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Practicing Harp Happiness

#050: Metronome Methods For The Unconvinced

Tick, tick, tick, tick…the constant click of a metronome could conceivably drive a person crazy. I am now - although I wasn’t always - a metronome fan. Though this may sound crazy to some of you, the metronome is my favorite practice tool because it helps me fix errors, create flow and it gives me time to play a piece or a tricky passage correctly.

I realize that this may not be your experience with the metronome. Maybe your feeling about it is more like this:

If you’ve seen the classic movie Ben Hur, you already know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, let me set the scene for you.

At one point in the tale, our hero Judah Ben Hur is a galley slave on a Roman ship, chained to an oar with several other slaves. The entire hold of the ship is filled with men chained to oars; they are the engine of the ship. In order for the slaves to generate enough power to move the ship, it is essential that they row in a coordinated way. So at the front of the...

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#049: It’s All in the Wrist: The Crucial Link

Do you suffer from uneven scales, particularly when you cross under or over?
Do your fingers sometimes fumble to find the strings?
Is your tone warm and lovely some of the time and other times thin or weak?
Have the drills you’ve tried made no real difference?

Here’s the miracle solution to all these problems… and more!

If this sounds like a late night infomercial, I apologize, but I want to call your attention to the often overlooked, frequently misunderstood and almost always underappreciated member of your technique team - your wrist.

We harpists consider so many points of our technique - our fingers, arms and shoulders, our fingering, our placing. We worry about whether to raise or connect and in what situations one might be better than the other. Do we hold our elbows up or down? Should we sit on the edge of the bench or more in the middle and how high or low? So many questions and nearly as many different answers to each one.

When was the last time you thought...

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#048: Three Questions Your Teacher Wishes You Would Ask

music and meaning Apr 18, 2022

A harp lesson is hard work, for both the student and the teacher. It’s a time to acknowledge progress and challenges, to take what’s going well to the next level and to find ways to make the rough patches smoother. It’s not a performance where your teacher will judge you on how well you play that day. And it’s not a cozy get together for tea and encouragement, although those could be part of a lesson too. A lesson is for learning.

As a student I always knew I had a good lesson when I left the lesson feeling a little mentally fatigued but energized, even excited, about the work we had done in the lesson and the progress I was ready to make in the coming week. It was similar to the feeling you might have after a massage; your body is tired and sore, but relaxed and happy at the same time.

As a teacher, my favorite lessons are the ones where we work the hardest. We may be working on one measure or one passage. We might be bringing more expression to a piece or...

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#047: Left Hand Literacy: Skills Your Left Hand Is Missing

Does your left hand struggle to keep up? Your right hand seems to have its act together, but your left hand always takes longer to feel comfortable with the notes, no matter what piece you’re learning. Are you thinking that I have a hidden camera in your practice room? Not at all; it’s simply that I have had my own left hand issues too. 

I used to think that if I were left handed I wouldn’t have these issues. But I hear many of my left-handed students, even the more advanced players, complaining about the same left hand awkwardness. So much for trying to become ambidextrous as a solution.

Even more frustrating is that the solutions I used to recommend to my students - the same ones I was using myself - really aren’t solutions at all. Sure they helped my left hand become more fluent and flexible, which I would call a big win. But I still saw my students struggle with left hand passages that should have been easily within their grasp. Or more precisely,...

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#046: Taking A Second Look at Salzedo’s Music

music and meaning Apr 04, 2022

What famous harpist has his 137th birthday this week? Carlos Salzedo, that’s who.

This harpist and musical innovator was born in Arcachon, France on April 6, 1885, and on today’s show I would like to introduce you to a side of his music you may not have encountered, including some music not only playable but even suitable for lever harp.

Before we get started, you will need to know a little of my own background. I was brought up in the Salzedo tradition. My teacher studied with Salzedo. I went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; Salzedo had founded the harp department there, and I had my lessons in the Salzedo Room. And so Salzedo’s tonal language became part of my musical education from the very first. I learned Tango - my first harp recital piece - and Night Breeze, which I will play for you later today. I learned the Preludes Intimes and Song in the Night (Chanson dans la nuit). Then I went on to learn the Five Preludes and the Modern Study Etudes...

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#045: Bridging the Gap Between Practicing and Playing

Practice makes perfect.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
Exactly what are we making perfect?

There is truth in those two statements but they are misleading too in a potentially dangerous way.

The truth is that how we practice determines how we play.

The danger comes if we take this to mean that if our playing isn’t as perfect as we want it, we haven’t practiced hard enough. So when our playing falls short of our expectations, we practice longer or more carefully or with more grit and determination. Longer practice can lead to injury or boredom. Practice focused on being correct often fails to be musical. And grit and determination are not conducive to beautiful, relaxed harp playing.

But there is one kind of practice that causes our practice to translate into the kind of playing we want. If we practice in this way, we play better in our lessons, we are more relaxed and we are able to be more expressive. 

This kind of practice is absolutely critical to our success, to...

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#044: Five Fingering Rules You Need to Break

Ask a group of harpists what the hardest part of playing the harp is and you’ll get a lot of different answers: the technique, playing hands together, reading the notes, playing chords, putting on a new string, or maybe even moving the harp. Every harpist has his or her own bugaboo, a particular challenge in their playing. 

But we all agree that one of the trickiest parts of playing the harp is the fingering. 

From the first day we started the harp it was impressed on us that we need to follow the printed fingering. Placing our fingers accurately and in the right order - all at once or one at a time - helps us battle gravity and stay physically connected to the strings. I like to think of us as musical acrobats - only without the death-defying aspect. So much of what our instrument demands of our technique requires us to be airborne. We have to lift our hands to prolong a sound, to relax our hand, to move from one octave to another. And unlike pianists, we are...

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#043: Three Irish Composers You Should Know (But Probably Don’t)

music and meaning Mar 14, 2022

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day, a day which is important to many of us, not just because we’re Irish (my last name is Sullivan, after all)  or maybe just Irish for a day. As harpists many of us raise a glass on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate the amazing legacy of the Irish harpers and to the modern day harpers who continue this rich tradition.

On today’s show we will pay tribute to another facet of Irish music with a tradition just as rich and as beautiful. I will share music by three influential Irish composers, not composers of traditional music but composers more linked to classical music: one who found his fame and fortune in the court of Queen Elizabeth the I of England, one who invented a musical form that became a staple of classical music composers, and one who is considered responsible for the resurgence in the 1960’s of the popularity of Irish traditional music. Three very different composers, all linked by a common heritage, a heritage I am proud to share. 

Links...

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#042: Use Your Practice Time Wisely - Even If You Can Never Stick To a Plan

Sometimes planning is counterproductive. 

I know this sounds strange coming from me because I am a huge advocate of having a plan and working the plan when it comes to your practice. That’s truly the secret of being able to play the music you want and creating harp happiness over the long haul.  There’s power in a well-conceived and consistently executed plan, particularly when it comes to your practice.

But planning doesn’t come naturally for everyone. The good news is that it isn’t the only path to progress. 

In my house, my husband is the true planner. For example, while I was working on this podcast, he was browsing the web, planning out activities to schedule for a trip we have coming up. I like to do my research on these things too, but he likes to have everything planned out day by day as soon as possible. I prefer to get where we’re going and get the feel of the place before I make my decisions. I want to get my bearings, to sort...

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#041: Your Questions Answered: Questions From The Podcast Email

Today’s show is dedicated to you, the podcast listener. I have gathered some of the most interesting questions from our podcast inbox and I will be answering them in this episode. 

After all, advice is only good if it’s the advice you need when you need it. Obviously, a podcast isn’t the same as individual instruction, or having your harp teacher on speed dial, but it’s important to me to talk about the topics that matter to you, those things that will make a difference in your harp playing. That’s one of the reasons I like to give you an action step or two with each podcast. Taking action, doing something rather than just talking about it, is how progress happens. It’s how we grow. Just think; if we only talked about practicing and never actually did it, our harp playing would never improve. In fact, it would start to wither and die. 

If being a harpist - or harper if that’s more “you” - is part of who you are, then...

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