slightly different playing technique. If you accidentally draw on hole 9 thinking that it is hole 2, the chances are that no note at all will sound. You make an incredible amount of tiny adjustments to your playing technique for each hole of the harp, these adjustments being made almost unconsciously - I believe that a large part of the "breaking in period" has more to do with breaking in the player than with breaking in the harp.

In the case of the chromatic harmonica, it is probably a good idea not to let rip in the first few minutes. Unlike most diatonics, the typical chromatic has valves which may take a while to settle properly into place. But in the case of blues harps, there is really nothing to be gained from "babying" them in their first weeks. How long your reeds last will depend upon how you play them, as well as on the harps themselves. Some harps (Lee Oskar and Suzuki ProMaster for example) have reputations for lasting longer than others. A harp which is well adjusted to your own playing style will tend to last longer, as you will be placing less strain on the reeds when you play. Good playing technique will also help, but keep your harp in its box all the time and it will probably last forever!

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