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Practicing Harp Happiness

#080: Are You Taking Too Long to Learn That Piece?

“How long should it take to learn a piece?” 

I am asked that question so many times and every time my heart sinks. Why? First of all, there’s that word “should.” There are no “shoulds” in the learning process. The word “should” leads to the idea that there is one standard against which we could judge our efforts and which we could use to plan our music learning. An objective standard, such as “this piece will take any harpist three months to learn,” is absolutely impossible. So the word “should” isn’t helpful.

But even if we reframe the question in very specific terms - “how long will it take me to learn this piece?” - we still run into difficulties trying to come up with an answer. 

Each harpist is unique, bringing a unique set of skills and experiences to their music. Each piece has challenges that are specific to that piece which may test an individual harpist’s...

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#079: Playing from an Attitude of Gratitude

music and meaning Nov 21, 2022

This Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and it’s a big deal for us. According to a recent survey Thanksgiving edges out all other holidays, including Christmas, ranking as our most popular holiday. It’s really about three things: food, family and football. Oh right. It’s about being thankful too.

We try to be more intentional about keeping an “attitude of gratitude” at this time of year, but it isn’t easy. Thanksgiving also is the official kick off for the holiday shopping season, so the thankfulness is often tinged with a touch of frenzy as the Black Friday sales begin.

I’m sure you’re receiving plenty of reminders to be thankful this Thanksgiving but I wanted to add a special harp-themed reminder. 

My idea actually grew out of the Play It With Confidence Intensive from just a few weeks ago. We spent a lot of time in that course talking about mindset and choosing what matters to us in our playing. For me...

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#078: Bring More Dimension To Your Music: A 3D Approach

music and meaning Nov 14, 2022

I am fascinated with 3D printers. I don’t have one and I don’t see that I will ever need to have one, although we would have said the same about a smartphone just a few years ago. The idea, though, that a computer file, which seems less than tangible to begin with, can be turned into a solid three-dimensional object fascinates me, And 3D printing is used virtually everywhere: to produce eyeglasses and furniture, scale models, medical devices, reconstruction of ancient artifacts, and the list goes on.

The process is also interesting. It requires special software to read the design file and slice it into hundreds or thousands of cross-sections of the end product which are then created one by one until the end product is complete. 

What I find so intriguing is that the process is an additive process where the slices are added together to create the object. Consider how this is the reverse of more traditional processes where material is taken away, or subtracted, from...

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#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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