When to Play
When you're playing by yourself, you're free to experiment and go wherever your imagination takes you. You can start, stop, and veer down any path you like — and you should, because following your impulses and going wherever your curiosity leads you is an excellent way to learn about music.
But when you're playing with other people, or “playing ensemble,” that all changes. Now your common objective with the other musicians becomes to sound as good as possible as a unit. This means you have to suppress your natural impulse to play constantly and start thinking about what's going to make the group sound best. Generally this means allowing the musical focus to be either on the group as a unit or on one musician at a time, with the other musicians “comping” for him — comping being a jazz term that means playing what sounds good with, or what complements the lead musician's solo.
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Comping for another musician includes not playing anything that distracts from what the soloist is doing, but rather playing notes, chords, or phrases that enhance what the soloist is playing and spur him on to greater heights.
This section might as well be called “when not to play” because that's the real guiding factor in tasteful ensemble playing. Here are some of the basic rules:
Don't play when the singer is singing, except during breaks in the vocals. A good way to practice this concept is to sing the song lyrics yourself and then fit harmonica phrases in the spaces between the vocal lines — this exercise automatically prevents you from playing over the vocals.
Don't play when someone else is taking a solo, except for possibly comping as mentioned previously.
Don't play when the opening or closing melodies are being stated (unless you're playing the exact melodies).
Don't play if you haven't figured out the sound of the chord progression yet, or if you get confused about where you are in the progression during a song. Then jump in when you get your bearings.
Remember, when you're playing music with other musicians, choosing not to play sometimes and purposely leaving empty space for the other players to occupy can be just as musical as playing. And when it's your turn to play and solo you'll appreciate it when your fellow musicians support you in these ways.