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Practice around the Potholes with Preparation Points!

mucisianship practicing May 03, 2013

One of my favorite practice techniques came in handy with a student today.

The piece was “La Source” by Alphonse Hasselmans. The problem was the bar lines. Not just one bar line, most of them. The student was having difficulty getting from one measure to the next. Everything was fine at a slow tempo, but as soon as we tried to speed it up, the bar lines turned into concrete barriers.

Maybe you have experienced something like this. Much of a piece is playable, but there are some spots that always seem to go awry.

I compare this situation to driving on a road with potholes. There is one exit ramp I drive on frequently, often late at night. At the top of the ramp at the merge onto the main road, there is a pothole. It has been there for years. Still somehow nearly every time, I manage to hit the pothole, after which I yell at myself for forgetting it was there. The pothole is avoidable; all I have to do is remember it’s there, and take appropriate...

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Do You Know This Harp Chord?

There is one particular chord that my students and I grapple with frequently. It is used more often in harp music than perhaps any other chord. Yet it still can be a source of difficulty. Until we stop and examine the chord: what it is, how it is used,  how to practice it.

The chord is a simple triad, or three-note chord, like C-E-G. What is different about this chord is the arrangement of the upper notes. The chord is in open spacing, or open voicing. Instead of having the three chord tones as close together as possible, (see the first chord above) they are spaced apart (the second chord): C, then G, then E.

This open-spaced triad is one of the most often used, and most useful, chords in any harpist’s chord vocabulary.

Why? Because the wider spacing of the notes allows for the resonance of the harp. The tones are separated enough that we hear a rich full sound with distinct pitches. Play the two chords above and compare. The first chord will sound a little blurry,...

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Life after College: The 5 Essentials for Every New Music Graduate

Congratulations, new music graduate! You have your music degree at last. You are now officially prepared to commence life as a musician. Do you feel prepared?

I came across this thought-provoking story in the newspaper recently. Several recent graduates of Widener Law School are suing the school for false advertising. They are claiming that the school misrepresented the employment statistics for its graduates. These new lawyers have expensive educations and no jobs. Here is my thought: if lawyers can’t find work, how much harder will it be for newly minted musicians?!

All schools want their students to be successful. After all, a successful alum makes the school look good.

But your success is your responsibility.

Here are five things I think are essential to have as you start on your path. (The first two are things you should already have learned in school, and none of them is a calendar or a website.)

1. A firm technical foundation. This is not just having a good...

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I was a Question on Jeopardy

I was a question on Jeopardy. Well, not exactly. Here’s the story.

The answer was, “Composer Lowell Liebermann wrote a Sonata for flute and this instrument, often heard at weddings.” The correct question: “What is a harp?”

So how do I figure in? My friend flutist Joan Sparks and I are the duo SPARX, and we commissioned the Sonata from Lowell Liebermann. Our names are on the top of the music. And we are very proud to have been part of this contribution to the flute and harp literature.

We were admirers of Lowell’s work, and decided to celebrate our 10th anniversary as a duo (in 1996) with this commission. We met with Lowell, and had a really fun meal together, and told him the kind of piece we had in mind. We wanted a work of substantial length, a powerful work that would reflect the strengths of the two instruments, rather than their delicate sides. The result: Sonata for Flute and Harp, Op. 56.

What Lowell wrote was an astoundingly...

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Three Reasons Why Singing Will Improve Your Playing

aural skills musicianship Apr 24, 2013

If you can sing it, you can play it. Well, maybe not quite, but it is true that singing is the best way to develop some key musical skills.During the years I taught ear training at Curtis, I noticed a pattern. Among the students without perfect pitch, those who had choral experience almost always found ear training easier than the students who had never sung in a chorus.

One obvious reason for this is that students who had sung in chorus were more comfortable vocally. Ear training classes require singing, and students who had never sung were more reluctant to sing in front of others and more unsure about their pitch matching abilities.

Interestingly, vocal quality was not a factor. Even the students who didn’t have a particularly good voice but were used to singing did well.

Why? What is it about singing, especially choral singing, that helps you musically?

1. It’s all about the line. Singing requires you to pay attention to the direction of the melody, to the...

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7 Ways to Eliminate Distraction and Get Focused


Distraction is one of my major problems, and I suspect I am not alone. When I was a young music student, I used distraction to help me avoid practicing (“Oops, I forgot to check my math homework!”). As an adult, I can sometimes be too distracted to focus on the practice I actually want to do.

Because practicing is a priority for me, I have learned to recognize the main causes of my distraction, and some ways to put the distractions aside and focus.

There are three main sources of distraction: things, other people, and yourself. Two of these are fairly easy to eliminate, if you take appropriate action. The third is a little more challenging. Here are some of the things I do to avoid distractions and to focus on my work.

1. Things. Turn it off, put it away, give it to someone else. No matter what it is, if it is keeping you from focusing on your work, you don’t need it around. Resist the temptation to leave your cell phone on....

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No Boring Scales Part 2

practicing technique Apr 19, 2013

In Monday’s post, I wrote about ways to energize your scale practice. I received a number of comments and questions asking for more details. So I put together a quick video to demonstrate the techniques. I show you how you can use rhythmic motifs from any piece to practice your scales. In particular, I show you how to play scales in calypso and boogie woogie rhythm.




Ps. I hadn’t used my tablet to edit a video before. Clearly my editing skills need work…

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Bored with Scales? 5 Variations to Keep You Motivated

practicing technique Apr 15, 2013

Scales are the biggest proving ground of your technique and musicianship. While you may have been playing scales since you first started playing music, that doesn’t mean that scales are only for beginners.

Well-played scales demonstrate:

A thorough understanding of keys.
Technical facility and agility.
A repertoire of articulation and dynamics.

For us harpists, scales can seem rather dull to practice because all our scales have the same fingering, and we can preset our sharps and flats.  (I think I hear other instrumentalists sighing with envy.)  But that is no excuse for ignoring this important daily routine.

So in case you’re in need of some motivation, here are 5 ways to spice up your scales.

1. Try different rhythms. You can use almost any rhythm to play scales. For the traditionalist, there is long-short, or triplets, or short-short-long, or any
combination of these. If you’re more creative, think calypso, or a boogie woogie beat. Pick up the tempo...

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Do you need a coach?

Working with a coach can make a big difference in how you play. Look at the staff of any baseball team. There’s a pitching coach, a hitting coach, a fielding coach, a catching coach, a bullpen coach, a first base coach, a third base coach. Sports teams spend big bucks on coaches for their players.

When I was a Curtis student, there were times I envied the singers. While I went off to practice by myself, they went to coachings. They worked with diction coaches, staging coaches, vocal coaches, even stage combat coaches. They had people helping them constantly. I had a lesson once a week.

Sometimes, we all could use a coach. Someone to help us through a difficulty or meet a particular challenge. But most of us learn with regular lessons. Why would we need a coach?

What’s the difference between a coach and a teacher?

There are two clear differences between a coach and a teacher. The first is focus. A teacher provides all-around instruction and...

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Playing Music: The Good Parts

We love the good parts. The best scene in the movie, our favorite chocolate in the box, the center of a Tootsie Pop. In music, performances, applause, beautiful gowns, a love of music, or just being able to play a piece well are some of the good parts. And these are usually the things that inspire us to pursue music in the first place. But how do we feel about the not-so-good parts, like practicing?

 The family story goes like this: My uncle, who had a great passion for classical music, was a very talented piano student. When he was a teenager, people would stop on the street to listen to him practice. But practice was boring, and cars, friends and girls took over his time. Later he was in the army, and the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein came to perform for the troops. My uncle was fortunate enough to have a seat on the stage where he could see Rubinstein’s amazing hands at work. That night he sent a telegram home to his parents: “Why didn’t...

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