Tick Tock Tick Tock – Four Steps to Holiday Preparation

It’s autumn.  The leaves are beginning to turn and temperatures are beginning to subside. Days are shorter and nights are cooler. All of which means that it will be winter soon. Or stated another way – the holidays are coming!

Although retailers start putting out holiday merchandise before Halloween, it’s easy to scoff.  But don’t fall into a false sense of having a lot of time.  Don’t let the holidays catch you not quite ready – start your preparation now! I’d suggest breaking it into four steps:

  • Make a Schedule – holidays are starting earlier each year with some Christmas events scheduled before Thanksgiving! (This is especially scary if you’re Canadian and Thanksgiving is in October). Realistically, you have about a month and a half so scheduled your practice and learning to assure you get everything into your practice.
  • Make a list of the tunes for gigs. Within that list, identify those tunes you played last year and those that you’ve included because you’d like to learn them.
  • Make a practice plan – using your schedule and your list, plan time to polish those tunes you already know and to learn those that you don’t. Be realistic!
  • Make a program of holiday and non-holiday music that you’ll be able to use and get comfortable with. This is a good idea not only because it allows you to better leverage your regular repertoire but also because your listeners will enjoy the break from holiday tunes while you’re playing and it will help the old favorites seem less hackneyed both to you and to your audience.  It also helps keep your regular repertoire in your mind and hands.

By being organized you will be able to be comfortably prepared for the entire holiday season from November to January with minimal angst and stress. Now you just need to book some holiday gigs and you’ll be ready to go!

Is it a Maybe?

So, here we are, about ¾ of the way through the year. Everyone’s back to school and the holidays are fast approaching. By now, hopefully, you’ve sorted out your yes’s and no’s. The next question is do you have your maybe’s?

Perhaps the biggest maybe at this time of year is related to the goals you set for yourself. So maybe it is a good time to review them. How are you coming? Do you need to tweak any? Do you know?

This is where that journal comes in handy – it’s a good time to review your notes to see if you are getting where you wanted to go. If not, can you see what you need to work on?  Do you need to:

  • Rededicate your practice time
  • Actually practice
  • Reprioritize your practice time
  • Actively schedule elements of practice
  • Review your goals to make sure they are realistic for your real life
  • Examine your journal to have a better idea how it’s going so you can continue to meet your goals

Are you getting there? Maybe part of the way?  Maybe isn’t bad at all – as long as you mean it!

Just Say NO!

After at least a week of saying “Yes!” perhaps it’s also time to start saying “NO!”

No can be so negative but sometimes it’s the best answer to allow you to hang onto your sanity! Or to make progress toward your goals.  I will always encourage you to stretch – to do things that are a little scary or uncomfortable. This is because typically these things only l-o-o-k scary but are actually a lot of fun once you break through.

But some things are scary for good reason. They are better avoided – a stretch piece that is a huge stretch, a stretch piece with an unreasonable or unrealistic deadline, something you just really do not want to do (or don’t agree with doing), something that will just add the straw that broke the camel’s back to your schedule.

Here are some things it might be helpful to say “NO!” to:

  • Weddings – if you don’t like to be stressed, don’t book weddings! Only do them if you feel confident – otherwise they will chip away at your confidence and possibly your self-esteem.
  • Short notice gigs – if you don’t have regular practice time in on your repertoire, you will not be ready at the drop of a hat.  So don’t do that to yourself. Only book gigs for which you can be confidently and competently prepared.
  • Music you’re not interested in – now, I’m not saying don’t experience new things but this music is also typically music you don’t know (so you won’t have tricks up your sleeve for dealing with not being rock solid on the tunes).  Or it’s music you haven’t worked with (so you’re likely not solid and confident).  And this is often coupled with short notice and/or weddings!
  • Only playing for the cat and the curtains – Get over yourself! No one plays perfectly and you never will either. The only way to get better at playing for people is to do it. You know – to practice doing it by doing it. The longer you put it off, the more you tell yourself you’ll do it later, the harder it will get. So get out there.

Say no to anything that will require more preparation than you will be able to devote. If you are only able to practice 30 minutes a day, don’t even think you’ll be able to take on a challenge and succeed (Carol of the Bells from scratch in 2 weeks? Ha, don’t even). You will be stressed and unprepared and miserable.

Practice saying No at the right times so you are ready to say Yes as appropriate.  And if you’re knocking yourself down (over these or anything else) – Definitely Just Say No!

Just say “Yes!”

Music can open so many doors. People are genuinely interested in how we make music – our instrument, ourselves, our repertoire. And we should be honest – making music is a rare gift. We are very fortunate. Did you know that a Gallup poll indicated that 96% of adults surveyed thought music could be learned at any age? Perhaps more surprising, a whopping 85% of adults wish they had had music lessons as a child! And 70% stated that they’d like to learn to play an instrument. Further, 66% stated that there were too many impediments to learning to play*. And only 5% of adults are proactive and arrange to have music lessons in their own lives**.

That makes those of us who took up the harp as adults a rare breed! And whether we were trained in music as children or came to our instruments as adults – we are making music and we are extraordinary!

You may not feel special. You may not feel accomplished. You maybe still comparing yourself to others and therefore maybe unwilling to share your music. But maybe it’s time for you to just say Yes.

Yes – to those people who visit you and ask you to play for them.

Yes – to going into schools to share your instrument and your talent with young people who might not otherwise ever see or hear a harp – and certainly are unlikely to ever get to touch one!

Yes – to volunteering to play at a local care home on a regular basis.

Yes – to your local church or civic gathering.

Mostly, say Yes to yourself – Yes, I am a musician who is continuing to grow and Yes I will share with others. Yes I will commit to investing in myself and my practice.

Just Say Yes to plucking up the courage to do more with my harp!

* https://www.namm.org/news/press-releases/new-gallup-survey-namm-reflects-majority-americans%20
** https://gb.abrsm.org/en/making-music/4-the-statistics/

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.

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.

Plan your work – work your plan

Whew! Now that we’re back from Harpa and all the focused preparation for that, it would be easy to think that it’s time to slack off. Or because it’s summer we could argue that it’s a good time to chill a little. Or because it’s Wednesday, we could convince ourselves it’s ok to take a break. There are plenty of reasons to rationalize that we don’t need to work at practice. But these are exactly the sorts of time when reapplication of focus to practicing is precisely the right thing to do!

No matter what your level of play is, no matter how much you only play for amusement or play only as a profession, practice is still work. And like the work you do in your day job or the work you do around the house, your practice will go better if you make (and adhere to) a plan!

What should you plan to do? Well, you already know. You might not want to do it, but you know what your plan should include. Your plan needs to include elements that assure

  • that you know how much time you intend to work
  • that you spend your time effectively
  • that you don’t practice mistakes into what you know
  • that you learn new material
  • that you distribute your time across the things you love doing (playing things you already know?), the things that aren’t so much fun (etudes?), and the things you just don’t want to do (metronome?).

Be sure your plan includes all the necessary work.  These things may not happen every time you sit to practice, but having a plan assures that you remember to work on things over time.

Once you have a plan – make sure you actually work that plan!  Don’t go through the exercise of making a plan and then leaving it in a drawer.  Write it down – and keep it near your work place practice spot.  Set yourself up to succeed by checking it each and every time you practice so that you are always moving forward. Occasionally review your plan to make sure it is still pushing you toward your current and long term goals.

Do you have a practice plan? Do you use it?

Preparing for Competition – Mind

When you decide to compete you will need to prepare! While you might think, “Oh, I’ll just plop myself down here,” you’ll feel so much more confident (and play so much better) if you spend some time getting ready ahead of time. How much time? Well, that depends on you!

There are three areas in which to focus to maximize your time – Music, Body and Mind, this week – look at your Mind!

So here’s where the competition really occurs – in your head! On the day, will you feel ready? What are you really concerned about?  Keep in mind that most of our music is from inside our heads so your preparation (or lack thereof) will show – mostly to you!

Be honest about why you are competing. Is it very important to you that you win? Or do you just want to acquit yourself respectably? Are you focused on your performance or everyone else’s? Check in with your ego before the day so you can be prepared for any outcome…and learn from it.

Remember that the judge is looking forward to hearing you play and will share any gems to help your development as a musician – no one is looking badger you (unless you intend to do that to yourself – which is not very helpful).

Don’t forget that this is one day. Whether you play a personal best or instead are humbled to learn your fingers seem to have developed contrary minds of their own that have embarked on a petite version of the Hundred Years War with one another, tomorrow is another day….

Enjoy (and practice looking forward to) the social and fun atmosphere of being with other harpers. Cheer them on and look forward to learning new tunes, meeting new people, laughing, smiling, and learning from the comments you get.

It’s just a competition – not an audition. It won’t decide your fate for eternity. Live a little, laugh a lot, love your harp! See you out there!

Preparing to Compete – Body

When you decide to compete you will need to prepare! While you might think, “Oh, I’ll just throw on a kilt and sit down to play”, you’ll feel so much more poised if you spend some time getting ready ahead of time.

Of the three areas in which to focus to maximize your time – Music, Body and Mind, this week – it’s your body*

While competing isn’t running a marathon, being physically prepared certainly helps!

Work on your bench stamina – if you can’t sit on your bench comfortably for longer than it will take to play your competition set, you may need to improve your stamina. You won’t be sitting on the stage for very long (although it might feel like it) but the time you have spent on the bench practicing will help you get settled and comfortable more quickly which may help you be more comfortable as you start to play.

Practice all the movements – we spend a lot of time practicing our technique like closing our fingers appropriately and sitting up strait by also practice breathing while playing, relaxing between notes, gesturing (but not wildly – please, you’re not Liberace!), sitting without slouching, walking on stage without schlumping, and smiling! All of these things will come more easily if you practice them – just like the music itself!

Variety – try to practice in different locales to become used to changes in lighting, temperature, furniture layout, and sound qualities. This will help you be more focused and comfortable when you make ready to play your comp set. Practicing in your stage clothing will also allow you to get used to it (or change it before it makes you crazy!).  Definitely practice sitting down in a kilt!

General stamina – no matter how you cut it, competition day is long! It is also a total disruption of your regular routine. Add that disruption to the excitement of competing and you will be better able to enjoy the day if you are in better physical condition. You don’t need an arduous workout – just get some exercise each day. If not for your heart, then for your art!

Practice enough to feel confident in your skin and you’ll have moved yourself more of the way there! Next time – preparing your Mind to compete.

* I’m not a physician or a fitness expert, these statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, malady, disorder, problem, difficulty, trouble, woe or ill. Quit whining and go back to practicing!