As any schoolboy, whatever his age, will tell you there is never a good time to fall off your bike. However it could be that just after persuading a mate, who happens to own a restaurant, that now is the time he should give you a solo harmonica gig, is one of the worst.
Richard the restaurateur had taken a little convincing in the first place. ‘You have done this before, haven’t you?’ he asked giving me a steely look. ‘Of course,’ I said, lying through my teeth, which at that point were fine, ‘loads of times.’ We fixed a date.
Two days later I found myself coming round on a wetly red and particularly unforgiving swathe of reconstituted granite paviours. The fun only got more intense when I noticed some hard material in my mouth. ‘Bits of pavement,’ I thought at first. And then, ‘Oh no, its bits of tooth.’
A very careful medic at the local A & E put a stitch neatly in the centre of the inside of my top lip. By this time my face was beginning to look like a cross between Shane MacGowan and an onion bahji so, once I had shown Richard the damage to back up my case for a postponement, I got the chips in my front teeth filled. All I could do now was wait for the whole mouth area to heal.
I waited a couple of weeks, re-booked the restaurant date and proceeded to hit the practicing hard. The plan was for a varied set. My main anxiety apart from actually playing badly was to avoid giving my listeners too much of the same sound at once. I guessed that constant improvisation over jazz backing tracks for someone of my skill level would be too repetitive. I decided on equal parts jazz standards and unaccompanied waltzes and tangos with a couple of blues and better known melodies such as Love Story and Speak Softly Love thrown in.
I realise that restaurant gigs aren’t every musician’s idea of a great experience but I hoped it would help me build my confidence. As a performer in that environment I didn't think I'd be the sole focus of attention and while I wasn't planning to get away with rubbish I figured I could drop a couple of notes here and there without destroying the impact of the music. 'If I can create an ambiance the diners can enjoy,' I said to myself, 'I'd be satisfied.'
Also I'd get paid however many peanuts I'd managed to squeeze out of the tight fisted so and so who runs the joint, and be in a better position to blag a real gig where the audience had come specifically to listen to me rather than chomp their way through a brace or three expensive lamb chops.
At the time of booking, out of nearly thirty songs that I could use only two or three were really up to public performance level. So I got down to it. It was then that I realised how much playing harmonica uses the muscles in the mouth. Its obvious really but I’m the sort who doesn’t think outside the box unless the box is removed and mine, certainly as far as my teeth and lips were concerned, had been.
The problems weren’t too bad on the tangos and waltzes but this changed once I started to play over the jazz tracks. When I improvise on chromatic or diatonic I play hard for a fat tone. That means, I discovered, that my top lip is under a lot of pressure. This in turn puts pressure on my front teeth. When I got some bleeding from the gums I began to realise how much damage I had done. I guessed that my teeth had been loosened by the wallop they’d had and hadn’t firmed up properly yet.
My plan had been to rehearse flat out. I soon found that my loosened teeth wouldn't let me. There was no way I felt I could ask Richard for another postponement without compromising my my credibility. I backed off for a couple of days to see what would happen. The discomfort eased off a little and I resumed the practicing, just less frantically.
I wasn’t sure that with a reduced rehearsal schedule I’d be ready for the date but I kept the target in site and worked gradually towards it. The restaurant's signature ambiance was quiet jazz and country folk. I decided to drop into this in 20 minute sets at 10 to 15 minute intervals. That way I could pace myself and the diners would enjoy a varied soundscape.
The day before the gig I called in to talk to the man. We had both agreed to publicise the event. I knew I hadn’t. I just hadn’t got round to it. Confidence probably too low. But I was sure he would have done so. He was paying after all.
There weren’t any posters up which is always a bad sign. Also the man himself wasn’t there. ‘Ok,’ I said ‘no problem. I’ll catch up with him tomorrow.’
‘No,’ said the waitress. ‘He wants to see you. I’ll get him.’
My heart sank. This could only mean cancellation. I knew I should have spoken to him earlier but I had been so busy I hadn’t found the time. I sat and I waited.
He wasn't long. ‘We’ve only got one table in tomorrow,’ he said glumly. ‘For two. You’ll be playing to yourself.’
‘Oh,’ I thought. ‘I’ve been doing that for the last five years, how will one more night be different?’ But I said nothing.
‘Perhaps we should forget it,’ he said, ‘and set another date.’
I kept my, now cosmetically satisfactory, smile very firmly attached and cranked up the positive mental attitude. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that’s a bit defeatist. Lets do it anyway.’ Muttering something about me having to be flexible about the money he agreed.
So it was that I turned up at 7 the following night with amp, speakers, mike, leads, music stand, circuit breaker, music and harmonicas ready for a quiet night but determined to play my set anyway. As far as I’m concerned one person listening changes the dynamics of a rehearsal into a performance and I’d worked hard. I needed to road test my stuff in public even if it was only to two diners.
The harp god was on my side. ‘We’ve got a few more,’ he said. ‘Some even mentioned you when they booked.’ I set up and at the stroke of 19:57 kicked off with something easy to help settle my nerves.
It went like a dream. Throughout the night there were three tables of two, one of which were friends Bob Allen and his wife Pat, and three tables of three. Fifteen covers being several hundred percent better than two Richard was a happy host.
Applause wasn’t generous, most of it in fact came from Bob, but generally there was a good feeling amongst the diners. I glitched out on a few numbers but felt that 95% of my playing had been ok and Richard and I shared a brief goldilocks moment when he said he thought I’d pitched it just right. Apparently a table of elderly ladies, who had nonetheless stayed all night, thought my music was ‘nice but a bit loud’ but he said the volume was fine by him and everybody else had said they enjoyed.
It was really hard work though. By my last set I was tired, maybe because playing this way didn't generate the adrenalin of a real gig, and my teeth were starting to complain again. I was glad to finish on time at 10 o’clock and couldn’t have done a lot more.
Sceptic that I am I was only really convinced the night had been a success when he paid my modest fee in full and, having explained that he didn’t want me every week, offered me another gig two days later. I couldn’t accept as I was playing elsewhere so we agreed on a return at the end of the month.
I’m going to see my dentist on Tuesday and hopefully my teeth will have settled down a bit more by next time. And cycling? I think I remain convinced that its good for you. Just depends whether you can manage to stay in the saddle or not I suppose.
© Patrick Ellis October 2009