December 18, 2013

Looking back

The days are short, the nights are long, the solstice in nearly upon us, and the weather is tailor made for reflection.  Take a moment and look at your past Harp year.  Did you meet your goals?  Did you do well?  Are you happy with your progress?

If yes, it is time to begin to identify what your goals and desires for 2014 will be.
If no, why?  Did you set overly ambitious goals that didn’t take into account the rest of your life?  Did you set unrealistic goals like moving from your first lesson to performing Ceremony of the Carols within the year?  Did you not plan for the work your goals required (including enough practice time)? Did you have too many competing goals?  Were your goals vague such that you could not actually determine if you made any progress?  Or did you not set any goals, preferring to see what happened naturally?
Remember that the point of goals is to guide you, to help you see that you have made progress, and to remind you over time, not to generate yet another way to beat yourself up! 

As the new year looms, we will, of course review goal setting. Whether you met goals or not, the year is nearly past and we can look forward to next year.  Many things will change and many will be different, but your harp will be there with you – take the time to be there too!

December 11, 2013

There is no substitute for having a teacher

This may be sacrilegious in some quarters, but I’m going to say it anyway.  There really is no substitute for having a teacher.  Now, before you write this week’s content as self-serving drivel from someone who makes money teaching, hear me out.  There are so many things about playing the harp that are challenging, why not learn someone who can save you the difficulty of learning those things the hard way?
Here are ten things teachers will do that will help improve your harp playing:
  1. Give you wisdom, gained at the knees of their teachers.
  2. Give you the benefit of their experiences.
  3. Provide you timely feedback that will help you spend less time learning (and then unlearning) things that are not productive.
  4. Provide you positive feedback that will allow you to focus on growing rather than have you smarting from falling backward.
  5. Although there are some very good books available, nothing is the same as having someone who’s walked the road before you to show you the ropes.
  6. Inspire you to grow to your full potential rather than letting you fester where you happen to be.
  7. Encourage you to stretch and grow, to achieve your potential and reach your goals.
  8. Coddle you when you hit the inevitable plateaus that are so disheartening.
  9. Give you their knowledge – they’ve been in your seat and left it behind…wouldn’t you like to move along too?
  10. Work with you, to help you develop yourself.
You need to find the teacher that fits you and there are plenty of really good ones around.  I highly encourage you to work with a teacher - you don’t have to commit to unending lessons and in the end, the progress you make will be a function of your hard work.  But a teacher can coach you through that progress so you can make good time on it!

December 4, 2013

Go Gently, Go Slowly

We have spent a while talking about tuning.  I hope you’ve come to realize that tuning is an essential skill although it is often glossed over.  Be sure that no one glosses over it because they are uninterested.  It’s just that, as you play longer and longer and more and more, tuning becomes a habit and it frankly, it is so ingrained it is hard to describe.

Another thing that is so engrained it is difficult to describe is the physical act of tuning – how much is too much?  How far do you go before you should don eye protection (against the string you just know is going to break)?  How do you get past this fear of breaking a string?

Well – I’m not sure you ever get past the fear of breaking a string, but you do learn to manage it!
As for how much is too much and how far do you turn the key, when do you stop?  These are complex questions.  The answer to each truly is – “It depends.”

First, each harp is different.  I am fortunate to have an embarrassment of harps so I do a lot of tuning.  Each of my harps tunes up differently. 
Secondly, remember that earlier I said that tuning takes practice?  I told you that the more you tune, the easier it becomes.  One of the reasons it becomes easier is that, with practice, you begin to learn a lot of things –
  • what your harp sounds like as the tone comes to pitch (that is, you begin to learn how each string sounds as the needle gets closer to straight up and the lights get closer to green)
  • how the string feels against the key as it comes to pitch (as you get more comfortable with tuning, you will have the capacity to notice how the pin feels as your turn the key, how the key feels in your hand as your ears (and eyes) tell you you’re getting there)
  • what your harp feels like as the string comes to pitch (as the strings begin to ring sympathetically as you get closer to the correct frequency)
Go gently, make very small adjustments. It doesn't take much to move the string too much.  And it is easier to make another small adjustment than to change a broken string!

Take your time, go slowly.  Tuning can be very therapeutic and relaxing once you’re comfortable with it.  Move the key ever so slightly.  See if you can change the pitch of the string without being able to detect the movement of your hand.  With practice you may begin to enjoy the simple ritual of tuning (NB, this is not true if your Harp Circle, Ensemble, or Conductor are waiting!)

November 27, 2013

November 20, 2013


I ran across this quote the other day

“Strive for Progress not Perfection”
As we continue the run up to the holidays, we are dusting off our Christmas repertoire and making ready for the season – playing church services, holiday parties, and winter weddings.  We work extra hard on the Christmas songs – we have to, everyone knows them and they’ll know if we make a mistake.
And so we get stuck on the perfection treadmill – certain that people will know our every “jazz improvisation” and find us wanting. 

And yet, has this actually happened to you?  We have all had some challenging opportunities to play.  Sometimes we do not actually recognize the tune that came out of the harp – what comes out is so different from what was in our heads! But has anyone stood up and shouted, “You should have played a Bmin chord there!”?? Has anyone ever up and left while you were playing because you didn’t play perfectly?
The answer, we all know, is NO!  It is much more likely that no one even noticed that you didn’t play to perfection.  And we shouldn’t strive for perfection.  If you look beyond your next performance and focus on the future you’ll see the importance of striving for progress rather than perfection.
We all have room to improve.  But to do so, we have to be prepared to do some work. And you have to identify where you should make progress.  Progress will come from consistent practice and careful work.
Then you have to be sure to watch for your progress and chart it in a visible way.  And when you have made progress, you can then celebrate your achievement!
Perfection is dull - strive for progress and enjoy!

November 13, 2013

Why being in Eb isn’t necessarily best

A lot of people tune their harps to Eb.  The question is, should you?

First, you might want to know why so many people choose to be in Eb.  Many people like Eb because it is a very flexible tuning that allows you to get into eight major keys.  Since you’re asking those keys are:
  • Eb (3 flats – E, A, B)
  • Bb (2 flats – E, B)
  • F (1 flat – B)
  • C (no flats or sharps)
  • G (1 sharp – F)
  • D (2 sharps – F, C)
  • A (3 sharps – F, C, G)
  • E (4 sharps – F, C, G, D)
Being able to get into so many keys certainly limits the number of pieces you can’t play.
However, that flexibility comes at a price.  You get all those different keys be engaging the levers.  That engaging the levers means that before you have even started, you have stopped the string.  Stopping the string means that you won’t get the same full resonance, the true fullness of the sound, the depth of the tone.  For the best tone you need as many open strings are possible.
So you should think about your tuning before you commit to it on your harp.  Do you need to be able to get into all those keys or do you typically stay in just a few keys (think about which levers you typically use)?  You can use the answer to that question to finalize which tuning you want.  If you want the best tone from your harp, keep it open and select the tuning that gives you the fewest engaged levers. 

Then sit back and enjoy the full throated singing of your harp most of the time.

November 7, 2013

I absolutely can ONLY use my electronic tuner to tune, right? (I can never tune by ear?)

Most people use their electronic tuner for a number of reasons – it’s easy, effective, consistent, and it gives you the impression that your harp is tuned accurately.  But are you really in tune?

You can choose to tune by ear.  Many people do this because it results in I won’t kid you, learning to tune by ear requires some willingness to work – you have to practice doing it and you have to practice listening closely.  But if you start tuning by ear it won’t take you long to get good at it.

First, the equipment.  Assuming you do not have perfect pitch, you will need something to give you a pitch to reference.  You can use a tuning fork or a pitch pipe (available on a number of websites) or a piano (assuming it is in tune).  You can choose which pitch you’d like to tune to.  I have a 440 A tuning fork.  That might not have been the best choice as I have my harp tuned to Eb which means that I have to set a lever and occlude the string to get to A.  I’d suggest a pitch you can tune to on an open string.

I’ll focus on the tuning fork as it is easy to carry and use.  The tuning will be the same regardless of your reference.  Strike the fork on something solid (I use my ankle bone) and then place the base on the sound board.  You will hear the pitch loud and clear.  Then tune the appropriate string (A in my case) until you can’t hear it.

‘Til I can’t hear it????  Yup – when you can’t hear the string differently from the tuning fork, it is in tune…they are inseparable.  Remember that the 440Hz refers to the frequency of the string – so if you have it tuned, it will “disappear” into the tone of the tuning fork. Then I’d suggest you tune all of that string (all the As for example).  Tune them against each other (based on the A you started with).  Octaves are directly related (so if the middle A is 440 Hz, the A below it will be 220Hz and the A above it will be 880Hz.  If you play them in octaves you will be able to hear if one is out because of this relation.

If you’re willing to give it a try, start with your A’s strike your tuning fork and bring them in line.  We’ll move on to tuning the rest of the strings later!  Don’t get frustrated, just take a breath and listen – you’ll hear it when it happens.

October 30, 2013

If I use my tuner I’m totally in tune, right?

I diverted last week because of the serendipity of meeting new ideas in the form of new people, but I’d like to get back to tuning because so many of you have asked for more help.

One question I have gotten recently is about using an electronic tuner.  Full disclosure, I love and hate my electronic tuner!  I love the relative ease it makes tuning, but I hate that it leaves my harp sounding not quite right. So today, things to love about your tuner and a couple of disjointed thoughts (that actually go together).
1. Always check your calibration.  Most of us intend to tune our harps to play with other people.  The frequency we typically tune to is for the A above middle C to be 440 Hz (said, “Hertz” just like the car rental place).  Be sure to check that your tuner is calibrated to 440Hz (this is a shot of my tuner - yours might look different if you have a different brand of tuner).  See that in the upper left hand corner it says it is set to 440Hz?  Check every time that it says 440Hz.  On this particular brand it is quite easy to bump the calibration buttons (I once found that it had gotten to 447Hz - very sharp - it took me 34 of 36 strings to realize that my harp hadn't suddenly all gone out of tune to the same extent! I had to retune the entire thing!  That's when I learned to check the calibration every time).
2. You, off course, want to have that needle straight up and down with one green light.  You want this for each and every string.  Do not get frustrated, give up, and “live with” a string that it out of tune.  In addition to that *not quite in tune* string sounding bad each time you play it with another string, you will be teaching yourself to hear that bad sound as "good" and soon you won’t hear it as bad anymore…but everyone else will.
3. I know that you already know what I’m going to say next – tuning quickly and accurately comes with practice.  The more you tune, the better you get at it.

Now your harp is tuned.  But it might not sound quite right...that is because it is in Tempered Tuning.  Tempered tuning was designed to allow pianos to be played in just about any key.  But to get that flexibility, the intervals between the notes had to be smushed a little bit.  So, when your harp is “perfectly” tuned with your electronic tuner, it might sound just a little off (especially if you play a big, full, harpy chord with all the notes you can muster).  Next week, we’ll talk about tuning by ear, why tempered tuning doesn't sound quite right, and getting rid of that smushed sound.

October 23, 2013

Hang out the “Open” sign?

The other day I was in my favorite over-commercialized caffeine dispenseria doing what loosely passes for work .  Actually I was working, but I couldn’t help but overhear the people sitting next to me.  I was trying to not listen, I really was.  But their conversation kept catching my ear (no, I’m not about to tell you to listen more, although we can all do with the practice) – they were talking about breathing.

And every time they said the word “breath” I’d take one.  And soon I was nearly hyperventilating!  So, I did the only thing I could think of – I inserted myself into their conversation!

And met two lovely people, preparing a talk about breathing.  We discussed all the wonderful things the simple act of taking a breath can accomplish – from giving one the time and resources to think, to helping clear one’s head, to making the music sing like it supposed to.

I’ll beat breathing to death some other time, but for now, think about the serendipitous opportunities that arise every day.  Are you open to learn when interesting people might share? 
What has this got to do with playing the harp? Well, everything!

Be open - When you’re making music, you need to be open to experiences as they come along – whether you incorporate something new into your arrangement, play somewhere you never even thought of being, or play something you didn’t think you could, be open to what you may take away from the experience.

Be flexible – just because you’ve set out to do something in particular (play a piece a particular way for instance), be flexible if some other option arises (some people refer to this as a “jazz improvisation”), which will help you stay in the performance rather than focusing on the deviation.

Be interested – just as meeting new people are interesting, stay interested in your music, your technique, your performance – and your breathing!

Be there – if you’re not present when you are playing, how can you expect your audience to be there?  Be present when you’re playing so you and your audience can enjoy the moment.

October 16, 2013

What scale do you tune to?

This whole series of posts has arisen because I am frequently asked to teach tuning.  The requester is almost always sheepish about asking - they seem to feel that you shouldn’t have to ask.  But really, if you haven’t been taught to tune, how will you ever learn?!?  Typically get a very short instruction (pluck the string, twiddle about with the key, get the green light, go on to the next string) very early when you're a little overwhelmed with everything! 

You do need to know in which scale you intend to tune.   You can tune to any scale but we tend to tune into one of a few major scales (please take this on faith, if you’re really interested, let me know and I’ll do a post on it later).  Those scales we tend to tune in are C, Eb [read E-flat], or F (here too, I am going to assume you know the notes of the scales – if this is a wrong assumption, again, let me know and we’ll do that too!). 

C is familiar, it is a key many other instruments can play in, it “maps” directly to the white keys on the piano, and you are probably familiar with the scale from school music classes.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B (and back to C) all the way up your harp.  From the key of C you can get to other well used scales including G (one sharp – the F# [read F-sharp]), D (two sharps – F# and C#), A (three sharps – F#, C#, and G#), and E (four sharps - F#, C#, G#, and D#).

Tuning in the key of F gives you a very lovely and sing-able key.  It does mean that you will have to raise one lever to get into the key of C but it also gives you a flat note – Bb.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E (and back to F).  From the key of F you can get to C (no flats or sharps – raise the B lever), and then move into the successive keys above (just start with the B lever going up to get you to C to start).

But you’ve probably heard lots of people say they are tuned to Eb.  They may even look at you like you’re crazy if you say you’re tuned to C.  DO NOT LET ANYONE INTIMIDATE YOU!!  There is nothing morally or musically superior about being tuned in Eb.  There, I’ve said it.

Many people tune to Eb because it gives you the most options to change scales without having to retune your harp.  From Eb you can get to the most other keys - that’s the only reason to choose it.   So if you tune to Eb, you will have to raise three levers to get into the key of C but it also gives you three flat notes – Eb, Ab, and Bb.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D (and back to Eb).  From the key of Eb you can get to C (raise the E, A, and B levers), and then move into the successive keys as above (just start from C to start).  And you can get into the keys of F (which we have already talked about, just put up the E and A levers but leave the B lever down) and Bb (put only the A lever up).  And of course, from this tuning with all the levers down, you are in Eb.

Now you can get around the scales a little easier and tuning might make more sense.  As always – let me know if you have questions, otherwise I’m going to go on to other topics!

October 9, 2013

Everyone knows you have to tune.

Any sentence that starts with “everyone knows…” typically includes something that actually only a few people know and possibly even fewer understand.  So, why do you have to tune?

Tuning serves many functions, some aesthetic, others functional.  Let’s start with the aesthetic.

The harp makes a beautiful warm rich sound that we enjoy.  Tuning is one of the many elements of achieving that tone.  If your strings are not each in tune, the sound of each string will “fight” with the sounds of the other strings.  This is not pleasant to hear.  Even being off by a hair (as indicated by the needle and lights on your tuner) will be noticeable.  And the more off your strings, the easier it is to detect that you’re not in tune.  And of course, you will instantly sound better if you are in tune!

We habitually tune to an A of 440Hz.  This is a convention - you can tune to any frequency you choose (e.g., Highland pipers tune A to about 470 - which is just about our Bb!).  We elect to tune to A440 (just like a lot of other instruments) which allows us to come together as a group and play (or to play with other instruments).  Be sure to check that your tuner is calibrated to A440 or you’ll be in for a nasty surprise!
Now for the functional.  Each harp is designed with specific tensions in mind.  The harp maker goes through a great deal of work to develop the shape and sound of the harp and these calculations all account for the specific tension of each string as well as the overall forces of all the strings working together.  Keeping your harp in tune will keep all the strings at their appropriate tensions and will allow the harp to work together as the harp maker designed it.
And perhaps my favorite reason for regular tuning.  Frequent tuning improves two things.  First, the more you tune (read “practice tuning”) the better you will be at it (does this sound familiar?).  Second, the more you tune, the better the strings will stay in pitch.  Tuning the strings helps to “train” them so they require less tuning.  Frequent tuning makes you more accurate and faster at tuning so you can get to playing!
We will spend a couple of weeks talking about tuning because I have found that for something “everyone knows” many people are confused and a little afraid (or just plain tired of having to change out broken strings).

October 2, 2013

Risky Business

No matter how many times you might step in front of an audience, it is always a little stressful.  There is a lot on the line, whether you are playing to put someone to sleep or getting up on a concert hall stage – especially if it’s just you and your harp. 

Why is it stressful?  Because you are taking a risk!  It might not, on the surface, be as dangerous as we typically think of risky behavior, but there you are, taking a risk. And we learn from very early not to take risks!
One of the good things about leading a double life is that you have twice as much material to work with!  I was talking with a colleague about risk taking – he was talking about Alpine skiing racing (literally – he started his skiing career in the Alps!).  He’s even published work on this area:  But I started thinking immediately about performing. 

We can take a page from the book of risk takers – the tightrope walkers, skiing racers, mountaineers, and others.  What do professional risk takers do to minimize the risks they take?  Well there are many things, but here are three to start with - you can use them to improve your comfort when you step on stage:

1. Preparation – successful risk takers are prepared.  They do not proceed unless they are prepared.  They spend a great deal of time and attention to assuring that everything they need they have.  You must also be prepared –know what “being prepared” means to you (determine what your comfort will require you to do), do not be bullied into performing before you are ready, perhaps schedule in “growing” time to perform for small, unthreatening groups (you might go from performing for your cat, to then performing for your sister, before venturing out to your church or other larger audience).

2. Routine – develop, practice and solidify a routine.  The experienced risk taker understands that an established routine allows not only assurance that all is well beforehand but it also frees up time for your brain to do the heavy work you are going to ask of it while you are performing.  You need a routine – pack up and set up your harp in a particular order, use a checklist if you need one, practice your set list, in that order, etc.  Routine also allows you to reduce your worry (because it can improve your preparation) which allows you to focus on the music rather than on your fear.

3. Connectivity with people – Successful risk takers work collaboratively with other people.  This connectivity provides not only support but also feedback.  Build your connectivity with other harpers – you’re not in this alone.  Find a teacher, mentor, friend who will provide you with honest, kind, usable feedback to improve your performance.  Build what you learn from their feedback into your preparation and routine.  And to build your connection – be willing to share what you know with other harp players.

Go on – take a risk!

September 25, 2013

Are you out there?

I’d like to take a moment to thank you for reading and following my blog. I hope you’ve gotten something for your efforts! I enjoy sharing what I know (or sometimes don’t know) with you. And I look forward to your questions and comments as well.

But sometimes, you’re very quiet and I then I feel fairly lonely. So I ask you to let me know –

Which posts of you enjoyed the most?

Which posts have you enjoyed the least?

What would you like to know more about?

What topics you are interested in seeing?
What content you are interested in?

What other blogs do you read?

Do you check in, or are you a subscriber?

Other comments or questions you might have?
Please leave a comment below.  I look forward to your feedback, and working with your suggestions. Thanks for being a great community!

September 18, 2013

Hang out with people who play better than you do.

Every once in a while it is gratifying to be the most accomplished person in the room.  But the good news that it doesn’t last!  There is a lot of pressure on you when that happens.  So, the remedy is to hang out with people who are more accomplished than you are – or as we say colloquially, people who are better than we are!

Why? Because research shows that hanging out and playing with people who are better than you are will raise your game and help you develop.  Playing with them makes you be better because you have to work hard to try to keep up.
Those better players may be other harpers but it is also possible that they will be playing some other instrument.  Either way, you always have a lot to learn, so get in there!

It can be daunting (trust me, I know!) but it can also be exhilarating and just plain fun!  It is intimidating but if offered the opportunity, take it!  Don’t let your insecurity get in your way. Don’t second guess yourself or fill yourself with fear.  Take it as it comes, enjoy the time (it will be fleeting), and learn as much as you can from the experience.  Use what you learn to make yourself better. 
And when the day comes that you are the most accomplished person in the room, share with the same grace others have shown you – and make someone’s day!

September 11, 2013

Get back to your harping

The summer is, for all intents and purposes, over.  The kids are back in school, everyone is back on a tighter schedule, the days are noticeably shorter and (at least in some places) starting to be cooler.  You might have spent less time at your harp while you enjoyed the beautiful summer.

But cooler days have the potential to mean more time to be at your harp.  There it sits, all gorgeous and beckoning.  But just like getting the kids out the door early is a challenge at the beginning of the school year, getting back to your harp after a summer holiday can be difficult.

Autumn means returning to schedules – often tightly choreographed schedules.  That schedule thing can really get you, making you realize how much you have left to get done in the (noticeably shorter) day.  You have to fit practicing in – you know you’ll be getting the inevitable holiday requests sooner than you are ready.  You have a tool to help you, you just have to use it. 

To get more out of your time at the harp, use your calendar to your advantage.  Here are four ways to help you get your practice time in, reduce the “it’s a chore” feeling, and make some progress:

1. Mark it down – write practice time on your calendar.  Just like you would any other appointment.

2. Make it a priority – sitting to your harp is good for your physically and mentally so make (and keep) that appointment with yourself.  Don’t cheat yourself – make your harp time a priority.  Does your time at the harp rates above other pressing tasks like washing the newspaper or reading the dog.

3. Plan ahead – spend a little time planning what you will do when you get to your harp.  What do you need to practice?  What do you want to work on?  What deadlines do you have coming up?  Make sure you have a little time to work on those things you need to work on.  And don’t forget to have fun – it shouldn’t be all work!

4. If it can’t be a priority, make peace with that – there are times where other things are more pressing, or we make them more important, or we allow them to take more of our time. That’s ok, but accept that and work with it.  If your harp priority has shifted lower, for any reason, do not beat yourself up about not practicing, just acknowledge that right not you will spend less harp time each day and accept the loss you will experience (in tune memory, in technique, in strength, etc.). 

After all, you’ll get back to your harp…when the time is right!

September 4, 2013

End of Summer

Happy Labor Day!  Whether you're celebrating or simply watching the waning summer - enjoy the holiday and take your harp to the beach (or at least think about it!).

August 28, 2013

Pomegranate Orange Tuttifruity Cola – mix it up

Have you seen those new Coke machines? The one where you can craft your own soda?  You can pick any flavor you like, just about – and make up your own combinations. You can mix flavors and get something new. Or you can get the same thing every time.

I know what I like. I like it a lot. I get it over and over again.

It’s easy to do the same thing with our music.  Once we finally learn a tune (once we have taken smaller bites!) we can really settle in and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Sometimes, we have so much fun playing a tune we have (finally!) gotten that we practically play it to death. In fact, sometime we will play it until other people are ready to pull their own ears off – just because we are so enjoying that feeling you get when you finally have it down!

We often will do the same thing with our arrangements. We will use the same basic patterns, chord structures, phrasing, and expression. After all, we know we like, we know we can do, we know were comfortable with.

But sometimes "same old same old" just isn’t good enough anymore. Every once in a while we need to mix it up. We have to leave the flavor of the month, whatever it is that makes us so very comfortable, and try something new.  Set some time aside in your practice to come up with some new flavors - you might find something surprising...that you like even better!

August 21, 2013

Teaching is the best way to learn

Learning tunes is one of those never-ending challenges. The matter how many you learn not only are there thousands more, but great composers keep generating new ones! Although we know we will never get to the end and learn every tune ever, we keep trying.

But what do we mean when we say learn a tune? Do we mean that we have gotten it down enough that we can (barely) keep up at a session? Do we mean we have a down well enough to play to an audience? Do we mean we have it down well enough to never forget it (by the way – no such thing!)?

We sometimes fool ourselves by thinking we know a tune cold. But, how cold is cold? If you want to know if you actually know a tune, try teaching it to someone else.
You may make the mistake of starting to teach the tune off the top your head. This will quickly fail you. To be able to teach the tune, you have to know it – really know it. You have to learn not just the notes, but also the structure, the phrases, how the parts fit together. You will be well served to know which pieces are in the A part and appear again in the B part. Or what motif underlies every phrase? What is the underlying theme? Where will you be going? From where?

These types of analyses of the tune will impact how you choose to teach it. Really doing this work will allow you to teach the tune more easily. And all of this is exactly what you need to do… to learn it in the first place!

August 14, 2013


As musicians, we strive to develop our skills, to improve our technique, our repertoire, our span of knowledge. We want to get better – typically we are working on our ability to perform. Whether we are renowned for our performance on the world stage, or simply playing to amuse our cat, we work to be worth listening to.

But how often do we listen? Be honest.
Do we take the time to really hear ourselves? Do we actually really listen to others when they play? I don’t mean the listening where you relax and let the sound wash over you (even though that is one of the benefits of playing our beautiful instrument, but that’s not what we mean here).

Involved listening is another skill that we must develop. This is an essential skill. Whether you are solely ear trained, solely paper trained, or somewhere in between. It is from this type of all attentive listening that you learn important elements like phrasing, ornamentation, style, and expression. And like every other skill, you can build your involved listening. Here are four things you can do to get better at involved listening.
  • Focus. You can spend all day listening, but if you don’t pay attention, you won’t actually hear anything. Take the time to focus on what you’re listening to.
  • Think. What are you listening to? Are you hearing the melody? The harmony? A particular phrase? Think about captures your attention and decide if that’s what you want to focus on.
  • Pause. Remember that music is a communication so the pauses are almost as important as the sounds. Listen for those pauses. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean?
  • Reflect. Now that you’ve listened to the tune that you’re interested in. You have to think about how you’re going to make it yours. Reflect on what you’ve listened to and how your to bring it out and you.
Being involved with your music by truly listening will allow you to become a better musician as well as appreciating other people’s music all the more.

August 7, 2013

This is harder than it looks

I just got a fancy new software package. It’s perfect for me - now instead of typing on my keyboard, I just talk to my computer.  It really isn’t hard.   Except now it is.  I’m having to learn to do things completely differently. My little machine listens to me and dutifully writes down everything I say.

This is a problem. You see, I’m not used to saying aloud what I’m trying to write. And actually, it’s quite challenging to write while you’re talking – this is very different.  When I'm typing it just comes out.  I can correct it on the fly (of course when I'm typing the computer isn't trying to guess what I said or how to spell it either!).  So, I am going to learn how to do something new. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.

How many times do we think this when we're learning a tune? We think it should be easy. It’s an easy tune. Everybody else learned it really quickly. It’s not that complicated! I should be able play this. :-(
And yet sometimes we run into tunes that make us do things differently. Sometimes what is easy, isn’t. It might look easy on paper. It might have been easy for the person next to us in the workshop.  But it’s just not coming together for us. We’ve all been there – we don't like being there, but we’ve been there. And so what are we supposed to do?
Here are three things we can do to make it easier (whether it’s learning a tune, or how to type by talking):
1. Take it slowly. Whether the tune is simple or if the software says you can use it right out of the box, we need to give ourselves the time to absorb what it is were trying to learn. Zorching off as fast as we possibly can, because "it’s easy,” just makes us frustrated. Take your time. (Yes, I am always exhorting you to slow down...because, usually, this is the solution!)
2. Think -  what about the tune is challenging. It’s not likely the entire thing is hard for you. It is more likely that there is just one thing that you’re struggling with. Take the time to examine what’s giving you a hard time and see if you can parse that into smaller elements that you can work on independently. Once you have those down, fit it into the rest of the music - slowly.
3. Quit worrying about whatever everyone else is doing. I saw recently a really good quote that said something about never forgetting that you only see other people's "highlight reels" while you focus on your own "bloopers".  Mostly people won't own up the having a hard time...they're too worried about what everyone else will think...but really - no one else cares. So forget the litany in your own head about how you’re never going to get it and realize nobody else will admit that. Get over it and get back to work.

July 31, 2013

Take smaller bites

When you’re learning new music do you often have that sinking feeling that you are never going to get the tune?  Does it seem like every tune you learn that is longer than eight bars is just going to be too hard to get into your head?  Does it seem like everyone around you learns tunes really quickly while you struggle?

One way to make this whole process a little more palatable is to take smaller bites!  There are so many ways to get the music into your head.  And you can be sure that the “all at once” approach is one of the most frustrating. 

So next time you’re learning a new piece of music try taking smaller bites and arrange your practice in courses:
  • The Soup Course – Study the music.  Whether you are learning from printed music or learning by ear, you can study the music.  You can review it to begin to find its form and structure.  Skip this course at your peril as it can save you a great deal of time when learning the piece.
  • The Salad Course – Find the patterns.  After you have studied the music you will be more easily able to find the patterns.  You already know that music is all patterns, so it stands to reason that if you find those patterns you will have a very good idea what is happening when you attempt to learn those patterns.  When you specifically look for the patterns you will be that much further ahead.
  • The Meat Course – Break it up, break it up.  While music is patterns, often it consists of large patterns.  These may be difficult to discern (or to remember), so if necessary, break the patterns into smaller pieces.  And just like the real meat course, you need to be sure not to eat one thing at a time on your plate before going on to the next - DO NOT spend all this time playing from the first measure to the last - break it up and work on the parts that need work.  Start at the end and work backward, or pick a measure in the middle and start there.  This is, the course, where the bulk of what feels like work will occur.  Do not be fooled...the other courses are also work - value that time!
  • The Desert Course – How sweet it is.  If you have taken the time to do the work of the previous courses, you will find that the music has become easier to learn and that you learn it more quickly – what could be sweeter than being able to play the music you like so well!
Of course, like a full course meal, you want to take your time, savor the delicacies, and really enjoy the process.  And better still, when you’re practicing you don’t have to worry about which fork to use!

July 24, 2013

Take the time to focus

Everyone is busy.  Everyone is crazy busy.  We all have too much to do.  And before you know it we will have moved from wedding season (crazy busy!) into the holidays (more crazy more busy).

It can be enough to make you crazy and busy.  And that can start to show in your music – phrases that don’t breathe, airs that don’t flow, jigs that jag and reels that leave you reeling!
So be sure to take time to focus. 

This can be done in small measures or large.  From taking the summer off from lessons (definitely a large measure) to taking your harp outside to practice on a pleasant day (smaller measure), these excursions will allow you the time to regain your focus, to remember what you are doing, and why.
It is easy to forget all the elements of being a musician.  We get focused on booking gigs, practicing, cramming tunes for specific events.  Sometimes we can lose the focus on what we are doing, why we are doing it, what it does for our listeners, what it does for us.  We can lose focus on what we enjoy as well as forgetting to keep our repertoire fresh, our attitude positive, and our outlook sunny.
Build in some time to pull your focus back to what is important to you.  Go for a walk, review your work, record yourself and enjoy your hard work, plan a day with your harp somewhere pleasant with no agenda – enjoy again.  And remember what is important to you – and why you’re here.

July 17, 2013

Can you find your music?

It’s all well and good to have a lot of music but if you can’t find it, it doesn’t do you much good.

No matter how your repertoire is stored, you need to be able to find what you have. Sometimes you really need to quickly put your hands on something so you can play it.  Do not be fooled, this is the same problem for us all - how many times have you heard someone bemoan being unable to find the right score?  Or that they can’t think of anything to play in session? 

To access your music quickly, you must be organized.   And your organization system must work for you.  Here are three ways I organize my music:

For tunes I have learned by ear, or have learned so well that I need no paper, I have a catalog.  This can be a list or a set of index cards.  I include the title of the tune, the key (or keys) I typically play it in, the tune type and/or time signature.  If you’re very fancy you can also include the first measure or two to remind you which tune it is and how it starts.  I sort by the title I use.  For example, although it is properly called, “Tha Mi Sgith” in my head I still call it “Pulling Bracken” so it is sorted under P not T. Be sure to sort by the method that makes most sense to you - it is your organization system.

If you typically play from sheet music, you can use a similar organization - you can file your music.  I sort sheets alphabetically by title.  This allows me the freedom to find what I’m looking for when I need to find the dots.  Some things are sorted oddly.  For instance, all my Christmas music is filed under C for Christmas.  I don't think of these tunes individually – in my mind, they are a group and so they are grouped in my files.  For the books, I sort them alphabetically by composer, arranger, or editor (and some random books that are sorted by title because I think about them that way (e.g. my copy of The Caledonian Companion is filed under “Caledonian” because I never remember to give the appropriate credit to Mr. Hardie.   

So take a little time and sort through your music.  Devise a method that suits you and apply it.  Instill order where there might otherwise be chaos.  And enjoy spending your practice time practicing rather than searching for music.

July 10, 2013

Put your music on a diet

Do you ever get overwhelmed with the amount of music you are trying to learn?  Does it ever seem like you have too many tunes only partially learned and none of them are ever going to “get there”.  That you’ll never get the tunes down well enough to actually enjoy playing them?

If so, maybe you need to put your music on a diet.  You know, cut back.  Only take in a little bit at a time.  Really savor those few tunes and sink your teeth into learning them, getting comfortable with them, and settling on your basic arrangement.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn all the things you want to, it just means that you don’t stack 10 or 15 or 30 new tunes on your music stand.  You winnow that down to a manageable few and really work on those.  When you’re happy and comfortable with the first few you can add another couple on – and build up slowly.  And don’t forget to keep practicing the tunes you’ve just learned – otherwise you won’t get them into your fingers in a way that will get your comfortable enough to play them.

This slow and gradual buildup of repertoire will allow you to enjoy the tunes you’re learning, fight overwhelm, actually learn the tunes, and have successes with your new tunes.  Unless, of course, you prefer that feeling of drowning in dots that can stem from not being able to play any of your tunes at all.  For me, I prefer to actually play tunes rather than swim in them.

June 26, 2013

Off to OSAS

It is Ohio Scottish Arts School week!  Always a great week -  playing tunes we have learned before, learning new ones, staying up too late, practice, jamming, and a lot of laughter! 

Each year we look forward to a week of learning from amazing tutors - this year is no exception with Corrina Hewat and Abby Palmer, Sue Richards Ann Heymann and Charlie Heymann bringing their unique perspectives and experiences...and wonderful tunes!  It's difficult to not be effusive! 

And there is the broader view, sharing and hanging out with other harpers as well as fiddlers, dancers, pipers, and drummers.  What looks like a fun jam session will also be a full rich opportunity to learn skills all musicians need, to practice musicality, adaptability, and flexibility.

Start of last year - photo unceremoniously pinched from Steve Schack, a fellow OSAS alum

If you've been to OSAS before but weren't able to come this year, be there in spirit by playing through the tunes from your summer and brush them up and remember the great times you had. 

And if you've never been before, I sure hope you figure out a way to work it into your schedule next year.  It is not just a learning experience but also just  FUN!

I'll trying to remember to take photos to share with you - but sometimes I get too caught up in the fun so no promises!  Thanks for understanding!  See you soon.

June 19, 2013

Keeping track

It is very easy to stay I am forward looking.  We are often suckered into only looking forward without equally considering our progress.  This is not a very good way to go about assessing one's progress in any endeavor.  It can also become discouraging.

So, how does one overcome this?  How do you collect information on progress (without swelling your own head with details of only successes)?  Here are three ways to collect useful documentation of your development that will help you not only improve but also assure you you’re not wasting your time (oh, come on, we’ve all had that feeling on particularly bad days!):

1.      Journal – keep a record of your practice and performance.  Make notes about your (honest) assessment of your practice, things that have gone well and not so well, what you would like to focus the next time.  Use what you write to help you.

2.      Record – this is fairly foolproof – record yourself (you can use your phone!) and listen…and learn.

3.      Perform – this is a double edged sword…there is a lot of focus in performing and it isn’t necessarily on collecting useable feedback.  However, there is feedback everywhere – accept the comments you receive and weight those carefully against your overly accurate accounting of any inconsistencies you might have had.

Any way you select, be sure to make careful assessment of not only where you're going but the path you have followed to get there. 

June 12, 2013

Harpa 2013

I am so fortunate - lucky really - to have participated in the 2013 Harpa Tour.  It was a wonderful opportunity to travel and work with some amazing musicians. I'm back now and still reveling in the glow of memories.

Here are just a couple of photos (which the other performers shared on facebook) that really sum up the fantastic vibe we had going - a great group, a lovely place, and lots and lots and lots of tunes!

Isn't just playing for fun the point!
Of course playing for an audience is a real joy too!

We had a successful kickstarter campaign and warm appreciative audiences at every venue.  What more could you ask! 

Look for the CD later this summer! There will also be a DVD that will be a snapshot of the fun we had.  While Beth says never again - I think you might be surprised...

If you're looking to have your own Harp Adventure this year - there isn't much time remaining to get in on the Harp the Highlands and Islands tour! Go to for details and information.