The best practice advice I know is to record yourself regularly and listen to how you sound. Listen to pick out what licks, techniques, and tone sounds good to you, and try to duplicate those things. Listen to hear what mistakes really cause you to wince, and try hard to eliminate those.
Mistakes come in lots of different forms, from musical mistakes where you play the note you wanted the way you wanted, but it doesnít fit the music, to technique mistakes, to simply missing the note you intended to play. There are mistakes of omissionówhere you didnít do something you had intended, as well as commissionówhere you actually play something wrong.
There is a tendency to "not count" certain mistakes while we play, knowing that we can do better. When you listen to recordings of yourself you can more properly judge the effect of these mistakes on the overall music. As you try to eliminate these little problems you may find a couple of things: 1) itís not as easy as you thought to eliminate all the little flaws, and 2) you may discover that certain "moves" consistently give you trouble, which you hadnít realized before.
If youíre practicing a particular song, recording and listening to evaluate your play, at the beginning concentrate more on what sounds good, what you like, and try to keep those things whenever you play the song. Be positive, and be happy about the elements that sound good. Leverage those elements to try to improve the overall quality of the song. After a while, as time goes on, as you practice the song more and more, there will be more and more good things, and less and less things that make you wince. At some point it will be easier to take note of the "bad" things than the good things. Thatís a lot of progress! Work on getting rid of those poorer elements in your play, while keeping the better things. Sometimes as you work to get rid of something you donít like youíll introduce problems in areas you liked. Donít get discouraged. If it was easy, anyone could play good music in no time. Donít let the process of removing problems hurt your confidence.
You might want to keep an early recorded version of a song youíre practicing, and as you get better at the song, compare a newer recording to one of the older ones. Youíll probably be amazed at how much progress youíve made! Remember, you are practicing with the goal of getting better. If you are improving, you are reaching your goal. No matter how good someone gets, I doubt that theyíll ever achieve a goal that is to play something perfectly.. or that sounds perfect to their critical ears. The better you are, the more you are aware of subtleties, and the more room there is for mistakes. Donít be concerned about playing perfectly when you practice. Be concerned about improving your musical vision, your ear, and accomplishing the small tasks you set for yourself, like "do this part well again" or "try not to make this particular mistake".
The key to getting the most out of your practice is to regularly and consistently record yourself, and listen carefully to what you have played.
Donít forget that if you have a computer with a sound card you can use it as a recording device. Depending on your expertise with computers and your computer system, it may be easier to use digital recording than to worry about tapes. It is easy to organize your computer files, and itís nice not to have lots of recording media to deal with.
Another convenient way to record and keep track of your sessions is with the mini-disk recorders. These can access individual tracks without the need to rewind or fast forward to find your place, and the sound quality is better than tape in most instances.
One tried and true practice technique is to listen to recorded music and try to learn parts that you like, or even the whole song, note for note, nuance for nuance. Many musicians spend many many hours sitting by a tape deck, playing and replaying phrases over and over to figure out how they go. There are players available that are designed for this specific activity, and can slow down the music without changing the pitch to make it easier to hear the part. There are also software programs that can do the same thing to digital audio music that you have on your computer. One such program with a shareware version available is CoolEdit96 from http://www.syntrillium.com/. If you use it, be sure to register.
You can either rely on your memory, or use some notation scheme like tab, or standard musical notation, to write down what you hear to help you remember how it goes later. If you keep notes of your licks youíll have an easier time remembering them all later.
Practice to Recorded Music
To practice playing by ear and improvising, it is very helpful to have the other parts there to listen to so you can try to fit in with the music. Use your ears, and listen to the music you arenít playing, as well as that you are playing.
You can play with the radio or CDs, jam with other musicians, or use karaoke, "jam tracks", or MIDI as the recorded music. An option I really like is the Band in a Box product from http://www.pgmusic.com/. Recent versions of this program are truly powerful "bands in a box" that are superb for practicing almost anything related to music.
Donít jam along in the audience when a band is playing up front! Even if youíre good, the audience is there to hear the band, not you.
Be aware than when you play with other musicians, you should NOT play as much as when you are jamming to recorded music! Donít practice soloing all the time, and donít solo all the time when you play! Donít interfere with the singer or other playersí solos! To do so is rude, inconsiderate, thoughtless, and the easiest way to irritate other musicians and make yourself unpopular. Practice fitting in with the music, making it better with you than without you. The musicians are a team that need to work together and cooperate to make the best music, and have the most fun.
Have A Plan
To optimize your practice--to get the most out of the time you put in--it never hurts to have a plan. Know ahead of time what you want to work on, and focus your mind and play on those things, whether theyíre tone, technique, or music related. Your serious practice sessions donít have to be that long, if theyíre efficient and youíre focussed on what youíre doing.
Leave time to just have fun. You probably play harp because itís fun.. make sure you have time away from serious practice to just play for your own enjoyment. These times of play can be refreshing, and can be great times of discovery.
The best situation I can think of is to have fun practicing, so you look forward to it and put your whole energy into it. I think the most effective practice is fun practice. You just need to have enough discipline to balance periods of serious concentration with periods of "just for fun"!
Should I lay out a plan for you? I think that would make it a plan for me, not you, since I donít know where you are, what you need, your goals, or how you have fun. Let me just suggest some practice elements that you might think about including in your practice planónot every element every time you practice, but a list of things from which to pick and choose. Listen to yourself to see what you need more familiarity with.
There are many different elements to harp playing distinct from any particular music. Instead of just practicing songs and licks, be sure to practice these other elements as well. Thereís a lot more to music than just the pitch, time, and order of the notes. Thereís a lot more to a sound than just the note.
Try to make each sound you make on the harmonica sound as good as you can. Listen to each sound, by itself, and make it beautiful in its own right. Each note should contribute to the whole. The music should be better with it, worse without it.
Practice elements include: