Put on your thinking cap

I don’t know about you – but when I’m excited about learning a new tune I want to get right into it. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just start playing. I want to sink my teeth into the music and hold on for dear life while I learn it.

How dumb is that?

There is a smarter way – an approach which would probably allow me to learn the tune faster and get past the ugly stage sooner so I really could get to the part where it’s pretty much just a joy to play. How, you might ask, would that work? I’m so glad you asked!

Analyze your music

Well, you can think first! By spending some time focusing on analyzing the tune, you can save yourself a lot of grief and be playing sooner. Now, this isn’t sexy and it might not be fun, but it sure does work.

You can analyze a lot of things about the tune, all of which will help.  Identify the time signature.  What scale is the tune in? How does the tune lie on the harp? What are the big patterns? What is it telling you?

And do not assume that this can only be done for written music. Although the analysis is done differently – by reading the dots or by listening, the bottom line is the same. Find the patterns, where they repeat, how they move, and more.

Put on your thinking cap, do that work up front and you will be able to move into new tunes more quickly and maybe even more confidently!

Box it up!

Being organized will help you get more from your practice time by allowing you to spend more of your precious time at the harp rather than trying to find music. There are many ways to get organized – lists, practice journals, etc. will all help you focus your attention so you can spend the limited time you have to practice on practicing. But once you learn tunes, then what? How do you keep them in your head? You can have a Tune Box.

Organize your musicThis is a DIY project – you can be as creative (or not) as you choose on this project. You can make it fit your décor, your time available, your favorite color, or you can leave it as you found it – it’s up to you!  Here are the Step by Step Instructions:

  1. Get a packet of 3 x 5 (or 4 x 6) cards and a recipe card box (sized to the cards).
  2. Paint and decorate the recipe card box as you like (or leave it plain if you’d rather have more time to practice).
  3. While the box is drying (assuming you’ve painted, decoupaged, or glued things to the box), for each tune you know, write a card. On the card put:
  • Name of the tune (as well as it’s “real” name if it is in another language – if you’re squeamish, also include the phonetic pronunciation of the name).
  • Key signature (or write out the key in which you play the tune) and mode (if you know it)
  • Time signature
  • Type of tune  (or how you tend to play it – air? song? march? reel? jig? etc.)
  • You can also copy (and shrink) the first few measures and glue that onto the card to help you remember how the tune starts (if you only know a few tunes this seems silly….until the time you start to play Tune A and belatedly realize you’re actually playing Tune B which can be a bit disconcerting!)
  • Other tunes with which you might put the tune to make a set
  • Other items of interest you care to add – they are YOUR cards after all!

I’d suggest you put the cards in alphabetical order just to make them easier to locate in the box – I typically file by the way I think of the tune title (for instance, although the tune is Amhran na Leabhar, I think of it as The Song of the Books, so it is filed under Song not Amhran. But you can do them however you choose (I had them sorted by tune type but that didn’t work for me, so back to alphabetical).

After polishing but before you play your reward tune, pull a card at random and play that tune*. As you learn more tunes this will become more challenging – but it will help you to remember what you have learned and to refresh (to keep in your fingers, not concert ready) all the tunes you have worked so hard to learn. And you can also see physical proof of how much you have learned as you have worked so hard at the harp – it’s all in the Box!

*hopefully the tune (the melody at least!) goes swimmingly, but if it goes pear shaped, then you know you need to work on the tune some more, so you can leave the card out to remind yourself to give that tune a little extra practice so you remember it the next time

Give it a new twist

When you learn a new tune, there is a lot to learn and to remember. You are trying to keep a lot in mind as you play – what are the notes of the melody? What are the needed dynamics? What about the phrasing? And then there’s the accompaniment and harmonization!

You may recall that I am a big advocate for laziness and efficiency. To that end, I try very hard to reduce the amount of stuff I have to learn, memorize, recall, and reproduce. So it becomes essential to create a set of tools that allow you to wring the most playing and performance time out of each tune you learn.

One of my favorite tools is to stick to a basic chord progression – with a twist! What is the twist? Inversions!

Inversions

Not sure what an inversion is? It sounds complicated, but inversions are only a twist on a chord.  And with a little bit of practice, inversions can become second nature.

How do you play inversions? Here’s an easy tutorial:

  1. Place a root position C major chord*. [Lost? The root position is the 1 – 3 – 5 chord with the scale name on the bottom (in our example here it is a C – E – G chord). This is the Root.]
  2. Now, twist that C off the bottom of the chord and place it on the top (so now you have a chord in the shape E – G – c) – that’s the first inversion.
  3. To move to the second inversion, take that E off the bottom and twist it to the top (so now you have a chord in the shape G – c – e) – that’s the second inversion!
  4. And, you guessed it, one more twist and you’re back to the root chord, just up an octave!

As you play along (I know you rushed right over to your harp while you were reading!) you can hear that, while the chord is the same, each inversion is also different.  These differences meant that the inversions each give the tune a slightly different character!

Work on your inversions – practice them so they become second nature – and use them make subtle (but easy to remember) variations to your harmonies for the tunes in your repertoire and watch your repetitions become more interesting!

*I’m using the C major chord here but this applies to chords in any key – once you learn to do them, you can use them all over the place!

Stealing ideas from the knitters again!

You might know that I have a real like for knitting.  Of course, it doesn’t show in my knitting because I very unreasonably expect to be able to knit like a pro with no practice or experience!  However, this does not blind me to the great philosophy, knowledge, or understanding that knitters have and share.

I have stolen ideas from my wonderful local knitting lady, Ellen, before and I’m going to do so again!  She recently wrote about muscle memory and how people who haven’t knitted in a long while can, once they get started, knit “from memory” because their hands haven’t forgotten how, even if their mind tells them they have.

We have the same thing you know.  It is called muscle memory – when your hands remember how to play a tune the rest of you is pretty sure you’ve forgotten.  I’m sure you have had the experience of playing a tune you haven’t played in a long while.  You sit and try to find it, and (if you’ve well learned it) it comes back out with just a little coaxing.  This is your muscle memory (ok, it is a little more complicated than that – you’ll also need your auditory memory, but we’ll save that for another time). 

How do you build muscle memory?  You already know what I’m going to say – Practice!

But (just as the knitters would tell you) you also have to be mindful – let yourself pay attention to where you are in the world and in relation to your harp and the strings – how does your elbow feel? where are your fingers? how are you breathing?

One way to help focus on these muscle elements of playing is to practice with your eyes closed. It might be painful at first – you might be so used to looking that you might believe you can’t play without looking – but you’d be wrong! Closing your eyes really lets you focus on how your body feels. It will also make repeating those feelings (building the muscle memory) easier.

Trust yourself to know where your harp is and where the tune is on the harp. 
Of course, practice helps you develop and build that trust!

If you think you can’t go cold turkey playing without looking, I’d suggest practicing by a window at the gloaming.  Let the night come while you keep playing.  Eventually, you will be playing in the dark – just like if you had your eyes closed (this is also especially helpful for preparing for gigs at candle lit weddings and restaurants in grottoes!).

At first, it will be challenging. Start small – playing tunes you know extraordinarily well without looking.  Eventually add more of your repertoire.  Soon you’ll be able to learn tunes without looking at your harp (or your hands – trust me, they are right there at the ends of your arms, no need to watch them!).  But if you keep at it you will get better and you will build strong muscle memories that will allow you to play even things you think you have forgotten!

Stealing ideas from the knitters again!

You might know that I have a real like for knitting.  Of course, it doesn’t show in my knitting because I very unreasonably expect to be able to knit like a pro with no practice or experience!  However, this does not blind me to the great philosophy, knowledge, or understanding that knitters have and share.

I have stolen ideas from my wonderful local knitting lady, Ellen, before and I’m going to do so again!  She recently wrote about muscle memory and how people who haven’t knitted in a long while can, once they get started, knit “from memory” because their hands haven’t forgotten how, even if their mind tells them they have.

We have the same thing you know.  It is called muscle memory – when your hands remember how to play a tune the rest of you is pretty sure you’ve forgotten.  I’m sure you have had the experience of playing a tune you haven’t played in a long while.  You sit and try to find it, and (if you’ve well learned it) it comes back out with just a little coaxing.  This is your muscle memory (ok, it is a little more complicated than that – you’ll also need your auditory memory, but we’ll save that for another time). 

How do you build muscle memory?  You already know what I’m going to say – Practice!

But (just as the knitters would tell you) you also have to be mindful – let yourself pay attention to where you are in the world and in relation to your harp and the strings – how does your elbow feel? where are your fingers? how are you breathing?

One way to help focus on these muscle elements of playing is to practice with your eyes closed. It might be painful at first – you might be so used to looking that you might believe you can’t play without looking – but you’d be wrong! Closing your eyes really lets you focus on how your body feels. It will also make repeating those feelings (building the muscle memory) easier.

Trust yourself to know where your harp is and where the tune is on the harp. 
Of course, practice helps you develop and build that trust!

If you think you can’t go cold turkey playing without looking, I’d suggest practicing by a window at the gloaming.  Let the night come while you keep playing.  Eventually, you will be playing in the dark – just like if you had your eyes closed (this is also especially helpful for preparing for gigs at candle lit weddings and restaurants in grottoes!).

At first, it will be challenging. Start small – playing tunes you know extraordinarily well without looking.  Eventually add more of your repertoire.  Soon you’ll be able to learn tunes without looking at your harp (or your hands – trust me, they are right there at the ends of your arms, no need to watch them!).  But if you keep at it you will get better and you will build strong muscle memories that will allow you to play even things you think you have forgotten!

Failing

We have all learned that winners are, well, winners. And obviously, everyone wants to win. Winning is one of the ways we define success – and we all want to be successful. Why wouldn’t we?

But we also know that it isn’t from winning that we learn. It is in failure that we take great lessons. That is where we begin to think faster on our feet, find out what we didn’t know before, learn the pitfalls we should avoid, determine how we should prepare next time.

This isn’t to lead you to believe that failure is good – it’s not. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and can be humiliating. But all those things also mean that it is very motivating! And it can really lead to making great strides. This is where you learn to innovate, be flexible, find your boundaries.

And like everything else, failure becomes easier to deal with – when you get practice. No one wants to go out and fail, but sometimes it just happens. You’re not as prepared as you should be for a performance. Or you get on stage and everything falls out of your head including well known things – like your own name. Or when you sit at your – that’s right, it’s a harp (– h-a-r-p, yes it is yours and yes, you do know how to operate it) your hands go everywhere except the strings you’re aiming for.

But these failures – the practice sessions, if you will, give you the tools you need to take the risks necessary to grow, to expand and to become more comfortable with the next time you set out – to succeed.

So, I encourage you to buck up your courage and try new things. Every piece can only be performed for an audience the first time once. After that, it’s just another piece in your repertoire! Take a chance, learn a new piece, write your own composition, develop your own arrangement, play a new style of music – take a chance.
What’s the worst that can happen? You might not perform your best?  You might bomb? You might fail – oh well, think of what you’ll learn from that! Failing – it’s the only way to get ahead!

Failing

We have all learned that winners are, well, winners. And obviously, everyone wants to win. Winning is one of the ways we define success – and we all want to be successful. Why wouldn’t we?

But we also know that it isn’t from winning that we learn. It is in failure that we take great lessons. That is where we begin to think faster on our feet, find out what we didn’t know before, learn the pitfalls we should avoid, determine how we should prepare next time.

This isn’t to lead you to believe that failure is good – it’s not. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and can be humiliating. But all those things also mean that it is very motivating! And it can really lead to making great strides. This is where you learn to innovate, be flexible, find your boundaries.

And like everything else, failure becomes easier to deal with – when you get practice. No one wants to go out and fail, but sometimes it just happens. You’re not as prepared as you should be for a performance. Or you get on stage and everything falls out of your head including well known things – like your own name. Or when you sit at your – that’s right, it’s a harp (– h-a-r-p, yes it is yours and yes, you do know how to operate it) your hands go everywhere except the strings you’re aiming for.

But these failures – the practice sessions, if you will, give you the tools you need to take the risks necessary to grow, to expand and to become more comfortable with the next time you set out – to succeed.

So, I encourage you to buck up your courage and try new things. Every piece can only be performed for an audience the first time once. After that, it’s just another piece in your repertoire! Take a chance, learn a new piece, write your own composition, develop your own arrangement, play a new style of music – take a chance.
What’s the worst that can happen? You might not perform your best?  You might bomb? You might fail – oh well, think of what you’ll learn from that! Failing – it’s the only way to get ahead!

Preparing for the coming year

Don’t forget to start setting your goals for next year –

– What music do you want to master?
– What technique to do you need to work on?
– What have you always wanted to do at your harp but been afraid to try?
– What gig have always secretly hoped to book and how are you going to book it this year?

Write down your goals and identify how you will meet them (be realistic – the point is to help you chart and follow your course, not to end up unfruitful on the other end of the year). Decide how you’ll know when you’ve gotten there.  Make a plan, enjoy the ride!

Holding it in!

Your phone number is seven numbers long (plus the area code now). It is seven numbers long for a reason – because psychologists learned, a long time ago, that the average person can remember about seven things are a time. George Miller published a paper in 1956 entitled, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”. Now we just call it Miller’s Magical 7+/- 2.

Miller was looking at the capacity of short term memory – how much information could you hold on to while “converting” it to long term memory (the place you store your home phone number for later). What’s important is the Miller found you could hang on to about 7 things. I say things for a reason. Each of us defines “things” differently.

So, if you’re learning a new tune, the seven or so things you can remember will be different if you’re a very experienced musician or if you’re just new to the harp. If you’re new, for you each thing will be a note. If you’re very experienced, your thing could be a phrase.

How much stuff is in a thing (no, this is not a very technical discussion – I just want to get the point across!) depends on how much experience you have, how much you practice remembering things, how you think about the music you’re learning, and other things like your experience at the harp (as opposed to experience with other instruments), how stressed you are in general and about learning the music in particular. Other things may impact your learning – are you hungry, tired, busy, etc? All of these will affect how well you can remember and which side of seven plus or minus two you’ll be on that time.

So as you’re trying to learn new music, be sure to be mindful of what you’re trying to learn, how much stuff you’re trying to cram into your head at once, and how much stuff is in the things you’re trying to remember. Don’t worry about holding it in – just keep working at it.  And don’t forget – like playing your harp, your memory will get better with practice!

Memories….

Memory is essential to our craft. We all know that we want to memorize music – it makes it easier to play – and it is far more impressive to sit down to play for a long while with no paper!

In order to present long stretches of music without the dot crutch, you have to master the memory of the music and its presentation.

Let’s start with Memory – What is memory? Now, we’re not going to have an in depth technical discussion of memory and the brain, but you do need to understand what memory is.

Memory is how you hang onto what you heard and what you have played. It is likely that there are multiple areas of the brain that are important for the musical experience. We know this because imaging studies have shown significant activity all over the brain with music (which is different from other similar tasks where activity is more subdued).

Anecdotally, we know what memory is. We know it is affected by experience, practice, fatigue, hunger, and stress, as well as other impacts. But are you aware of the different “kinds” of memory? Each of them is important and impacts your ability to play.

There are a number of types of memory that need to be developed to improve your practice and performance. They are:
• Visual
• Auditory
• Muscle
• Kinesthetic
• Conceptual

Visual memory refers to recalling what you have seen. Auditory memory is recalling what you’ve heard. Muscle memory is the recall of what your positions and motions. Kinesthetic memory helps you remember what something feels like. And Conceptual memory assimilates all the parts.
We’ll discuss each of these types of memory in greater detail in the future. For now, remember that you have a lot to remember when you’re playing – so give yourself a break if you’re having trouble memorizing new music or recalling music you’ve already learned. It’s in there; you just have to get it out!