January 27, 2010

Warming up

While it is full on January where I live, and (to paraphrase the song):
the weather outside may be frightful,
at my harp, it's so delightful,
and since I've no place to go,
glissando, glissando, glissando!

But seriously, no matter the weather, it is essential that you make sure you take care of your hands.  They are central to our craft!  We talked about hand health earlier, but it is that important, so we'll talk about it again

I suggest a two pronged approach:  On the one hand (get it?) Life behind your harp and on the other hand, Life in general.

In the Life Behind your Harp:
  • Be sure to warm up before you play 
    • Scales and other small exercises are excellent for this
    • Don't play forcefully as soon as you sit down
    • "ease" into your practice
    • Perform specific exercises to warm up such as making fists, tapping your palm with each of its associated fingers, stretching your fingers as far away from your palm and each other as possible
  • Be very mindful of your hand position
    • Are you making "clam hands" or "relaxed fists" (or whatever you were taught) - have you fully relaxed your hands with each note?
    • Are your arms and shoulders relaxed?
    • Are you sitting up and breathing (yes, these all impact your hands!)
  • Work your way up to working hard
    • Start with simpler pieces
    • Work on learning or difficult passages only when you have warmed up
  • When you are finished practicing
    • Do a "cool down" - play gently, slowly
    • Stretch - your hands, your arms, your shoulders, your chest
In the Life in General:
  • Stay warm:
    • Wear gloves when it's cold (I do this, especially before performing)
    • Wear gloves for common household tasks (dishwashing, gardening, etc)
    • Wear a sweater when its chilly (many people carry tension, including the stress of being chilled, in their hands)
  • Be careful of your hands:
    • Be careful of your nails and fingertips. If you are a wire harp player you know to be careful of your nails - but all of us need to care for our nails.  Nails protect your fingers from injury but it is also very difficult to play if your nail breaks very low - it hurts!
    • Be sure to wash your hands frequently (not only to avoid disease but also to help keep your strings clean)
    • Be sure to use moisturizer to help keep your hands supple - it is very difficult to play if your skin is so dry (or chapped or cracked) that each movement hurts!
  • Stay healthy - get some exercise (remember that while you're hands are important, it is your core that holds you up to play and your aerobic capacity that supports all that breathing that I know you're remembering to do!)
  • Be careful in the kitchen - use sharp knives with proper technique
There are many ways we should care for ourselves, but these are just a few.  Another time we'll talk more about taking care of yourself while you're not at your harp.

January 20, 2010

Do you seek quality or quantity?

Since it was Marting Luther King's birthday this week, its seems opportune to pinch one of his quotes and twist it to our purposes!  If he was a harp player he might have said something to the effect that:

the quality, not the longevity, of one's practice is what is important*

Often, if we "make" the time to practice, we think it sufficient simply to sit to the harp.  And sometimes, we are lucky just to do that much.  But it is important that we infuse our practice time with Quality not just a quantity of minutes. 

But, if we are to improve and become more accomplished, it is essential that we add not just time at the harp, but that we add QUALITY time at the harp. 

This means we have to have a plan, a "schedule" if you will, for what we'll be doing while we're there.  And we have to know and understand what that plan will bring to our improvement.  We don't just rip through music to check the box and say we're done. 

What is your plan for practicing?  How do you intend to get better and how do you structure your practice to do so?  How does your plan move you toward the goals you set or your resolutions?  Drop me a comment, let me know.

* I believe the original quote from Dr. King was, "The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important."  That too bears reflection.

January 13, 2010

Just four more months!

I’m very excited that the Harp in the Highlands and Islands Tours are rapidly approaching! We leave for the inaugural trip on 15th April, spending an entire week on a customized tour of the Scottish Highlandsand Islands. See some of the places you’ve played about! This is the first of four trips scheduled in 2010.

As described in previous posts, this tour will take you through some of the most beautiful scenery to be seen anywhere and includes the Isle of Skye, the western highlands, the Spey valley and Cairngorm Mountains.  Each day you'll learn a tune and add to your harp lore. Whether you’re new to the harp or are an advanced player, you are sure to enjoy this trip. To ease your travels, a lovely small harp will be awaiting you, allowing you to travel without fear. Invite another harp player or bring a harp loving companion.

This intimate tour will consist of four travelers on each of four outings planned in 2010. This very small group size allows flexibility so each day David can show you the very best Scotland has to offer as well as those special things that can’t be planned. I’ll teach tunes that match our travels, experiences, and mood (to learn more about David and me, see the earlier posts and check out the website).

Book Now!  Seats are filling up so don’t miss your opportunity! For details and more information go to http://www.jeniuscreations.com/Harp_Tours_of_Scotland.php.

January 6, 2010

Marking Time

Well, it's the beginning of the year and so we're all quite mindful of time.  And as musicians, that couldn't be more essential.

Thelonious Monk is reported to have said something to the effect of: just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean that you don't have to keep time.

I am often struck by how many musicians don't keep time.  They actually don't count - they "go with the feel".  They believe that because they aren't drummers (or because they are playing alone) that they don't have to be a slave to the beat and can play tunes as the spirit moves them.

But this misses an important point about music: music is a form of communication.  Whether you're playing for an concert hall audience or your mother, you are sharing a message.  Isn't the message worth getting across correctly? One of the essential tools for this is time.

Music isn't just about the notes.  And we'll talk later about various ways to convey those messages.  Today, let's focus on counting and time.  If you don't currently count, if your timing comes from the "feel", I heartily urge you to begin...right now!

One of the reasons many people don't count is because it is challenging - when you're learning a new piece, you are doing a lot of work - reading, finding the notes on your harp, learning the relationships, determining the message, trying to learn some of the tune so it will be easier to play the next time, thinking variously how much you love this piece of music (if you love it) or how much you hate this piece of music (if you're being made to learn something that is not coming easily), breathing, thinking about your posture and your hand position, etc. 

See, I told you there was a lot to think about - and so we often don't bother with that pesky timing.   We want to get on to the tune, we want to play (after all, we don't say, "I work the harp" do we!), we want to do all this quickly.  And so, we let the timing go.  But, this is one of those gotcha's - because we never go back, we never work on the timing, we just keep pushing along.....until, eventually, the message gets lost - and so do we.

So, the next time you sit to learn a piece (or if you're really dedicated, the next time you sit to a piece you already know), start with the timing, work that out before you spend a great deal of time on the notes.  See how the timing is really the key and not the prison.

Let me know how you come along - I'd love to hear it.