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Practicing Harp Happiness

#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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#044: Five Fingering Rules You Need to Break

Ask a group of harpists what the hardest part of playing the harp is and you’ll get a lot of different answers: the technique, playing hands together, reading the notes, playing chords, putting on a new string, or maybe even moving the harp. Every harpist has his or her own bugaboo, a particular challenge in their playing. 

But we all agree that one of the trickiest parts of playing the harp is the fingering. 

From the first day we started the harp it was impressed on us that we need to follow the printed fingering. Placing our fingers accurately and in the right order - all at once or one at a time - helps us battle gravity and stay physically connected to the strings. I like to think of us as musical acrobats - only without the death-defying aspect. So much of what our instrument demands of our technique requires us to be airborne. We have to lift our hands to prolong a sound, to relax our hand, to move from one octave to another. And unlike pianists, we are...

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#041: Your Questions Answered: Questions From The Podcast Email

Today’s show is dedicated to you, the podcast listener. I have gathered some of the most interesting questions from our podcast inbox and I will be answering them in this episode. 

After all, advice is only good if it’s the advice you need when you need it. Obviously, a podcast isn’t the same as individual instruction, or having your harp teacher on speed dial, but it’s important to me to talk about the topics that matter to you, those things that will make a difference in your harp playing. That’s one of the reasons I like to give you an action step or two with each podcast. Taking action, doing something rather than just talking about it, is how progress happens. It’s how we grow. Just think; if we only talked about practicing and never actually did it, our harp playing would never improve. In fact, it would start to wither and die. 

If being a harpist - or harper if that’s more “you” - is part of who you are, then...

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#039: Love Your Chords! 3 Ways To Make Them Lush and Lovely

You and your harp are the perfect Valentine’s love story. You met your harp, fell in love and the rest is history. When I talk about harp happiness here on the podcast and elsewhere, I’m talking about that love connection you have with your harp - that magical feeling that you began with and about continuing that feeling, deepening it, nourishing it, helping it flourish. 

 Of course, sometimes harp happiness has its bad days, those days when the joy just isn’t there. Those moments of frustration are the bumpy part of a harpist’s journey, and today’s podcast is about one of the major bumps in the road for all of us harpists: playing chords. We want our chords to sound lush and lovely but sometimes they just come out like a disorganized cluster of random notes. 

There are so many ingredients to playing a lovely-sounding chord.You must place multiple fingers quickly and accurately on the strings and then play them either at exactly the same...

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