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5 Things Your Desert Island Composer Can Teach You

musicianship Apr 18, 2016

If you were stranded on a desert island and could have with you the music of only one composer, whose music would you pick?

It’s an old question, and one I almost always find difficult to answer. I love so much music, it is almost impossible to narrow my choices to one. But inevitably, my thoughts do circle back around to one composer: Johann Sebastian Bach.

On a recent trip to Germany, I took the opportunity to visit Leipzig, a city with a rich musical heritage and the city where Bach spent most of his working life. I visited the churches where he led the choirs, taught and performed, and I was thrilled to hear his music played on the organ in both churches. It was a profound experience for me.

And in that heady atmosphere, once again the question came to me: what is it about Bach’s music that creates such a deep connection with me?

And as I have often before, I single out the same characteristics of the music: complexity defined by order, melodies that are arching and...

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Set the Bar Low for Your Next Performance

performing Apr 11, 2016

Set the bar low for your next performance.  What?!

We are taught to aim for the best possible performance. We are accustomed to setting the bar high and going for the gold. And that's a good thing, right?

Not necessarily.

Sometimes setting the bar high can create more pressure, more self-induced pressure. We practice harder and longer as the performance gets closer, and we sweat the details, wanting every nuance to be just right.

That's where we lose our way.

We begin to put the performance ahead of the music. We unconsciously rate ourselves and our efforts as more important than the composers' creation or the listeners' experience. We lose sight of the reason for our performance.

Not only is that the wrong outlook, but it's a self-defeating one. Our focus shifts from the big picture, the musical mood or picture we want to create, to the nitty-gritty - the notes we want to fix, the noises we want to avoid, or the errors we want to eliminate.

And the narrower our focus gets,...

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Aural Skills: Yes, They Really Matter!

aural skills Apr 04, 2016


I won't say I told you so, but...

I was reading a post on one of my favorite music blogs, The Bulletproof Musician, and was so excited to find someone else talking about one of my favorite subjects: aural skills.

The latest post begins by exploring the very real benefits of mental practice, meaning practice away from the instrument. My students have heard me talk about this before.

There are many effective ways to practice and make meaningful progress even when you don't have your instrument at hand.  Perhaps the first and most obvious way is to listen to recordings. We are musicians and by extension, we are auditory learners, at least in part.

I also recommend that my students play the "air harp." I know it sounds funny, but pantomiming your practice can help you learn your music in a different way. You can review the basic physical movements required to play while you are listening to a recording or simply reviewing the music in your mind. Both these...

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The Amazing Practice Magnifier, Part 3

practicing Mar 28, 2016

It’s one thing to talk about focus, and another thing entirely to find it. You can practice with focus and perform with focus, but what if you don’t really have something specific to focus on? How long can you create focus for yourself?

Focus, motivation, drive, inspiration. They are all slightly different manifestations of the same important element in music study: energy.

That’s Carla’s problem. She started the harp with a seemingly endless supply of energy. She bought books, listened to recordings, watched videos and went to seminars. She discovered that there is a wealth of information out there about how to learn the harp and she became an avid learner.

Until she came to an unexpected roadblock and her energy seemed to run out.

She has almost decided to give up the harp. It’s not just that it’s more difficult than she thought; it also feels pretty lonely. But there is hope for Carla, and for others like her, and it’s closer than she...

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The Amazing Practice Magnifier, Part 2

musicianship practicing Mar 21, 2016


This blog post is the second in a three-part series of case studies that will show you how to bring more focus – and more harp happiness – into your practice and playing every day.

In last week’s post, Agatha learned how to stay more focused during her practice time and reduce the mental clutter that was preventing her from doing her best work.

In this week’s case study, we help a harpist who is ready and eager to practice but has no idea where to start or what she should be doing.



“It’s not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” – Martial Arts Master Bruce Lee

Imagine if you were able to focus your practice on only what truly needed to be done, not a minimum in terms of time or effort, but intensive work on exactly what was going to create results. You would eliminate excess repetitive practice, and make your practice more interesting. Your practice would be...

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The Amazing Practice Magnifier

news practicing Mar 14, 2016

Wouldn't it be great if you could make your practice more productive, more rewarding and more enjoyable? If you could magnify the results you got each time you practice?

It's possible - with focus.

Just like a magnifying glass can focus the sun's rays, you can focus your energies in your practice to get the kind of results you want.

This blog post is the first in a series of case studies that will show you how to create more focus - and more harp happiness - in your practice every day. The scenarios in these case studies are not related to particular harp students. They are composite reflections of problems common to many students. The names used are for illustration purposes only.

Case Study #1: Agatha

Agatha is a talented and dedicated student. She has solo music that she is learning and a few harp ensemble programs in the works. She is also a very busy woman with a full family schedule plus her volunteering and her crafts.

Agatha sets a practice schedule for herself but her...

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Making a Smart College Choice

music miscellany Mar 07, 2016

Center for the Arts, University of Delaware Photo by Jon Fox

(This post about college choices first appeared several years ago, but it's that time of year again. Here's to making a smart choice!)

With the incredible variety and number of options, how do you make a good college choice? How can you find the right music program to get you where you want to go? Is a music conservatory the right choice for you?

Rest assured, there is at least one college, and most likely several colleges, that would be a good fit for you. But how do you figure out which one is right?

I was very lucky in my college choice. I was able to go to the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. I was fortunate to have been accepted.

But I had given myself an ultimatum that could have ended my music career before it started. I decided to only apply at one other college. I would only go there if I weren’t accepted at Curtis. And if I weren’t...

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Method or Madness

musicianship technique Feb 29, 2016

“What method do you play?”

It’s part of the human condition to label, sort and divide. Classifying things makes them easier to understand.

We feel a bond with others that share our views. We form clubs and associations. We develop deep loyalties. We separate the sheep from the goats.

But labels can also cause misunderstanding and divisiveness. As a musician, no matter what instrument you play, you are almost certainly on one side of some fence. One of the biggest “fences” is the one between the partisans of different methods.

There are different methods, different schools of playing for every instrument, from banjo to bassoon. The statement “he plays well, but he’s the other method,” although it expresses a natural feeling, only serves to strengthen walls instead of build bridges. 

What a method is

At its essence, a method for any instrument is a unified philosophy of sound production. It aligns the technical requirements, the...

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Do You Have a Harp Hero?

music miscellany Feb 22, 2016

I need a hero.

A harpist’s life is not an easy one. I’m not complaining, mind you, just stating a fact.

The harp is a beautiful instrument, but one with lots of issues. Whether we are trying to tune it, play it or move it, we are not traveling an easy road.

Along my own harp road, I have encountered many people who have made my way much smoother, some simply by a thoughtful gesture, others who showed me the way with their own bright light. These are my harp heroes.

I know you’ve met them too, people who make your day brighter and your dreams possible. Do you know any of these harp heroes?

  • People who open the door for me and my harp without my asking.
  • Conductors who give me time to reset my pedals.
  • People who ask if they can help me when they see me moving the harp, and then wait for my answer and my direction.
  • School band directors who find creative ways to include my students in their ensembles.
  • Harp parents who give up their evenings and weekends to take their...
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Thinking Music in 3D

musicianship Feb 15, 2016

When you look at your music, is your vision bounded by the black dots, lines and spaces and the edges ofthe page?

Let’s get out of the flat two dimensional world of the printed page and look at music in 3D.

The Horizontal Dimension of Music 

Melody is horizontal dimension of music. It is the narrative voice of music. Melody tells a story, sings a song, or paints a picture.

Melody is linear, but a good melody is never merely a line. Melody has direction, energy and flow. Like a well-crafted sentence, a melody must have a clear beginning, convey a thought and carry through to a conclusion.

Melody is often thought of as an arch, moving upward from its start to a high point and then coming back down as it ends.  The great oboist Marcel Tabuteau developed a precise numeric system to help his students learn how to shape a phrase from beginning to the top of the arch and back. You can read more about that in this previous post..

For us harpists, playing a carefully...

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