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Practicing Harp Happiness

#077: How to Reach that Unreachable Left Hand Chord

How are you supposed to reach that left hand chord?

You know the one I mean. It goes by a lot of different names, a root-position triad in open spacing, a 1-5-3 chord, or maybe just the chord you can’t ever place accurately. Certainly when we first encounter the chord, it’s a stretch for our hands, but eventually most of us can manage it without too much difficulty.

When we place and play the chord well, it sounds warm and rich. Because it’s a big reach, though, it’s often a challenge to get to the right notes at the right time and play them without hitting neighboring strings. 

And that’s a problem because this combination of notes is everywhere in harp music. We encounter it sometimes as a chord, sometimes as an arpeggio. In fact, I often call this the “left hand master chord,” because it is the one chord that, when we master it, solves playing difficulties in so many pieces. We don’t want to have to spend our practice time...

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#076: Are You In the Zone or Zoning Out?

What’s the big deal about being “in the zone” and how do you get there?

You might have heard the zone described as total focus, as losing your sense of time and space, of being completely absorbed in what you’re doing. People use phrases like, “being able to perform with total concentration” or “losing all awareness of one’s self.” It’s also called a “state of flow.”

From these descriptions, you might think being in the zone is the world’s best antidote to nerves, and in some ways it might be. But the secret to getting in the zone, whether you’re performing or practicing, is really a matter of balance. It’s not magic and it’s not a trip into the matrix. You don’t need a secret mantra or to try to shut your mind away from your playing. Being in the zone is being fully present and involved.

Sometimes musicians try to find the zone by attempting to play on autopilot. You know what I...

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#075: Ditch the Drills: 3 Better Ways to Practice

Who wants a better way to practice? Yes, please!

While it's true that music practice necessarily involves a lot of repetition and drill, there are better - and definitely worse - ways to go about it. Consider how many times you have gotten up from the harp bench having spent an hour on those four nearly impossible measures and come back the next day to feel like you’re starting back at square one again. I feel your pain, my friend, I’ve been there.

Hopefully, you’re keeping in mind that progress doesn’t happen in a predictable way; it happens in its own time. It’s like a seed you plant in the ground. You water it and guard it carefully but you can’t really see through the ground to see if anything is happening. Then one day you go outside and there it is - a baby plant. 

Yes, progress happens over time and is nurtured through repetition, but unlike the growth timeline for a seed, we have a little bit of control of how quickly that progress...

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#074: Everyday Etudes: The Right Way to Use What You’re Already Practicing

Quick question: hands in the air if you’ve ever decided to skip your technique drills and etudes because you are doing that work already on a challenging passage in one of your pieces.

Yes, I thought so. Everybody’s hand is up, including mine. So we all do it, skip our technique work because we’re short on time and we can get the same benefits by doing double duty practice - working on technique with one of those sticky spots that we need to drill anyway. It sounds like a good idea and a great use of our time. But is it really?

Well, yes…and no.

Exercises and etudes have very specialized functions in harp technique practice. The most significant of these is that they take musical context out of the equation. By eliminating the pressures of the right notes at the right time with all the dynamics, we can laser focus on our mechanics, the way our fingers work, the position of our hands and arms, staying relaxed, and maintaining a healthy posture. Then moving...

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#073: Tuning Masterclass: Learning to Listen

If I had to choose one tool that made a harpist’s life easier, I know exactly which one I would choose - the electronic tuner.

I belong to the last generation of harpists that grew up in a world without them, so I know what I’m talking about. Having a device that allowed you to tune in a noisy environment and be confident that your harp is really in tune was new technology when I was a student, and it was a game changer. 

Imagine trying to tune your harp on stage while the rest of the orchestra is warming up - violins and piccolo showing off their highest notes, double basses and timpani making anything below middle C inaudible and the brass instruments heroically filling in the middle. Tuning in an orchestra used to be a guessing game.

As grateful as I am for my tuner, there was an unintended consequence to this technological revolution. We harpists have stopped listening.

Consider for a moment how we tune with a tuner. We play a string and then look at the tuner...

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#072: Divide and Conquer: How to Practice a Piece in Sections

Have you ever wanted someone to just give you a system for learning a piece of music, a system that would work for every piece, every time? Me too. But there isn’t one.

Ok, don’t give up on me yet. I do have one that will work for most pieces, most of the time, and I’m going to teach that to you today.  

Why are we always looking for that single system, that magic bullet? My idea is that it’s because learning music is so complicated, with so many considerations and moving parts. At the same time as we are dealing with all this complexity, we are trying to make the music beautiful and expressive, something that transcends mere notes and rhythm. Not a small task my friend. 

I found a quote the other day that really spoke to me. It’s a quote from a Danish computer scientist who teaches at Columbia University. His name is Bjarne Stroustrup. I think I was drawn to this quote and some others of his because his sense of humor reminded me of my...

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#071: Quick Fix Episode: Fumble Free Fourth Finger

I can almost always tell the skill level of a harp student by the way they use their fourth finger. It’s not the strength of the finger or a lack of coordination. A less advanced player simply avoids using it.

It shouldn’t surprise you if you give it a moment’s thought. Remember back to the very first pieces you learned on the harp, at whatever age you were when you started. They used mostly the thumb and second finger. You learned to place them together and to play them simultaneously and one after the other. Then you added the third finger which brought the additional pleasure (and challenge) of three-note chords. Placing, whether for a chord or a scale passage, was not just one additional finger harder; it was exponentially more difficult. 

It’s likely that as you were learning these pieces you were also practicing scales and arpeggios and even etudes that used the fourth finger. But just because you were learning them didn’t mean your fourth...

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#070: Failure to Finish: Why You Might Be Missing Your Goals

Have you ever looked at your closet full of clothes and said, “But I don't have anything to wear”? Maybe you've looked at that big stack of music next to your harp and said, “But I don't have anything I can play!” I don’t know which is more frustrating.  Actually, I do.

When we spend hours, days and weeks practicing a piece of music, and it still doesn’t get to the point where we can actually play it for someone, it goes beyond frustrating. How is it possible for some people to have hours worth of music that they can play and others don't even have a single piece?

I remember how shocked I was the first time I realized how common it is for dedicated, hard-working harpists to have nothing ready to play. I was teaching a workshop and talking about what to do when you finish a piece and getting a roomful of blank stares. I asked the question, “How many of you don’t have a piece that’s finished right now?” and about 80%...

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#069: Steps to Taking the Plunge into the Digital World with Kristina Finch

Today we’re talking technology, the technology that has changed the lives of harpists everywhere. It’s the world of digital sheet music - PDFs, tablets, computers, foot pedals, all the things that have made thick binders of sheet music a distant memory - thankfully! - for so many of us.

Consider how an innovation works. Usually it doesn’t change the world all at once. The Wright brothers managed to get their airplane off the ground, but it took a lot of time and development before the general public could fly coast to coast. There was a span of nearly a hundred years between Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone and Motorola’s first handheld cellular phone. It takes time to sort out what is really useful about a new technology and how it can benefit the person on the street, or in our case today, the harpist at the harp.

Sheet music downloads have been around for a long time. I published my first downloadable music PDFs way back in 2004....

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#068: Mindset Reset: Keeping the Play in Your Playing

music and meaning Sep 05, 2022

Today is Labor Day in the United States. The very first Labor Day was celebrated exactly 140 years ago today on September 5, 1882. It was intended as a holiday for the general working population in recognition of their contributions to the country’s prosperity and strength. At that time it was decided that the celebrations should include a parade to showcase the trade and labor unions and a picnic for the workers and their families.

Today, 140 years later, Labor Day celebrations still include parades and picnics. Labor Day also marks the traditional end of summer holidays and the beginning of a new school year. 

The idea of Labor Day - to celebrate and honor work and toil - is a powerful one, and one that I would like to suggest has application to our harp playing. That’s the key word - playing

We work so hard to make our playing what we want it to be, what we think it should be. By contrast, how much time do we take to celebrate our hard work or even to...

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