If you're new to the world of melodicas you might be wondering how the instrument is actually played. Chances are pretty good you've seen others playing a melodica but what specifically are they doing to get all those cool sounds? Just like any other instrument, learning to play the melodica takes practice and patience.
The first thing to learn is how to properly hold the melodica. If you're using an alto or tenor melodica you want to hold the melodica with your left hand and play the keys with your right. All melodicas are built for right handed people so playing with your left hand and holding with your right hand can be done but will be very awkward, so I strongly suggest you play it right handed. Make sure your left hand is firmly holding the melodica, but not so tense that your're sqeezing hard. The right hand hand should be relaxed with the fingers slightly bent.
Some people like to hold the melodica sideways and others like it more flat with their right hand coming over the top. If you're using a soprano melodica or one of those smaller models with the paddle style keys you will probably want to play it with both hands holding the instrument on either side. Have one hand playing the white keys and the other the black keys. These are just basic guidelines and you'll discover over time and practice what is most comfortable for you.
Blowing through the melodica is the next important concept and often the most overlooked. Controlling your breathing and applying good breath technique is essential to play the melodica well. There are several methods used to achieve different tones and most are fairly easy to learn. For smoother or quieter notes you'll want to use a lighter breath, at times almost whispering into the mouthpiece. For a stronger tone try blowing a little harder and using a whistling like blow to create more attack. Using your tongue to create short, staccato bursts is another good technique to learn. To achieve a tremolo effect change your breathing rapidly as you play, this will create a variation in volume - a common technique in melodica playing.
A couple of things to keep in mind: Blowing too hard can displace the reed and force it out of alignment. Start slowly and blow easy at first until you get a good feel for the instrument. Another thing to remember is that the more notes you play at once (or the more keys you press together) the softer the melodica will sound and the harder you will have to blow to achieve the same volume. As you play more you will start to develop your own style and techniques that will make your sound unique.
There are several approaches to playing the keys on a melodica and after playing awhile you will find what best suites you. Generally speaking though you want to begin with some good basic habits. Make sure your hands are relaxed and your fingers are not stiff or rigid. Your thumb should be under your fingers on the bottom of the melodica as you move up and down the keys. Try to play with a light touch as this will help develop good speed and articulation. Start out with simple, short riffs and phrases, slowly working your way up to longer and more complicated runs.
One of the most popular keyboard techniques is note bending. This is not the easiest thing to do but with practice it's a very useful tool for adding some expression and spice to your playing. Basically the concept here is to play a note as normal and then while still blowing very slowly begin to ease the pressure off the key with your finger. The idea is to still have the note sounding but with a drop in pitch that is created by the air flow being partially cut off. This is what is heard as a bent note, most often used in blues but also very useful in many musically genres.
There are several good instructional books out there and learning some piano scales and chords will help tremendously. Practice is the key to getting better at anything and setting aside an hour a day to play will pay off quickly. Playing along to recordings is a good way to improve your ear and timing. Of course there is no substitute to playing with other people. If you can, play your melodica as often as possible with other musicians. This alone will really help you to understand how your instrument works in a band setting and forces you to go places on the keyboard you might not otherwise try. Plus it's loads of fun...which will keep you playing more, and getting better.