This week we celebrate the birthday of composer Claude Debussy, born on August 22, 1862. Although Debussy himself would be 156 years old this week, his music still sounds as fresh and magical as it did when he composed it.
And his music still poses problems for many musicians. I have worked with numerous students who, on their first encounter with a piece by Debussy, are puzzled and perplexed. They have difficulty reconciling the free, unregulated sound of the music with the explicit directions written on the page. They find the simple clarity of the music surprisingly challenging to achieve.
And they resist the idea that creating that seamless and fluid musical magic requires a very disciplined approach.
In my teaching, I use Debussy’s music as a rite of passage. Although music by other composers particularly some harpist composers like Renié, Grandjany and Hasselmans raises similar issues, I find that Debussy’s music presents a bigger challenge.
“Is this piece too difficult for me?”
When students ask me this question, I know it’s not because they’re lazy and don’t want to have to work hard.
On the contrary, I know they are ready and willing to put in the practice time needed to be able to play the piece. They just want to be assured that their time and effort will get them results. Why spend hours practicing if you will eventually have to give up and put the piece away?
There are many well-known quotations meant to encourage and inspire you to undertake a challenge. I’ve listed a few of my favorites below.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao Tzu
Everything is hard before it is easy. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There is nothing difficult, only new things, unaccustomed things. – Carlos Salzedo
When you come upon a difficult task ... start. - Harbhajan Singh Yogi
But most students don’t need the inspiration to get started. They want to...
Do your fingers have a support system?
We rely on support systems daily, whether those systems are the people closest to us or the piers and pilings underneath the bridge we drive over daily. Those systems enable us to do our work more easily, with less frustration, danger or difficulty. They often work in the background, but without their strength, our accomplishments would be impossible.
Your fingers need a support system too.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that your fingers can’t do everything you ask of them on their own. We want them to play faster, to produce a more beautiful tone, to have control over a large dynamic range, to play with energy and strength, yet be relaxed and flexible. That’s a daunting job description for the eight fingers that we use to play the harp.
It’s easy to see why your fingers may get tense or tired when you play. But your fingers will stay fresher and more relaxed if you build strength in the structure that will support them...
Before you can get anywhere, you need traction.
Every year at about this time, my entire community where I live in Pennsylvania suspends its regular activities and heads for the fair. It’s one of those traditional state or county fairs with prizes for the most beautiful vegetables, most delectable baked goods and best livestock.
There are musical performances and magic acts, amusement rides, craft displays and just about every fried food imaginable, including some I couldn’t possibly have imagined. Have you ever eaten a deep-fried Oreo cookie?
Among the popular events at the fair are the tractor-pulling contests. Being a city girl, I didn’t know about such things until I moved to farm country, and maybe you’ve never seen one either. The idea is simple: hitch a heavy load to a tractor, and measure how far and how fast it can pull the load before it loses control or the motor burns up.
The tractors are loud, and their fumes are smelly; this isn’t an event...
Suddenly her soul was on fire. It had been a long weekend, and she was clearly worn out from information overload. It looked to me like she had reached her limit. But then came the fire. She wasn’t just engaged or interested. She was alive. She was on fire.
This past weekend I attended and taught at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival in New Jersey. Hundreds of harp players gathered to listen, learn and share their love of the folk harp. The assemblage of so many world-class performers and teachers super-charged the atmosphere. It was exhilarating.
It’s possible to sustain that energy level only so long, though, and so when I noticed my student showing the effects of the long day, I understood. But I was wrong.
One minute it looked as if she were about to nod off, and the next moment she came alive. I don’t remember the point in the workshop when it happened, but I saw her regain her fire.
As she joined in the discussion, it became clear that she was far from...
You have no time to practice?
Perhaps you’re getting ready for a trip or you have a special project at work. Maybe a family member needs extra care right now. Or maybe things are just crazy.
Whatever the situation, if you can find 15 minutes, you can do enough practice to tide you over the busy period.
Can’t find 15 minutes? I can help you with that too. But first let’s talk about why that 15 minutes is critical.
If you’re like most musicians, you would like to be doing an hour or two of practice each day. When that hour is used efficiently, you can experience growth over time, developing your technique, expanding your repertoire, preparing music to perform. An hour may not be enough to accomplish everything you would like as quickly as you wish, but it will get the job done.
I know how frustrating it is to feel that you have no time to practice. When things feel out of control, it’s so easy to tell yourself, “I’ll get back to it next...
We just celebrated another Independence Day here in the United States and I couldn’t help carrying the celebration over into the blog.
Technical facility is one of the skills every harpist must develop and maintain. A smooth, fluid technique not only allows us to play at faster tempos, but it gives all our music expression and polish. Technique is what makes even “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” sound profound in the hands of a virtuoso.
For harpists, developing independence in the fingers is a major part of technical study. Each finger must be able to play individually and with the other fingers. It must have an equal tone as the others and be able to match them in dynamic and expression. After all, we only use eight fingers; we can’t afford to have a slacker in the bunch.
Today, I thought I would share a video lesson that I taught to the My Harp Mastery members last year around this time. It was the first of four lessons on the theme of independence for your...
Have you ever attended a big family reunion, one of those massive ones where each branch of the family tree can be identified by the color of their T-shirt? If so, you know what an adventure it can be. You discover cousins you’ve never met, maybe never even knew of. You share meals and stories, play games, look at photo albums, discover connections. Maybe you simply relax and share the moment. It’s exciting, exhilarating and sometimes exhausting.
When you leave the reunion, you go home with a collection of addresses and phone numbers, along with that special feeling of having reinforced your sense of belonging and forged new connections to your roots.
I attended one such reunion last week, only with name tags instead of T-shirts. I’m referring to the 2018 American Harp Society National Conference, held last week in Redlands, California. As I write this, I’m on the airplane on my way home from the conference, and I am moved to share with you how powerful these...
“Have harp; will travel.”
That’s my motto for most of the year. My harp and I have watched more than one odometer tip the 200,000 mile mark, and one of my cars made it over 300,000 miles. You might think my harp and I are never separated.
Nevertheless, I always have at least one vacation each year that is harp-free. I figure it’s good for both of us. He sits at home peacefully and I enjoy the beach or sightseeing or any number of activities that he wouldn’t. (Yes, my harp is a boy and his name is Eric.)
I have taken my harp on vacations from time to time. It’s lovely to relax with the harp as well as without, but I find that the break from harp playing is restorative. I am able to come back to my playing with renewed energy and purpose.
I have learned not to worry about my time away. My fingers will be rusty; Salzedo’s Conditioning Exercises are waiting for me on my music stand. My music will take some refreshing or re-learning as well, but...
It’s just a warm up routine. No big deal, right?
For most musicians most of the time, that is probably true.
But your warm up could be an agent of change in your playing, an opportunity for growth. The trick is to take the “routine” out of the warm up.
Certainly there is comfort in the habit of a warm up routine. It becomes a tripwire for focus, clearing your mind and preparing you to concentrate on the work before you. It limbers your fingers and eases them into the technical rigors of practice while giving you the opportunity to review and strengthen your technique.
So why change anything? Simply because when you introduce variety into your warm up, you open the door to growth.
Your warm up likely feels comfortable, but growth isn’t about comfort. It’s about stretching yourself, testing your limits, setting new goals. By adding just a little variety into your daily routine, you set the stage for significant progress in many areas of your playing,...