Blog 2019 Fall Retreat Member Login Login

How to Practice Past Obstacles: Redefining Your Limits

There are things you do for your children that you would never have done for yourself. There are icky things, sticky things, difficult things, unusual things. For instance, I am pretty sure my father never would have dreamed about lugging a harp around if I hadn’t needed him to. For my son, I took karate lessons.

I’ve never been much of a sports person and I never would have thought of taking karate lessons for myself. My son was interested in karate but needed some encouragement, so we signed up for lessons together. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it and stuck with the lessons longer than he did. I loved the systematic approach and the discipline that is part of learning a martial art. And I absolutely loved breaking boards.

I know - it sounds like breaking boards would be bad for a harpist’s hands. But it wasn’t. It was only fun. We had a board breaking party one evening at the karate studio and we were all having fun - the little children and the...

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Plan Now for Peaceful Holiday Performances

Plan now for Christmas? You might be thinking that most of your holiday harp playing was planned long ago, possibly in the middle of the summer. I have always liked to prepare much of my holiday repertoire then too. But that’s just the first step.

What I want to share with you today are my three most powerful strategies for making sure that you don’t lose the ground you gained when you started practicing your music. Your holiday playing should be an enjoyable part of your holiday, not a source of extra stress.

For a long time, it seemed to me that no matter how prepared I felt at the beginning of November, things started to fall apart as the weeks went on. I didn’t have as much practice time as I expected, or choir directors added music to their programs, or something unexpected happened that created havoc in my jam-packed schedule. Despite my careful planning, I was harried and stressed.

But then I found the key to eliminating the crunch and the last-minute...

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How to Play Four Note Chords Without Finger Fumbles

There are many dividing points in life, moments when you know you have reached a new phase or growth stage. They are the thresholds that you cross, knowing that nothing will be the same afterward. Passing your driver’s test, getting married, having your first baby are some of the huge milestones in life.

For a harpist, one of those milestones, and one that is absolutely essential to their continued harp progress, is learning to play four-note chords.

This may not seem like a very big deal, and it certainly isn’t something we normally announce on social media. Nonetheless, it is a skill that all advanced harp players have and one that very few less experienced players are comfortable with. Four-note chords mark a dividing point in skill level more than any other technical issue. If you’re at that point in your harp playing right now, you know exactly what I mean.

In the early stages of learning to play the harp, we get accustomed to playing three-note chords. The...

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Growing Pains: Embracing the Messy Middle

Growth hurts.

Whether it’s those painful knees of a growing adolescent, or a lesson learned through a painful mistake, growth is usually the fruit of struggle, perhaps some frustration and occasionally failure.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent one lightbulb. The lightbulb that finally worked was the result of thousands of lightbulbs he invented that didn’t work. The butterfly wasn’t born with beautiful colors on delicate wings. It began as a caterpillar that had to surrender its caterpillar nature and shut itself up in a cocoon before it could emerge as the butterfly it was destined to become.

The path to any achievement has its metamorphosis stage. It is then that the transformation happens, the growth that will lead us to our goal. Yes, it’s the messy middle, but it’s also the most powerful phase of learning.

To use the messy middle to your greatest advantage you need to be prepared to endure the struggle and persist when it looks like you’re...

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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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