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Practicing Harp Happiness

#160: The Other Side of Harp Playing: How to Develop Your Musicianship

Maybe you’ve noticed or maybe you haven’t, but these podcasts are organized into three different categories. One category is “Practice and Performing” and another is “Music and Meaning.”  The third category is “Technique and Musicianship.” Technique is one of those self-explanatory items, but musicianship probably needs a little more description. 

A common dictionary definition of musicianship is “the skill or artistry involved in performing music.” Other definitions include the word “knowledge” along with skill and artistry. Musicianship as a category is so broad that it actually encompasses everything about playing music except for technique, although technique obviously has a role to play in musicianship as well.

I like to define musicianship as the craft of music. It is the part of playing music that is common to musicians whatever instrument they play, or whether they sing or compose. For us...

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#158: Memorization Basics: How to Make It Stick

In a world of sticky notes, Gorilla Glue and tape that can hold a leaky boat together, why can’t we make a piece of music stick in our fingers?

Does this sound familiar? We sit down at the harp on Monday with fresh spirit and energy and we dig into the music we want to learn. Tuesday we repeat the process, feeling very virtuous. On Wednesday, we are a little disappointed that we don’t see any progress from our practice. Thursday, we decide that it just needs a little more effort. On Friday, it seems like our fingers have forgotten everything we’ve been trying to teach them, so we take the rest of the weekend off and hope that next week will be better. 

And if we’re trying to memorize a piece, it can feel even more frustrating. It takes so long to see any progress. Our music just doesn’t seem to stick. 

We can put the blame in lots of places: the music is hard, we don’t have enough practice time, we’re too distracted to focus,...

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#157: 10 Tips for Terrific Thumbs

I was going through some old music the other day and came across a notation that made me smile. It was written in my best elementary school cursive script and read, “Thumbelina’s having trouble with her thumb.” I don’t even remember what piece of music it was on, but it could have been on just about any one. I always had trouble with my thumbs. In fact, most of my music has the words “Thumbs up” in my teacher’s handwriting somewhere on the page.

I am double jointed, not to any circus freak level but in the more or less usual way. My thumbs bend backwards at the first knuckle. It’s not a big deal, not unless you’re a harpist, that is. It took me until I was sixteen to finally learn how to control my thumbs and have them play properly.

What I learned in the process was exactly how crucial our thumbs are for our harp playing. Our thumbs actually have the ability to free our fingers to be relaxed and supple; used another way, our...

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#155: Shaped, Stable, Supple: A New Approach to Technique

Have you ever had one of those moments when you wonder if you’ve been doing it all wrong? It might be something you have taken for granted, a habit maybe, or a process, something you thought was the perfect system. You always have done it that way, but suddenly you have a moment of doubt. Maybe it felt like a blinding flash of clarity; the clouds part and suddenly you see the thing in a new light. But just as quickly that clarity fades, and you are left with a nagging feeling that you’re missing something important. 

Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so. I think we all encounter things that we thought were working, until we see that maybe they aren’t.

I think that many of us actually feel that way about our harp technique. We go along just fine for a while and then we hit a wall. There’s a piece or a performance that shakes things up and all of a sudden our technique doesn’t seem so trustworthy any more. We need to strengthen it,...

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#153: Tempo Is Not a Number: Finding the Right One for You and Your Piece

Today’s podcast is all about tempo, and I have to start by saying that tempo is a funny thing. We define it with numbers or with the familiar Italian words, or less familiar French or German ones, and it still seems elusive.

Much of the time we try to pin a piece of music down to a number, a mathematically precise ratio of beats per minute. Perhaps the composer put it there as a guide for the performer. Perhaps it was added by an editor, an arranger, or a teacher. But it still doesn’t necessarily satisfy us. In fact, everything about this feels wrong. How is it possible to limit a piece of music, a creation that lives in a single moment, to one number? 

I remember reading the liner notes to a CD recording by legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein. This recording was made toward the end of his life. He was already in his 90’s, but the producers of this recording wanted to preserve Rubinstein’s interpretations of piano masterworks for generations to come...

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#151: How Your Three-Finger Technique May Be Hurting Youā€¦Literally

It’s high time I got up on my soapbox. It’s not often I do a rant on the podcast, but there’s an issue that has me so fired up that I had to talk about it with you.

I believe it’s the result of how we are learning now. There are so many opportunities to learn online, everything from individual live lessons to Youtube videos to video courses to coaching to online masterclasses. And before you mention it, yes, I am obviously a contributor to those online learning opportunities, which makes me part of the problem. I’d rather be part of the solution. Hence, the reason for today’s rant.

You may have heard me talk about the leveling up involved in playing four-finger chords if you’ve been playing mostly three-finger chords. I’m not changing my opinion on that. 

But recently I’ve seen that the main stumbling block for many students isn’t just the addition of one more note to the chord. It’s actually more about the way...

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#146: Can You Count This? Where Simple Meets Compound

See if you can guess the answer to this.

What can sometimes feel gently rocking like a boat on a lake on a calm summer’s day, and other times puts a lively spring into your step? It isn’t hard, but it’s never simple. You’ve almost certainly encountered it in your harp music, and even though you may be able to play it easily,  you may not be able to explain it. You might think of it as double trouble or as a triple threat in the way it compounds the challenges in your music. Can you guess what it is? If you’re the type who likes to figure things out, pause the podcast here for a moment and then come back when you’re ready for the answer.

Ready? Here’s one final hint: the answer is a meter signature, and I know it’s one you know. Maybe you’ve guessed it. The meter signature or time signature I mean is 6/8. I know you’ve seen it and played it. “Greensleeves” or “What Child Is This?” is a melody...

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#145: Playalong Episode: Rediscovering Your Sound

I am always interested to hear what first attracted harpists to the harp. It’s fascinating to learn the many ways that the harp can draw a potential student. My own story is that I heard the harp on the radio and told my parents that was what I wanted to do. The important part of this story for me is that it wasn’t a gold harp or a pretty dress that drew me to the harp, but the sound that pulled me in. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with the gold harp or the glamor look, but the sound was - and is - important to me. 

Whether or not it was the harp’s sound that first attracted you, sound is important to us. So why don’t we spend more of our time listening to our playing? We devote a lot of energy to reading the notes and teaching our fingers to play the right strings. Somehow there isn’t always time to just spend listening. But it’s an important habit and one that we are going to spend a little time with today.

This is a playalong...

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#144: Beyond the Basics: How to Keep Your Technique Growing

Let’s take this as a given: our technique is at the heart of everything we do at the harp. Intellectually, we know this to be true, but that doesn’t prevent us from being surprised when we run into a passage in a piece we’re learning that our fingers just can’t manage. What the heck? We’ve been doing our daily exercises and most of the time our technique is up to the challenges in any new piece. So what happened this time?

If you’ve had that experience, rest assured, my friend, that you are not alone. We’ve all been there. Sometimes a moment like that is just a wake up call, reminding us that we’ve slacked off a bit and we’ve been taking our technique work a little too casually. Technique practice done correctly requires our attention and focus. It also requires a plan for growth.

The basic drills or exercises we rely on are scales, arpeggios and chords. In theory, keeping those skills fresh should enable us to play about three...

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#142: Rubato: Secret Sauce for Your Musical Expression

Every restaurant chain, every chef has their “secret sauce.” It’s that unique ingredient that makes their food taste special every time. It's part of their culinary signature.

There is a secret - or maybe not so secret - sauce in musical expression too. It’s rubato. It’s the element of musical pacing that breathes life into music, that keeps it from sounding dull and robotic, that helps a melody sing and rich harmonies unfold with spaciousness.

Today’s podcast is an exploration of what rubato is and how you can use it to add depth and expression to your playing. I’ll explain how to figure out where and when to use it, and equally important, when not to use it. I’ll play some examples for you too, so you can hear exactly what rubato is. I imagine that you are going to have one of those “aha” moments as you are finally able to put a name to that thing that’s been missing from your playing.

I’m not saying your...

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