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The Musician’s Success Secret

Is there a secret that every successful musician knows - and you don’t?

“She always seems so confident.” “She never lets things get to her.” “She doesn’t seem to feel the pressure.” “She looks like she’s having fun.”

Other the years I’ve watched performers who just didn’t seem to get flustered. They didn’t seem nervous or worried about the possibility of things going wrong. I’ve envied their calm.

I’ve also been surprised when people have said the same things to me, commenting on how easy I made it look.

While I understand how performing can look easy when you’re in the audience, I know that it certainly doesn’t feel that way while you’re up on stage. And in the years that I have been teaching and coaching harpists through auditions, competitions and performances, I have discovered that there is one thing that successful performers do that separates them from the rest.

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Flute and Harp: Forging the Future

Joan Sparks, Louis deLise, Anne Sullivan

What is it about the flute and the harp? These two instruments in combination evoke elegance and grace, both visually and aurally. Perhaps a Jane Austen drawing room comes to mind, or the most recent wedding you attended. Whatever else flute and harp music may be, it certainly is everywhere.

Like many harpists, I can remember my first flute and harp experience. It was typical, I imagine. I was asked to play at a wedding, and in the next sentence asked if I had a flutist who could play with me. I was in high school at the time and needed the paycheck, so without ever having worked with a flutist before, I promptly answered, “Of course.”

I found a school friend, Laurie, to play with me, and over the next few years, we performed a number of times at different venues. During that time, as I played with more community and youth orchestras, I also discovered that nearly every flutist I met was eager to work with a harpist.

Soon I had a...

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Debussy Dilemma

music miscellany Aug 20, 2018

Clade Debussy

This week we celebrate the birthday of composer Clade 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.

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Find Your Fire

music miscellany Jul 22, 2018

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...

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A Family Reunion, Harp Style

music miscellany Jul 02, 2018

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...

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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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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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Follow Your Ambition

music miscellany Apr 01, 2018

Ambition is not just the property of the young and upwardly mobile. It isn’t exclusive to those destined to be superstars. Ambition is a natural part of the human condition.

It is sometimes viewed as prideful, immoderate, immodest, overbearing or selfish. But it is more properly cast in a neutral role: ambition is what you do with it.

When was the last time you thought about your ambitions, gave your thoughts over to your dreams without regard for probability, just enjoying the idea of the possible?

At least once a week, I receive an email from a harp student who is concerned about whether “it’s too late” for her to become the harpist she wants to be. She is nearly ready to give up on her dreams because she fears she doesn’t have enough talent, her fingers are too slow or she’s too old.

Most often, she has been caught up in one or more of three limiting beliefs, false beliefs which can kill even the strongest ambition.

Ambition Killer 1: Accept...
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Sophia Dussek: A Valentine’s Day Tribute

music miscellany Feb 11, 2018

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I found myself reflecting again on how much of our harp music we owe to love and romance. I don’t mean that harp music is “romantic,”  though certainly much of it could be interpreted that way. Rather, there is a substantial portion of harp literature that  was composed by someone who loved a harpist.

The harpist was often a mother (as in Micheline Kahn, the mother of Jean Michel Damase) or a wife (remember Dorette Spohr, wife of Louis Spohr), and I shudder to think what gaps there would be in our repertoire were it not for music being the language of love.

Coincidentally, today February 12 is the birthday of Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812).  Perhaps you first encountered Dussek’s music as I did, as a young piano student fumbling through his florid and elegant sonatinas.

Dussek also wrote numerous works for harp, no doubt inspired by his accomplished wife, singer, pianist and harpist Sophia...

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Advocating for Digital Music

music miscellany Jan 28, 2018

Composer Milton Babbitt with the RCA Mark II

Synthesizer

I like digital music and I’m not afraid to say it. Surprised?

If that statement pulls the figurative rug out from under you, you may feel on firmer ground by the time you read to the end…

Electronic music, or digital music, has a history well over a century old. With the development of the telegraph in the 1830’s and the invention of the telephone in the 1870’s, electronic sound transmission was in the forefront of innovation. It was an American Elisha Gray, employed by Western Electric as a telegraph supervisor, who first brought this technology to a “musical instrument.”

In 1874, he developed what he termed a “musical telegraph,” a two-octave keyboard that produced electronic sounds, a very primitive version of the electronic organ which wouldn’t make its debut for another sixty years.

In 1896, American inventor Thaddeus Cahill developed the first music synthesizer, a...

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