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Practicing Harp Happiness

#160: The Other Side of Harp Playing: How to Develop Your Musicianship

Maybe you’ve noticed or maybe you haven’t, but these podcasts are organized into three different categories. One category is “Practice and Performing” and another is “Music and Meaning.”  The third category is “Technique and Musicianship.” Technique is one of those self-explanatory items, but musicianship probably needs a little more description. 

A common dictionary definition of musicianship is “the skill or artistry involved in performing music.” Other definitions include the word “knowledge” along with skill and artistry. Musicianship as a category is so broad that it actually encompasses everything about playing music except for technique, although technique obviously has a role to play in musicianship as well.

I like to define musicianship as the craft of music. It is the part of playing music that is common to musicians whatever instrument they play, or whether they sing or compose. For us...

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#159: Could You Learn a Piece in a Day?

music and meaning Jun 03, 2024

At one of our Harp Mastery® retreats several years ago. I presented a workshop called “Learn Anything Fast.” That sounds like a pretty ambitious topic, and I imagine that some of the retreaters were a little skeptical. After all, learning a piece of music takes time. But my point in that workshop was this: does it have to take as much time as it’s taking you now?

There’s no golden rule about how long it should take you to learn a piece. That’s something students would often love to know, and it would be wonderful if each piece came with a guarantee, like all those infomercials have: Learn this piece in 30 days or your money back!

There is no “30 day guarantee” for a piece, because each harpist approaches each piece with a different set of individual skills and strengths. Each piece requires specific skills, either technical skills or musicianship skills or both. How long it takes you to learn a piece is a combination of the demands of...

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#158: Memorization Basics: How to Make It Stick

In a world of sticky notes, Gorilla Glue and tape that can hold a leaky boat together, why can’t we make a piece of music stick in our fingers?

Does this sound familiar? We sit down at the harp on Monday with fresh spirit and energy and we dig into the music we want to learn. Tuesday we repeat the process, feeling very virtuous. On Wednesday, we are a little disappointed that we don’t see any progress from our practice. Thursday, we decide that it just needs a little more effort. On Friday, it seems like our fingers have forgotten everything we’ve been trying to teach them, so we take the rest of the weekend off and hope that next week will be better. 

And if we’re trying to memorize a piece, it can feel even more frustrating. It takes so long to see any progress. Our music just doesn’t seem to stick. 

We can put the blame in lots of places: the music is hard, we don’t have enough practice time, we’re too distracted to focus,...

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#157: 10 Tips for Terrific Thumbs

I was going through some old music the other day and came across a notation that made me smile. It was written in my best elementary school cursive script and read, “Thumbelina’s having trouble with her thumb.” I don’t even remember what piece of music it was on, but it could have been on just about any one. I always had trouble with my thumbs. In fact, most of my music has the words “Thumbs up” in my teacher’s handwriting somewhere on the page.

I am double jointed, not to any circus freak level but in the more or less usual way. My thumbs bend backwards at the first knuckle. It’s not a big deal, not unless you’re a harpist, that is. It took me until I was sixteen to finally learn how to control my thumbs and have them play properly.

What I learned in the process was exactly how crucial our thumbs are for our harp playing. Our thumbs actually have the ability to free our fingers to be relaxed and supple; used another way, our...

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#156: How to Prioritize Your Creativity and Still Get Ahead

Are you a free spirit, a rebel? Or maybe you just hate being told what to do?

I have to admit that sometimes one or more of those labels fits me. Most of the time I toe the line but there are moments when I just don’t want to do the thing I know I should do. Now I’m not talking about anything illegal, immoral or dangerous. It’s more like sometimes I just don’t feel like practicing. Or maybe I’d rather play the new piece of music I just bought instead of slogging through those four measures that are giving me so much grief. Going over and over those four measures doesn’t feel like making beautiful music. It doesn’t feel creative, and even though it may make me feel a little virtuous when I’m finished, it doesn’t always bring me joy in the moment.

Because playing the harp is not only as important to me as breathing but it’s my job, I know I need to buckle down and do the important work, and so I do. But that doesn’t...

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#155: Shaped, Stable, Supple: A New Approach to Technique

Have you ever had one of those moments when you wonder if you’ve been doing it all wrong? It might be something you have taken for granted, a habit maybe, or a process, something you thought was the perfect system. You always have done it that way, but suddenly you have a moment of doubt. Maybe it felt like a blinding flash of clarity; the clouds part and suddenly you see the thing in a new light. But just as quickly that clarity fades, and you are left with a nagging feeling that you’re missing something important. 

Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so. I think we all encounter things that we thought were working, until we see that maybe they aren’t.

I think that many of us actually feel that way about our harp technique. We go along just fine for a while and then we hit a wall. There’s a piece or a performance that shakes things up and all of a sudden our technique doesn’t seem so trustworthy any more. We need to strengthen it,...

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#154: 3 Bach Pieces Every Harpist Should Know and Why

music and meaning Apr 29, 2024

Johann Sebastian Bach is a name every musician knows. He is revered as a composer whose music defined musical practices in the Baroque era and whose compositions still influence music and musicians today. Learning about his music and learning to play his music is required study for any music major.

But we harpists do feel a little neglected. We play one of the instruments that Bach did not write any music for. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from borrowing extensively from his keyboard music, his violin and cello sonatas and partitas and his lute music. Much of Bach’s music is well-suited to the harp with rippling scale passages or rich chords. 

My first in-depth encounters with Bach’s music were in my piano lessons when I was about 12 years old. My teacher was insistent about how the preludes and inventions I was studying should be played: how long each note should be, how the music was made up of melodies played together, or how the harmonies moved in...

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#153: Tempo Is Not a Number: Finding the Right One for You and Your Piece

Today’s podcast is all about tempo, and I have to start by saying that tempo is a funny thing. We define it with numbers or with the familiar Italian words, or less familiar French or German ones, and it still seems elusive.

Much of the time we try to pin a piece of music down to a number, a mathematically precise ratio of beats per minute. Perhaps the composer put it there as a guide for the performer. Perhaps it was added by an editor, an arranger, or a teacher. But it still doesn’t necessarily satisfy us. In fact, everything about this feels wrong. How is it possible to limit a piece of music, a creation that lives in a single moment, to one number? 

I remember reading the liner notes to a CD recording by legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein. This recording was made toward the end of his life. He was already in his 90’s, but the producers of this recording wanted to preserve Rubinstein’s interpretations of piano masterworks for generations to come...

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#152: Never Have a Bad Lesson Again

When I was preparing for this week’s show, I couldn’t help being reminded of a couple of tired old jokes.

Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this. 
Doctor: Then don’t do that.


Patient: Doctor, it hurts and I don’t know what’s wrong.
Doctor: Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

When we’re thinking about our harp lessons, we may sometimes think of it like a doctor-patient relationship. Something is wrong with our playing and we want to get it fixed. Give me the prescription and let me go home.

Or we may think of our lessons in a less transactional, more relationship based-way. Our teacher isn’t just our expert harp guide but our friend as well. We look forward to our lessons as a time to reconnect with our harp and with our teacher too.

While both of those scenarios may be accurate to some extent, neither one truly describes what a music lesson is or should be. If our lessons are transactional - just give me the scrip, doc -...

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#151: How Your Three-Finger Technique May Be Hurting Youā€¦Literally

It’s high time I got up on my soapbox. It’s not often I do a rant on the podcast, but there’s an issue that has me so fired up that I had to talk about it with you.

I believe it’s the result of how we are learning now. There are so many opportunities to learn online, everything from individual live lessons to Youtube videos to video courses to coaching to online masterclasses. And before you mention it, yes, I am obviously a contributor to those online learning opportunities, which makes me part of the problem. I’d rather be part of the solution. Hence, the reason for today’s rant.

You may have heard me talk about the leveling up involved in playing four-finger chords if you’ve been playing mostly three-finger chords. I’m not changing my opinion on that. 

But recently I’ve seen that the main stumbling block for many students isn’t just the addition of one more note to the chord. It’s actually more about the way...

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