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Which harp teacher?

January 29, 2012

Hi everyone,

This week’s topics comes at the suggestion of Kilby, a Hong Kong based college student. I hope it helps (though it might not be quite the right time of year)!

Her concern was primarily with finding good matches at the university level, but the same principles can really apply to any student old enough to decide their teacher for themselves.

First off, all of us may have certain limitations when deciding our teachers. For some, the issue may be money. For others, it could be travel distance or mode of transportation. When trying to decide on a teacher, it’s probably best to categorize them into three groups based on those (and other applicable) criteria, even before you meet the teacher: definitely not possible, possible, and definitely possible. For the first category, the money, transportation, or whatever it may be is simply to restrictive for any regular study to be feasible, so these choices are discarded. For the second group, something will make regular lessons tough, but depending on the teacher himself, the struggle may be worth the effort. Finally, for the last group, there is absolutely nothing prohibiting regular study with this teacher.

Once those categories have been established, how do you know which teacher actually works with you? I find that most teachers are generally nice, so getting along personality-wise isn’t usually an issue. However, if possible, you should still try to have a “sample” lesson with the prospective teacher. Someone who you will work well with will (that was a lot of Ws!) make your playing better instantly. Seemingly just their presence elevates your playing to a new level. In that vein, they communicate exceptionally clearly, and you don’t spend much time clarifying what they want.

The above criteria are probably all that is needed for any player through an intermediate (or even lower advanced) level. However, there are separate considerations for those looking for the highest level of harp study.

If you have reached that point, you are likely well aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Taking these into account when choosing your teacher is crucial. In essence, you should choose a teacher whose students sound like you want to sound. For instance, if you feel your ability to express emotion in your music is lacking, then find a teacher whose students seem to pour their hearts out. Likewise, if your technique is a little off, you’d be best off choosing a teacher whose students have impeccable fingers. Even beyond this, you may want to study with a teacher based off their specific expertise, experience, or training. For instance, you may want to study with a teacher who himself studied with a famous harpist, or you may want to study with a teacher with special expertise in a certain period of music or a specific composer. Lastly, this may be a point where you need to find a teacher who’s personal opinions of harp pedagogy match with your own. For instance, if you feel that you will grow most by pursuing lots of competitions, it’s important that you find a teacher who can successfully guide you through that process. In the same way, if you would really like to be an orchestral harpists, you should probably find an active and renowned orchestral harpist who will have in depth knowledge of all the important repertoire.

One final consideration at the university level is the accompanying music program. Are you willing to go to a sub-par music school to study with the teacher you love?

All these issues are, of course, very personal, but hopefully these questions can help give you somewhere to start when looking.

Look out for next week, when I begin my series of posts on recording an audition tape!

Happy practicing, and remember to comment if you’re so inspired!




Harp Column Magazine January/February

January 14, 2012

Hi everyone,

You might have noticed that in 2012’s first installment of Harp Column magazine I was interviewed for – you guessed it – advice on competition preparation! Hopefully some of you were directed to my blog from the magazine itself, which published my blog’s URL. If you’re unfamiliar with the publication, you can take a peek at their website here. There, you’ll notice that a fairly active harp forum is maintained by the magazine, and I’d recommend that you all read it regularly or even post! Also, don’t fret if you’re offput by the obviously antiquated layout, functionality, or color scheme of the site: there have been some recent upgrades, so it looks as though the site might be ramping up for a redesign.

In the vein of my magazine interview, I’m reproducing here my responses to the interview questions, which I answered conveniently by email.

I’m very thankful to Arizona based harpist Adrienne Bridgewater who conducted the interview and wrote the article in Harp Column. The specific competition she refers to is the American Harp Society National Competition 2011, which was held in Denton, Texas.

How far in advance did you start to prepare for the competition?

For this particular competition, I began seriously learning the pieces in December 2010 – note that this is the least amount of time I’ve ever compared for a competition. For the AHS 2009 competition I began in May of 2008 – more than a year in advance – and for the Young Artist’s Harp Competition 2010, I begun full time preparations the October before. Back to this year’s competition, I had decided to compete before the repertoire list even came out, and so when it was published I ordered the music right away. I was able to familiarize myself somewhat with the pieces that summer, but I had other projects I was working on and I wasn’t able to dedicate myself exclusively to the competition until December.

How did you approach your preparation?

Very systematically. I make sure to memorize my pieces as soon as possible. For me, the sheet music is very restricting when trying work the piece into my muscle memory. I try to memorize music before it’s in my hand at all and definitely before it’s up to speed. However, it’s imperative that all the necessary elements are there and exaggerated (for time being) – rhythm, dynamics, tempi, etc. After overcoming the technical challenges, most of my lessons and practice times were devoted to developing my interpretation and making sure that I’d incorporated all the subtle details written into the music. My teacher and I would work on one to two pieces per week, and by April my lessons were in the form of mock competitions – full run throughs of whatever pieces we had decided to work on for the lesson. I would usually practice 1.5-2 hours a day – I would have liked more, but I was extremely busy at school. Another aspect of preparation is to perform as many times as possible. Near my last week of school I think I gave seven performances in nine days, but trust me, it’s worth it. In fact, I might go as far as recommending that if you’d like to place well, make sure to perform many times before hand or don’t go. Performing is really the most important aspect. Focused practice is necessary, and you must listen to yourself constantly. If you begin practicing without a goal, then your practice session is not likely to be productive.

How did you decide to compete?  Did your teacher suggest it?
I choose to compete in this competition myself. I like that the competition really brings my playing to very high levels – it feels good to play and know a piece really well. I also enjoy socializing with other young harpists while I’m competing – it may be a competition, but it’s fun too! In 8th grade my teacher did suggest the AHS competition. Although I was initially preparing, I eventually decided not to send in an application. That’s to say, the idea for a harp competition was first suggested by a harp teacher, but the decision to compete was ultimately mine and mine alone.Who is your teacher?
I just graduated high school, so my teacher while preparing for the AHS competition was Ina Zdorovetchi. She is currently the principal harpist for the Boston Lyric Opera and is on staff at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School (where I studied with her), the Boston Conservatory, and Wellesley College. She is really a top notch soloist and has one of the most incredible sounds and senses of interpretation of any harpist I’ve ever heard. I currently study with Nancy Allen.

What was the hardest part about preparing?

Satisfying myself. If I’m not inspired by the music that I’m making, then the music will sound dead. Perhaps that’s difficult because I find it hard to get everything exactly the way I want, but it may be different for others. Another aspect is memorization. If I can’t run through the piece in my head – that includes seeing every string plucked by the correct finger as well as feeling all the pedals – then I’ll have doubts about my performance. Ideally, I’m able to write out a piece of music on paper without help. I never do that, though, because that’s extraordinarily time consuming, even if using a music notation software like Finale. In depth memorization is key to a relaxed performance.

What was the most rewarding part of participating in the competition?

I really love the feeling of having been able to play all this music that I’ve worked so hard on in a national forum. It makes me feel like my efforts have really paid off. I also just love being able to pull of some of the pieces that I can – it’s so incredibly satisfying to play a piece that you love, especially for an audience that will appreciate the music as much as I do.

What’s your best advice for other harpists aspiring to compete successfully?

Make a plan, ideally down to the week, of how you will work on your pieces. Dedicated yourself exclusively to the competition; do not play any other pieces. When practicing, make sure you know what to work on. Incorporate every detail that your teacher instructs you to within a week, if possible. Also, and this may be the hard part, make yourself love the pieces you’re playing. Passionate playing is so much more interesting, even if it has a few errors, and you’ll love practicing.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?
I found the process of recording my audition CD to be very important. Yes, you might have a good ear, but you will almost certainly hear something new (good or bad!) when you hear yourself recorded. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’ll record again and again until I have the piece as good as it could possible be at that moment. I remember that I recorded on movement of the Britten Suite 40 (yes, forty!) times in one day before I was completely happy with it. That was after two days of recording the same movement and others. Now that I look back on the recording, I think, “I can play that so much better now,” but I can also acknowledge that it was the very best I could play the piece at the moment. I also have the piece very ingrained in my memory still now, months after the competition. The entire process of recording makes incredible leaps and bounds in your playing. The level of the pieces skyrockets. If we all found the time to practice this way always, we’d have a whole community of virtuosos running around!
In rough terms, I’d recommend the following (ideal schedule):
September-November: Learn and memorize the three pieces. That affords two weeks per piece for learning the notes, and then two weeks each for memorization.
December-February: work on interpretation intensively. You can start performing if you think it will help prepare you to record your audition CD, but it’s probably better to avoid the stress that comes with getting a piece ready for performance.
March: record. Take as many weeks to do this as necessary. Make many (sometimes a very large number) recordings for the same piece and then choose the best. Do not be happy with an early attempt because it is just “good enough”: make it the best you can even if you have to do dozens of attempts (don’t overdo it, though!).
April up to competition: perform as much as possible.
Some students can’t memorize this quickly. Some like to start in the summer and then revisit the pieces in the winter. Whatever works, but this would be the schedule I follow.
I hope you enjoyed!
*Random tip of the day* – Have you ever found it difficult to relay information about pedals or pedal diagrams over the internet? Try the following diagram that uses carrots (that’s shift + 6), hypens (to the right of numeral “0”), commas, and vertical lines (shift + backslash, above enter/return and below backspace) :
Happy practicing!
As always, comment below if you’d like, and remember that you don’t have to register to do so.

Just do it!

January 8, 2012

Do it. Just do it.

It sounds simple, but really it’s very good advice.

One of the most common, frustrating issues I deal with in playing music is making myself do everything that I intend. I’ll describe a situation:

I can play phrase A like I want. Phrase B comes right after phrase A, and I can play it like I want as well. The issue is that if I play phrase A and go directly into phrase B like I am supposed to, phrase A will come out like I intend, but phrase B will have a bit of a rocky start. The frustration comes from the fact that I can play both sections fine when I play them alone, but when I put them together I can’t manage to play them like how I hear them in my head.

The solution: just do it. Just make it work. Of course, your reaction to that advice (and this was my reaction when I first heard it) is probably something like: “If I could ‘just do it’ then I wouldn’t be stuck in this situation in the first place!” Well, it actually turns out to work. Sometimes, like in the situation I described above, there will simply be moments where no matter how much you think it over or how long you practice it slowly, it just won’t happen. Essentially, this represents a failure on the part of your muscle memory; your brain knows what to do, but your fingers don’t! Well, ideally, if your fingers knew what it felt like to do it correctly, you could replicate it pretty easily, right? That’s what muscle memory is based off of anyway. So, basically, just do it! Play that nasty transition (or whatever part is causing you trouble) and play the heck out of it! Practice it over and over, really squeezing the strings. Your muscle memory will begin adjusting, albeit in baby steps, so the progress will be slow but certain. At first, it won’t sound like you want. But the more involve yourself in repeating the passage until it’s right, the more you’re creating the right connections in your brain to forge your new muscle memory. You’ll have to practice like this for several days in a row (and likely you’ll have to do “checkups” later on) so that it really sticks, but it seems to be a foolproof (though very annoying) method for getting these tough parts.

I tend to use this method for difficult sections in which I really want the notes to be crisp and articulate. It also works for getting rid of buzzes (you’ll just have to go through every possible way you can think of to get rid of the buzz) and very technically difficult sections (just keep at it until you can do it reliably, but that will probably take days if not longer). Sometimes you’ll have to use it just to get those silly sections are are stumping your hands for no good reason!

*Random tip of the day* – try muffling pdlt, near the soundboard. Since the string has a large vibrating circumference the closer you get to the middle, the easier it is to buzz when playing near the middle of the string. That’s why playing pdlt or bas dans les cordes is often less buzzy. The same principle applies for muffling. Hate that nasty “zzstt!” you get when muffling sometimes? Muffle pdlt or bas dans les cordes – works like a charm!

Happy practicing!

Remember to comment below (you can do so without registering, if you didn’t know)!


Recording as a Practice Aid

January 1, 2012

Happy new year, everyone!

You all probably have something in your house that records. My computer records. So does my phone and my recording device. We also have three video cameras (some outdated and not completely functional, I’ll admit) in my home. Right there, that’s six ways to get a recording. The bottom line is that it’s easy to get recordings of yourself, and if you don’t know how to work the machine, then spend the five minutes that it will take to figure out, since that small investment will be prove invaluable for your playing.

Now if you’ve ever recorded yourself (or had someone record you) you probably hated it. You zoomed in on every one of your mistakes and hesitations, and you almost undoubtedly made more than you usually do, right? Well as painful as that might be, you can use this unfortunate effect to your advantage.

I’ll give you an example from my own practicing. This morning I was practicing a rather large (eight or nine minutes – good length but not really long) piece that I’ve been studying for about a month and a half now. In less than a month I’ll be playing a recital where this piece ends the first half of the program, so I’ve got to make sure that it’s in good shape. Now over the month and a half that I’ve studied this piece, I’ve created a perception of how the piece should sound. I more or less know what I want in every section, and I’ve been working to make sure that what really comes out of my harp is also what’s playing in my head. The issue is that sometimes having this preconceived notion of the piece will get in the way of it actually sounding like you want – you almost subconciously pardon mistakes or differences in the real life version. Well this morning when I began recording myself, I realized that the beginning was substantially more buzzy than I had realized, and on top of that, I was playing at about half the speed I imagined I was. Yikes! That’s not right. Well, the recording device helped me catch that, and now I’ve cleaned up the buzzes too. Because the recording device allowed me to pinpoint specific parts of my playing to work on, I felt as though I was very productive.

Another is aspect of practicing with a recording device is that you become comfortable playing the specific piece you’re recording while being recorded. If you work hard and concentrate on fixing the issues like what I outlined above (also mistakes and hesitations) then you’ll learn to play through your piece with minimal mistakes while simultaneously being under pressure to do so. Practicing this ahead of time will save a lot of time and energy when it’s actually time to make your audition tape, as you won’t have to spend a while learning to make it through your piece without messing up or doing anything you don’t intend.

The only issue with this practice technique is that it can take a while to listen to your recordings. I recommend recording only very small portions of music in order to minimize the time gaps between your playing. You might also consider taking notes – this will also let you track your progress.

Give it a try and see if it helps! It might be a drag to get out the equipment, set it up, and then actually make the recording, but once everything’s going, you’ll be glad you did it, I promise.

Happy practicing!

Remember to leave a comment if you’d like – and remember that you can write a response without signing up!


Mental Memorization

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope that everyone who celebrates had a wonderful holiday.


Mental memorization is key to good memorization. It’s hard work, I won’t lie, but it is very useful! Mental memorization has two parts. The first is a bit easier, and that involves getting acquainted with your music on a deeper level. For instance, can you tell me what the key of your piece is? How about the time signature? The tempo marking? Dynamic? How about the type of chord (Eb major for instance) and what inversion any of the chords are? Working with your music – and this means sitting down and studying it – is the only way to get the answers to these questions really ingrained in your mind. You’ll probably uncover helpful patterns that you didn’t notice before, or perhaps that part you thought was harmonically complex can actually be reduced to some simple, familiar cadences. Whatever the case, you’ll feel more comfortable with the piece if you know this information.

The next step is much more difficult and involves a practice technique known as “imagining.” Can you imagine yourself playing the piece you’re studying? Literally can you close your eyes and picture every single string being plucked correctly? Can you imagine yourself using the correct fingers, moving the pedals correctly? Can you do it full speed? Once you can, your memory will be incredible. The reason is that if your mind knows exactly what strings to pluck with exactly the right fingers and right when the pitches should sound, you’ve transferred your memory from unreliable muscle memory to extra reliable mental memory. This is so difficult because you can’t just decide that you know a passage until you can play the piece in your mind like you were so yourself play the piece in high definition, and it’s very hard to make such a detailed, accurate, and deliberate image in your mind’s eye, much more difficult than you think before you try it. Sure, you can remember and picture details of pretty much anything. For instance, you might be able to remember the intricate pattern etched onto the handle on a favorite coffee mug, but the issue lies in simultaneously remembering all those gritty details.

So how do you do it? Well there’s no magic solution. Usually, I just sit at my harp – sometimes I lean my head against the body of the harp so that I’m very relaxed. First I picture the first note or chord. If it’s a chord, I make sure I can picture every note at once. Once I go over that in my mind several times, I do the same for the next note or chord. The next step is very important – first imagine yourself playing the first note/chord and then the second. Being able to mentally process the transition is what really helps here. I continue this way throughout an entire piece. Some sections will be very easy to memorize, you will see. Others will be just awful, and you will probably have to revisit them so that they really stick. Eventually, you should be able to “play a run through” just in your mind. Next time you actually play, you’ll notice that your confidence has spiked, but here’s a couple other ways to show how productive this mental practice is.

Pick a passage, and start writing it out on paper (or on a notation software) by memory. If it’s worked, you won’t have to peek at the music. The only issue with this method is that it’s very time consuming to write out music. Another trick is to start mentally running through the piece; change the appropriate pedals as you go. At some random point – it doesn’t need to be the beginning of a phrase even – take the harp on your shoulder and just start playing from that spot. Without mental memorization, you’d probably freeze up if you tried to start at this random point because you’re used to beginning your music only at certain designated phrases. Proper mental memorization will stop this, and you should be able to start playing as if you had been actually playing instead of just imagining. That’s how powerful the connection is between imagining something and actually doing something (scientists have recently discovered that your brain’s neurons are activated almost identically when imagining doing something and actually doing it!). You can imagine (ha!) how useful this must be if you mess up in the middle of a performance – because you’ve memorized so well, any mess up is most likely due to your finger simply not behaving, but because your mind knows exactly what should have happened and exactly what comes next, you can move on like nothing happened!

Happy practicing!

As always, leave a comment below! I love questions, responses, and suggestions for future topics :)


Be back soon!

December 19, 2011

Sorry for the lack of post this past weekend, everyone. It’s finals week, but I’ll be back next weekend!


Visual Memorization

December 11, 2011

Last week I wrote about three types of memorization, and this week I’ll be writing a brief post about the second: visual memorization.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re playing a piece that you know really well that your eyes instinctively know where they need to look in order for you to grab the right strings? It’s actually a bit of an eerie feeling. This is your visual memory in action! Again, this memory can be somewhat automatic, but training yourself to do it consciously as you learn a piece will expedite the entire process while simultaneously building security. Think of a piece that you’re playing right now. Quick, can you visualize your hand position and your starting note(s)? If yes, good for you! If no, then you have some things to work on. Now granted, you’re about to say, “But when I sit down at my harp, my fingers know where to go!” The issue is, your fingers are not your brain, and your fingers, being brainless, are likely to forget what they’re doing when you’re nervous or stressed out. Therefore, your brain needs to know what’s happening. One of the primary ways to establish memorization security is to know what you’re going to do at all times. For instance, let’s saying you’re playing a sequence of chords. Play the first one, pause, and think to yourself about what your next notes are and what your hand position will look like. Play the next chord and continue. This ensure’s that your eyes know what they’re doing. At least for me, I know that if I let myself practice without focusing, I’ll end up memorizing a piece but having no idea what my fingers looks like when I actually play. Then, when I get on stage and my brain is ready to focus, it begins to examine what my hands look like. Of course, you’ll have a good idea of what your hands are doing, but you’ll feel insecure – very insecure – because you’re simply not used to looking at your hands while playing. It’s a truly bizarre feeling. Therefore, make sure to train yourself to know what to expect visually when performing. That way, your eyes will actually be able to help you find the notes rather than serve as a distraction.

As a general rule for practicing, simply pause rather frequently (every few notes or so, whatever seems appropriate) and then visual the next chunk of music that you will play. It helps immensely! Here’s a trick to see if you know visually what your hands should be doing (I picked this up by word of mouth, and the origin may have been Isabelle Perrin). Get out your mp3 player (or CD player – just something with headphones) and pick a loud piece: anything but what you’re practicing, and preferably some pop, since that will really not mesh well with the piece you’re working on. Now crack up the volume (don’t hurt yourself!) and play at more or less full volume (perhaps a little bit less). Can you make it through your piece? The idea is that you’ve removed the aural part of your memorization here, so it’s all about what you see. Nifty, huh?

You’ll find that some of what I say next week, when I cover mental memorization, will be the similar. However, the important distinction is that next week I will be going over a technique call Imagining, which involves practice away from the harp.

Please make sure to comment below if you read this post! Encouragement, feedback, and questions will all help me know whether or not people are reading, and if they are, if they enjoying.