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Is Deep Breathing Part of Your Routine?

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, (b. 1926) Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

“Take a deep breath,” has always been good advice, but now there is evidence that deep breathing can alleviate performance anxiety. Although I didn’t need the study to tell me what I found out years ago.

Over 25 years ago, flutist Joan Sparks and I founded our flute and harp duo Sparx. We have traveled and concertized together extensively, and over time, we developed a backstage pre-concert ritual. One of the components of this routine was a series of exercises designed to warm up Joan’s breathing. Being a harpist, I was more interested in keeping my fingers loose, but being a good duo partner, I participated. Joan showed me how to breathe deeply, how to count breaths, and although I could never match Joan’s lung capacity, I learned to value the centered, focused feeling I had after our warm-ups.

And now along comes this ...

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Is Classical Music Doomed?

Can classical music survive in a world where orchestras fail and concert attendance dwindles?

Two dismaying things happened to me this weekend. The first came in a casual conversation, in which two people attempted to persuade me that classical music and attending concerts is a high-brow, elite and upper class thing. Every fiber of my being resists this idea, but the nagging fact persists that classical music is not widely embraced in our society.

The second dismaying thing was the news that both of Minnesota’s orchestras are now locked out in labor disputes. On Sunday, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra joined the Minnesota Orchestra, which has been locked out since October 1 after the players’ union rejected what management termed their “final offer.”  For at least the next two weeks, there will be no concerts from either of these world-class ensembles.

And this is far from an isolated incident. This “orchestra graveyard” in...

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How to Phrase by the Numbers

Marcel Tabuteau, 1951

This post follows up on a previous post about phrasing. Here I describe what is arguably the best system for teaching phrasing I ever came across, and how you can practice to make your phrasing more meaningful and expressive.

When I was a student at Curtis, I learned from my wind player friends about the amazing technique for phrasing and legato they were learning in their lessons and in wind class. They were excited by the power in its systematic approach to one of music’s most expressive elements. They were learning the Tabuteau system.

Marcel Tabuteau (1887-1966) was a French oboist. He came to the U.S. in 1905 at the invitation of Walter Damrosch. In 1915 Tabuteau joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as its principal oboist, and in 1924, he founded the oboe department at the Curtis Institute. He is generally credited with establishing the American school of oboe playing.  His students included John de Lancie, Robert Mack, Harold...

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How to Phrase, or It’s All in the Phrasing!

“I don’t need words — it’s all in the phrasing.” – Louis Armstrong



How to phrase in music can be difficult to talk about and to teach. I would like to share three things you should know about phrasing, along with some practice tips to improve your phrasing.

1. Phrasing is inflection. Inflection is what makes the meaning of our words or music clear. The simple sentence,”I said no,” can take on three different meanings depending on which word we emphasize. “I said no,” not someone else. “I said no;” I already told you. Or “I said no;” no, you may not. In the same way, the inflection we choose for a melodic line gives it meaning for the listener. We make our choices based on our understanding of the entire piece.

Here’s an easy exercise to practice putting inflection into your playing. Start with the sentence, “She told me he didn’t...

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Stuck in a Rut? Change One Thing

Today’s fast pace and shorter attention spans make it easier than ever to feel stuck in a rut. Within a week after we return from a vacation, we can find ourselves feeling uninspired, unmotivated and dull. Building on an idea from a previous post on this blog (Move That Mountain – Do One Thing),  I would like to offer this suggestion: change one thing.

When I was little, back in the pre-digital toy age, I use to love to play with kaleidoscopes. These cardboard tubes contained endless changing designs inbeautiful colors.All you had to do was to point it toward a light and turn the tube. The colored beads inside miraculously arranged themselves into fabulous symmetrical patterns. It was definitely not a dull world inside the kaleidoscope. 

The trick of the kaleidoscope was that the materials inside never really changed. The beads just fell as I turned the tube; it was the mirrors inside that created the patterns and made it all seem new...

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Move That Mountain – Do One Thing

© drizzd –

Sometimes we have a task before us that seems to much to tackle. All we see is a big mountain of work and we don’t know where to start. The secret to creating momentum and getting the job done is simple and only one step – you just need to do one thing.

The inspiration for this came from a blog post by author and thought leader Seth Godin. Seth is the author of best-selling books like “Tribes” and “Purple Cow”, among others. I have found his books compelling and totally in tune (if you will pardon the musical expression) with today’s world, online and off, and I subscribe to his daily blog.

Not long ago, he posted “The Simple Power of One a Day.”   He reminds us that there are at least 200 working days in a year, and if we just did one marketing task each day, we would make astounding progress by the end of a year.

I believe this is a useful approach to anything we...

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No Time for Music Theory in a Lesson? Try Telescope Teaching!


When I was a student, I used to think a one-hour lesson was long. When I started teaching, though, I realized that there was much more work to be done than would fit in sixty minutes.  Often I spent lesson time helping the student practice when I wanted to help them learn larger musical concepts.  There is so much more to teach  besides just  notes. That’s why I use something I call “Telescope Teaching.”       
An optical telescope, the kind that lets you look at the stars, is a simple design that allows light from a distant source to be gathered and focused by a lens or mirror. The resulting image is then magnified and viewed through an eyepiece. “Telescope Teaching” uses the teacher as the lens to gather all the materials of music – from repertoire to music theory – and to focus...
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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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