What do you bring to the lesson?

If you have already identified what you want to learn in your lesson, you are ready to prepare for the event. What will you need to bring to make the most of your lesson time?

Of course you will bring you – all ready to go, on time and tuned! But the following things will also help:

  • Notebook. Plan to take notes to help capture the gems you came for. You might think you’ll remember it all, but you won’t! You’re likely going to get full answers to your questions (your wants) and it will likely be a lot of information!
  • Recording device. Especially if you want me to be taught a tune. You won’t be able to play it until you have it in your head – which is best accomplished by listening to it. By the way, this doesn’t replace the notebook!
  • Music you are currently working. Even if you have it memorized, bring it so everyone can read it! Just bring it!
  • Your wants list. I swear there is a switch in the bench which evacuates your memory. Being able to state what you’re hoping to leave with will help you both focus on the most important things in the time you have.
  • Journal. Another memory aid, the place you have been collecting your thoughts – and an aid to sharing your progress (this can be your notebook if you’re already keeping a journal).
  • Your full attention. Enough said.
  • A confidence builder. I get it – there’s a lot of stress at a lesson, especially if you don’t have regular lessons. Anything to help you have a good lesson (maybe a “no fail” piece) is a good idea and will help you settle in.

Being ready will help you have a great lesson and learn a lot. Be ready!

What do you want?

I enjoy teaching lessons. I learn so much each time and I get to help someone learn – it’s a win-win! But sometimes it can be challenging. Teaching regular and recurring lessons to the students in my studio is fun and the progress (and pitfalls) are relatively easy to find.

But when I’m teaching one off lessons, figuring out what I can best offer can be difficult. That’s when my fervent hope is that the student will be able to tell me what they’d like to get from me. And few things are more frustrating than the answer, “I don’t know” or “Whatever you want”!

You are paying good money for the lesson, so it’s worth taking a few moments to figure out why you are there! Don’t know where to start? Here are a few ideas:

  • Consult your practice journal – what continuously crops up? Maybe that is something to work on?
  • Record yourself – review the recording and find what isn’t working for you (bring the recording if you think it will help).
  • Review your competition comments – judges are great at spotting things you could work on.
  • Are there things you never learned that you’d like to work on (Harmonics? Arpeggios? Key signatures?)?
  • Is there a specific tune you’ve heard me play that you’d like to learn (please don’t ask me to teach you a tune you haven’t heard me play – what if i don’t know it either?)?

Knowing what you want to get from the lesson before you go in will help both you and the teacher get as much as possible from the time you have. Even a vague idea will make your lesson better – and get you farther along your journey.

Back to School

It’s back to school time so it’s time to think about learning! This month we’ll focus on lessons. Whether you take regular lessons or catch as catch can, this is for you!

Do you take lessons? Sometimes the question is stated, “do you still take lessons?” Beyond the philosophical discussion of whether every day is a lesson, it’s a good question. You don’t have to have a regular weekly lesson, but I hope your answer is yes!

If your answer is no, you’re probably wondering what could possibly be gained. After all, you already know how to play. You’re a self-starter who finds and learns music on your own. You play well enough. Why would you need to take a lesson? You certainly don’t need regular lessons…do you?  Maybe you do – here are six good reasons to take a lesson (or a series of lessons).

  • To get a fresh perspective on your music
  • To spot and fix those bad habits that crop up on all of us
  • To learn something you didn’t know you needed to learn
  • To get your spark back
  • To refocus or refine your attitude
  • To avoid complacency

We all want to continue to grow and get better and a lesson can be a quick way to get there. There are many ways to schedule lessons – at workshops, at conferences, or with individual teachers.  And typically, teacher enjoy sharing so it’s a win-win for all!

I’m sure there are other, additional good reasons to take a lesson – let me know yours!

Just be you, only a little better

As much as we talk about it, I hope you have developed an appreciation for the physical athleticism of being a musician.  From carrying your harp to sitting behind it playing Carolan’s (or Handel’s Bb) Concerto – playing the harp is physically demanding! And playing it well is even more so. You need strength and stamina to get through practicing, performing or teaching.  And while it is comfortable for us to focus on the “pretty” or the music, we need to face the reality – it’s a lot of work!

Given that, it’s time to acknowledge that being more physically fit will only help you play better and feel better between sessions at the harp. This doesn’t mean you need to be ready for the next Ninja Warrior casting call. Nor does it mean that you have to become a CrossFit adherent.

It just means that you should put taking care of yourself further up on your priority list. Acknowledging that this will benefit you in multiple ways.  Being in better shape can only help!

There are loads of workout plans available in books, magazines and online, so you can find what works best for you. A simple and effective answer might be to just take a walk each day and spending time focusing on assuring you are actually breathing! If you want to do additional cardio or calisthenics, or weight lifting, that could also help you improve your strength which would help too.

But you don’t have to become Arnold or Richard Simmons. Be you – just a little better!

It’s a Stretch!

We all know that stretching is a smart thing to do. We read about the importance of stretching for our good health, to improve our productivity, and to help us feel better.

Run a 5K? Clearly your legs will need stretching. Do a heavy lifting routine? You’ll be feeling it more if you don’t stretch.  It makes sense that we need to stretch after strenuous exercise. After all, you do all that hard work, and it’s clear that you will need to stretch to recover from itBut what about when you do very focused but less strenuous work? Lie in bed sleeping all night and you will need and want to stretch when you wake up. Binge watch an entire season and you will be glad to stand and stretch (probably before the big season finale!). Spend time at your harp practicing and what do you do?

It’s so easy to just get up from the bench and get a cookie! But don’t!! The time at your harp, especially if you are working hard learning or perfecting, may be the worst combination of strenuous work and lying about! Your larger muscles (think butt and legs which are not moving much) are holding still while your smaller muscles (think fingers, hands, and forearms) are working continuously. You may also be tense which will make all your muscles work harder.

In other words, when you are playing you are both not moving and moving like crazy! As we said above – both of those will leave you needing to stretch!

So be sure to add stretching to the end of your practice time. Stretch your small muscles – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders – to help them relax. And stretch the larger muscles – glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps – to help reinvigorate them.

And don’t feel like you have to wait until the end of your practice session to get a little stretching in. You can stretch at least every 45 minutes.  Alternately, you can stretch at the end of each practice segment (warm up, exercises, reading, learning, etc.) to help keep you limber, focused, relaxed, and productive so you get the most out of your time at the harp.

Checking in at the midpoint

It’s July and we’re about half way through the year. It is a good time to check in and see how we’re doing. While it is a good exercise to review goals, it is also an excellent time to review other important things. Especially those that we take for granted and think are taking care of themselves! Let’s start with….Posture!

Your posture really is the core of all your playing. That’s not just a play on words. Being able to hold yourself upright and to keep your arms up but relaxed, your hands in an appropriate position, and keep your core tight all take work. Are you ready for that work?

There are numerous resources available providing methods for strengthening your core. By incorporating appropriate exercises to strengthen your core you’ll be able to sit up straight with good balance for as long as needed with less fatigue. That means that your next long background gig will be easier. And your long practice session will definitely be easier to sit through. Your core works while you’re sitting and supports your back and your hips. A strong core will also help you avoid curling into the harp while you’re playing which can cause strain on the neck and increasing the possibility of injuring yourself. It also will provide you with the stable base from which you can build your good technique.

Of course, a strong core will also be good for you away from the harp assuring your balance and stability are better whether you’re carrying your harp or walking down the street. Strengthening your core isn’t just sit ups! Spend a little time online to learn ways to get stronger so you can play as long as you like!

* I am, of course, not an exercise physiologist or a physician – but you already knew that! Consult your physician before undertaking any exercise program.  Don’t do any of this if your physician tells you not to.  Seek specific advice from qualified individuals.  This information is presented for educational purposes only.  It does not replace or substitute professional advice from your physician, certified trainer, or any other health-care professional.  Use of the information on this site is solely at your own risk.  Don’t be daft – get the right help and don’t hurt yourself!


Going to Grandfather Mountain

Yes, I was just away for the Ohio Scottish Arts School – where we had a fantastic time and learned so many great tunes. I can hardly wait to get them solid (although right now they are chasing each other around my head, so we’re not there yet!).  But now, I’m away for the Harp Competition at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games at MacRae Meadows.  On Friday, I’ll be teaching a workshop.  And the big show – the Competition – is on Saturday 9th July (contact Moire for more information: moire22@yahoo.com).  This is a Scottish Harp Society of America (SHSA) Sanctioned Competition and I’m delighted to have been invited to judge.

I’m very excited to be going – such a beautiful setting and it should be a lovely day.  I’m also looking forward to a unique Grandfather Mountain competition – I’ll be learning to play Lochaber trump.  Come out and play – compete or play for comments – either way you’ll learn a lot and have a great time!  See you there?

There is no end

That’s a daunting title.

With respect to practice it is true – there is no end.

There will always be something that needs to be worked on to improve.

There will always be some technique that needs to be refined.

There will always be a passage that is just out of reach…today.

So, it is important that we practice our practicing – because we will always be doing it. We have talked about what you need to do for your daily practice but there is one remaining nugget to polish in our quest to become good musicians.  We must work on being good practicers. The difference between wasting time on the bench and developing better practice is – attention.

All of those things that make up a practice won’t do a lot more than take up time unless, during the time on the bench and beyond, you think about what you’re doing. Pay attention to what you are doing physically and mentally.  What happens when you do those things?  How far you remain from your desired end state? What specific actions will get you through that gap?

Analyze the steps you take, the actions you make. Watch what you do and identify the outcomes. Pay Attention! Write it down in your practice journal. Review previous entries and determine what level of progress you are showing before and after you practice. Repeat and improve what works, determine what didn’t work – and why – and remove it from your practice. Remark on your progress (both good and bad) (in you journal would be a good place to put that). Pat yourself on the head if appropriate. Recognize the utility of your good,, hard work.

Practice may be endless but it needn’t be pointless.

What makes a good practice session?

So, some of you let me know that while “we all know what to do in our practice” – actually, we don’t!

And that’s fair. Many teachers assume you know what to do. Many students also assume they know what to do. But how you spend your time is ultimately up to you. And you need to be aware of what you’re working for to begin to schedule the elements of your practice.

Here are ten things that each practice should contain to be a useful practice.

  • Actually sitting down to practice (not just thinking about it) is more important than you might think – getting on the bench may be your biggest challenge.
  • Warming up is personal but still important – don’t slag off just because you don’t hurt.
  • Exercises, etudes, and technique work are the “no fun” part of practice but they are the building blocks of all the other work. Just a beginner? Think your Harp Hero doesn’t do this? Think again – doing this part may be the seminal reason that person is a Harp Hero!
  • Studying written music or listening to a tune to learn it – while this might be accomplished away from the harp, it is a good step to working with new tunes. Don’t just barrel into the music – analyze it, look (or listen) for the structure and patterns. Why make it harder to learn – a little brain work will make the finger work so much easier when you get to it.
  • Identify mistakes and focus on correcting or improving while paying attention rather than running the tunes on autopilot.
  • Play through material you have learned but need to polish (again focusing on the gaps between what you are producing and what you would like to sound like). More autopilot avoidance – this is also the opportunity to invest in your musicality.
  • Play something you know well just to enjoy playing (not working). Because all work and no play…..
  • Stretch – just like the warm up, while this may not be glamorous, it will help you remain supple, pain free, and able to play for a long time.
  • Reflect on the session and write down what happened including things to continue working or new challenges to be incorporated into the next practice session

Your practice session should include all these elements. How much time spent on each will vary and be based on what work you need to accomplish and each has a place in practice. Some days you will be identifying new repertoire and will spend more time on reading and learning. When shifting to learning those same tunes, more time will be needed for correcting and improving. You’ll note that thinking is central to many of these items.

Be sure to show up for your practice, don’t just send your body.  Bring your brain.