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...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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%...
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....
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...
Here’s a riddle for you:
What can go up or down but never side to side, can be like a gale-force wind or a whisper of a breeze, and is easy to do when you don’t know how and much harder when you do?
I’ll bet you got it in one guess - it’s a glissando. In case you didn’t get it, here’s why a glissando is the right answer.
The first part is obvious; glissandos - or in more correct Italian, glissandi - go up or down the harp. And the second part is probably clear too; a glissando can be powerful with a majestic sweeping rush of notes, or it can be delicate and tender, just like a whisper.
The tricky part of the riddle is the third part. If you’re a harpist, though, you likely understand this one. Playing a glissando on the harp is the easiest thing in the world. Taking one finger and brushing it over the strings in a simple glissando was quite likely one of the first things you ever tried when you sat down at a harp for the very...
Form follows function.
I expect you’re familiar with that quote but you may not know the entire context. The phrase is a vast simplification of an idea put forth by architect Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, in his 1896 article titled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Working from an idea of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius that a building should be solid, useful and beautiful, Sullivan developed his overriding philosophy, what he called the single "rule that shall permit of no exception." This was his complete statement:
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes...