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.