Being a Beginner

Today, I’m sitting below a poster with a quote from Marcel Proust,

”The voyage of discovery is not in seeking

new landscapes but in having new eyes.” 

It dovetails nicely with some of your comments to last week’s post – thanks so much for those!

DB brought up the concept of the “beginner’s mind”.  This is the concept that a beginner may acknowledge that they don’t know much.  Beginners are open to learning and new experiences and don’t cloud their vision with preconceptions.  They don’t think they’re experts.  You might remember this phase from your early harp life?

DB went on to say, “it seems that what separates the “masters” from the dilettantes is a maintenance and mastery of the basics, through a strong curiosity of what “new” thing they might or might not discover in that practice.”

KB suggested that, “Paying close attention to what causes something to go wrong is essential to avoiding the same problems repeatedly. Issues with hand position, fingering, placement, focus, etc. lead to mistakes. Find the underlying issue, then fix it through targeted practice. It works for both my playing and my knitting!”

This too is something we often do that appears to move us forward but actually holds us back – we are often satisfied with a “fix” but don’t do the additional work to find the underlying cause.  Without doing the technique work, you might never find that little nuance you need to get the fingering down or to drop your shoulder or read just a little ahead of where your playing or any of the other little things that are holding you back.

DB pointed out that, “in many ways the lesson seems to be rooted in always finding time, and maintaining a strong curiosity in practicing the basics, no matter how far away from the basics, we think we’ve progressed.”  How can you do that in your everyday practice?  Here are six ideas to move you forward:

  1. You can acknowledge that you will learn things at different rates, that some things will be harder than others to you, that you can only calmly evaluate and learn.  You can only take it one step at a time.
  2. You can stop with the comparisons! You should not be playing like everyone around you. And remember that, like high school, facebook, and reality tv, nothing is what it seems when you look around you – just because the person next to you is sailing through something with which you are struggling doesn’t mean that they didn’t aslo struggle (just earlier) – it only means that you didn’t see it!
  3. Actually LISTEN to the feedback you get – the best teachers use the praise and guide approach – they will provide actual praise (from which you can learn what you are doing well in terms of performance and practice) and guidance (from which you can learn what you need to do more of, learn how to do, or learn what to stop doing).
  4. Remain a beginner – ask questions.  Do not assume that you know something just because you have been doing it. There is always something to learn that may (or may not) be good for you to incorporate.
  5. Ignore what doesn’t fit. Some of the best advice I received early in my harp life was from my teacher at the time who told me that I should play what I liked and leave the rest on the floor.  Her point was sound – if you don’t like classical music, don’t play it!  (NB this is not the same as, “it’s hard and I don’t want to do the work!”.  But you are more likely to work hard if you’re mostly playing music you like. Don’t cut yourself off from a genre just because it’s challenging – learn what it can teach you and port that to what you do love).
  6. Don’t worry! We (especially adults) worry that we’re not getting better, that we’ll never be good enough, that everyone else is making more progress. Let-It-Go!  Focus on you, what you need to learn, what you want to learn.  There is no need to train to go to Conservatory if your goal is to have a nice set of music to play for your friends and family. And if your goal is to go to Conservatory, then focus on the necessary development – but either way, channel your energy into learning, asking questions, and enjoying. Don’t waste it worrying.

Keep working on being a beginner – question, wonder, enjoy! Discover the landscape with new, beginners eyes.

Lessons Learned?

I had a lovely weekend spent with a small group of very good friends. That, in and of itself, was a delightful balm for the soul in this bleak midwinter but it really provided a great backdrop for insights. Safe, warm, well fed, and alight with laughter, the scene was set to really inculcate what you might know but haven’t learned. Two lessons stood out for me – both related to the potential outcomes that arise from good and continued practice.

The first is the importance of solid practicing of fundamentals. We all know how essential warmups and exercises are. When we are “young harpers” (by which I mean new to the harp, regardless of age) we do our exercises. They may consume most of our early lessons as we work to learn how to control the beautiful beast we have chosen. But we progress, we think we have learned what we were meant to have learned from the exercises…but there are so many tunes…and obligations. And soon, many of us have left the exercises and warmups out of practice time – to save time, to be efficient. Then, because we aren’t practicing them, they fall out of our practice repertoire. Because there is always more music…and laundry…and day jobs…and other impediments and excuses.

In this gathering, one of us took 10 minutes each morning, like they do every morning, and did warmups and exercises. The rest of us watched and commented – in admiration and surprise (and maybe chagrin). Nothing overly complex – scales, arpeggios, running chords and inversions. The “usual”. The mundane. The foundational! It was clear why such gorgeousness pours forth from that harp – and with so much ease. A little hard work goes a long way. The lesson was further reconfirmed by the acknowledgement that there are typically only about 45 minutes a day to practice! But because of this foundational work, the remaining time is spent focused on learning the music not struggling with fingers or patterns! The small amounts of foundational work – practiced regularly – are central to a good practice routine. It’s one thing to know it, but it’s something altogether different to actually do it.

The second insight was the application of that same practice discipline to the rest of our lives. Everyone (else) there is a knitter. I want to be a knitter because it looks good – productive, industrious, practical, and artistic. And all my friends are doing it! And it looks easy – after all, it’s just tangling string with some sticks! Like the harp – knitting is (relatively) easy to start…and very challenging to get good at. My friends have all been knitting for decades! But, in that unhelpful way adults do, my attempts are at best, laughable compared to theirs. When I had finished my first project – a straight(ish) scarf, I decided I was ready to move on – to a lace cowl! If you’re not a knitter, I’ll translate. It was the yarn equivalent of successfully plunking out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and deciding to follow that with Britten’s Ceremony of Carols! Of course you can make that leap, but it will be frustrating, daunting, difficult, fraught with little (and undeniable) failures – all of which will cause you to doubt yourself. Even if I was God’s gift to knitting, I’d need to practice for a long while to be able to show it. I made two big (and typical) mistakes – I discounted all the time and practice my friends have put in over the years to learn, practice, and master knitting and I expected to be able to just knit without putting in the same kind of time and effort.

Foundational practice is the fundament of success! You may be slapping your forehead at this point, dismayed at how thick I can be. Nothing here is new. I have not imparted any wisdom. But knowing (in your mind) and knowing (in your heart) can be different. The need to practice knitting to get better at it was something I knew but hadn’t taken to heart. The certainty that I need to make multiple straight scarves, really become comfortable with the skills, know when something is wrong (and how to fix it) is finally there. The willingness to do the work, to gain the skills, to ask myself to not just complete a project but to finish it well – to ask myself to not be satisfied by just “playing through” but to do more than settle for a sloppy end are all the elements I can bring from my harp to my knitting. And if I begin by working diligently on one stitch for just 10 minutes a day, like the warmups and exercises, I will eventually be strong enough in the fundamentals to get to the lace. And to see that the artistry arises from that foundation.

What will your 10 minutes be? Please share with me what warmups and exercises you do (or are going to be doing) at your harp. Any ideas you can bring over from other instruments you play? Together we can come up with some cool stuff – I’ll compile your suggestions and share them later.

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?