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Michael Phelps: The Greatest Olympian of All Time

This past weekend we saw Michael Phelps win his 22nd Olympic medal, earning him the title “Greatest Olympian of All Time.” What does that incredible achievement mean for the other athletes who compete in these and future games? How can they or any of the rest of us ever expect to be “the greatest”?

In sports, it is often easy to identify the great ones. The numbers tell the story. The greatest have faster times, more hits, longer leaps or higher scores than the rest. It makes it easy for us to identify the best.

In music, greatness is usually more subjective. Who was the greatest composer, Bach or Beethoven? Or Mozart? We can point to the numbers of pieces written, or the age of their earliest achievements or the enduring nature of their work, but in the end, “the greatest” is a matter of opinion.

But whether your hero is Mozart or Phelps, there is a question you must answer if you wish to achieve: do the greatest give...

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The Why of Key Signatures


At some point in every music student’s life comes the moment when she must learn all the key signatures. And at some point for every teacher comes the question from that same student: “Why do I have to know them?”

There are some easy reasons that we all give our students. They may need to learn them  for an exam. Or we can truthfully tell them that key signatures are one of the basic elements of musical literacy, and therefore they need to know them. When I was teaching music theory at the Curtis Institute of Music, the students understood that this was a necessary part of their musical education, and that was enough of a reason.

But these reasons rarely answer the student’s real desire to understand the value in committing the key signatures for thirty keys to memory.

So here is what I offer my students as the value to them in learning their key signatures. I hope you find this helpful, either for yourself in...

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Refresh Your Practice


August is here, and we all need some summer refreshment. The dog days of summer can sap your energy and make practicing a chore. But with a little imagination, you can refresh your practice routine using these lighthearted practice themes.

The other day I came across a recipe online for a drink that  looked really refreshing, a cucumber melon cooler. But alas, I didn’t have either cucumbers or melon, so I mixed myself a cool glass of powdered lemonade instead and indulged in memories of summers past.

One of my summer treats has always been my reading project. I began in my teen years to set myself a special summer reading list, one that had nothing to do with school. I plan my reading for the whole summer, not just with a list of books, but with a theme. Usually I choose a specific author (this year I’m reading G. K. Chesterton), although sometimes I order my reading by country or by century, or even alphabetically.


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Olympic Fanfare for Harp

music miscellany Jul 26, 2012

 Here’s a very brief harp video for you to enjoy in honor of the start of the summer Olympic Games.

This is my arrangement of “Salut des étendards” or “Salute to the Standards” written by Joseph David Buhl. Buhl was a French trumpet player, composer and conductor of the early 19th century. His “Salut” was written as a military fanfare to be performed as a salute to the banners, or standards, in a military parade. It is almost certainly his best-known work today, due to its association with the Olympics.

In 1958, the conductor Felix Slatkin commissioned film composer Leo Arnaud to write a piece for an album called “Charge!” Arnaud composed “The Charge Suite,” which included a piece he called “Bugler’s Dream.” In “Bugler’s Dream,” Arnaud took Buhl’s “Salut” and expanded it into the piece that for most of us TV watchers is the musical...

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Competition Tips from the Judges’ Table

uncategorized Jul 25, 2012


Recently, I was privileged to be a judge at the Young Artists’ Harp Competition in Rabun Gap, Georgia. If you or your students are planning to enter a competition, these are some tips from the judges’ table that will help you make your best impression.

There’s an old Joni Mitchell song called “Both Sides, Now.” I couldn’t help recalling it when I watched all those talented young harpists play their hearts out for the judges. Although it has been many years, I too was a contestant once. And even though it has been a long while and I have judged other competitions, I can still feel what it was like to step on that stage knowing this was your one chance to get everything right.

So I offer to all the hopefuls four tips from my experience as a contest judge:

1. What a judge listens for. Your performance should reflect thorough preparation, meaning correct notes, solid technical skills necessary for...

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Valuable Lessons from Harp Camp

Playing at the Green Drake Gallery
(not pictured – Paige Setzer)

We had another fabulous week at this year’s Harp in the Mountains Summer Festival . As always happens at camp, I was reminded of some truths about practicing, performing, teaching and leadership that I’d like to share with you.

This is the sixth year for Harp in the Mountains Summer Festival. It is held at Hemlock Acres Campground in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, which is also my home. The camp provides a one-week intense harp ensemble experience for select students, ages 12-19. I limit camp size to six students, so the experience is very focused. The students have the opportunity to improve their harp playing and their musicianship skills while enjoying rehearsing, performing and spending time with other harpists.

And the campers had better enjoy rehearsing. We rehearse for about six hours every day. And we learn a lot during our week.

The British author Doris...

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3 Tips to Improve Your Stage Presence


Every performer knows stage presence is important, but it can be hard to evaluate, let alone improve, your own visual effect on an audience.

The visual image you present before you play a note can make the audience predisposed to enjoy your performance. Or not. And while we like to think that audiences use what they hear to judge us, the human truth is that they see us before they hear us. And first impressions are long-lasting.

Besides asking your best friend for his opinion (often tricky) or getting your teacher’s advice, how can you develop a stage presence that is a winning one with audiences and still feels and looks natural? I have three easy suggestions.

But before I tell you my three tips to improve your stage presence, I will tell you what I never suggest to my students. I never tell them to watch themselves on video for this purpose. It is true that you can learn a lot from a video of your performance, but...

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What Mr. Rogers Taught Me About the Harp

Last week I attended the American Harp Society National Conference in New York City. In reflecting on the fun day I spent there, I found that my three most important take-aways from the conference were things I learned in my childhood watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Let me share with you how I made the connection.

I was on the exhibit floor at the conference, looking at a bin of brightly colored tuning keys. Tuning keys often remind me of my favorite Mr. Rogers episode. On that show, after he made his familiar entrance and changed into his cardigan and sneakers, Mr. Rogers pulled a harp tuning key from his pocket. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. I did, and I remember telling him so through the television set. Later in the show, he visited with a harpist who played and talked about the harp.

In my thoughts, I began free-associating, and decided that there are three things I learned about the harp, first from Mr....

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Make Consistent Practice Your Secret to Success

We all know that “practice makes perfect” is a stretch of the truth, but most of us agree that practice is the only way to get better at anything, particularly music performance. But if our practice isn’t consistent, neither will our performance be consistent. Remember the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise’s steady, consistent pace got him over the finish line. And consistency in your practice can do the same.

Stephen King the writer has been very public about the discipline he brings to his craft. The diligence and consistency which he applies to his writing have enabled him to become one of America’s best-selling and most celebrated authors.

But his own words about his writing process have surprised many. He says, “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the...

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7 Things Every Harpist Should Know Before Choosing a College

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?

Center for the Arts, University of Delaware
photo: Jon Cox

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 accepted at Curtis, I would go into some other field of endeavor, not the harp or even anything related to music. I was lucky.


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