December 28, 2011

Make way for the New

Wishing you and yours a Happy, Healthy, Harpy New Year!  See you in 2012

December 14, 2011

Repertoire building

Now that you’ve begun to develop the habits of warming up and cooling down (I know you have started building these habits and that you’re not waiting to start this as a set of New Year’s Resolutions!) you can move your focus to other parts of your practice and development. We practice to improve our ability to play and to develop our repertoire. You can never have enough repertoire – just when you think you have all the music you need ready to go, someone will book you for one half hour longer than you can go or you have so many tunes that you can’t possibly practice them every day…you’ll get to the point (if you haven’t already) that you can’t practice them each week. And if you don’t practice them – I promise you, they will desert you in your time of greatest need.

So you need to build your repertoire. And for this, as in all things, you should have some sort of plan. It can be a loose plan – but you still need some sort of plan. If you are studying regularly with a teacher, your plan may come down directly from your lessons. If you are not regularly studying with someone, you need to take more responsibility for planning. How many tunes do you want to learn this year? What types of tunes? What kind of set lists are you trying to build (are you working toward weddings? Parties? Stage sets? School presentations? Storytelling? Teaching? Therapeutic settings? Regardless of the venue and audience, you need to build a repertoire and you should also be adding to it over time. Even if you don’t play a regular gig, you need to keep your repertoire fresh so you can keep yourself fresh.

Write down your plan and your goals so you can refer to them.  You want to make sure you don't get off track. Be sure to check your progress. It’s ok if your goals are modest – most of us need to be reasonable. Use your overall plan to select the tunes you’re going to add to your repertoire. If you have limited time, focus on the music you “need” to fill holes you may have in putting a gig together. If you have unlimited time, learn what you like when you feel like it.

And of course, insert learning, refining, and perfecting your new tunes into your practice schedule (and goals) so that you make consistent progress toward your goals. This will help you build your repertoire so you can join the ranks of people that say, “I played for six hours before I had to go back to the beginning of my rep”! (just kidding!).

December 7, 2011

Cooling down

Last week we talked about the importance of warming up – a necessary activity each and every time you sit to play. But when you’ve finished your practicing, you need to close with a cool down. Cooling down is always included in a good practice session.

The cool down helps the body recover (remember that musicians are the athletes of the small muscles!). In extreme cases, the cool down helps avoid muscle soreness. It also brings your practice to a controlled end (rather than a frenzied rush off to the next activity on your list) which may help you remember what you’ve learned throughout the practice session.

You may know how to cool down from athletics (running slower or walking or stretching) but how do you do that at your harp? It won’t take more than 5 – 10 minutes and it is just as important (and maybe more important) than the warm up was.

To begin your cool down - play more slowly and less loudly. You are still looking for a good closure of your hands to get the relaxation of the muscles that comes from playing with good technique. Finish up your practice time by playing something you like and know every well – something that doesn’t require practice. Relax. Keep your technique strong while you let your play unwind. When you are ready to stop playing move on to stretching.  Be sure to stretch as your hands and arms, as well as your neck, back, and legs.  We spend so much time focused on our hands that we forget that our entire body is contributing to our playing and needs to be included in our warm up and cool down.

It is important to build your own practice for cool down.  When you have build the cool down that works for your, you can perform it like a ritual after each practice session and after each performance. Using a ritual-like approach will help you leave your practice or a performance thoughtfully.

And sometimes, especially during the holiday season, you just don't have time to spend at your harp. On these days, your practice could be condensed to just a warm-up and cool-down. At least you’ll have sat down to your harp which is better than missing the day entirely.

Cool down and stretch so I won’t have to write you a blog post on icing injuries!

November 30, 2011

Baby, its cold outside...

Warming up is one of those things we all know we should do.  But we want to get to the fun stuff, to playing tunes, so we skip warming up.  Or we give it short shrift and move on to more fun things. We might even feel guilty about skipping the "work", but we skip it anyway. After all, we don’t have a lot of time to practice and we don’t want to waste any of that valuable time doing something that doesn’t really help us play any better.

Unfortunately, this is a penny wise pound foolish approach. Every moment we spend warming up will contribute to our playing better. Warming up assures that our muscles are ready for strenuous work. Taking a gentle approach also helps us to do more with a reduced probability of injury from overuse of cold muscles and connective tissue.  The warm up improves our flexibility in our hands and arms.  If dancers just launched into practice without warming up, they'd be on ice, anti-inflammatory pain relievers, and bandage wraps.  We are like dancers.  But while they are working large muscles, we use those muscles (albeit differently) AND we use some of our very small muscles.  And we don't want to end up on the ice/aspirin regimen, do we?

Warming up is key if you are young or old, new to the harp or expert, in a well heated space or in a freezing rehearsal hall. The things you do to warm up with help you be more flexible and limber and will help you improve your form and tone as you work on the music you so desperately want to practice.

So before you sit to play, be sure to warm up. If it is cold in the room, wear a sweater and wristies or fingerless gloves (think of them as the legwarmers for hands that they are – fashionable and practical). Go slowly and build warmth in the muscles and tendons of your hands and arms. And don’t forget that you are a whole – so warm up your back and legs, as well as your core. Gentle stretching will also help once you have begun to be warm. Some excellent ways to warm up your hands and arms include playing scales and arpeggiated chords in your favorite key. Start slowly and quietly and as you get warmed up you can increase your speed and volume. Watch yourself as you do these to assure that your hands are performing (thumbs and hands in a nice position, close your fingers to achieve release at the end of the movements, breathe, head up, spine erect). This is a time for contemplative performance – monitor yourself, being mindful of your actions, while allowing your body to warm up to the expectations you have undoubtedly set. When you've had enough of scales, move into etudes or other simple pieces that you know well.  Keep monitoring your play and work to warm up not to perfect the music.

And enjoy this time you set aside for yourself. Know that these “useless” activities are the foundation for the rest of your practice, an investment in your rehearsal time, an insurance that you’ll get to keep playing!

November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

As I look around the area I live, it is clear that the harvest is complete.  This is the week that we are grateful and celebrate our good fortune.  As harp players, we have much to be thankful for - a gorgeous instrument that is held in trall by many and is gentle with us, the dedication to playing it, the talent to bring to it, and the desire to share the contents of our hearts through it.  Enjoy the holiday (or its spirit if you are in a different country).  Take a moment to reflect on kismet bringing you here!

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 16, 2011

The Holidays are Coming! The Holidays are Coming!

While it is not as threatening as to need signal lamps for one if by land and two if by sea, the holiday season can be very stressful. With the buying, wrapping, giving of gifts, the baking, the visiting, the housekeeping, the hosting, the social events – they all pile up. And if other people know you play the harp, add the stress of preparing for holiday gigs and the need to have a completely different seasonal repertoire.

It is a dangerous time - so be careful out there. Whether you’re booking gigs every day with multiples at the weekend or being strong-armed into playing for relatives after the Christmas (Chanukah, Inti Raymi, Yule, Lenaea, Pancha Ganapati, Yalda, Brumalia, Festivus, Holiday No 11 or another winter celebration not listed here) feast – make sure you’re ready.

And if you’re not ready to play – or just don’t want to – say no. If you think you’re not capable of this, remember that everything, even saying no, gets easier with practice.

But most of us do want to play – whether its work (and if you’re fortunate enough to book a gig every day until Jan 2nd – good for you!) or being the embodiment of a Victorian Christmas card and entertaining family and friends after dinner. Regardless of the number of times you perform this season and irrespective of your level of development as a musician – you must get ready!

Over the next few weeks we’ll discuss how to be ready successfully – while minimizing your stress and your injury potential and maximizing your enjoyment and performance.

And don’t forget, coming to Scotland with us for Music in the Highlands and Islands Tour makes a fantastic gift and fits everyone!

November 9, 2011

2012 Music in the Highlands and Islands Tour

We are pleased to announce the 2012 Music in the Highlands and Islands Tour will be held 16 - 23 July.

Due to the overwhelming success of the Highlands and Islands Tours, and based on feedback received from our guests, the 2012 Music in the Highlands and Islands tours will be even better than before!

As always, non-harping companions are welcome and this year, we  are  expanding our offerings.  If you, a friend, companion, or music partner play a small instrument and would like to join us - welcome and come along! While we will continue to bring the harp experience to our guests, we understand that not everyone is ready to play the harp, but that is no reason that these instruments can't also come with us on our musical adventure. So this year we are also inviting other musicians to join us. So if you already play fiddle, flute, concertina, or whistle) please bring your instrument and join us!

You'll get the same great instruction and tunes.  You'll still have the opportunity to try your hand at the Harp - THE traditional instrument of Scotland, but you now have the opportunity to learn some or all of the tunes on your "native" instrument.

For more information, go to the website: and click on Harp Tours of Scotland or leave me a comment here.  Remember that seats are limited.  I hope you'll be joining us!

November 2, 2011

2011 SHSA National Champion

It was a fine soft day with a Nor'easter blowing at the Meadow Highland Games and Celtic Festival, the site of the 2011 US National Scottish Harp ChampionshipTM. Inside the tent the competitors guesses on the temperature ranged from 30 - 40F. Either way, despite the rain, the wind and the chill, all the competitors played wonderfully, with excellent airs and marches and dance tunes that raged!

Clan Currie, the Title Sponsor, was represented by President Bob Currie and we were fortunate to once again have this delightful bardic clan with us. Clan Currie sponsorship is vital to the ongoing success of the competition. Virginia Harp Center was the Prize Sponsor and with their generosity, every competitor went home with a prize.

I am so pleased to tell you that the 2011 SHSA US National Scottish Harp ChampionshipTM winner is Kelly Stewart Brzozowski! She played a beautiful set including the air, Where Does the Bonnie Lass Sleep Tonight? and a rousing SMR (that's a Strathspey, March, Reel - which is a twist on the traditional piping set) of Scotch Mist, Arniston House, Blair Atholl.

Stand by for the upcoming announcement of the location of the 2012 SHSA US National Scottish Harp ChampionshipTM. Be sure to keep an eye on the SHSA website ( and the Kilt and Harp (an exclusive benefit for SHSA members) for the full results and for other upcoming competitions.

And throughout the year, I'll share thoughts about how you can prepare to compete - whether you decide to enter or not - competition (or the promise of it!) will help you build your repertoire and your "chops" to perform anywhere.

October 27, 2011

SHSA US National Scottish Harp Championship

Come to Richmond Saturday, October 29, 2011 for the
US National Scottish Harp Championship

The Scottish Harp Society of America's US National Scottish Harp Championship will be hosted at The Meadow Highland Games outside Richmond, Virginia and is open to all SHSA members. This year's judges are the renowned Ann Heymann and Sharon Knowles. Rules and categories are available on For more information on the 2011 Championship, visit

The day's Official Schedule of Competition -

9:30 am Onsite Registration/Sign-in
10 am SHSA Nationals Competition begins
Noon Lunch break
1 pm SHSA Nationals Competition continues

If time allows, after the competition there will be Open Mic/Judges performances.

Special thanks to the Title Sponsor of the National Scottish Harp Championship of America - Clan Currie Society.  The Clan has generously agreed to sponsor the National competition through 2014. It is especially rewarding to be supported by a clan with such an ancient and distinguished history of Gaelic poets and musicians.

Robert Currie, president of the Clan Currie Society, described this as partnership as a perfect fit, saying “The founders of our Clan were the celebrated MacMhuirich bards of Medieval Scotland and the instrument of the Bard was the clarsach."  The MacMhuirichs served for over 700 years as professional poets to the Lords of the Isles and later to the MacDonalds of Clanranald among other prominent Highland clans and families.

Over the past several years Clan Currie has sharpened its focus on the arts and not only sponsors our competition, but also has established an annual harp scholarship at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, Scotland.  To learn more about Clan Currie, go to:
Be sure to thank competition organizer Jo Morrison and welcome the 2012 organizer Denis Sadat while you are registering, volunteering or audiencing!

October 19, 2011

Stepping through our week – Day Eight The Road Home

Our last day came and it was time for us to depart.

But no dry hustle back to the airport on a Harp in the Highlands and Islands tour! Along the way we saw even more of Scotland’s back roads. We had a lesson on listening to traditional music along the way as well. It was sad to say goodbye, but we had a wonderful time throughout the week.

I hope you’ll think about joining us for the 2012 Harp in the Highlands and Islands tours!  At nearly every road sign we pass, I'm likely to chime in with, “there’s a tune for that!” – don’t you wish you knew those tunes?!?

October 12, 2011

Stepping through our week – Day Seven Highland Spirit

On this day we took a laid back Sunday start. After a more leisurely breakfast we headed for Ballindalloch Castle – home to Lady Clair McPherson Grant-Russell. She graciously allowed us to once again have our harp event in her dining room. And, as harpers, we were glad to be granted the honor and privilege of being invited to play in someone’s home. And what a home!

After touring the castle and seeing some incredible artifacts, we met in the Dining Room and learned a tune specifically related to the Castle. One of two people poked in and enjoyed observing our playing too. When we were done playing it struck us how very fortunate we were to have been invited to play there.

We enjoyed lunch in the tea room and then headed back for individual lessons during which we worked on earlier tunes, new tunes, technique and theory.

But we were not done yet! We all made ready for a lovely, homemade dinner in the style of hospitality for which Scotland is famous. David and Heather invited us into their home for a traditional dinner on our final evening.  Before we arrived for dinner we got to take in some of Morayshire - a lovely coastal area with some quaint villages:

Heather made us a magnificent banquet and we all ate ‘til we were full to burstin’! I only wish any of us had had the presence of mind to take a picture – but again – if you want to see it, you’ll have to come with us next time!

October 5, 2011

Stepping through our week – Day Six Royal Deeside

Today was travel in a different direction – geographically, historically, politically – and wend to the Royal Deeside. It is called the Royal Deeside because of the area’s close association with the Royals. It seems trite to say that the scenery is breathtaking, but it is! And we took it all in as much as possible spectacular bridges, enchanting castles, and captivating landscapes! But rather than prattle on about them, let me show you some of the sites of our day:
Corgarff Castle
Crathie Kirk, the beautiful church the
Queen attends when in residence at Balmoral

Delgatie Castle
We were permitted to play in the Withdrawing Room at Delgatie Castle - a lovely room with a warm atmosphere.  After we had shared a couple of new tunes, we had some of the award winning scones made by Joan (the lady of the house).  These were a not to be missed treat!
After another full day of sites, history, stories, meeting real people where they live, and learning another tune, we headed back to the Dowans for another delicious dinner before repairing to bed to prepare for the next day of possibilities!

September 28, 2011

Stepping through our week – Day Five Battlefields and Lochs

Everyone knows about some of the places we went today – they are some of Scotland’s best known, but we also did a little “hidden” Scotland too.  We started our day by visiting Urquhart Castle (and later we learned a tune that related to it). 
After that old history, we went to Colloden for more recent, but often misunderstood history.  Colloden has an incredible visitor center (during which I was too busy learning to remember to take photos to share with you!).

From those two history packed treats, we meandered through quaint and beautiful areas and saw more about local people and the way of life in Scotland today and long ago.  The intrepid David made requested photo stops as the scenery begged for pictures!
And those photos really help us to remember the fantastic color of the heather in bloom!
We returned to the Dowans to refresh tunes  and get ready for the next day's adventures!

September 21, 2011

Stepping through our week – Day Four The Western Highlands

The days continued clear, warm and bright – and on this day we had a little bit of a lie in and then headed for that most iconic of castles – Eilan Donan. One of the things I like best is that this castle has a place for harpers!

After visiting the castle we did a little musical relationship building with a wonderful local piper who was playing nearby. We wanted to set up a little jam but were a tad concerned about tuning up to meet him without breaking a lot of strings! And we decided that we needed a photo of the harpers:

The piper, Lea, shows the gumption of pipers,
willing to be photographed with harpers!

 After leaving Eilan Donan, we traveled an astonishingly beautiful path that lead us through the sites we’ve come to expect, to see a part of Scotland that many visitors don’t even know to look for:


We crossed the Beauly Firth and the Black Isle before heading to our next accommodation in Aberlour.

Along the way we saw new things and "must see" things. Once we arrived, we learned a great tune that was directly related to our visiting. Come with us so you can learn it too.

September 14, 2011

Stepping through our week – Day Three Skye

What incredible good fortune – the sky in Skye was fine and bright! Skye is, as always, breathtakingly beautiful. David arranged for us to take best advantage of the day and the weather. We started the day with music by discovering the Skye Music Shop and it just kept getting better from there. Skye has amazing geography, a lot of history, sites of beauty that nearly make you want to cry.


We stopped for lunch while at Dunvegan Castle and then toured it to learn even more. Afterward, David took us to a fantastic vantage point, especially for harping:

David obliged by stopping on request for photos along the way.  We had a wonderful day on Skye but we still had a special treat arranged – we attended a ceilidh concert and got to hear some of the future of traditional music with incredible local talent – it really capped off an incredible day!

September 7, 2011

Stepping through our week - Day Two Road to the Isles

Our second day dawned and we all met for a hearty breakfast before heading out on our adventure.  David prepared us for our journey - it would be a long day, but full of sites, sights and delights!

We traveled diagonally across the width of Scotland on our way to Skye.  We saw rivers and lochs, bridges and waterfalls, man-made and natural splendor.   We saw the geography transform and the weather change.  We learned history and saw how the land and the people shaped one another.

Here are a few of the views I wanted to share with you.  These are only a few of the photos from the day - and I find that most of the time I am so busy looking that I forget to take a photo. 

We arrived at the McKinnon Country House in Skye and after settling in we shared a lovely tune that was tied to our excursion of the day.  After we had played we adjourned to dinner which was fantastic before repairing to bed to be ready for the next day's outing.

Come with us next time so you can see it yourself!

August 31, 2011

Stepping through our week - Day One Perth

We have had a fantastic trip - loads of sunshine, some very authentic rain, but mostly bright clear days.  We started our adventure in Perth visiting Scone Palace - the place where kings were crowned at the Stone of Destiny.

 In addition to the rich history learned along the way on touring the palace, we had the occasion to be greeted by that most royal of hosts - the peacocks!

We also had the opportunity to see the garden, the maze, and our first set of Hie'lan' Coos!

We also visited Ossian's Cave and the Falls of Brann where we learned more history and were captivated by the incredible falls and the surrounding woodland - it's amazing what happens when you put engineering and nature together!

After taking in all this beauty, we headed back to Perth to create some beauty of our own.  We learned and played a great tune that we would come back to later in the week.  It was great fun playing together sharing the tune.  We had a wonderful time over dinner getting to know one another better, reviewing the best parts of the day and preparing for our next day, which I'll tell you about next week!

August 24, 2011

Heading to Scotland

This post will be short - I've packed and gotten ready and made my journey to Scotland for the Harp in the Highland and Islands Tour.  I am so excited - we have met up with our group and are out seeing the beauty that awaits.  Or maybe I'm more excited about sharing the great tunes I have planned!  Or maybe I'm really just excited to be playing in some of the incredible places we're going - the location, the history, the music all tied up together.

We're in Skye today - so while this week the post is short, over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing glimpses into our travels.  Each week, I'll post some of our activities and photos - comments, as always, are welcome!  I hope you'll be able to join us next year! 

August 17, 2011

This is hard!

I find many parts of making music are relatively easy (that is, easier than calculating cubic roots in my head or determining the most simplistic way to present the unified field theory to a kindergartner). But less experienced musicians often express frustration and dismay over how hard it is to play the harp.

To these less experienced people, ease seems to be either a sadistic ploy to make them feel badly about their level of experience (it isn’t, I assure you – we’ve all been there at some point) or a cruel twist of fate that leaves some people finding it easy, with others finding it impossible. I will not take up the nature/nurture question vis a vis musicianship but I will tell you something that will (upon reflection) not surprise you -

That apparent ease is a result of…you guessed it…PRACTICE!

The more you practice something, the more often you perform an act, the easier it becomes. This continued, focused practice results in what is called Automatic Processing. The more you practice something, the less you have to consciously think about it to make it happen. And it comes about through practice. If you practice anything accurately you will become better at it (of course if you practice inaccurately, you will become better at doing something incorrectly!). If you practice counting, you will get more proficient at counting. If you practice reading you will become better at reading. If you practice making hand shapes and blocking, this will become second nature – it will become just the way you do it.

You have already mastered many activities and made them automatic – complex tasks like walking, jumping, writing, etc. all once required a great deal of concentration and effort but are now automatic. If you think this is not the case, I recommend you spend more time with very young children – you can watch them find behaviors and practice them. When walking is new, you don’t just wish to walk better – you walk and walk and walk, and fall down, and get up and walk some more – until you can do it all by yourself!

So, if you are working hard to play – whether it is counting, or blocking, having consistent fingering, sitting up straight, or reading – you now know that you just need more practice with those basic behaviors. Strong practice of these basic skills – making them automatic - frees up your brain to do other hard work, like learning new pieces, adding appropriate dynamics, or writing your own!

So, go practice!

August 10, 2011


We have all learned that winners are, well, winners. And obviously, everyone wants to win. Winning is one of the ways we define success – and we all want to be successful. Why wouldn’t we?

But we also know that it isn’t from winning that we learn. It is in failure that we take great lessons. That is where we begin to think faster on our feet, find out what we didn’t know before, learn the pitfalls we should avoid, determine how we should prepare next time.

This isn’t to lead you to believe that failure is good – it’s not. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and can be humiliating. But all those things also mean that it is very motivating! And it can really lead to making great strides. This is where you learn to innovate, be flexible, find your boundaries.

And like everything else, failure becomes easier to deal with – when you get practice. No one wants to go out and fail, but sometimes it just happens. You’re not as prepared as you should be for a performance. Or you get on stage and everything falls out of your head including well known things – like your own name. Or when you sit at your – that’s right, it’s a harp (– h-a-r-p, yes it is yours and yes, you do know how to operate it) your hands go everywhere except the strings you’re aiming for.

But these failures – the practice sessions, if you will, give you the tools you need to take the risks necessary to grow, to expand and to become more comfortable with the next time you set out – to succeed.

So, I encourage you to buck up your courage and try new things. Every piece can only be performed for an audience the first time once. After that, it’s just another piece in your repertoire! Take a chance, learn a new piece, write your own composition, develop your own arrangement, play a new style of music – take a chance.
What’s the worst that can happen? You might not perform your best?  You might bomb? You might fail – oh well, think of what you’ll learn from that! Failing - it's the only way to get ahead!

August 3, 2011

16th Annual Harp Camp 2011 - Raising the Bar

Well, you already knew that Harp Camp was going to be fun and that everyone would learn a lot in a very short time and that we would have a good time doing it.  You were right!

Directed Ensemble is hard work!

Learning to tie a good string knot may not sound exciting but
 it is one of the most important skills a harper needs!

Reading, counting, playing all together - they are sight reading
 a new ensemble piece and bringing it alive for everyone else.

This year's theme was "Raise the Bar" - and boy, did we!  We had a small but motivated group who worked hard, learned so much, and were just a joy to share with.  And they clearly had a good time making music with each other.  We had people who are young but experienced, older but brand new to the harp, young with some experience, older with a great deal of experience.  You know what they say - it takes all kinds!

We played music, played games, performed on multiple instruments (including a kazu chorus), and made crafts.  We had delightful catered lunches and Kasbah was a hit as usual.

And as teachers, we had a blast!  Our workshops focused on learning to read better, learning to learn by ear better, counting more complex rhythms better, improvising left hand better as well as learning about a "harp personality" and learning to really feel the beat.  These very diverse workshops were well received and fun to teach.

I hope you'll be able to join us for the 17th Annual Harp Camp.  You'll learn a lot, you'll be exhausted when its over, but you'll also be so inspired and ready to "Raise the Bar"!