Let me give you the scenario. I was 13 or 14 years old and my friend was on the phone wanting me to go to the movies with her. I was completely resentful of the time I was going to have to spend practicing instead of being able to go to the movies. You might have imagined that I always loved practicing, but my parents usually had to threaten me, even in my early teen years, in order to get me to practice. As far as I was concerned, practice equaled punishment.
Fast forward just a few years and I had figured out where the fun is in practicing. Even though I would occasionally be disappointed at missing time with my friends, I understood the big payoff in practicing. Of course, more of my friends were musicians, too, and had their own practice to do.
But the big attitude change for me happened when I took a different perspective on practice. I redefined what it meant as a concept, for my harp playing and for me personally.
One common definition of...
Do you memorize your music? You should.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe it’s necessary, or even desirable, to memorize every piece you learn or to play all your repertoire from memory. But I do think it’s a good idea to practice your memorization skills. And the best way to do that is…to memorize.
I have written before that memorization is less about remembering than it is about learning. That old phrase about knowing something “by heart” speaks to the essence of memorization done the right way. When you have truly memorized your music, you have learned it so well that it has deep roots inside you. Your knowledge of the music is not superficial, accidental or merely “in your fingers.” It is not just muscle memory. It is more than intellectual understanding. It is visceral.
Many students need to be convinced to try memorizing their music. Those who sightread easily may feel that taking the time to memorize slows down their...
A new piece! There is nothing quite as exciting as that promising and as yet unsullied page.
I have been asked several times lately, “What’s the best way to start a new piece?” And I have given some evasive answers, saying that it depends on the piece and the player. While that is certainly true, I do have some “best practices” (and one you should avoid!) that will help you get off to a good start with any new piece.
Why not just dive right in and tackle those notes?
Because when you use a more systematic approach, you learn much more than the notes. You learn by using the musical skill, experience and knowledge you have already developed in a way that will help you see the big picture and practice with the end result already in your ear. You will be learning the music, not just pedals or levers and fingering.
And there are more benefits including fewer “practiced-in” errors, faster hands together learning, greater focus and improved...
Creativity is not something we generally associate with music practice. Our practice is more often about repetition and correction than about exploration and discovery.
Many music students don’t think of themselves as being “creative” in their music. They follow instructions, striving to become more proficient, to improve and to play well. Creativity is something reserved for people who compose and improvise, not for those who merely practice.
But you don't have to compose to be musically creative. Each of us creates the music we play in a very real way, giving the notes on the page a voice, specifically our voice, infusing it with our personality. I believe it is essential to our musical satisfaction to recognize the creative element in our music-making and to nurture it daily.
You don’t think you can do this? It’s easier than you think.
Consider the engine of a car. It is the very heart of the car, the reason that the car can go wherever...
Good posture is the first thing we musicians learn. You may have started playing music so long ago that you have forgotten your very first music lessons, or possibly you remember your teacher’s first words to you: “Now sit up straight…”
The very first technical element in playing any instrument or in singing is good posture. And although there are specific technical requirements for the various instruments, the basic tenets of posture are identical to the ones our mothers tried to teach us, beginning with that first commandment of good posture – sit or stand up straight.
As we become more proficient and able musicians, we often forget to check ourselves on these basic principles. So let’s do a quick review of the checkpoints of posture for musicians.
Making music is a whole body exercise, so your technique isn’t just in your fingers; it’s in your core muscles as well. When you do a posture check (which I recommend you do regularly),...
The Andrews Sisters
"Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative..."
These motivational words are the opening lyrics of a 1945 song by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer The song won the Academy Award that year and was a huge hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
Negative thinking is one of the hidden dangers in music practice. It can masquerade as perfectionism, striving to be your best, trying to make everything correct, even as being "objective" about your playing. And it is probably impossible to banish it entirely; after all, music is a demanding pursuit at any level.
But I feel it is important to recognize negative thinking and negative actions for what they are - self-sabotage. If we can acknowledge the ways in which we actively work against our own success, then we enable ourselves to defeat the negative and pursue a more positive course. I'd like to suggest positive antidotes to three common (and sneaky!) negative habits.
Wrong notes! You made another mistake!
What do you do when you make mistakes as you practice? Do you find the same errors happening over and over again, even after you thought you corrected them?
What most of us do when we have made a mistake is to go back to the spot and play it many times, trying to make it not only correct, but also reliable and secure.
That’s a good start, but it is actually more like applying a bandaid to the problem and not really finding a solution. I suggest a four step process to my students (and it’s the one I use too!) to make those wrong notes right.
My students become used to this question in their lessons when they make a mistake: what exactly was wrong?
I have found that much of the time when we realize we have played something wrong, our first response is to go back and do it over. This is good practice, but it skips an absolutely essential step. We must know what exactly was wrong.
Was it a wrong note or an...
Is your tension preventing you from playing the way you want? Relax!
Playing music isn’t supposed to be so hard. Of course, practicing is hard work, but there should come a time when you can just relax and play, right?
Precisely because practice is such hard work, especially if you do it right, it is essential that you learn to play with relaxation instead of tension. Tension makes every aspect of music making harder. In fact, I’ll go further…
…when you’re holding tension as you play, you are letting the enemy win.
“True Grit” was a great movie, but gritting your teeth isn’t the right way to play music. You can’t just power your way through a difficult passage or fast piece. Putting more muscle into your music will create more fatigue, and can lead to stiffness and weakness as the lactic acid builds up in whatever muscles you have clenched. Those arpeggios that you worked...
Autopilot has a comfortable sound to it. The computer can take over, make the tough decisions, free us up to catch up on our reading or our sleep.
I love thinking about getting my first driverless car for similar reasons. Will I be able to take a nap or work on my computer while my car takes me safely where I want to go?
Most of us run parts of our lives on autopilot. There are routine tasks that we do so often that we don't need to use our conscious brain to guide us through them. This is an efficient use of our energy. It requires much more physical energy to devote attention and focus to a task, which is why our body switches so easily into "autopilot" mode. It conserves our energy by using our subconscious mind whenever possible.
If we allow ourselves to use our autopilot when we make music, either in performance or in practice, we run the risk of not making music well at all. In fact, we are actually sabotaging our ability to learn music throroughly, to play confidently...
Our fabulous fingers! We harpists depend on them for every note. We trust them to be dependable and obedient.
But those phenomenal phalanges can sometimes turn into digit divas.
Here are some common (and very sneaky!) finger foibles you should watch out for. Which ones are your fingers’ favorites?
Your right hand has likely discovered a special way to hide. While you’re paying attention to every aspect of your left hand’s technique, your right hand may be getting sloppy. It knows that the strings act like a wall keeping your right hand out of sight and out of mind. And since our right hand technique is usually a little stronger than our left hand technique, we are apt to let our right hand be responsible for itself.
All your right hand needs is a little attention from time to time, a quick check to make sure that your fingers, hand, wrist and arm are in the correct position and working properly. Tear down that...