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I am a 63 year old man who has never played an instrument before but I have recently started learning to play the harmonica. I’m half way through my second 12 week term of harmonica and I am not only unable to play with other harmonica players in the class I still can’t play with a backing track, which means I can’t play with a band.

This week's lesson was a good example. I’ve practised a piece all week and have it pretty close to perfect. On my own at home I can play the piece from start to finish, in class on my own I can play from start to finish but if the person next to me plays with me or the entire class plays along I lose it totally. The same when a backing track is put on and we each play individually.

I need something to help me work this out .... any clues or advice?

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Paul is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 24
    You probably just need more practice.If you've been playing music for less than a year, it's not surprising. Just like learning to blow and bend and all those other things, learning to keep time with other musicians is a skill you'll have to learn and practice. – Todd Wilcox Feb 11 at 14:04
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    Who is leading / setting the tempo? Are the others following you or someone else? Try videoing a play-through aimed at the lead player in the group (or conductor if you have one) and then practice to playbacks of that video. Extra good if you can get the angle the same as from where you sit. – Criggie Feb 11 at 22:59
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    Firstly, congratulations on learning to play! The answers provided by other users are good advice. I can only add: don't give up. Practice with some YouTube videos at home; build self confidence: you know the piece, trust the other players will do their part and do yours. If you need it, ask your teacher/classmates for help with tempo marking. – Barranka Feb 12 at 6:31
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    Wow people, can't thank you all enough for the advice and support. I wont answer/respond to each of you but it does seem that I need to tap. I did try a metronome on my phone but found that distracting too! So I am going to learn to tap my feet to the beat....actually when my teacher plays he does rock from foot to foot when he's accentuating the beat for us....the penny has dropped, now I just have to pick it up! What a nice group .... I'll be back! – Adendum Feb 12 at 12:26
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    Hi Paul - if you register your account rather than creating a new unregistered one each time you can do useful things like accept answers, edit your posts etc. Our tour page has loads of useful info. For now I'll move this post to a comment. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 12 at 12:55
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From my experience, start really simple. I started with a metronome, and played a familiar piece at a variety of tempo's to get me used to listening to the beat and playing the notes in the right time as a result of an external influence.

Move up to a simple backing track cd with a strong beat, something like a blues backing track for beginners. Keep going with it, you'll get used to it eventually.

Playing along with others and keeping in time with them really threw me off to start with, it's still quite difficult until I've settled into it.

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Joe is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
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    This was my first thought as well. You have to keep time to play with others, as well as listen. Check your timing by practicing something very simple with a metronome. – Paul Feb 11 at 18:23
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    Also, try to re-interpret the beat of the metronome as off-beats, as 2-and-4, etc. Then, try to get a simple upright bass track to play along to (some more sophisticated metronomes also have simple builtin sequencers and allow you to program a simple bass or drum track). The sound of an upright bass needs a bit of time to develop, so it will always sound a little bit behind the time (unless you can hear the slap), that way you will learn to anticipate the rhythm and play into it. – Jörg W Mittag Feb 12 at 6:44
  • Very good. I completely forgot about my musical friends' use of metronome. – Bread Feb 13 at 0:24
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Learning to play with others is a skill that needs to be learned just like any other thing that you need to learn to be able to play.

"I’ve practised a piece all week and have it pretty close to perfect"

How do you know it was "close to perfect"? Are you recording or videoing yourself and then playing it back? What you think you hear when you are playing and what you are actually playing could be very different. Any inconsistency in tempo may not be noticeable by yourself but could be a train wreck when playing with others. The recording or video of you playing may show you some stuff you don't realize is an issue otherwise.

Do you practice with a metronome? This could be very helpful. I highly recommend using one.

Do you have access to the backing track at home? If so, play to it as this will help get you used to it. If not, youtube has lots of tracks. Ask your teacher for a copy or if they can provide you a link to a video that is in the correct key/tempo/style that you can practice to.

Is there someone you can play in front of at home? A friend or family member would work fine. Your problem could all just be nerves. Practice preforming in a safe place in front of people that will still love/like you if you aren't great will help ease the nerves and get you used to playing in front of people.

You are taking a class and the instructor knows your playing level and has probably heard this issue in class and is much more likely to be able to help you with it (more so than some random person on the internet who has never heard you play). Ask them for help.

Finally, if you have made friends with anyone in the class ask them to get together and play/practice. You will both improve by doing this. Either one of you might see something in the other player that you can learn from or teach each other. Part of being a musician is making music with others and no better way to do this than to make music with someone that is at the same or similar level as you.

This is a life long journey and the most important thing is stick with and work through issues as they come up. Try not to get discouraged. EVERYONE has problem periods when playing at all levels and the players that become great are the ones that work through them and keep going.

Good luck!!

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    A technique that can sometimes be useful is a variation on one my former choir director called "wood-chopping". Use a looper pedal or other means to cleanly loop a (typically) four-bar section of whatever you're trying to play along with, and just keep going over that one bit over and over until it feels like you'd be able to play it an arbitrary number of times without mistakes. Then the next four-bar section, and then the 8-bar section containing both, building up the piece in that fashion. Woodchopping on a hard section can feel like a lot more work than full play-throughs, but... – supercat Feb 11 at 16:06
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    ...it takes a lot less time. If 90% of a piece poses no problem, wood chopping 50 repetitions on the troublesome 10% will require much more mental effort than 10 complete playthroughs, but will yield much more improvement while taking only half the time. Looping cleanly will avoid any wasted time starting and stopping, and bridging four-bar sections will help ensure that one can play into the difficult sections without having to think about them. – supercat Feb 11 at 16:08
  • "stick with and work through issues as they come up" Yep! Enjoy where you're at while working to improve. But the OP's 63, he's probably figured that part out. – Don Branson Feb 12 at 22:18
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Backing tracks take no prisoners! They won't stop and wait while you work out what the next note is.

Don't worry about this. You're not alone. Can you get a copy of the backing track to practice with? If you're a computer sort of person you could slow it down a bit (even Windows Media Player has this function). Playing in time is a learned skill.

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You could try to play 4 bars of the backing track and then skip 4 bars and try to enter.

(my first thought was you might be stressed by the social situation, but then I remembered how difficult it was as a beginner when I dropped out to reenter. If this is your problem you could practice and train this also without harmonica and see if it works:

I call it tunnel-singing: let the music play, sing a phrase, rest a phrase (as the train would pass in a tunnel) and reenter in the right moment. Then count loud the beats during the rests. If you have no problem by singing try the same with the harmonica.

(During the "tunnel" prepare the instrument that it is filled with air, as far as I understand this instrument, it doesn't have to breath, you only need to turn slightly the hand that there is an other angle, if I'm not mistaken ...)

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    This is good advice! My drum(!!!) teacher always said: if you can't sing it, you can't play it. – Jörg W Mittag Feb 12 at 6:46
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Maybe when you play alone you unknowingly stop for a fraction of a second whenever you are unsure what to play, or even when you know a difficult part starts. I think I have this problem, with the result that you describe: when playing with a backing track there's not enough time. I would still feel that I can play the song, but only alone. Others gave great advise to practice with metronome, practice re-entering after getting lost. I would add: make sure that you are very fluent reading notes (I'm reading too slow to follow the backing track). And check your progress by playing with a backing track early.

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You don't say whether you're playing an improvised line or from notation when you perform to the backing track.

But if you're playing an improvised line I'd suggest at first improvising using exactly the the same simple rhythmic figure in every bar, starting with the first beat of each bar. This is to build awareness of where the downbeat (beat 1) actually is. This approach also helps you anticipate the chord changes as the piece progresses.

Once you're confident with this, use a slightly different rhythmic pattern - starting in the middle of each bar, leading towards beat 1 of the following bar. It sounds as though you go adrift when you lose sight of where you are in the bar. These techniques will help you stay more aware of this.

I'd also ask for a 1:1 session with your teacher - they'll almost certainly be able to spot where you're going wrong.

And finally, it's really brilliant that you're taking up a new musical instrument!

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Playing with other people involves bringing a whole lot of skills together. most of which require you to step outside yourself and look back. First, you have to hear yourself: did I produce the sound I was trying to make? That means comparing what you are hearing to the musical image that was in your head. Then you have to hear what the other person (or persons) your are playing with are doing and compare that to what you are expecting them to be doing.Then you have to hear what your sounds together are doing: are we meshing and are we making an interesting noise? And then,if you are playing specific piece, (as opposed to jamming) you compare that noise to the song in your head...All of this while not losing your place...

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Michael deTreville is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Hi, Welcome to Music.SE! I see you haven't taken the tour. I highly recommend it to get a feel for this community. Likewise, see the help center page to see the "how to write a good answer" link. This describes WHAT he must do, but not how to achieve it, which is required for an answer. Perhaps edit the answer to expand on that. As it is, this answer may be deleted as "not an answer." This is a great foundation for an answer, just needs a little more to get there. – Aethenosity Feb 13 at 20:31
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Let's break it down.

  1. Is the problem physical or mental?

(i) It's physical - This is very likely for a beginner. You are focusing so much on moving your mouth to the right place and breathing that you simply don't have time to listen to others at the same time. When you play on your own, you are, without realising it, stretching your subjective time to fit what you are doing. To an outsider it would sound wrong but to you it sounds fine. Remedy - ask the teacher to give you an easier part to play (say one beat per bar) until you are confident of listening and playing at the same time. Alternatively simply hum along to the tune during class for a while and see if you can keep up that way. If you can then you know the problem is with physically playing the instrument.

(ii) It's mental - Apart from people who have a physical impairment of some kind, walking rhythmically is a natural ability that we develop from an early age. Even with a limp, your walking will still be regular although slightly asymmetrical. Let's suppose you don't have a limp for the moment. If you are unable to walk for some reason then use clapping instead.

Find a simple and familiar march tune online, march on the spot with the soldiers (a) can you keep in step with them? (b) can you hum the tune in time with the musicians while you march? (c) can you march in time and play a single note on the harmonica for each beat? (d) can you march and play the tune? (e) Buy a cheap electronic metronome. Switch off the band. Can you march and play the tune in time with the metronome without listening to the band? (f) can you play in time with the band without marching?

The secret of playing in time with other band members is to both play and listen at the same time. If you concentrate so hard on the instrument that you can't hear anyone else then you are bound to be out of time.

To sum up. Analyse by a method similar to the one I've given above and find precisely where your timekeeping breaks down. That's where you have to do the work. One step at a time!

Good luck and enjoy your music!

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Everything has been said up there, or almost, I just wanna share personnal opinion about the metronome : it can help you if you feel that tempo is your major problem, but don't always play with it.

Metronome ruin the feeling of freedom while playing, and can make a song so flat even perfect tempo would sounds incredibly boring.

It can also make it harder to play with other people, while freeing yourself from this machine could let you follow the others and ease the catch up when you miss a note.

Don't forget, as said before, it takes time and eventually it'll get better just practicing more.

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Eredian is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 4
    Hm, I think for a beginner it is far far more important to hold a good pulse and being able to follow an external pulse, like a metronome, than being able to deviate slightly from it for musical reasons. This argument is used too often to rationalise the inability to be strict with time. – Tim H Feb 12 at 11:23
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    I think it's first one step, then the next. The first step should be to understand the beat; practice with the metronome as often as possible. THEN the next step would be to move away from the metronome. It's not like always using one while learning will forever cripple your ability to move around the beat. – Aethenosity Feb 13 at 20:22
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    Re, "Metronome ruin the feeling of freedom while playing...freeing yourself from this machine could let you follow the others..." That is opposite to my experience: The metronome was a huge help to me when I was learning to play with others. The thing is, when you play in an ensemble, you don't have freedom. You have to listen to the beat, and anticipate the beat, and play along with it. – Solomon Slow Feb 13 at 23:21
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    Re, "...and ease the catch up when you miss a note." You can't "catch up" after you ***k up--not when you're playing in an ensemble. That's how train wrecks happen. If you don't want to get kicked out of the group, then either learn to keep going as if the ***kup never happened, or if you can't do that, then at least drop out for a bit and do your "catching up" silently, in your own head. Playing with a metronome helped me to learn to keep going as if my ***kups never happened. (Well,... most of the time, anyway :-) – Solomon Slow Feb 13 at 23:31
  • I understand most of your answer, but you surely misunderstand mine. You should'nt say to beginners that we can't catch up like "don't mistake or quit already" that's bad advice actually. Mistake is crucial to learn stuff as learning to catch up is when playing in a band. Not talking of an orchestra here ofc, wich is a specific case. By catching up, I mean immediatly get back on the right beat and tone. – Eredian 2 days ago

protected by Dom Feb 13 at 16:05

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