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!

Reading is fun – duh – mental

I’m a big fan of learning by ear – it is easy, portable, social, and exciting. Because of this, I often encounter people who expect me to tell them that they do not need to learn to read music or that there is no need to develop proficiency in reading.

Nothing could be farther from the truth! Reading is  Fun Duh Mental!

Reading is Fun-duh-mentalReading is Fun: First, never forget that reading music is just like reading a book – there’s a story in there, intricately coded in a way that only those who know the cypher can understand, just waiting to give you a bucket of new emotions! There’s Romance, Mystery, Biography, History, from anywhere on in the world – something for everyone! What could be more fun than uncovering the story within?

Reading? Duh! Reading is a necessary tool for every musician. Music captures and retains those patterns that make the music.  And although people are typically very good at remembering patterns, you will be able to remember more, better if you have multiple ways to access them. So, if you have learned the tune by ear, you have all those audio patterns (including pitch, rhythm and tempo). But when you add printed music, you also have the visual patterns (including direction, shape, an structure) that really help solidify what you already know (or help you retrieve what you already have stored but ….just……can’t ……………reach……………….in your memory).

Reading is Mental: Just as paper music can help you remember music as an additional pathway, the act of reading music is also a great mental exercise. Again, just like reading the letters to generate the words of a story, reading the notes to generate the phrases of the music in the visual domain provides another means of working along with the other modes including motor and auditory. All this mental work is, well, work. However, this work will really help you develop as a musician.

So, go read a good book (of music). And if it helps you to read better, try reading loud – that is read along with a recording before you ever sit to your harp…because Reading is Fun- Duh! Mental!

Listen, listen, listen


If you’re reading this, it is likely that you are primarily playing traditional folk music.  One of the beautiful things about trad is that is has always had a significant aural component.  There was a time, according to the historians, that all harpers learned their music by ear.  In fact, they learned everything by ear – the tunes, the words to songs, the epic poetry, the histories – all in the aural (and oral) tradition.

This makes excellent sense – after all, music is aural – we all, musician and appreciator, participate in music by listening.  We know that how it sounds is essential.  In fact, when we make a mistake, we know it because it sounded wrong.  Not very many people will tell you they knew they made a mistake because it felt wrong!
But how are you to know how it should sound?  How does someone new to the music learn how to give it the lift, lilt, or jaggedness to make it sound right?  If you grew up in one culture, how do you know how to make a tune from another culture sound like it should? How do you make your Irish tunes sound Irish and your Scottish tunes sound Scottish and ensure that only your Welsh tunes sound like they came from Wales?  How do you know where they came from???
The best way is to listen!  Listen to the music.  And of course, really listen – find the nuances.  How does an Irish tune sound relative to one from Cape Breton?  What lets you know when the tune is from Scotland?  Can you tell your favorite harp players apart when listening? (Being able to identify my friends by their playing on their cds was a turning point for me – when I finally “got” how important listening is!).
And, of course, you have to do a little homework – it will help when you start causing yourself to listen to have some information handy (to know where the tune is from).  Once you get comfortable with actively listening to music then you can move on to listening while not knowing, guessing where the tune (or the player) is from and then looking it up to check your work.  Just be wary of tunes that are played everywhere (they’ll be tricky – these are typically very old or very popular!).  
And don’t forget to enjoy the listening while you learn how to bring those sounds into your own tunes.

Step out there

Stage fright has an incredible power over people. There are well known, well loved performers who famously suffer from stage fright.  The problem with suffering with stage fright is that it cuts you off from opportunities – and most of us don’t like to have good opportunities disappear.  However, being afraid to get in front of a group and perform can significantly impact your harp life.  After all, why do we play if not to share our gifts with others? 
So how do you get to a point that you can perform for other people when you are terrified?  It is easy for others to tell you to get over it or to tell you that you need to focus outside yourself and share.  But if all that goes right out of your head when you’re about to set foot on stage, here are a few things to bring into your practice to help you be feel more easy and lower your stage fright.

  1. Practice the material!  Be sure that you know all the tunes you want to play in your program. 
  2. Record your self – at first you’ll be self-conscious…but keep at it – you’ll hear all kinds of things you don’t hear while you’re playing (both good and bad)…use this to build your practice, your program…and your confidence. 
  3. Practice improvisation – most stage fright comes from the fear that you’ll forget what you were going to play and will be left standing on the stage like a doofus.  The sure way around this is to practice improvisation to get you out of scrapes and to fill time while you think (I am not kidding). 
  4. Build up – first play for your cat, then your immediate family, then add your best friend, other friends, etc.  Work your way up to a room full of strangers. 
  5. Connect with your audience – it is one thing to be told that they want you to succeed.  But if you look up, look at them, connect verbally and nonverbally, you’ll finally believe it – you’ll see it in their faces.  They know they can’t do what you’re about to do…and they will be amazed! 
  6. Laugh – you will be tense…it probably helps that you’re a little tense…but be prepared to laugh, to enjoy yourself…and your audience will too. 
  7. Plan for the day – arrange to have time before you play to give yourself time to get there, get set up, breathe, and settle in. You will feel better if you’re settled than if you have to race in at the last minute.
  8. You are not alone!  Know that everyone has some level of trepidation.  Once you realize that everyone feels this way to some extent, you might not feel so marked out.

Stage fright is just another thing you can overcome with practice.  Maybe that should be a goal for this year?  Always play to enjoy – even if there is a little bit of fear mixed in.

Listen!

As musicians, we strive to develop our skills, to improve our technique, our repertoire, our span of knowledge. We want to get better – typically we are working on our ability to perform. Whether we are renowned for our performance on the world stage, or simply playing to amuse our cat, we work to be worth listening to.

But how often do we listen? Be honest.
Do we take the time to really hear ourselves? Do we actually really listen to others when they play? I don’t mean the listening where you relax and let the sound wash over you (even though that is one of the benefits of playing our beautiful instrument, but that’s not what we mean here).

Involved listening is another skill that we must develop. This is an essential skill. Whether you are solely ear trained, solely paper trained, or somewhere in between. It is from this type of all attentive listening that you learn important elements like phrasing, ornamentation, style, and expression. And like every other skill, you can build your involved listening. Here are four things you can do to get better at involved listening.
  • Focus. You can spend all day listening, but if you don’t pay attention, you won’t actually hear anything. Take the time to focus on what you’re listening to.
  • Think. What are you listening to? Are you hearing the melody? The harmony? A particular phrase? Think about captures your attention and decide if that’s what you want to focus on.
  • Pause. Remember that music is a communication so the pauses are almost as important as the sounds. Listen for those pauses. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean?
  • Reflect. Now that you’ve listened to the tune that you’re interested in. You have to think about how you’re going to make it yours. Reflect on what you’ve listened to and how your to bring it out and you.

Being involved with your music by truly listening will allow you to become a better musician as well as appreciating other people’s music all the more.

Listen!

As musicians, we strive to develop our skills, to improve our technique, our repertoire, our span of knowledge. We want to get better – typically we are working on our ability to perform. Whether we are renowned for our performance on the world stage, or simply playing to amuse our cat, we work to be worth listening to.

But how often do we listen? Be honest.
Do we take the time to really hear ourselves? Do we actually really listen to others when they play? I don’t mean the listening where you relax and let the sound wash over you (even though that is one of the benefits of playing our beautiful instrument, but that’s not what we mean here).

Involved listening is another skill that we must develop. This is an essential skill. Whether you are solely ear trained, solely paper trained, or somewhere in between. It is from this type of all attentive listening that you learn important elements like phrasing, ornamentation, style, and expression. And like every other skill, you can build your involved listening. Here are four things you can do to get better at involved listening.
  • Focus. You can spend all day listening, but if you don’t pay attention, you won’t actually hear anything. Take the time to focus on what you’re listening to.
  • Think. What are you listening to? Are you hearing the melody? The harmony? A particular phrase? Think about captures your attention and decide if that’s what you want to focus on.
  • Pause. Remember that music is a communication so the pauses are almost as important as the sounds. Listen for those pauses. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean?
  • Reflect. Now that you’ve listened to the tune that you’re interested in. You have to think about how you’re going to make it yours. Reflect on what you’ve listened to and how your to bring it out and you.

Being involved with your music by truly listening will allow you to become a better musician as well as appreciating other people’s music all the more.

Why dots are bad

I came to the harp in the folk and aural tradition.  It was very difficult for me to leave the page – the safe haven of knowing precisely what was expected, how the music had been played since it was written.  Although initially I fought (hard) against learning this way, eventually I realized the freedom in learning music the old way. 

Ok, maybe I didn’t realize the freedom so much as I actually began to give myself the freedom. Maybe I gained the courage to try something new.

The bad thing about the sheet music dots is that they are a haven.  They can encourage you to pursue a false perfection, to abandon your own good judgment.  If not careful, dots form a jail not a frame.   And if the jail is reinforced with doubt you may never break out.

In addition, much of the best music has been handed down not passed out on paper.  I never had as much fun learning a tune from a sheet of paper as I have had learning it from another person.  And if I thought I was being inventive in my interpretation before, I didn’t know the half of it.
There is still room for precision – I give you playing a marchy march or a danceable reel.  There is a need for that precision – it just comes from a different place.

Why dots are bad

I came to the harp in the folk and aural tradition.  It was very difficult for me to leave the page – the safe haven of knowing precisely what was expected, how the music had been played since it was written.  Although initially I fought (hard) against learning this way, eventually I realized the freedom in learning music the old way. 

Ok, maybe I didn’t realize the freedom so much as I actually began to give myself the freedom. Maybe I gained the courage to try something new.

The bad thing about the sheet music dots is that they are a haven.  They can encourage you to pursue a false perfection, to abandon your own good judgment.  If not careful, dots form a jail not a frame.   And if the jail is reinforced with doubt you may never break out.

In addition, much of the best music has been handed down not passed out on paper.  I never had as much fun learning a tune from a sheet of paper as I have had learning it from another person.  And if I thought I was being inventive in my interpretation before, I didn’t know the half of it.
There is still room for precision – I give you playing a marchy march or a danceable reel.  There is a need for that precision – it just comes from a different place.

Why dots are good

I was originally classically trained.  I lived for the printed music.  It was a game to me – how could I express (fill in some adolescent angst here) given the constraints of the page?  How could I play the music “correctly” while giving it an indelible stamp of my existence?  How would my presentation of those dots be different from all the other presentations while remaining true to the thoughts of the composer?


I worked relentlessly to master reading, phrasing, and technique to coax out of my instrument precisely my interpretation of the music.  Sometimes, in a fit of pique my interpretation would be to elect to interpret the music exactly as written – no inflection, no variance.  In those times, I strove for Swiss watch precision.

That is the beauty of written music, it preserves the presentation. It allows you to play the same music that has been played for years, decades, centuries.  It provides you a link to your musical past, a genealogy worth preserving.  Further, the music page creates a frame within which you can work.  Nothing about putting music on the page prevents you from bringing that music to life in your own way.  Be creative – as long as you honor the composer and play the music as written – with your own twists.

Why dots are good

I was originally classically trained.  I lived for the printed music.  It was a game to me – how could I express (fill in some adolescent angst here) given the constraints of the page?  How could I play the music “correctly” while giving it an indelible stamp of my existence?  How would my presentation of those dots be different from all the other presentations while remaining true to the thoughts of the composer?


I worked relentlessly to master reading, phrasing, and technique to coax out of my instrument precisely my interpretation of the music.  Sometimes, in a fit of pique my interpretation would be to elect to interpret the music exactly as written – no inflection, no variance.  In those times, I strove for Swiss watch precision.

That is the beauty of written music, it preserves the presentation. It allows you to play the same music that has been played for years, decades, centuries.  It provides you a link to your musical past, a genealogy worth preserving.  Further, the music page creates a frame within which you can work.  Nothing about putting music on the page prevents you from bringing that music to life in your own way.  Be creative – as long as you honor the composer and play the music as written – with your own twists.