March 28, 2012

Keeping Regular

Most of us have good, quality instruments that are well built by caring craftsmen.  Some are made by individuals.  Some are made in factories.  But they are all beautiful.  They bring joy and peace into our lives.  We look forward to the time we will get to spend with them.  To enhance that time we need to care for them in return. 
Some harp care items don’t take very long, others are a tad arduous and may be best left to someone else. Here are three things that help care for your harp in decreasing order of frequency:
1.       Daily: No one likes when I say this (including me, some days) – tune your harp. My students roll their eyes.  I know they don’t do it.  I think some people miss out on this because they think of tuning as a chore – something that stands between them and playing.  But if you think of it tuning as more of ritual than a chore – it is actually a little easier to get in every day.  Tuning, like everything else, gets easier (and faster) with practice.  You also get better at it the more you do it.  You will learn to hear when you are in tune.  You will learn that each string is different and how much to turn the key to achieve the pitch.  And tuning is a quiet time, just you and your harp.  It is stress free (no learning, no “wrong notes”, no broken expectations).   Enjoy the time each day…and enjoy the side benefit of having a harp that is in tune.
2.       Weekly: Dust it.  My harp gets dusty (and not just because it’s a Dusty – my Wurlitzer gets dusty too!).  I use a commercially available disposable non-feather duster (note that there is no commercial endorsement). I don’t use the little handley-thingy it comes with – just the duster.  And I always do the harps first so the duster is clean and then go on to the rest of the room.  It may not make a difference in my playing or even in my harp’s life but it makes me feel like I’ve taken care of my investment.  And my luthier told me my harp looks good (that’s always nice to hear). 
3.       Annually:   Now we get to keeping regular.  Harp regulation that is.  Have your harp regulated.  If you haven’t heard of this, regulation is the process of adjusting your levers (for pedal harps, it is adjusting the mechanism, repairs and changing the felts.   Your harp needs regulation if when you have open strings it is in tune but when you engage the lever on the string it is no longer in tune at the new pitch.  It may be sharp or flat.  If you have the patience of Job you can do this yourself.  I know people who do their own regulation.  I think they are sainted nut jobs….but I’m just jealous.   I take my harps to a professional.  Someone who knows what they are doing that close to my harp with pointy screwdrivers.  Someone who is obviously more patient than I am!  Find a luthier near you – someone you know, like and trust.  The advantage of this is that not only do they do a great job faster that you ever will and return to you an accurate harp that is a joy to play again, they may find something else you needed to know (mine once found and repaired a split in the back which was cosmetic but would have caused me to hyperventilate and panic if I’d found it myself).  If you don’t know a luthier, I’m happy to regale you with the heroic tales of real ones that may be near you.
Take care of your harp – you’ll be glad you did…each and every time you sit to play it them. 

March 20, 2012

Spring is Sprung, the Grass is Grizz

I wonder where the birdies is.  So goes the poem I learned as a child…everything according to plan. 

We’re nearly through the first quarter of the year.  The trees are blooming.  The flowers are coming up.  How are you coming along with your grand plan?  I am sure you did a lot of goal setting at the new year.  You might have been goal setting along with me, or you might have generated some resolutions.  Either way, here’s your chance to check in and see how it’s going.

1.       Do you remember you goals?  Did you write them down?  Do you remember where you put them?  Have you verified that in the cold light of day they make sense?

2.       Do you need to clean up some of your goals?  Sometimes we set wonky goals, or goals that are a little more of a stretch than we will be able to achieve in the time we set.  Or they seemed like good goals when we set them but for some reason we just can’t fathom how we came up with them.  Goals can be modified.  I don’t advocate just changing them because they’re challenging, but sometimes, you really do generate a stinker or a really unrealistic goal and those should be changed. 

3.       Are you moving toward those goals? It’s not enough to write down your goals – did you also document how you were going to go about achieving them?  Did you make a plan or just a goal?  If you didn’t do planning before, now is not too late to begin. Sometimes planning is daunting – it is so much easier to just set a goal. But just setting the goal isn’t really setting a goal at all – it’s more like dreaming.  And we know that the path from dream to reality is to make a plan.  Break down how you intend to reach your goal into manageable steps – and write them down – you probably have some great ideas, but if they are anything like mine, they’ll be like that movie title – “Gone in 60 Seconds”!  They're great ideas - as long as you remember them - so be sure to write them down.

      4.     Did you set a path but then you missed a turn?  If you did make a plan but you’ve been derailed, its time to evaluate the plan.  I used to make completely unrealistic plans.  For instance, I once set the goal of finding, learning, arranging, and mastering a tune a week - which totally ignored the fact that I had set other, even more aggressive goals in other parts of my life.  It was a plan, but not a very reasonable one.  So, sometimes you have to modify the plan.  That’s ok.
So, if you haven’t gotten moving on your goals for this year and you’ve determined that the goals were sound, and you’ve identified your path or plan, you should be good – as long as it fits you.  If it doesn’t, change it.  Goals are your tools – make them work for you!

March 14, 2012


The headline says, “Get Crafty Using Recycled Items”.  Wow!  What a great idea!  You know that I am 1) intrinsically lazy and 2) always looking to increase my repertoire without actually working too hard (see number 1.).  I will do anything (climb fences, practice for hours, eat nettles) to avoid working too hard (as you see, my definition of work too hard might need some work).

But recycling speaks to my inner Goddess – Parsimony.  There is a real treasure trove in even the smallest repertoire.  Music that can be expanded and refashioned in such a way that the overall volume of music available is not additive but really, it’s multiplied! So much gain for so little gain.
Building on our earlier discussion, here are three ways to recycle your music to have even more to play:

       1. Slow it down or speed it up – there are some hauntingly beautiful melodies cleverly disguised as dance tunes.  You don’t even have to change the chord pattern just blow the block chords up into schmaltzy rolled chords or lush broken chords.  Take the tempo way down.  Add ornaments and if you’re of a mind include variations.  And don’t forget to breathe – use your breath to highlight the phrasing.  Or take an air and move it into a dance form – speed it up, block up the phrasing, block the chords to help add some heft and bulk and you’ll have a new tune! 

2.       Move into another key – it always amazes me how dissimilar different keys can feel on a tune.  Play around and move a tune from one key to another (which might be a lever change away!) and see if you like it as well or better in another key.  Another take on this is to really change it up – move the tune to a very different key and see what you get – move to the relative minor (or major) and get a whole new feel.  Or set your levers to some other key but continue to play the original shapes and strings (note – sometimes this is brilliant!  And sometimes it can’t end quickly enough – but you have to try to see what works and what you like).
3.       Modify the chords and change the feel – you know that there’s the chord patter you’ve learned, read, or generated.  But you also know that each note appears in at least three 1-3-5 chords so there are plenty of opportunities to mix it up.  If you always come down on a D for instance, consider coming down on a G (or a B maybe…).   Noodle around and see what works – and see how it changes what you played.
Of course, each of these takes some time, just you and your harp.  But the outcome is really rewarding (especially if you have to fill more time than you planned). Let me know how you come along!

March 7, 2012

Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning is that annual ritual in which we shake off the old detritus of the last year, clean our space, let in the light and the fresh air.  Of course, we mostly put it off so we can practice.  But maybe we should consider spring cleaning our playing.

Technique is essential for good performance and will help you get new music down.  I know you have good technique.  You have worked hard to achieve it.  And it has served you well for all this time.

But just like our homes, our technique could use some spring cleaning.  There are 3 things you can do to give your playing a tune up:

1.       Work on your exercises – I know, no one likes exercises – but they are good for you.  The real reason to include exercises though is that they allow you an opportunity to evaluate your technique.  Use the time to work slowly and carefully through those basic elements of playing that are the building blocks (or technique).  If you are inclined you can enlist the aid of a friend or use a video camera to learn more – what are your hands actually doing while you’re playing?  These are always useful – I try to monitor my technique like a hawk especially when doing scales, arpeggios and building patterns which give you a good idea of areas you need to work. 

2.       Tune up old tunes - I had the opportunity to take a lesson recently and in the course of it, learned that I had developed a very bad habit.  I never noticed it because I never do it when I’m watching myself work through exercises.   This bad habit had developed over the course of building comfort with the tune and its arrangement.  If you develop a problem, go back to old tunes that you know really well.   In effect, they become like the exercises in that you know them so well you don’t have to focus on the tune and can instead look at your technique.  Because you’re playing a real tune you can explore even greater aspects of your playing than with the exercises.

3.       Do a real cool down – Most people don’t think they really need a cool down after practicing or playing.  After all, it’s not like you ran or anything – you certainly didn’t break a sweat!  However, each time you practice you are doing a lot of work.  And just like an athlete, you need to cool down and stretch to help build strength and allow the muscles to recover.

Of course, this spring cleaning is something you should do throughout the year.  It will help you strengthen your technique which will improve your playing in the spring and throughout the year.