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Don’t Practice Your Orchestra Part – Prepare It!

It was one of those flashback moments.

I was helping a student prepare for her first orchestra experience and suddenly, I was twelve years old, in my teacher’s studio, hearing her tell me some of the very same things.

My teacher was Marilyn Costello, principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, so obviously she was an expert at orchestral playing. Despite the thorough preparation she gave me, there were parts of my early orchestra experience that no one could have prepared me for.

There was the octogenarian conductor with the thick German accent who addressed me in rehearsal only as “leeetle gerrrrl.” There was the odd feeling of being alone in the middle of this large group, being the only harpist, the only musician without a “section” of colleagues and friends. And there was the strange experience of not playing continuously, of contributing in small, isolated moments, and counting vast numbers of bars of rests.

As I grew to understand my role as...

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The Musician’s #1 Labor-Saving Strategy

We have been taught that hard work is the key to success. As James Cash (J. C.) Penney quipped, “I do not believe in excuses. I believe in hard work as the prime solvent of life's problems.”

As musicians, we understand the value of hard work, of putting in the practice time. When we encounter passages that confound our technique, we “take it to the woodshed” to put in more repetitions. When we have a performance coming up, we increase our efforts. No one has to tell us that excuses won’t make you play better.

But sometimes hard work actually prevents you from getting the results you want.

If you’re working on the wrong things, it doesn’t matter how much work you do; you will just be spinning your wheels. Plus, when you’re just spinning your wheels, you’re not only putting effort into something that won’t help you, but you’re also digging yourself in deeper. You’re wasting time that should be spent on what will...

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Practicing Outside the Box: 2 Ideas for Creative Practice

No time to be creative? Let’s use your daily practice to stimulate your musical imagination.

Practice, even when we are avoiding thoughtless repetition, often feels like a less-than-creative task. Our quest for secure, confident and musical playing doesn’t seem to allow for much experimentation and play.

The fact is, however, that actively using your musical imagination can actually help you learn notes more quickly in addition to developing inner resources that you might not even realize you have. These resources would include things like connecting music theory concepts like chords and keys to what you hear and play, and quicker recognition of musical styles and forms. These resources are the fundamental skills you need to be able to learn faster, sightread, memorize and improvise more easily.

Plus, this kind of practice helps you get more creative in terms of generating musical ideas. Don’t think you have any musical ideas? You might surprise yourself, if you...

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Playing More Musically: 5 Days of Discovery

I just want to play more musically.”

It's a common refrain among students and performers of all ages. We all want to play more musically, but exactly what does that mean?

A musically expressive performance is a result of the performer’s choices informed by his or her understanding. You can probably guess at the kind of choices I mean, like choices of tempo and dynamics. The understanding part may require a bit more explanation.

Musical understanding develops over time. It’s likely that you already have a large body of instinctive musical knowledge that you have accumulated as you have practiced, played and listened to music. Your next step is to raise that understanding from the instinctive level to the conscious.

If you have ever puzzled over whether specific dynamics sounded “right” or not, you have already begun this task. Simply by paying attention to the possibilities open to you as a performer and asking questions about them, you have...

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Don’t Do This! 7 Sneaky Harp Happiness Killers

It’s spring cleaning time, the season to spruce up, refresh and brighten, to clean out the closets, sort out the drawers and get a fresh start. I’m always amazed to realize that, once again, my junk drawer is full, my closet is a disorganized mess and I need to do something about it. It seems to be so easy to accumulate those piles and so daunting to face getting rid of them.

I generally give my harp playing a “spring cleaning” too. While the need for musical refreshing is less obvious than the pile of papers on my desk, it is no less real. There is a “winter rust” that accumulates, due to over-crowded schedules and too little practice time. I need to brush away the cobwebs and bad habits and get my playing back in shape.

Perhaps you don’t have any harp “spring cleaning” to do. But maybe you haven’t realized some of the seemingly innocuous habits – I call them Harp Happiness Killers - that can drain your energy,...

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Spring Forward: Gardening Tips for Harpists

Spring is finally here, at least according to the calendar. I won’t believe it’s really spring, though, until I see the first cheery yellow daffodil in my garden.

I remember the year I planted those bulbs. I spent the better part of an autumn weekend digging holes in the side of a hill along our driveway. The ground was more rock than soil, but I dug where I could, placed the bulbs in the holes and hoped for the best.

I’d like to say that the next spring that hillside was covered with a mass of yellow blooms but even now, 10 years later, those daffodils still struggle to spread. The brave survivors that bloom may be fewer in number than I had envisioned, but I cherish them all the more.

Has your harp playing blossomed the way you expected? Do you have a musical field of flowers or are you still waiting for the first blooms? You can tell from my daffodil story that I am no gardener but even so, I have discovered a few tips that relate as much to harp playing as they...

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Mastering Harp Geography: Get Out of the Middle of the Road

Would you drive in the middle of the road?

I live in a very rural area. We have beautiful forests of pine and hemlock and sparkling streams with plenty of trout, unless you listen to the unlucky fishermen. We also have very narrow roads. The middle of the road is sometimes the only place to drive.

But playing the harp is not a “middle of the road” venture. Your harp has plenty of strings and there’s no need to stick to just the middle ones.

So are you a “middle of the road” harpist? This has nothing to do with skill level or ability. It’s purely a matter of geography.

Try this: take a look at your harp. Which strings are the most worn? Probably they are the ones you play the most, likely the ones in the middle. Or perhaps you’re one of those harpists who never tunes the bottom or the very top strings telling yourself that you don’t use them anyway. These are both signs that you could use a refresher course in harp geography.

Geography...

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3 Reasons You Can't Finish a Piece and How to Fix It

Why can’t you finish that piece?

Composer Franz Schubert never finished his Eighth Symphony. If you aren’t up on your music history, you might think it was because he died before he could complete it, but that was not the case. Schubert wrote the first two movements of the symphony in 1822, but he lived, and composed, for 6 more years. In fact, scholars cannot ascertain exactly why Schubert stopped work on that symphony, and Schubert isn’t around to answer the question.

So if you have trouble getting a piece of music to the finish point, you’re hardly the first musician to experience that dilemma. 

On the other hand, if you have trouble finishing any piece of music so that you can actually play it, there are some things you can do to fix that. The first step is to explore why you might not be finishing.

You Get Bored: The Greyhound Syndrome

I’ve often used greyhounds and German shepherds to describe the two most common practice styles....

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Habits: Is It Time For a Change?

habit practice technique Jan 28, 2019

There is no question that we all are creatures of habit. The only question is whether our habits are intentional or accidental, whether they propel us forward or hold us back from the future we deserve.

From a scientific viewpoint, a habit is merely a triggered response that has become automatic. What I find interesting is this: the power of the habit lies in the trigger. If you’ve ever tried to break a habit, you know what I mean. You want to eat fewer calories, but you always order fries with your burger. You want to stop smoking, but you always smoke with a cup of coffee. You want to watch less tv, but that’s what you always do after dinner.

In order to change those habits, you have to resist your usual response to the trigger and create a new response. Yes, that’s much easier said than done, but we do have a secret weapon: focusing on the result that we desire, the benefits that our new habit will bring to us.

This is the same strategy that dieters use when...

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My 2019 Designed: How I Put It All Together

performing practice Jan 07, 2019

Welcome to 2019! I love a new year. It feels like a beautifully wrapped present with your name on it, just waiting for you to open it. What might be inside??

If you’ve been following the last few blog posts, you’ve learned the steps to designing your 2019, to setting goals and creating a plan to achieve them. The process we have used is a little untraditional and whimsical, and I hope that you’ve had fun with it.

The lighthearted approach doesn’t dilute the power of the system, though. It’s just the spoonful of sugar that helps make the deep thinking a little more approachable.

I thought it might help you to see how I personally used that same system to set my Harp Mastery goals for 2019. I have several areas in which I set goals each year, and Harp Mastery is one of them. I also set personal goals, harp playing goals, spiritual goals and some others as well. I don’t always accomplish all of them, but I always end up having made progress in the...

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