January 17, 2018

Lessons Learned?

I had a lovely weekend spent with a small group of very good friends. That, in and of itself, was a delightful balm for the soul in this bleak midwinter but it really provided a great backdrop for insights.  Safe, warm, well fed, and alight with laughter, the scene was set to really inculcate what you might know but haven’t learned.  Two lessons stood out for me – both related to the potential outcomes that arise from good and continued practice.

The first is the importance of solid practicing of fundamentals.  We all know how essential warmups and exercises are.  When we are “young harpers” (by which I mean new to the harp, regardless of age) we do our exercises.  They may consume most of our early lessons as we work to learn how to control the beautiful beast we have chosen. 

But we progress, we think we have learned what we were meant to have learned from the exercises…but there are so many tunes…and obligations.  And soon, many of us have left the exercises and warmups out of practice time – to save time, to be efficient.  Then, because we aren’t practicing them, they fall out of our practice repertoire. Because there is always more music…and laundry…and day jobs…and other impediments and excuses.

In this gathering, one of us took 10 minutes each morning, like they do every morning, and did warmups and exercises.  The rest of us watched and commented – in admiration and surprise (and maybe chagrin).  Nothing overly complex – scales, arpeggios, running chords and inversions.  The “usual”.  The mundane.  The foundational!  It was clear why such gorgeousness pours forth from that harp – and with so much ease. A little hard work goes a long way. The lesson was further reconfirmed by the acknowledgement that there are typically only about 45 minutes a day to practice!  But because of this foundational work, the remaining time is spent focused on learning the music not struggling with fingers or patterns!  The small amounts of foundational work – practiced regularly – are central to a good practice routine.  It’s one thing to know it, but it's something altogether different to actually do it.

The second insight was the application of that same practice discipline to the rest of our lives.  Everyone (else) there is a knitter.  I want to be a knitter because it looks good – productive, industrious, practical, and artistic. And all my friends are doing it! And it looks easy - after all, it’s just tangling string with some sticks! Like the harp – knitting is (relatively) easy to start…and very challenging to get good at. My friends have all been knitting for decades! But, in that unhelpful way adults do, my attempts are at best, laughable compared to theirs. When I had finished my first project – a straight(ish) scarf, I decided I was ready to move on – to a lace cowl!  If you’re not a knitter, I’ll translate. It was the yarn equivalent of successfully plunking out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and deciding to follow that with Britten's Ceremony of Carols!  Of course you can make that leap, but it will be frustrating, daunting, difficult, fraught with little (and undeniable) failures – all of which will cause you to doubt yourself. Even if I was God’s gift to knitting, I’d need to practice for a long while to be able to show it.  I made two big (and typical) mistakes – I discounted all the time and practice my friends have put in over the years to learn, practice, and master knitting and I expected to be able to just knit without putting in the same kind of time and effort.

Foundational practice is the fundament of success!  You may be slapping your forehead at this point, dismayed at how thick I can be.  Nothing here is new.  I have not imparted any wisdom.  But knowing (in your mind) and knowing (in your heart) can be different. The need to practice knitting to get better at it was something I knew but hadn’t taken to heart.  The certainty that I need to make multiple straight scarves, really become comfortable with the skills, know when something is wrong (and how to fix it) is finally there. The willingness to do the work, to gain the skills, to ask myself to not just complete a project but to finish it well – to ask myself to not be satisfied by just “playing through” but to do more than settle for a sloppy end are all the elements I can bring from my harp to my knitting.  And if I begin by working diligently on one stitch for just 10 minutes a day, like the warmups and exercises, I will eventually be strong enough in the fundamentals to get to the lace.  And to see that the artistry arises from that foundation.

What will your 10 minutes be? Please share with me what warmups and exercises you do (or are going to be doing) at your harp.  Any ideas you can bring over from other instruments you play? Together we can come up with some cool stuff – I’ll compile your suggestions and share them later.

January 10, 2018

But if I don’t have a goal – how will I know that I got there?

If goal setting is so last year and this year we are going to do better – what are we going to do? How will we know if we got where we meant to?

First, we’re going to acknowledge that this is where that maxim about life being a journey not a destination kicks in. And to that end, I’d suggest that this year – we bimble. 

To bimble is to walk about aimlessly but not pointlessly, to get nowhere in particular, while enjoying the walk. 

In other words – there is no “there” to get to.  The time is spent enjoying the time. 

Seem like a good idea?  For so many who play for enjoyment, this is the ideal approach to the work of playing throughout the year.  No deadlines, no stress, simply playing to play…and to enjoy! No goal setting.  No getting to December and feeling like you have failed after working so hard!

But even if we play to enjoy, we would like to improve, to see some progress.  How will we do that without setting goals? We’ll bimble – enjoying our music and our lessons – without being fussed about how fast we are (or are not) progressing or that we are not ready to perform well enough.

To make improvements, we can focus on what we’re doing.  Change the focus from “where am I trying to get by some specific time” to instead be “what am I doing just now – can I do it just a little better right now?” We can focus on practicing or learning.  We can spend time reading, listening, analyzing music, thinking about the tunes. 

This enjoying the journey means that we don’t have to “work” so hard that we forget what we enjoyed about playing in the first place.  It means we can pay attention to the little things –

  • how our hands feel as they close
  • how the harp vibrates on our shoulder or thigh
  • how the bass wires tickle our feet when we don’t wear shoes
  • how we particularly enjoy the sound of those specific strings that made us buy that harp in the first place
  • how buzzes sound terrible but are kind of fun to make!

Take time to enjoy the various parts of your practice time – the simple yet difficult task of performing scales, arpeggios, or other exercises.  The delight in getting through a tune you’ve been working to learn.  The fun but determined way you have to work new music into your head. This focus and enjoyment is a motivation to get back on the bench, to spend the time, to play the harp, to practice.   

We can bimble on our instruments – play and enjoy – aimlessly but not pointlessly.

And pay attention. 

Pay attention to how you have an easier time now with some particular technique.  Do your hands close fully now, without you having to think, “fingers all the way to the palm” each time? Do you move your elbows as needed to address the strings at a good and ergonomic angle? Can you sit comfortably for long enough to satisfy yourself?

Notice that you are more able, with each passing practice, to play more easily.  Do you remember more of each phrase without having to read every note? Are you able to control your dynamics?
Use tools to capture your thoughts (recording, journaling, etc.). Are you able to note that you played straight through for the first time? Did your approach to working a tricky section work?

In the end, as we enjoy the time, we get where we end up – probably right where we wanted to be.  Because really, there is no “there” there.  There is only our time and our enjoyment at the harp.  What are the things you want to notice while you’re at your harp?

January 4, 2018

Should you bother to set Goals for 2018?

It’s that time of year again. That time when experts, brainiacs, eggheads, and bloggers all exhort you to set goals for the coming year.  They delineate the process and give away worksheets.  They remind you that 5000% of people who write their goals down achieve them and that 3756% of people never even set a goal*. 

In other words, they nag you and sort of bully you into generating a set of goals. I start to feel like it is nearly immoral to not set goals.  And I know - because I have done the same thing to you in the past!  And to myself. Well – not this year! 

It is January and the beginning of a new year. It is a time many reflect on the previous year and our progress as humans to date.  And it is nearly a habit to expect to generate some goals. And those goals better meet all the criteria of good, achievable goals. 

But should you bother to go through goal setting for 2018?

There’s a reason only 3% of people even bother to write their goals down**.  It clearly is a strategy that doesn’t work for most people.  It requires a level of commitment difficult to bring to just about any activity, except perhaps a quest.  And since many of us play for our enjoyment (and even for those who play for a living) – it becomes just one more thing to do (and therefore it becomes easy to ditch!).

So, if goal setting isn't the right approach, what better ways could you use to identify what you’d like to do with your harp this year and check-in over time to see if you are getting there? If the standard goal setting hasn't worked for you, here are three other ways to approach this:

  1. Keep a diary. Yes, this is a thinly disguised journal – but for some reason a diary is slightly less threatening than a journal (just look at Instagram or Pinterest – loads of journals not too many diaries).  You can keep a diary in any medium and it really is just you talking to you.  You can do this in the blocks of your planner calendar, in a separate book, on scraps of napkins – whatever fits in your day.  The best thing – who gets you better than you?  It gives you a place to pour out your frustration when you are having a hard time – and to capture your glee when something totally comes together.  
  2. Make an “I Love Me” board.  I started out thinking that a Vision Board was a great idea but it comes with so much baggage. And of course, it is hard to find magazines with pictures of harps (except Folk Harp Journal, Harp Column, and AHS Journal – and who wants to cut those up?!***).  But you can capture all you want to do in the future and what you accomplish as sort of a visual scrapbook.  It can have photos and selfies, invitations, programs, contracts, etc.  Capture and display the detritus of your successes as well as any artifacts that arise from frustration (sheet music so marked up that it is unreadable? string bits?). Be sure to put the board somewhere that you can see it – and see that you are definitely moving.
  3. Make a record. I like to encourage students to do this at Christmas time and spontaneously (or maybe not so spontaneously) throughout the year.  Christmas is a trove of tunes you play every year, so it is easy to effortlessly hear your progress. But you should also include any other tunes you’ve worked on.  You could make what is an audio diary and after playing the tune you could comment to yourself – how much easier it was to play the tune this year, how much you want to add tunes, how good you feel about something you’ve worked on for a while.  You could do this more regularly (as a version of 1 above) but I kind of like the idea of a different means of reminding myself what I’m doing.

Or just write your goals down.  There’s nothing wrong with writing them down, keeping a practice journal and actively looking for progress and successes.  The key is to capture evidence of your journey in a way that helps you travel!  Let me know if you're going to bother to set goals or how you might watch your own growth over the coming 12 months!

* these statistics may be randomly generated (i.e. made up)

** actual statistic snagged from this article – you’ll find various numbers in assorted sources, but they are all low
*** if you're not already reading at least one of these, you might want to consider adding it to your readying list