June 24, 2015

The Dr. Is In

Dr. Seuss is quoted as saying,

"It's not about what it is, it's about what it can become."

What a great way to look at playing.  We have to remember that even when we play our best, we can only play our best for this day…and tomorrow will be another, different day on which we may play very differently.

Which means that each day, when we work at playing, we have the opportunity to play well, or to learn from our playing or both.  We also can learn so much that may (or may not) be directly tied to our harp playing. 
Some days it feels like you aren’t getting anywhere.  Other days, you make so much progress you wonder why you ever doubted.  And, of course, you have a day each time you practice.  So why is it that you only remember the days in which you had trouble?  You only recall the “bad” days!

To avoid falling down in the dumps about these bad days, keep a log.  Each day write down what you did, what when right, what gave you some difficulty.  You might want to develop a scheme for finding the good days (color the top corner green, fold the page over on the diagonal, keep good days at the front right side up and bad days at the back upside down) so you can remind yourself that you’re doing a great job and what you continue to struggle with.

Because you know that there will always be some things that are a struggle…but they don’t define you!  Just keep in mind what the good Dr. said.

June 17, 2015


No, don’t think, “Oh bother, I’m not reading this!”.  Bear with me.  Up until not too long ago, I thought improvisation was something my teacher thought up to make my life hell, I thought she just didn’t like me (ok, not really).  But, every time the word “improvisation” was uttered, I could see it, hanging in the air like a cloud of smoke over a frying pan – smelling slightly bad and not improving my disposition.

I know now that my fear was unfounded but not baseless.  I no longer quake in my boots at the thought of ripping out an improv…but that’s only because I have spent some time on some important fundamentals.  Learn those fundamentals and you’ll be well on your way to comfortably filling the time between tunes, when you can’t think of anything to play, or just when your mind is blank.

Start with riff.  A riff is a short pattern or phrase (melodic, rhythmic, both) that is repeated.  Remember that the "re" in repeated means over and over and over and over…..I suggest keeping it simple – especially when you’re just beginning.  You can do this!!

Here are four things to get you started:

  1. Start with a simple pattern – and I mean s-i-m-p-l-e!  This is not the time to channel your inner JSBach!  Three notes is all you need to start.  Starting simple means that your brain doesn’t have to work hard just to keep the pattern going.  You want something so easy you can do it without thinking – literally.
  2. Noodle around the pattern – this is the stone soup method of composing on the fly.  To your well established simple pattern, add stuff.  Try adding the root note, then try out the other notes in the triad, maybe give the 4th, the 6th, or the 7th a go and see what you like.  Remember that tunes are made of the patterns, pitches, and SILENCES so you can add those too - use all the colors on your palette!
  3. Don’t forget your theory – it will help you make choices faster with less hunting and pecking.  All that adding stuff is easier if you don’t have to muscle through it (you don’t have to have studied your theory but it helps to know ahead of time what sort of effect you’ll get with the 3rd as opposed to what happens when you use the 4th (for instance)).
  4. Practice – improv doesn't just happen from the stage - all that nonchalance comes from hours of practice!  The jazz greats (what most people think of when you say improv) know their music cold (like you will if you practice your 3 note riff) so they could select a pattern and build a riff on it.  You have to practice doing improvisation!  Don’t expect that sort of creativity to just jump into your head or into your hands - it takes work.

Start doing a little gentle improve in the safety of your practice space – just spend 5 minutes of each practice session seeing what happens if you suspend disbelieve and give it a try. If I can do it, you can too!

June 10, 2015

Time to tune up

In the summer, there are so many camps, workshops, programs and they all suggest that you start early to get your fingers toughened up because you’ll be playing more than you usually do. 


But what does that mean?  How can you get ready for these events?  Here are seven ways to tune up for a workshop so you can get as much out of the last session as the first:

  1. Make a schedule – you know you have a finite amount of time to prepare, so plan to use it – each day increase your time on the bench a little (add no more than 10% each week – just like running).  A small increase allows you to build up without adding too much at once, which will help you stay on track).  Be sure in also increase the number of times each day that you sit at your harp – the workshop might be 8 hours a day but that won’t all be on your bench so you might want to practice sitting to your harp 3 times a day rather than one really long stretch!
  2. Work your plan – it’s all well and good to make a plan but then you have to actually use it!  Be sure that you actually do the things you set up in your plan
  3. Be realistic – if you never have time to practice on Sundays (for example) – build that into your plan, don’t think that suddenly the time will appear.  This is especially true if you are working around your current schedule – if you only have 30 minutes a day to practice, do not think that suddenly you will find 3 hours a day to practice.  However, if you are so strapped for time that you can only practice for 30 minutes a day - know that you will need to modify what you expect to get out of each day of the workshop.
  4. Remember your braces: when you had braces, you didn’t expect all the movement at once – it was gentle progress you were after – same thing here – gentle positive progress will not only allow you to feel better about your work but will result in a noticeable benefit.
  5. Warm up – this is not the time to skimp on the fundamentals – do plan to spend a little time warming up (and when you get to your workshop, don’t forget to do this!)
  6. Stretch – just as you know that a good warm up is essential to avoiding injury, a good stretch at the end of your time at your harp is also important while you are increasing your time on the bench.  And when you are at your workshop, stretching will also be important – you will be working hard.  In addition, workshop participants are often a little stressed (concentrating, wanting to “do well” (whatever that means – everyone is learning!), trying to learn a lot in a little time with the tutor all add to your stress).
  7. Journal – keep a record of what you are doing and how it is going – while this is always a good idea, it’s especially important when you are trying to prepare.

Summer workshops, camps, and other events are a great way to learn, meet new friends, catch up with old friends and really expand your harping – be sure you are ready to make the most of the event!

June 3, 2015

Harpa 2015 - We're back!

Well, Harpa 2015 Scotland is in the books and the general consensus is that it was a great trip!  We had a fantastic time.  All the wonderful Harpaniks made the trip so much fun.  And of course, David, our tour guide and Heather, our Roadie did a fantastic job - they really made the trip. 

If you haven't already, check out our photos and commentary at Harpa 2015 on Facebook

Photo by Jack Kolle

You're probably kicking yourself at this point - yes, you should have joined us and been part of the fun.  But fear not, we have already started planning the next one.

And of course, in 2016 we'll be doing a Harp the Highlands and Islands Tour - so watch this space with details to come soon.