Today’s episode is another in our series of masterclasses, our podcast at-the-harp workshops where you can follow along with me as we do a deep dive into a vital aspect of technique or musicianship.
In this masterclass, we’ll be working on my tempo pyramid. Over the years, I have had lots of requests for reviewing my system for working a piece or a passage so that it actually gets up to tempo. This system is what I call the tempo pyramid and although the concept is fairly simple, it will definitely help you to try it out step by step with me. I won’t just walk you through the pyramid, but I’ll give you some of my bonus tips that will make it even simpler and faster. And faster is our whole focus today: getting the whole piece faster and closer to tempo, making that one difficult passage as fast as the rest of the piece, letting your fingers move faster and with more agility and security.
It’s a lot to do in one podcast episode so we need to get...
Fundamentals, exercises and etudes are the three pillars of harp technique, or any instrumental technique for that matter. I’m sure this is not news to you, but the reminder never hurts.
Fundamentals like scales, arpeggios and chords form the basis of our technique because they are the patterns most prevalent in the music we play. Exercises help our fingers become familiar with the characteristic patterns that aren’t as straightforward as the fundamentals. Etudes help us put the technical skills from our exercises and fundamentals into a more musical context, a sort of test drive for our technique. Together, they help us develop facility, agility and musical understanding. Pretty powerful stuff.
I know - you knew that already. But like me and most of the harpists I know, you may have trouble fitting all three of those into your practice time. Most of us have limited practice time anyway, and it would be easy to let our technical work crowd out everything else. This is...
It is a true joy to watch a fine musician play their instrument, whether it's a harp or another instrument. There is a physical flow, a sense that no motion is wasted. You can practically see the mastery they bring to their music.
I would go even further to say that all their physical resources are being used to serve the music. There is an efficiency in their gestures, a grace and a strength that is as visually compelling as their music is. After all, we see a performance as much as we hear it.
If you doubt the truth of that statement, just think about a performance you watched where the performer had distracting facial expressions or gestures. Maybe you were able to ignore them and continue listening, but the music’s spell was likely broken for you. What you saw became more important than what you heard.
This is one reason that orchestras have a uniform dress code, usually formal wear for the men and long black clothing for the women. Most professional...
How are you supposed to reach that left hand chord?
You know the one I mean. It goes by a lot of different names, a root-position triad in open spacing, a 1-5-3 chord, or maybe just the chord you can’t ever place accurately. Certainly when we first encounter the chord, it’s a stretch for our hands, but eventually most of us can manage it without too much difficulty.
When we place and play the chord well, it sounds warm and rich. Because it’s a big reach, though, it’s often a challenge to get to the right notes at the right time and play them without hitting neighboring strings.
And that’s a problem because this combination of notes is everywhere in harp music. We encounter it sometimes as a chord, sometimes as an arpeggio. In fact, I often call this the “left hand master chord,” because it is the one chord that, when we master it, solves playing difficulties in so many pieces. We don’t want to have to spend our practice time...
Quick question: hands in the air if you’ve ever decided to skip your technique drills and etudes because you are doing that work already on a challenging passage in one of your pieces.
Yes, I thought so. Everybody’s hand is up, including mine. So we all do it, skip our technique work because we’re short on time and we can get the same benefits by doing double duty practice - working on technique with one of those sticky spots that we need to drill anyway. It sounds like a good idea and a great use of our time. But is it really?
Well, yes…and no.
Exercises and etudes have very specialized functions in harp technique practice. The most significant of these is that they take musical context out of the equation. By eliminating the pressures of the right notes at the right time with all the dynamics, we can laser focus on our mechanics, the way our fingers work, the position of our hands and arms, staying relaxed, and maintaining a healthy posture. Then moving...
If I had to choose one tool that made a harpist’s life easier, I know exactly which one I would choose - the electronic tuner.
I belong to the last generation of harpists that grew up in a world without them, so I know what I’m talking about. Having a device that allowed you to tune in a noisy environment and be confident that your harp is really in tune was new technology when I was a student, and it was a game changer.
Imagine trying to tune your harp on stage while the rest of the orchestra is warming up - violins and piccolo showing off their highest notes, double basses and timpani making anything below middle C inaudible and the brass instruments heroically filling in the middle. Tuning in an orchestra used to be a guessing game.
As grateful as I am for my tuner, there was an unintended consequence to this technological revolution. We harpists have stopped listening.
Consider for a moment how we tune with a tuner. We play a string and then look at the tuner...
I can almost always tell the skill level of a harp student by the way they use their fourth finger. It’s not the strength of the finger or a lack of coordination. A less advanced player simply avoids using it.
It shouldn’t surprise you if you give it a moment’s thought. Remember back to the very first pieces you learned on the harp, at whatever age you were when you started. They used mostly the thumb and second finger. You learned to place them together and to play them simultaneously and one after the other. Then you added the third finger which brought the additional pleasure (and challenge) of three-note chords. Placing, whether for a chord or a scale passage, was not just one additional finger harder; it was exponentially more difficult.
It’s likely that as you were learning these pieces you were also practicing scales and arpeggios and even etudes that used the fourth finger. But just because you were learning them didn’t mean your fourth...
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...
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...
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...