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How to Be a Successful Musician

music miscellany Jun 11, 2018

A successful musician doesn't just happen. It’s not really about innate talent, and believe it or not, it's not all about practice. It is about three specific qualities that allow a musician to be able to practice effectively, play fluently and perform confidently.

The good news is that these are all qualities that can be developed. It's not a question of having them or not. Any musician can cultivate them. 

What happens to many aspiring musicians, however, is that they become trapped. Their actions are guided by misconceptions with the result that they never experience the progress and satisfaction that they expected. Their hard work hasn't brought them any closer to their musical goal.

First, let me clarify what I mean by success in this instance. I’m not talking about professional success. In this post I’m referring to what I call “harp happiness:” playing the music you want to play the way you want to play it, with musicality, confidence and...

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3 Skills Essential to Sight Reading

musicianship Jun 03, 2018

Do you want to improve your sight reading? Are your efforts not yielding visible results? Maybe you're going about it the wrong way.

Sight reading is an essential part of musicianship. When a musician can sight read fluently, he can learn music faster, saving practice time and developing more confidence at the same time. And while most musicians know they should be practicing sight reading, it can be difficult to know how to go about it.

One tried-and-true method is the obvious one: sight read a piece every day. Choose the pieces carefully so that they are within your ability and maintain your tempo strictly. This method only works, however, if you have been developing three underlying skills.

You see, sight reading isn't so much a skill in itself as it is a demonstration of your skill level in three key areas. The stronger your skill in these areas, the better your sight reading will be.  Conversely, if  one or more of these skills is weak, it will make fluent sight...

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A Musical Memorial Day

music miscellany May 27, 2018


Band of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry

Beyond the picnics and parades, Memorial Day is a day of solemn remembrance, a day to honor those of have died in battle. It began as a way to honor those killed in the Civil War, a war which remains the costliest by far in terms of American lives lost.

It is interesting to note that while the volunteers were being mustered for service at the start of the war, regimental bands for both North and South were being created also. While some bands were formed as semi-professional groups with flashy uniforms, others were simply assembled from those volunteers who had some musical experience.

At the beginning of the war every regiment . . . had full brass bands, some of them numbering as high as fifty pieces. When it is considered that in every brigade there were from four to five regiments, three brigades in one division and three divisions in each corps, an aggregate of from thirty-six to forty bands is shown for every corps. When a division...

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Top 10 Reasons NOT to Practice Scales

practicing May 20, 2018

I used to resist practicing scales.

My teacher thought they wee important, but I just couldn’t see it. Playing music – heck, even practicing music – was so much more interesting. Plus, when I was done practicing music, I had something to show for it, a piece I could play. Who wants to listen to scales?

I had all the excuses too. And then I learned better.

If you’re reluctant to spend time and energy practicing your scales, I urge you to reconsider. All I ask is that you read the “top 10” list below and see if any of those reasons NOT to practice scales are yours. I’ve tried to provide strong evidence to help convince you to change your thinking.

And if you’re a teacher whose students struggle with scales, the list below may provide you with some extra talking points.

10. Scales are boring.

You must be practicing them incorrectly. In the words of famed flutist James Galway, “Scales played in the correct musical way are...

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Escaping The Technique Trap

technique May 14, 2018


Are you in the technique trap?

Maybe you have managed to escape the trap, or maybe you just don’t yet know you’re in it.

What is the technique trap? It’s the practice path that turns out not to be a path at all, but a circle that leads nowhere new.

Perhaps this sounds familiar…You slog away at your technical practice – scales, exercises, etudes – with the expectation of good results. You know it will take time to develop your skills, but you have confidence that over time you will see progress. But should it really take this­ long?

Over time, that situation leads you to the next level of the trap. You still spend time at your technique practice but your heart isn’t in it. Everyone tells you that you need to do this work, but you seem to get more done when you just practice your pieces. Besides, scales and exercises aren’t real music anyway.

Or perhaps you’ve reached the lowest level of the trap, where you’ve...

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Four Essential Elements of Technique

technique May 06, 2018

Do you think you know what the essential elements of technique are?

I used to think I did. From early on in my harp studies, they were drilled into my head, if not always into my fingers; elbows, wrists in, thumbs up, etc. I learned what amounted to a complete catechism of the points of harp technique.

Lately, however, I’ve been considering technique from a wider perspective. What if technique could be described in a way that would be applicable to any musical instrument? Are there basic technical requirements, essential elements, that supersede instrument-specific points?

Assuming that the goal of any technique, no matter the instrument (and of course, this includes the voice), is to foster more adept and expressive music performance, then the aims of technical development must be identical too.

I have identified four essential elements of technique, overarching concepts that reveal the true purpose of technical study. What is interesting about them is that they are...

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Listen Like a Superhero

musicianship Apr 29, 2018

"Be sure to listen!"

This was my teacher's final piece of advice before I played my first orchestra rehearsal. I was only 12, and I was playing with a local community orchestra. I was a little nervous. All the other players were grown-ups. The part I was playing was unfamiliar, but back then every orchestra part was unfamiliar.  Adding to my discomfort was the conductor’s heavy German accent and the fact that he addressed me only as "leetle girrrl."

I would have loved to listen, but I was too uncomfortable and inexperienced to do more than pray that I would come in at the right time.

Unnerving as it was, the whole experience taught me to listen. Even better, over time I learned the skills I needed to become a constant and reliable ensemble player. I learned to listen like a superhero.

If you’re a Marvel Comics fan, you know that the superhero Wolverine is a mutant who possesses a set of amazing retractable claws and ultra-keen senses, including a fantastic sense of...

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Three Times When Not Practicing is NOT an Option

practicing Apr 22, 2018

Are you not practicing today?

Those are the most powerful words that anyone can ever say to me. They are the ultimate reminder – or possible kick in the pants - that as a musician my job is to practice. Daily.

When is it okay not to practice? Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method, had a very clear philosophy. When he was asked by his young students when they should practice, his reply was invariably, “Only on the days you eat.”  Of course, that's a rule more suited to creating proper habits in young students than to adult students with busy schedules and myriad responsibilities.

Whether you're an amateur musician or a professional musician, you understand that practice is important. If you don't practice, you don't make progress. So how do you balance all the responsibilities and schedule upheavals that happen in a typical week? When is it safe to skip your practice, and when do you really need to practice anyway?

My answer might surprise you. I...

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Beautiful Thumbs or All Thumbs?

technique Apr 15, 2018

Do you love your thumbs?

We harpists have a love/hate relationship with our thumbs. They can carry the melody well with their power. But they can also be a weak link in scales and arpeggios. They have a knack for being too loud when we need them to blend and too weak when we want them to be beautiful.

Thumbs play several crucial roles in our playing. Physically, they balance and stabilize our hand. Have you ever tried playing a scale without using your thumb? Try it and you will see instantly how much you rely on your thumb just to keep your hand steady.

Our right thumb is our “melody finger,” so it must have a variety of tone colors and a full range of dynamics. Developing an expressive melody line starts with developing an expressive thumb.

Thumbs link chunks of scales or arpeggios when we cross under or over. In these moments, accuracy, stability and even tone are all required from our thumbs.

Our thumbs also anchor octaves and chords, and play harmonics and trills....

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Moving Up or Going In Circles?

practicing Apr 08, 2018

Are you moving up, making progress? Or do you feel like you’re going in circles?

I always visualize progress as ascending a spiral staircase. You move upward, but in a sort of circular way. You keep working on the same skills but at increasingly higher levels.

Beginners practice scales. Virtuoso performers practice scales, too, but theirs are usually faster, more fluid, more athletic. It’s easy to see the results of years of practice.

Although it’s easy to tell the scales of a beginner from those of a professional, it’s not always easy to tell if you’re making progress, moving forward, moving up. Sometimes it feels like your practice is just taking you over the same ground over and over again.

So how can you tell? Usually we look to our repertoire to see if we are making progress. It’s an easy way, if not a totally accurate one, to measure our accomplishment.

If you’re making progress your repertoire will show it in three distinct ways:

  1. ...

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