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!
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:
- 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.]
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
One of the skills musicians need (for a whole lot of reasons) is the ability to transpose tunes. Transposing is when you move from playing a tune in one key to playing it in another. For instance, If you have learned to play Happy Birthday in the key of D but when you go to the party everyone else is playing it in C – you either have to transpose it or you have to sit out. And who wants to do that? No one, that’s who!
So, it is clear that being able to transpose is fairly important. It is also somewhat intimidating to learn to do it – typically because we wait until we’re at that party to give it a try…and we know that everyone else can hear us either playing in the wrong key or desperately searching for a tune we already know in a key we never even thought to play in!
But, how do we learn to transpose? Well, you already know – we practice! And as usual, I suggest a small steps approach:
- Play the tune in the key you know. Might as well build up a little confidence to get started.
- Next set your levers to the next key down (for instance if you always play a tune in D, with two sharps, you’d move into C with no sharps). Now play the tune just one string down from where you normally play it. This is one of those times you’re going to wish you played without looking, because almost every time you make a mistake it will be because your eyes are getting in the way.
- I also suggest you just worry about getting the melody. Give yourself a break and just get the tune down first. Add the left hand later.
- PRACTICE doing this – at first, focus on a single tune. Work on playing it on the new key. Eventually transpose the left hand too (same thing, move down one, be gentle with yourself).
- Once you’re comfortable in the new key, work on moving back and forth between the two (yes, this is a little kludgy, but it works to get you confident and solid on both keys!).
Once you feel comfortable going between these two keys, you can practice transposing all the tunes you know (well, you know that might be a little bit of hyperbole – but practicing will make it easier and you will get better at it). Then you can also move to bigger jumps (for instance moving from G to D) which will strain your brain a little but will be easier if you have practiced the smaller moves.
So, keep practicing your transposing and soon it will be so second nature you can do it on the fly at all the birthday parties!
If you’re going to improve your music reading, you have to know what all the ink means! So, let’s start with the . Yup, that’s a dot – a .
Nope, it’s not a full stop – in fact it means the complete opposite – it means add half again.
No matter what the note is, the . gives you half again as much. Got a quarter note, add a . and then you have 1 and ½ beats. Got an eight note, add an additional sixteenth note value. Got a half note, add half its value – an entire beat.
When you’re reading a piece of music, these . become very important. They can be easy to overlook because they are small and there can be a lot of information on the staff, but they become very clear when you count the beats in the measure. I know you’re counting each beat in every measure so you would know right away if you missed any of the .’s! If, while you’re counting (including the .’s), you have too many beats (or not enough beats), you know right away that you need to go back and reread the measure.
Like reading words, at first finding the dots, remembering what they mean, and counting them out will be painful and will require painstaking attention and reading. But with a little bit of work each day you will become a better reader! Given enough time and practice, when you look at a page of music, you’ll know what to do with all the .’s!
No one likes to learn theory. No one even really likes to think about theory. But one of the important things about theory is that it helps you build a vocabulary that you can use to talk with other musicians…and actually understand what they’re talking about.
And the words shouldn’t be the way we differentiate ourselves from one another, but often that is what happens – someone uses a word that sounds like you should know what it means but you have no idea what they are talking about! So, here’s the first of these – just so you can stay in the conversation!
So what are Enharmonics? Enharmonic is the word used to describe two notes of the same pitch that have different names. This is easier if you look at a piano –
For example – if you look at the right black key in the set of two – you can call this D# (if you are in the key of EMaj) but might also call it Eb (if you are in the key of B Maj). They are the same sound (this is not entirely true – if you’re interested we can address that later – but for our purposes, they are the same sound) but have two different names.
If you have your harp tuned to Eb Maj, you can either leave the A lever down (to have an Ab) or you can lift the G lever (to have a G#). You’ll get the same note (assuming you have tuned correctly!). The challenge is to remember what string to play when!
Enharmonics allow you to have both notes (either G or G# and or Ab and A#). Note that, unlike the piano, you can’t have both without flipping levers. And that’s ok – as long as you plan ahead!
You’ll get better at using enharmonics to get more out of your harp if you practice reading the music and “translating” the notes in your head as you play.