The word always reminds of that amazing moment in the eye doctor’s office when he adjusts the machine in front of my eyes and everything comes into focus. I’m extremely near-sighted, so the change from my unaided eyes to the corrective lenses is startling and almost profound. The world is transformed from an impressionistic blur into well-defined reality.
I’ve had similar moments of clarity in lessons. Perhaps you have too, maybe in lessons, workshops, masterclasses or concerts, those moments when you are sure that you really get it. You can see the path before you and you step on to it.
Then you get home. You start to practice with all the momentum from your lesson, but gradually the edges of the path seem to blur again. You can feel the fog descending, and you try to practice through it, but you are increasingly uncertain that you are doing the right things the right way.
Although focus can arrive in a single lightbulb moment, focus is truly more of an...
“What stop please?”
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, I used to love to ride the public transit. I was too young to drive, and I needed to go from the suburbs into the city each week for my harp lesson. Each way my trip required one bus, one elevated train and one underground trolley, plus a nice six block walk. I felt so grown-up and free being able to negotiate the transit system by myself. And I loved being able to confidently tell the bus driver which stop was mine.
Because while the journey was fun and exciting, it was really all about the destination. I was going to my harp lesson, the most important part of every week. Getting off at the right stop was critical.
I was in a gift shop last week and a little framed saying caught my eye. The framed quotation was one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
And as I found myself acknowledging the truth of his words, I was reminded of how, in our endeavors, the journey is...
Transitions make the difference.
In life, we admire those who appear to glide easily from one phase of life to the next.
In music, we applaud artists whose seamless performances create a musical momentum that carries us along its path.
How we handle the transitions we face is the difference between success and stress, flying through the notes or flubbing them.
Whether we are trying to smooth out a transition in our music or figure out what comes next for us in life, the best practices for success are remarkably similar.
Consider the types of musical transitions we musicians struggle with daily. Perhaps one of the first transitions we encounter is the transition from the end of one line of music to the beginning of the next. Once we have been playing for even a short while, we no longer have difficulty with this, but it is a big hurdle for many beginning musicians.
Other types of transitions are tempo changes, key changes, and meter changes. There are transitions...
Does practicing your études drive you crazy?
Maybe you feel like it’s a waste of your valuable or limited practice time. Maybe you don’t see the point. Or maybe you’d just rather be playing something else.
I remember dreading the études I was assigned to practice on the piano and the harp. I didn’t really understand why I needed them. It seemed more like a punishment than music.
When I began teaching, I understood études in a completely different way, and I have to say that I value them not just for my students, but for myself too.
So why do I think études are so helpful?
Études test our technique in three ways: technical facility, usually one particular aspect of technique; speed; and stamina. They provide a streamlined musical way to develop all these areas without the distraction of learning the varied and changing note patterns in more complex music.
I think they are our musical “stepping stone,” a link...
You put your instrument down and stretch your arms. Shake out your hands. Rub your neck. That feels good. You got a lot done. Another productive practice session.
How often do your practice sessions feel like that? If your answer is “not often enough,” then let me help you with these two basic steps that could make all the difference.
Too often we think of our practice as a block of time into which we try to fit all the music we are trying to learn. In fact, practice isn’t about the time we spend. And productive practice isn’t always about spending more time. It’s about two things: planning and process.
The first step in productive practice is doing the right kind of planning. Most of us regularly make plans and set goals. We plan for our big goals, our “dream” pieces, our future repertoire.
But achieving those goals takes practice.
So our practice needs to be directed toward those specific longer range goals. We...
Yes, YOU can read music better – faster, more easily and fluently – whether you’re already an accomplished musician or just beginning your musical journey.
Why am I so certain? Because of what I learned in my 19 years of teaching that subject exactly at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music.
Having been a student at Curtis myself, I understood the students I was teaching. They were the cream of the crop: experienced, creative, skilled musicians. You wouldn’t think they needed more training in how to read music. Many of them didn’t think so either at first.
So I tried in my teaching to demonstrate to them the foundational principles of note reading that I had learned from my Curtis teachers in my student days. This is a different way of looking at the entire subject of note reading, an approach that reveals the processes of note reading in a way that allows you to apply them to music reading in general and not just to the challenges of a particular...
The Young Mozart
“You’re SO talented!”
I always appreciate the thought behind the compliment but it chafes a little too, as if talent alone was responsible for the quality of my performance. My performance went well because, like all musicians, I practiced properly and prepared thoroughly. In fact, talent played only a minimal role. Most of my success was due to plain hard work.
Nevertheless, I hear many music students worry about being (or not being) talented enough. When they don’t feel like they’re making progress or when they experience a disappointment, they say, “I guess I’m not talented enough.”
I believe we need to change our understanding about talent and its role in our music making. Talent in any field is a natural aptitude, that mysterious gift that makes some people quick at puzzles, others adept mechanics and others creative crafters. But talent doesn’t make any of these pursuits effortless, only a little easier or...
Did you have a great lesson this week?
I recently wrote an article for Harp Column magazine titled “Gold Star Student.” In it, I describe numerous ways that students can get the most from their harp lessons.
Today I’d like to look at lessons from a different angle with three tips that will help make each lesson a great one, and they apply whether you are the student or the teacher.
But first, what exactly is a “great” lesson? I think it is characterized by a spirit of collaboration, teacher and student joining efforts toward a common goal, along with guidance, growth and mutual respect. Please note that I do not measure the success of a lesson by the number of mistakes. A lesson is measured in effort, not errors.
A lesson is measured in effort, not errors. ~ Anne Sullivan
And a great lesson requires the efforts of two people: student and teacher. That is the reason I offer the tips below for both participants in the lesson.
Hard labor. Labor pains. Manual labor. Labor of love?
A “labor of love” sounds like an oxymoron, two seemingly opposite words. In terms of our musical studies, we might define it as the hard work we do in pursuit of excellence or in the service of our passion for music. But this definition makes one critical assumption: that we will realize results that will justify our commitment to the labor, so that we can celebrate our achievement.
But how often do we remember to take the time to savor that achievement? Or do we more frequently stay focused on the hard work – the practice, the lessons, the harp-schlepping?
When I started working as a young professional harpist, I was shocked to hear so many veteran musicians constantly grumbling about their work. They would complain if the music was too difficult or too easy, if the conductor was too demanding or too laid-back, if there was too much work or not enough. For a novice fresh out of music school, this attitude...
Are you in a practice rut, feeling a little bored, unproductive or unchallenged?
We all get into a rut occasionally. Usually it’s not from lack of discipline. Actually, often the diligent workers are the first ones to feel stuck in the practice mill.
Sometimes our practice can feel directionless or purposeless, like we are practicing in circles. Sometimes we simply don’t know what to do next. Other times we are just plain bored.
Music practice is hard work, and unless you have a deadline like a performance in the near future, it can be hard to maintain your focus and momentum. I understand this all too well, being by nature a reluctant practicer.
So over my years of practicing, performing and teaching, I have developed a number of strategies to make practice more creative and interesting. The ones I share with you in this post are ones that have been particular favorites because of their high “engagement factor.” They bring the “play” back into...