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What is Your Keystone Habit?

musicianship practicing Apr 21, 2014

A keystone is the pivotal stone in an archway. There are wonderful architectural examples like the ancient arch in this picture that demonstrate how a keystone can create a strong and secure strong. The remarkable thing about a keystone is that it holds the arch together without any cement or other adhesive, but just by the pressure its unique shape exerts on the other stones.

A keystone habit is a habit that works in a similar way. It is the habit that, when you form that one habit, it affects all the other areas of your life and work, causing change on a large scale.

An often cited example of a keystone habit is physical exercise. For those who are out of shape, unenergetic, and unmotivated in other areas of their lives, starting an exercise regimen can be a catalyst for other change. By forming that one habit of exercising each day, it can help create the positive framework for forward motion in seemingly unrelated areas. Work seems more interesting, personal relationships...

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The Art of Subdivision

aural skills Apr 18, 2014

Subdivision of beats is the number one way to keep your inner metronome even and accurate.

How often have you been told by a teacher or a conductor to subdivide the beats? I know I was told more than once when I was a student. Now as a teacher, I find myself giving the same reminder to my students.

What is subdivision, and why is it so necessary?

Each beat is really not the instant the metronome clicks, but the space between the clicks. This space can be divided into any number of equal parts. In a meter that uses the quarter note as the beat, 4/4 for instance, we could subdivide that beat into 2 eighth notes, 4 sixteenth notes, 3 eighth triplet notes, etc.

Good so far. But if the note is only a quarter note, why should we be thinking about subdivisions when we play it?

Because it’s easier to be accurate with shorter spans of time.

Try this experiment: Look at a clock with a second hand. (I know it’s the digital age, but you must be able to find one somewhere.) Feel the...

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The Three Pieces You Absolutely Need to Know

performing Apr 14, 2014

There is a great article in Harp Column magazine this month by Nadia Pessoa. It’s all about survival skills and being prepared for musical emergencies. Not dealing with a broken string, but being prepared to play when you weren’t expecting it.

In the article, Erin Earl Wood mentions her teacher telling her to always have 20 minutes of music memorized, just in case. That’s excellent advice, and I have used my “emergency repertoire” more than once.

You don’t think you need emergency repertoire? Even if you’re not likely to be performing in public, you should always have pieces ready to perform.

Perhaps you will have guests come to your house, and they would like to hear you play. How embarrassing to have to say that despite some months or even years of lessons, you have nothing you can play!

Or your child or grandchild wants you to be their “show and tell” at school. For all of my son’s elementary school years, he asked me to...

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How to Cancel a Performance the Right Way

performing Apr 11, 2014

It happens. We keep careful records and live by our calendars. But sometimes circumstances change, and we have to cancel performances we committed to. What is the best professional etiquette for those sticky situations?

There are two kinds of situations that require slightly different handling.

First is the emergency situation. It is last minute (the day of the performance or the day before) and unavoidable. Some examples would be illness or injury, family emergency, car breakdown, or a no-show babysitter.

Non-emergency situations are trickier. You are able to give the client more notice, but often you bear more responsibility also. This may be a conflict in your own schedule (double booking), difficulties arranging transportation, or perhaps you want to take a different (better paying) job. By the way, I don’t recommend ditching an engagement because a better one comes along. It’s not polite, responsible, or good for your reputation.

Whatever the situation, the basic...

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Do You Hate Your Metronome?

Most of us musicians will admit to a love/hate relationship with our metronome. Its relentless clicking, ticking or beeping reveals our failings. It has no mercy, and it never gets tired. Batteries even seem to last longer in a metronome than in any other electronic device.

So why has the metronome been an essential tool for generations of musicians?

Consider carefully what the metronome does.

The metronome is the audible representation of the space between two beats. A beat in music is actually a span of time, a space between two pulses. The consistent length of those spaces provides the framework for the rhythm of the piece. And the metronome is one way we can hear that framework.

The metronome is precise; it defines beats that are even and equal. Music without an even pulse is not satisfying to the listener. A rhythmic beat is a primal, instinctive sort of communication. It is one of the most important ways we connect to music. When the pulse is unsteady, it can make us feel...

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The Woodshed: Do’s and Don’ts

Woodshedding (noun) a centuries old practice technique designed to produce correct and consistent performance through relentless repetition. Sound like fun? Not likely.

The legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker is often cited as a musician who owed his success to the woodshed. As Parker told the story, after some embarrassing performances as a young musician, he began “woodshedding” eleven to fifteen hours a day. As a result, a frustrated horn player became a budding jazz genius.

“Woodshed practice” produces good results with this simple formula, which I call the Woodshed Theorem:

Repetition x Endurance (physical and mental)


Repetition times Endurance over Time equals Correct and Consistent Performance

The more repetition you do, and the longer you can stand it (that’s the endurance part), the better your results.

All we musicians know that repetition is a necessary part of learning our craft. That’s why we practice....

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Bach, and My Friend Edward Aldwell

music miscellany Mar 31, 2014

Today we celebrate the 329th birthday of a musical giant: Johann Sebastian Bach.

I have always had an affinity for Bach’s music. It speaks to me in its order and its beauty, its complexity and its elegance.

And I love playing Bach’s music, although I remember struggling, as a young piano student, to play without using the pedal. (Ah, the irony – I’m stuck with seven pedals now.)

When I was a Curtis student, I was privileged to have theory classes with pianist Edward Aldwell. After my student days, we became friends and colleagues. He was a great friend, one of those who was gifted at keeping in touch with people, and his wry sense of humor was legend.

But more to the point, he could play Bach’s music like no one else.

Perhaps it was because he understood it so well. The clarity and insight he gave us fortunate students at Curtis into the master’s music astounded many who thought we knew it all, in the way young people often do.

But when he started...

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How Much Music Theory Do You Need?

musicianship Mar 28, 2014





   © Chad McDermott –

No doubt about it: music theory is an essential for every music student, no matter the skill level or age of the student. As any seasoned performer will tell you, a basic understanding of music theory helps you learn music faster, and interpret it more easily. As any teacher will tell you, it can be difficult to persuade students of this.

I often have dedicated and eager students ask me about taking music theory instruction, either as additional lessons with me or in an outside class. I always encourage it, but I also try to help them understand what they really need to know.

Music theory is fascinating to me. I love the intricacies of harmony and voice leading. I actually enjoy species counterpoint and writing fugues. But this is more pedagogy than is helpful or necessary for most students. What follows below is my...

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Warm-up with Chords!

practicing technique Mar 24, 2014

Chords, especially chords with four notes, can be troublesome for harpists. We have to find all the right strings, have the notes sound balanced, roll the chords evenly, or play them perfectly unbroken. A little bit of dedicated chord practice will go far toward making your chords more beautiful and more expressive.

And of course, it’s even better when you can make that chord practice your daily warm-up. Here’s one way to do it, practicing unbroken chords, chords with both hands rolled together and rolled from the bottom up and the top down:

  • Place a four note chord in each hand.
  • Play each finger in turn, holding the other strings. Play slowly, concentrating on tone and full finger action.
  • Play the chord unbroken, once again listening for tone, using your best technique and keeping your fingers and hands relaxed. Play this several times.
  • Play right hand and left hand together, note by note, starting with fourth fingers.
  • Play the hands together, one note at a time, bottom...
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Attention Freelance Musicians: How to Get Your Clients to Ask You Back

performing Mar 21, 2014

Your freelance music business will thrive if you can count on repeat business. If you think you can’t get repeat business, let me show you how.

Suppose you play weddings. These people will only get married once, at least to each other. I’m not suggesting that you hinge your business on a future divorce, but there are likely other celebrations where your music would be ideal. How about their child’s christening party?

Or an anniversary celebration? Or a house-warming party? Suppose your freelance business is mostly freelance orchestra work. Do you know how to stay “top of mind” with the orchestra’s personnel manager?

There are three action areas – before, during and after your gig – that can make the difference between a thriving musician and a starving one:

  1. Focus on client service. In your dealings with your client, let your actions show that you care about their event. They are spending their money to make their party, wedding or...
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