I have made a list of the 8 things professional harmonica players hopefully do or don't when they get hired for a gig. Wearing alternatively the bandleader and sideman hats as a working musician in New York, I have experienced both sides of the job. Of course I have made all the mistakes below but I hope you won’t!
1) Show up in advance
If you arrive early at a gig or a rehearsal there is a good chance that you'll be hired again. Probably the most important thing to remember in your musical career is to never be late. It can be stressful for the person who hired you to wonder where you are. You don’t want them looking at their watch waiting for you to show up. They probably have 100 things going on in their mind. You don't want to add to their stress. Being on the spot at least 10 to 15 minutes earlier will relax both your boss and yourself.
2) Always be prepared
In a perfect situation you get to have a look at the music days or weeks before the gig. This is enough time to get ready. At least you should be able to sight-read the melody and try memorizing the chord changes for improvising. Beyond that you can think about ways to make the harmonica fit better within the music. It will show your interest in the bandleader's project as well as your own creativity.
3) Handling stress with alcohol
Before a gig it’s common to want to loosen up a bit from a long day by ordering a drink at the bar. A small dose can effectively relax you. However drinking more than you can handle will tremendously affect your playing, especially in jazz where you have to focus, be precise and play fast lines. Better to get that wine when the gig is over while your bandmates are spending time packing their instruments. You’ll be ready to leave before anyone else in the band or at least after the singer and piano player! That’s another reason to love the harmonica for its portability!
4) Don't noodle between songs
It drives me nuts when I see people showing off or just playing before the show starts or between songs. It shows that you're not paying attention to what's going around you. The bandleader could have said important stuff about the next tune but you were busy noodling with your harmonica. Take the harmonica out of your mouth, smile and stay focussed!
5) Bring a backup Harmonica
The harmonica is a fragile instrument. Things occasionally break! Let's say you brought a screwdriver, a couple of harmonica parts and glue. You may have a short time to fix any issue during the piano solo or next break. How stressful is that! I remember being upset when my spring broke during a concert with my band. Unfortunately I didn’t have a back up harmonica or springs with me and had to stop playing for the rest of the set. Since that time I always bring a second axe with me, sometime a Suzuki Sirius or SCX 64.
6) Is your slide sliding?
It's frustrating when you feel the slide becoming stiffer while you're on a gig playing your best stuff. If you don't have an extra harmonica you'll be doomed for the rest of the set noodling around the C scale! You can avoid that situation by cleaning the slide pieces thoroughly before heading out to your show. Once you have put the parts back in the harmonica it's time to add a final touch. Hold your harmonica vertically and drop a tiny bit of olive oil down the slide piece. Make sure to get high quality oil for best results. Even the best of us sometime forget to clean the slide piece and end up with a sticky one on stage. Quick tip, humidify the slide top with your lips or dip it in a glass of water. It usually does the trick for a sticky slide.
7) Learn to take a compliment
Learn to take a compliment even if you don’t feel great about things. A simple thank you is cool. Just acknowledge the compliment and refrain the urge to self depreciate your playing. Your audience or even your band mates may have a complete different take on your performance. Most of the time they probably enjoy it a lot more than you think! And even if you sucked that night you'll get another shot to make it better. No big deal!
8) Praise your band mates
Before running to the bank cashing the check at the end of the gig or getting a well deserved drink at the bar, don't forget to always thank the leader for the call. You could offer to help them with anything they are dealing with at the moment. If you're the leader simply say that you appreciate their playing, looking for something to like in everyone. Taking care of your bandmates is really important! Never criticizing them but praising. You'll be sure to get a call back!
If you liked this article you might want to read 15 Jazz Standards You Should Know
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