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Practicing Harp Happiness

#054: An American Romantic:The Music of Stephen Foster for Harp

music and meaning May 30, 2022

Stephen Foster is often referred to as the “Father of American music,” or “America’s first songwriter,” neither of which is strictly true. However, Stephen Foster’s extensive output of songs and the strength of their popularity more than 150 years later attests to the powerful connection his music creates. The homespun appeal of his words and music evokes gentle images of family, home, love and longing that are in sharp contrast to his more difficult reality. 

In fact, there were many ironical contradictions between his music and his life. His songs paint vivid pictures of life in the South, but Foster never lived there and only visited there once. HIs music was a staple in music hall minstrel shows, but Foster himself was an ardent abolitionist. His life came to a close not with the “Old Folks at Home” but alone in Bellevue Hospital in New York City. 

Nonetheless, his music is filled with singable melodies, uncomplicated...

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#053: How to Add Color and Variety to Your Sound

My harp teacher could make any harp sound amazing. I was astounded every time I heard her do it. On the occasions when she came to my house and played my harp, her magical touch on my very ordinary harp brought it to life in a way my practice never did. And it was MY harp!

My teacher was Marilyn Costello. She studied with Carlos Salzedo at the Curtis Institute of Music and had a lifetime career as principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And she had the warmest, richest, most liquid tone I have ever heard. 

Having a beautiful tone wasn’t something I thought a lot about as a young harp student. I was more interested in playing fast and flashy pieces. I didn’t give much thought to having a rich sound. After all, when you're playing pieces at warp speed, who can hear the quality of your sound? 

Obviously, tone matters. Like so many other harpists, it was the unique voice of the harp that first attracted me. The sound of the harp spoke to me when I heard...

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#052: Need a Fix? Try My Favorite Exercises!

There will never be a shortage of exercise books. As long as there are harpists, they will want to develop a more facile technique to make their playing easier, faster, more fluid and more musical.  Scales and arpeggios will always be staples of our technical work but obviously, there is so much more that goes into harp technique. And with the plethora of choices of exercise, etude and method books, where does a harpist start?

The short answer to that question is to just start; it doesn’t really matter where. Any technique growth is better than none. A steady progression of skills is even better, of course. Again the simple solution is a good one; work your way through any exercise book beginning to end and you will cover most of what your fingers need. When you’re finished with that book, choose another.

There are some technical issues, though, that are very common and yet are often resistant to the usual approaches. On today’s episode of the podcast, I want...

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#051: Get Out of Your Own Way: The Story of the Sacrificial Leaf

Are you trying to do too much? 

As a harpist or harp student, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There is so much music to learn, so many skills to develop, so much technique work you need to do and not nearly enough time to do it all.

If this sounds distressingly familiar, I have good news and bad news. 

The good news is that this is totally fixable. The bad news is that only you can fix it.

Don’t give up yet though, I do have powerful suggestions and advice for you today that will help you figure out what is really important for you to practice and what isn’t. My guess is that about half of what most of us practice daily isn’t really essential or helpful. That’s a scary idea! 

Stop for a moment and imagine the implications of that. It could very well be that you’re spending an hour of practice and getting only 30 minutes worth of results. You think you’re using your time well, but you may be doing too many repetitions or...

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#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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