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The Five-minute “Anti-Stress” Daily Technique Boost

practicing technique Oct 03, 2012

© alpyapple –

It sounds delightful, boosting your technique in just five minutes with no stress. When you think of any of the famous exercise or etude books that you may have studied, one image probably comes to mind: a dark page full of ink representing a lot of notes, notes in finger-bending combinations to be performed at lightning speed. And though I know that I’m a better harpist for having learned my LaRivière, I have come to an appreciation of a different approach to refreshing my technique on a daily basis.

I need to issue a major disclaimer here. I am a dedicated fan of Salzedo’s “Conditioning Exercises,” and I use them regularly to keep my technique at its best. But this article is about those times when I want to take things a little easier, or I’m already doing enough heavy playing to keep my fingers in shape, and they just need a little TLC. If you’re feeling over-worked or your fingers...

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Harpist DOs and DON’Ts

music miscellany Oct 01, 2012

You’ve heard the expression “I don’t do…whatever.” Well, harpists have their own special do’s and don’ts, things we can or can’t do because we play the harp. We have peculiar ways of looking at the world and music. Here are a couple of examples:

We DO ramps. We DON’T do spiral staircases.

We DO Tchaikovsky. We DON’T do Beethoven. (If he was really a genius, wouldn’t he have written more for harp? Just kidding…)

We DO minivans. We DON’T do Corvettes – sigh.

We DO drive. We DON’T do public transportation.

We DO fabulous concert shoes. We DON’T do fabulous long fingernails.

Here’s where I can use your help. It’s Monday, and I’m ready for a little humor. (I can hear some of you saying there is very little humor in this, but so be it.)

I invite you to add your do’s and don’ts in the comments below. Or email me and I will add them. Photos are welcome too. I...

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Waltz of the Flowers Cadenza–Jumpstart Your Practice

This is a re-post of a podcast interview I did last year with Mindy Cutcher, principal harpist of the Pennsylvania Ballet. Mindy speaks about playing for the ballet and specifically the famous “Waltz of the Flowers” cadenza in The Nutcracker. She shares her thoughts and tips on learning and performing the cadenza, as well as some great anecdotes from the pit.

You can listen to the podcast and get a great insider’s take on practicing and performing this standard of the harp repertoire.

For a more detailed practice guide to the cadenza, you can purchase my course on the ARS Musica website. The course is a three-week study guide with written exercises. In Week One, the focus is on understanding the notes and the arpeggio patterns. Week Two develops the technique you need to play the cadenza evenly and smoothly. Week Three works on the melodic and expressive character of the cadenza and helps you put it all together. You can find out more here: ...

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Can You Be a Successful Working Musician?

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Some people might tell you that a "successful working musician" is a mythical being. But those of us who are successful working musicians know that it is possible with hard work and determination. Those jobs, whether they are wedding gigs or an orchestra chair, don't just fall into your lap. You have to pursue them with a focused strategy.It takes some business savvy to set up and maintain a teaching studio, or to book concerts for your group. Music schools are getting better at teaching students about the music business and how to be business-like in their approach. And there are great books like Donald Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business written to help musicians with the non-music details of being a working musician. But no matter what kind of music you play, or what kind of music business you want to have, there is one important ingredient that many musicians still overlook.

When my students start playing for...

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House Concerts, or Harp Without Borders

At a house concert in Tennessee

While you may not have thought of it this way, we all start out playing house concerts. It's that first holiday after you have started taking lessons when your mother asks you to play for your relatives. If you continue your music studies, you may play for women’s club luncheons, made infamous by the musician/comedienne Anna Russell. You may play for local music societies. All of these functions are house concerts. After many years of playing in venues large and small, I can honestly say house concerts are my favorite concerts to play.

A House Concert (Hauskonzert, if you prefer the German term) is by far the best way to experience music, whether you’re performing or in the audience.  It is both intensely personal and deeply bonding among the participants.  It is simply music experienced as profound communication.

From a seat in the audience, you can expect to be drawn in to the very core of the music-making.  The house...

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Learning and Teaching Key Signatures: Step 2

© g215 –

In Step 1, you learned the essential pattern for key signatures – movement by perfect fifth. And you are now able to recite the major and minor key signatures in order, as well as the sharps and flats that form key signatures.

If all you wanted to do was to memorize the key signatures, you wouldn’t need to do more. In fact that’s where most theory courses leave you. And that’s just the trouble. Being able to recite key signatures doesn’t tell you anything about what they mean, or how they came about. It doesn’t seem to relate in any meaningful way to playing music. And that’s why most people forget them.

But when you know where key signatures come from, you begin to develop a new depth of musical understanding, one that can help you learn music faster and play more expressively. And learning where key signatures come from is what Step 2 is all about.

For a scale to sound “major,” the seven...

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Play Through a Mental Block

© Andrey Ushakov

In a recent post, I discussed how to practice when you couldn’t concentrate. I offered some techniques for overcoming the mental block that may be keeping you from focusing on your work. Today I wanted to share with you an experience I had that demonstrated how powerful a mental block could be, and showed me the best tool we have for overcoming it.

I used to study martial arts, Okinawan karate, to be exact. I started taking lessons because I wanted my son to start, and I thought I would lead by example. He enjoyed the lessons, but I enjoyed them even more. It was so different from harp playing, and yet the discipline was so similar that it felt like a natural extension of my abilities.

But I did feel a little anxious when the sensei offered us the chance to break a board with our hands. Not my hands, I thought. But one of the instructors was also a musician, and he told me that I shouldn’t have any worries about hurting my hands. And so I signed...

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Organize Your Sheet Music – What’s Your System?

“One of these days, I’m going to organize my music!” I have heard that threat many times from students and colleagues, and sometimes myself. Nothing is more frustrating than to be in a hurry to leave the house and be searching frantically for that one piece you thought was right in that stack under the table.

Everyone has their own preferred system to organize their music, but here are the basic methods and some good tips if you’re ready to clean up those piles.

The Folder

Great Music Folder! Whether yours is sleek and attractive in basic black or a colorful design, nothing beats the folder for carrying music to your lessons or rehearsals. It prevents the edges of your music from being crumpled, and it keeps your current music in one handy place. Prefect for “grab and go.” This is a photo of a black folder made specially for music that we decorated at Harp in the Mountains Camp last summer. It’s big enough to hold even large editions...

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How to Practice When You Don’t Want To

practicing technique Sep 12, 2012

We all have times when we don’t want to practice. We wish we wanted to practice, but for whatever reason, we seem to have lost our self-discipline. Maybe the house is too messy, the piece is too hard, we are worried about something else, the weather is too nice, the weather is too rotten, we didn’t get enough sleep, or we have too much homework.But the practice must be done.

© Andy Dean –

I was awful about practicing when I was a child. My parents threatened weekly to sell the harp or the piano if I didn’t practice. That was the only thing they knew would send me running to the living room to practice.

As an adult, I generally don’t have any trouble practicing. It has been a part of my life for so many years that a day without practice feels a little blank. But some days, the will to work just isn’t there.

Sometimes my students will complain about not being able to concentrate enough to practice. The commonly cited culprits are...

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Learning and Teaching Key Signatures: Step 1

musicianship practicing Sep 10, 2012

© g215 –

Many music students hate learning key signatures. It can seem too much like “homework,” and too little like playing music. As a teacher, my job is to make sure that students learn key signatures thoroughly; it’s both necessary and important. (For the “WHY” of key signatures, see this previous blog post.) When students have mastered key signatures, they make fewer mistakes with accidentals, and we can move along to more interesting musical material.

I have two goals when teaching this subject:
1. To make the learning as relevant as possible to playing music, and
2. To make sure the students only have to learn the key signatures once.

I have developed a three-step method for teaching key signatures that addresses both goals, and helps students learn and understand key signatures . Basically, these are the three steps:

1. Teach students to write, recite and play perfect fifths. Without understanding this fundamental interval,...

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