March 21, 2018

Mindfulness - Knowing you

Mindfulness is everywhere just now.  There are mindfulness apps, there are coaches, and there are plenty of scolds telling us that we need to be more mindful.

This is however, much like so many other things.  There is no end to the line of people telling you what you should do. You need to eat low fat low carb clean whatever-is-popular-today.  You need to have these countertops, this color cabinets, and definitely not have an avocado refrigerator!  You have to wear skinnies, or was it wide-leg? Oops, nope, it’s ankle pants.
There are a lot of people telling you what is right for you.  But you probably already know what is right for you!

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention. Of being “in the moment”.  Of focusing on what you are doing right now.  Of not being fixated on on what has happened before or what might happen later, but only on what is happening.

And in our current world, it is easy to get caught up in not being focused.  And so, there are loads of people willing to tell you how to be focused.  But the most important part of mindfulness is knowing you.

You likely already know what works for you. Answers online may help but will not change that essential you.  And if you’re paying attention, you will have a pretty good idea of what you need to work on.  Rather than telling you to breathe or meditate or do yoga, I’d like to suggest a few other ways to be mindful during your practice and playing. How do you get your mind to focus on playing the harp rather than on all the other stuff you could be thinking about?

  1. Breathe.  Ok, I know I said I wasn’t going to tell you to breathe, but I am always amazed at how many people truly don’t breathe when sitting on the bench.  I have gone so far as to draw breath marks into the music or to add a breath into the phrase as I teach a tune.  Breathing is something that requires a little attention when you’re focusing on something else (like learning or mastering a tune).
  2. Check in. Just as when you arrive in a hotel, you have to check in so they know you are there and you can get settled, you can check in with yourself – see what baggage you have brought (and leave it on the floor), make sure you are comfortable, that there is enough light, and that you know when your time there will end.
  3. Attend. Actually pay attention to what you are doing.  Don’t think about work or what’s for dinner, why you can’t play the same things as Betty Sue, or what you’re going to play for your Carnegie Hall audition in 150 years. Pay attention to what you are doing right then.  Scales? Focus on your fingering, placement, sound quality, and control.  If you’re doing etude work, assure you’re getting out of the etude the point of the activity rather than just banging through it.
  4. Be content. You are practicing.  This would suggest that you are building a skill, a repertoire element, or a performance package.  The key word there is building – developing.  Be content that you are making progress.  Don’t waste time being upset, chagrinned, angry, or despondent that you have only made as much progress as you have – rather, be content that you have made progress.
  5. Don’t settle.  Why yes, this is the tempered opposite of the item above.  Don’t settle for anything less than your best effort.  Don’t accept sloppy scales, a fumbled second phrase, trailing fingers, or anything else that smacks of not paying attention. Don’t flog yourself but do genuinely work while you’re on your bench.  This is a path to being content!
  6. Mind the time.  While it would be ever so nice to have four hours a day to practice, that is impractical for most.  So be sure you know how much time you’re going to dedicate and use it. Use all of it.  But honor your plan and only use all of it, but no more.  This will help you be focused on what you’re doing rather than wondering, “How much longer? Are we there yet?”

Of course, you can also have a mindfulness practice of more standard mindfulness stuff – that can only aid your focus when practicing.  But you know you - do what works for you.  

What other things do you do to help yourself focus and be mindful when you’re on your bench?  Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear what you do!

March 14, 2018

What do you want to be?

Did you know you wanted to play the harp when you were young?  Did you see one played when you were small and know it was for you? Have you always known? Were you able to get a harp and take lessons?

Or did you know but it was out of reach?  Did you start playing as soon as you were able?

I don’t know when you first thought about playing the harp, but when I did, I was old.  Well, older.  Certainly, a well-established adult.  Honestly, before that, playing the harp never even occurred to me.  Never even thought about it.  Until I was playing. 

I hadn’t even thought about being a musician.  I had left all that behind me when I went to university.  I mean, I dabbled, but I didn’t think of myself as a musician.

And even now, on occasion, I have to shake myself to believe my good fortune!

Regardless of when we started or how we come to the harp, here we are.  Right next to one another.  Playing together.  How cool is that?!?

One of the things I enjoy about our community is that togetherness.  We all start where we start, when we start.  We are where we are.  We’re going where we choose.  But we have lovely company along the way.  The question remains however – what do you want to be when you grow up?

Only you can answer the question.  And as before, the answer is unique to you – and may hold all the information you need to improve the time you spend at the harp.  There are, as before, as many answers as harpers, but a few are –

  • You strive to play for your own pleasure
  • You want to make a career change
  • You want a side hustle
  • You want to ease other people

All of these answers are great choices for when you grow up!  No matter your current age.  But how does knowing that help you practice – to continue your growth?

Well, in this case the answer is always the same.  You still need to work on your technique, your repertoire, your stamina.  Yup, no slacking in the fundamentals!  And no slacking – period!

If you play for your own pleasure, strong fundamental will help you to get past the ugly part (you know that part – in every tune – that is “more challenging" than you thought it would be when you started) and on to the fun part so that you can enjoy the playing.  Practicing fundamentals will assure you get through those tough parts more easily.

If you want a career change or a side hustle – you’ll be performing – and getting paid – so you want to be confident and solid…which comes with strong fundamentals!  Practicing those will help build your foundation so you will feel more confident.

If you want to ease other people (in hospital, hospice, home care, etc.) then you really need to be in command of your instrument and repertoire to play just the right thing, at the right time, exactly as you mean to. You got it – you need those fundamentals!

If you were hoping I would say something different – like that if you want to play for your own enjoyment, you could do less practice or easier activities, sorry but no.  But if you want to play – play, practice from the fundamentals.  That’s where the fun starts – and how you get to be what you want to be.  

What do you want to be?  Let me know - I'm curious!

March 7, 2018

Why don’t you play?

There are loads of reasons we play – all of them good and each holding a key to improving your practice and possibly enjoying playing even more.  But sometimes – 

We don’t play

We don’t make it to the bench.  We can’t d-r-a-g ourselves to the harp.  We try, but things get in the way and we just don’t get there.  Sometimes we just don’t want to.  Sometimes it’s for a day.  Or a week.  Or much, much longer…

Thinking about why we don’t play can be very helpful (that was pretty obvious!).  And knowing why we don’t play might actually be more helpful.

Spend a little time thinking about it – when you don’t play, why is that?  There are as many reasons as there are musicians, but here are four possibilities –

  1. Busy-ness.  We all have so much going on every day.  And there are only so many hours.  And it’s already time for bed, and…  I know.  I get it.  I live there too!  Sometimes we don’t realize how much work is required for this love affair with our harps.  Or other stuff has crept into our schedule, putting the squeeze on our practice time.  Or maybe, when we allow ourselves to sit, to sink into the lovely comfort of the space playing creates, we fall under the spell and spend “too long” there.  So, the next time, we tell ourselves we don’t have time.  And soon we’re not practicing at all!  But this strategy doesn’t work.  We know we need consistent practice, otherwise we lose ground.  Rather than beating yourself up (either for not practicing and for practicing and not getting other things done) – allot, and keep to – a daily, short appointment with your harp.  There isn’t much time, but if you could devote just 15 – 20 minutes each day, you would see progress…and still have time to make dinner and watch (insert your favorite TV show here).  Make yourself a star chart (like you’d make for your kid’s chores) to reinforce your success!
  2. Fear of Failure.  This is such a silly coping strategy, but I see it over and over – you have a gig coming up and need to learn a piece.  The date is looming large and you keep putting off starting on it – yikes! And this is a downward spiral because the longer you put it off, the more likely you’ll be right, and you will do badly.  But (here’s the insidious part) if you put it off and do badly – at least you’ll have an excuse.  It’s crazy but true.  So, in that 15 minutes a day you’ve allotted for practice (see above), be sure that about 1/3 of it is devoted to learning something new.  This means that you have allotted this time to work on that thing you need to play at that event that’s zorching up but perhaps more importantly – it means you are well practiced at learning new things (so at least that part isn’t scary!).
  3. Overwhelm.  I know – playing the harp looked so easy.  And when you started – it was.  But as you go on, there’s so much to learn, and remember, and work on, and do, and it all requires practice!  I mean, really – you must practice tuning and reading and body position and hand position and breathing and melodies and harmonies and phrasing and listening and hearing and – oh, never mind, I’m so tired thinking about it, I’m exhausted – I think I’ll go watch a little tv.  You do need to practice all these things and more – but – the more you practice them, the easier they become.  They become more manageable.  In the same way, you can manage your practice time.  Give it structure.  Know what you want to accomplish.  Have a plan.  You can use a practice planner (like this one) to be sure you know what you will do.  You can also ask for help if you’re lost – ask your teacher or schedule a coaching session (I can help) to decide on an approach you can work with.  Then you won’t flounder deciding what to practice – you’ll know what you’ll work on, for how long, over how many practice sessions, and when you’ll be satisfied.
  4. It’s that time of life.  Sometimes other things take center stage – an change to your family, a new job, a relocation, a new hobby.  Or sometimes you just need a break – a change of scenery.  "It’s not you, it’s me" you might say to your harp.  Your harp is like a true friend – it will understand your focus has shifted.  And like a true friend, it will be there as you go through these changes.  And you’re lucky – your harp will be there to give succor and support when needed.  Don’t feel badly about not playing if you’re focused on something else.  Would your friend (or your harp) deny your new joy?  Or reject you when you come back? No – of course not!  So, don’t beat yourself up – enjoy your new focus and come back to your harp for those 15 minutes each day or when you’re ready.

There are so many good reasons to play, don’t let a couple of little things derail you.  Just don’t let them throw you so far off you feel like you can’t return.  And don’t ever think you’re alone – we have all been there – and we’ll be glad when you’re back!

February 28, 2018

Why do you play?

We all know playing an instrument is “good” for you – impacting brain function, helping you learn more and differently, reducing stress, helping you meet new people, and of course, just having fun.  Bud do you ever stop to think about why you play?

The good news – there are no wrong answers to the question.
The better news – there isn’t just one answer (or at least, there doesn’t have to be).
The best news – there is a test and you ace it every time you sit on the bench!

It is likely that we all play for different reasons – our own reasons.  It is also likely that our reasons are similar.  Perhaps most importantly, all our reasons are good.

But do you ever think about what your reasons are?  I mean really think about it.  Not the tossed off answer you give to people who gawp when you tell them, “I play the harp.”.  Not the easy (and likely irrelevant) answer.  I mean the answer from deep inside you.  The answer that pushes you to work, to learn, to practice. That (or those) answer(s) hold the key!

Your answers don’t need to come out of your mouth (unless you are an irrepressible extrovert!).  Rather, they can be the mind fodder of quiet walks or long drives (like the kind you might make going to the 40th Annual Ohio Scottish Arts School this summer (more on that later)). These answers are worth pursuing because they hold the questions we should ask ourselves each time we practice.  Here are a few to consider:

I play for my own enjoyment.  This sometimes means “I don’t want to perform”.  This answer appears to lead to the easiest practice – if you aren’t working to perform for others, you don’t need to work too hard.  But in actuality, this might be the hardest to practice for!  If you are the only listener (absent the cat and the curtains), you may discount any progress you show.  You may set the bar too high (or too low).  Or you might stagnate – playing the same music repeatedly but without feedback you might not be driven to continue to develop, explore and experiment.  You must just be sure your practice actually meets the answer – that you are actually enjoying the time at the harp.  Don’t stagnate but explore new things to find those that you enjoy most and develop those.

I’m a performer at heart!  This might be the easiest answer.  People are naturally curious about our instrument and are often in awe of musicians.  They may wish to be close so that they get to participate in the experience.  You know you can focus on preparing a performance package but be sure to include some “me” time in your practice.  Your performance will be improved by including this time.  This might include a return to fundamentals for a focused meditative time, revisiting old material and brining a new perspective to it, or dedicating one practice a week to having fun rather than perfecting and polishing.

I like being unique/playing a rare(ish) instrument.  This may be the most seductive answer because it doesn’t seem to require much practice at all.  To remain unique, you need only say you play and others will still be in awe.  You might not defer from playing but you are also not committing to being a performer, so the bar isn’t set too high.  But you might be tempted to slack off or cheat yourself out of valuable practice time and the opportunity to do more than scratch the surface and thereby miss so many occasions to surprise and delight yourself!  Commit to a more active role in your musicianship – play well enough to let your uniqueness come blazing through your fingers.

I play to put some good in the world. One could argue that doing good requires that you be good – at playing!  Whether you do good in the world as a volunteer or as a professional, one off or every day, your practice needs to assure you are strong enough to get through the session and to move about the world with your harp.  Include strengthening exercises for your whole body as well as exercises for the “playing parts” (after all – all of you is in this together!).

I play because I must!  The harp evokes your soul and emotions in a way no other instrument can, and you are compelled to play it.  In addition, the harp is so forgiving to beginners that sitting and evoking is easy.  But be sure to practice and master many techniques to assure that you can successfully – and consistently – evoke any emotion you choose, when you choose so that you can meet your need.

There are obviously many answers – these are but a few.  No matter your answer, be sure you back it up with a solid practice that permits you to give your best answer! You are going to ace the next test!   What’s your answer?  Leave me a comment and let me know.