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Practicing Harp Happiness

#067: 7 Ingredients of a Glorious Glissando

Here’s a riddle for you:

What can go up or down but never side to side, can be like a gale-force wind or a whisper of a breeze, and is easy to do when you don’t know how and much harder when you do? 

I’ll bet you got it in one guess - it’s a glissando. In case you didn’t get it, here’s why a glissando is the right answer. 

The first part is obvious; glissandos - or in more correct Italian, glissandi - go up or down the harp. And the second part is probably clear too; a glissando can be powerful with a majestic sweeping rush of notes, or it can be delicate and tender, just like a whisper.

The tricky part of the riddle is the third part. If you’re a harpist, though, you likely understand this one. Playing a glissando on the harp is the easiest thing in the world. Taking one finger and brushing it over the strings in a simple glissando was quite likely one of the first things you ever tried when you sat down at a harp for the very...

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#066: Hands in the Air: Raising and the Art of Letting Go

Form follows function.

I expect you’re familiar with that quote but you may not know the entire context. The phrase is a vast simplification of an idea put forth by architect Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright,  in his 1896 article titled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Working from an idea of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius that a building should be solid, useful and beautiful, Sullivan developed his overriding philosophy, what he called the single "rule that shall permit of no exception." This was his complete statement:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes...

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#064: Spice Up Your Scales for Technique, Flexibility and Speed

Scales are so simple on the harp. 

Unlike on other instruments all our scales have the same fingering.

I remember being a young piano student and struggling with the fingering patterns that seemed different for each major and minor key. Those black and white keys caused a lot of fingering complications.

But on the harp, all our scales are fingered exactly alike. All the changes are in our levers or pedals, not our fingers. It couldn't get any easier. 

Ironically, this is the reason that many harpists don’t bother practicing their scales. After all, if they are this easy, what could be the benefit?

Scales, along with chords and arpeggios, are one of the technical building blocks for every harpist. In every piece we play, our fingers need to move sequentially, as they do in a scale. They need to play evenly, smoothly and musically. They need to play fast. And the single best way to develop that level of facility is by practicing scales.

So why aren’t you...

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#059: Confused About Markings? 10 Common Harp Markings Explained!

If the fairy godmother of harp appeared today to grant you just one wish, what would it be? Would you wish for a new harp, flying fingers, an endless supply of music? I know what I would wish for: standardized harp markings.

That may sound to you as if I haven’t given this wish a lot of thought, but actually I believe if the harp fairy godmother would grant that one wish, it would save all of us harpists much time, confusion and frustration. Allow me to explain.

Harp notation is anything but standardized. Take a simple technique like a harmonic. Most composers write harp harmonics where they are to be played, which results in the note sounding one octave higher. But there are a few composers - Carlos Salzedo, most notably - who write their harmonics where the notes actually sound, meaning that we need to play them one octave lower than they are written. Many harpist composers explain which system they are using with a note to the performer printed on the music. Unfortunately,...

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#058: Quick Fix Episode: Fixing 3 Common Thumb Issues

Today's episode is a brand-new podcast feature, a “Quick Fix'' episode. These are special episodes designed to take your harp learning out of the realm of the theoretical and get totally practical. It’s obviously not enough just to know why something is important, although that’s a great place to start. Sooner or later you have to actually do whatever it is, and for that you need to know how

So from time to time here on the podcast, I’ll be sharing my favorite quick fixes, the nuts and bolts step by step instructions to put some of the things we’ve talked about - or that you’ve asked me about - into place in your harp playing.

The inspiration for today’s show was a comment I received in response to a podcast episode I did nearly a year ago, episode 14, about Taming the Terrible Thumb. On that podcast I talked about how your thumb should work, the proper mechanics and the reasons why those mechanics were important. But more recently I...

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#053: How to Add Color and Variety to Your Sound

My harp teacher could make any harp sound amazing. I was astounded every time I heard her do it. On the occasions when she came to my house and played my harp, her magical touch on my very ordinary harp brought it to life in a way my practice never did. And it was MY harp!

My teacher was Marilyn Costello. She studied with Carlos Salzedo at the Curtis Institute of Music and had a lifetime career as principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And she had the warmest, richest, most liquid tone I have ever heard. 

Having a beautiful tone wasn’t something I thought a lot about as a young harp student. I was more interested in playing fast and flashy pieces. I didn’t give much thought to having a rich sound. After all, when you're playing pieces at warp speed, who can hear the quality of your sound? 

Obviously, tone matters. Like so many other harpists, it was the unique voice of the harp that first attracted me. The sound of the harp spoke to me when I heard...

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#052: Need a Fix? Try My Favorite Exercises!

There will never be a shortage of exercise books. As long as there are harpists, they will want to develop a more facile technique to make their playing easier, faster, more fluid and more musical.  Scales and arpeggios will always be staples of our technical work but obviously, there is so much more that goes into harp technique. And with the plethora of choices of exercise, etude and method books, where does a harpist start?

The short answer to that question is to just start; it doesn’t really matter where. Any technique growth is better than none. A steady progression of skills is even better, of course. Again the simple solution is a good one; work your way through any exercise book beginning to end and you will cover most of what your fingers need. When you’re finished with that book, choose another.

There are some technical issues, though, that are very common and yet are often resistant to the usual approaches. On today’s episode of the podcast, I want...

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#050: Metronome Methods For The Unconvinced

Tick, tick, tick, tick…the constant click of a metronome could conceivably drive a person crazy. I am now - although I wasn’t always - a metronome fan. Though this may sound crazy to some of you, the metronome is my favorite practice tool because it helps me fix errors, create flow and it gives me time to play a piece or a tricky passage correctly.

I realize that this may not be your experience with the metronome. Maybe your feeling about it is more like this:

If you’ve seen the classic movie Ben Hur, you already know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, let me set the scene for you.

At one point in the tale, our hero Judah Ben Hur is a galley slave on a Roman ship, chained to an oar with several other slaves. The entire hold of the ship is filled with men chained to oars; they are the engine of the ship. In order for the slaves to generate enough power to move the ship, it is essential that they row in a coordinated way. So at the front of the...

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#049: It’s All in the Wrist: The Crucial Link

Do you suffer from uneven scales, particularly when you cross under or over?
Do your fingers sometimes fumble to find the strings?
Is your tone warm and lovely some of the time and other times thin or weak?
Have the drills you’ve tried made no real difference?

Here’s the miracle solution to all these problems… and more!

If this sounds like a late night infomercial, I apologize, but I want to call your attention to the often overlooked, frequently misunderstood and almost always underappreciated member of your technique team - your wrist.

We harpists consider so many points of our technique - our fingers, arms and shoulders, our fingering, our placing. We worry about whether to raise or connect and in what situations one might be better than the other. Do we hold our elbows up or down? Should we sit on the edge of the bench or more in the middle and how high or low? So many questions and nearly as many different answers to each one.

When was the last time you thought...

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#047: Left Hand Literacy: Skills Your Left Hand Is Missing

Does your left hand struggle to keep up? Your right hand seems to have its act together, but your left hand always takes longer to feel comfortable with the notes, no matter what piece you’re learning. Are you thinking that I have a hidden camera in your practice room? Not at all; it’s simply that I have had my own left hand issues too. 

I used to think that if I were left handed I wouldn’t have these issues. But I hear many of my left-handed students, even the more advanced players, complaining about the same left hand awkwardness. So much for trying to become ambidextrous as a solution.

Even more frustrating is that the solutions I used to recommend to my students - the same ones I was using myself - really aren’t solutions at all. Sure they helped my left hand become more fluent and flexible, which I would call a big win. But I still saw my students struggle with left hand passages that should have been easily within their grasp. Or more precisely,...

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