Is there anything you should change about your practice?
Our daily practice is our path to progress. It's how we develop mastery of our instrument and increase our understanding of music in general.
Shinichi Suzuki's famous quote,"Practice only on the days you eat," illustrates so vividly the importance of making practice a daily routine.
But anything we do every day can become so routine that we slip into bad habits, or at the very least, stop thinking creatively and productively about what we are actually trying to achieve in our practice.
Here are five of the most common mistakes I see music students making in and around their practice. Are you making any of these right now? It's worth spending a few minutes reading through the list to save yourself any amount of wasted practice time!
1. Irregular practice. There are very good reasons that we tell our students to practice every day. A consistent and regular practice schedule is...
What is your musical signature? Maybe you've never given it any thought, but I can assure you that you have one. So how do you find it, or refine, or even define it?
Handwritten signatures are special. I remember practicing mine when I was a teenager, mostly when I was doodling during class. What did I want it to look like? I experimented with slanting my letters to the right and to the left, tested versions that were very feminine or strikingly bold. I tried making it legible or just a scrawl. It seemed an important thing to test. My signature was me on paper.
Signatures are powerful. Have you ever been surprised by the signature of a famous person that seems to contradict their public persona and consequently had a shift in your opinion of them? Or maybe you've experienced, as I have, the sharp emotions evoked when you see the signature of a long-departed family member or friend.
Just as your written signature is your individuality on paper, your musical signature is your...
Musical dissonance occurs when two notes played simultaneously have a clash of wills. The notes just don’t play well together. The interval shown here is the classic example of a dissonant interval: an augmented fourth, a tritone.
Hundreds of years ago, dissonance was essentially prohibited in music. The perceived conflict between tones was held to be incompatible with musical expression.
But as music developed over the centuries, our ideas of dissonance changed. Sound combinations that we now take very much as a matter of course would have sent medieval listeners running for an exorcist.
In a similar way, we have come to expect a certain amount of dissonance in our daily lives. Conflict between our working and personal lives and the many demands on our time and energy create tension that can bring us to a crisis point.
Music theory teaches us how the tension created by dissonance can be eased and eliminated. Students learn about “dissonance...
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...
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?
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,...
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...
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...
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...
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.
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...
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...