You’re sitting with your teacher at your lesson. You open your book and turn to the piece you’re working on. You start to play. You stumble in measure 4, right where you always stumble. You sigh and try to keep going. Your teacher sighs, too. (S)he asks, “Didn’t you work on that practice spot?”
You sigh again and think, “What’s a practice spot, and why can’t I just play the piece?” You can just play it, yet all the while hoping that eventually you’ll somehow get the hang of all of it, even that spot in measure 4.
But at some point you’ll ask, “Why am I not ‘getting it?’ Why is this so hard?”
Well, the problem is your brain, but not for the reasons you think. You’re not too old, too rusty, too distracted or simply too lazy to learn. You’re just not using the harp practice techniques that will allow your brain to reliably grasp and remember the complex actions required to play this piece well.
According to psychological research, it takes only seven repetitions of a stimulus to learn something new. That means that however you first play a passage or piece on the harp will become ingrained after only 7 passes of playing it. On the other hand, if you’ve learned the passage wrong from the start, it takes 35 times of playing it to over-write it with what is correct. Catch that math: that’s five times as long!
So, let’s start with a clean slate. Pick out a new piece, something you’ve never tried before but that’s about at the level you’ve been playing. Wait, don’t play it yet! Pick it because you’ve heard it, or you like the title, or something about it catches your attention, but please pick something you have never, ever, played through.
Harp Practice Techniques:
Master the Piece Easily & Correctly
Now, are you willing to put off playing through that new piece long enough to try these harp practice techniques and do it the efficient way? If you can tame you desire to just play it through for a few days, you will have your piece under your fingers by the end of the week. (If it takes longer than that, you’re tackling a piece quite far outside your experience. If you insist on doing that, you’ll naturally need to spend a week or two on these shortcuts before moving on to playing the piece).
Step away from the harp!!! The first thing to do is to LOOK at your piece, to analyze the patterns. If you do have some kind of recording of the piece (and perhaps your teacher will record it for you if you don’t), please listen to it, often, sometimes with the music in front of you, following along. That’s something you can do anytime that will reinforce your learning in more ways than you can imagine.
Look at the key signature, the time signature, the rhythms and the note patterns—which notes stay the same or repeat, what intervals and chords show up, where the phrases are and how they relate to one another. Mark the chords, the changes, notes you can’t read without stopping to think, the sections of the piece, the passages that might be a challenge. This step will save you more time than you can imagine and turn you into a proficient sight-reader better than all the “cold” reading in the world. It will also help your memory.
Now, please choose a passage of the piece (a section, a verse, or even a single phrase) to continue working on with the rest of the techniques. It needs to be SMALL enough that you could reasonably learn it in seven passes, so don’t take on more than 8 bars, far fewer if you’re a beginner).
The most common element that a student learns wrong is rhythm. Therefore, the single best practice habit you can develop is to analyze and clap the rhythm, while counting out loud, before you try to play the passage. (Note: Please be sure that you really understand the rhythm, and that you can write in your counting in every measure and it adds up to 4, or 3, or 6, as the time signature dictates. If you don’t have this understanding, please get help figuring it out before preceding. Otherwise you are wasting your time).
Why does clapping and tapping work? Because it gives your brain a chance to “chunk” the information, so that when you play it later, some thinking space is freed up for all the other elements (like those fingers!). Learn to count out loud, and learn to tap your foot to the beat as you count and clap. And yes, of course, do this with the metronome much of the time.
Next, try tapping the rhythms in your two hands—right hand tapping its line and left hand tapping its line as you count. Is it hard? Yes! But how can you expect your hands to play together on the harp when they can’t play independent rhythms, stripped of fingering and brackets, on the table? Your hands will eventually get it, and your brain will beam with pleasure when it translates to the harp. Better yet, this rhythm thing will get easier and easier.
Okay, pull up your harp, but don’t play yet.
SQUEEZE AND RELEASE
This one I learned from Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, who taught some fabulous workshops I was lucky to attend. I use this technique all the time with my students–it’s a real practice shortcut. Alfredo calls it “squeezing the Charmin”!
Place the fingers of one hand on a four note chords on the harp, preferably one at least as big as an octave. Make sure your hand position is correct, and then pay attention to every part of your body to check for any tension (not just your hands, but your shoulders and even your hips).
When you are satisfied that there is no tension anywhere, gently squeeze the strings with your fingers (do not play). Now release the squeeze, making your hand completely soft (without removing it from the strings).
Repeat this sequence several times before taking your hand just a little way from the strings on the release. Repeat this sequence again before taking your hand slowly all the way to your lap. Just for fun, try replacing your hand with your eyes closed. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve learned!
This is simply the best kinesthetic training I’ve ever learned. You can adapt it for killer chords by making the stretches bigger, and then going back to the original chord and seeing how much easier it is. You can use this to learn any shape in your piece, because if you can’t place it quickly, as a unit, it will always slow you down.
Next, use a technique I call “ghosting” to get the right hand forms under your fingers. It’s the next logical step after Squeeze and Release. Land a bracket, give one little squeeze, and without playing, close your hand and land the next bracket (or remove some fingers and replace on different strings, if you have overlapping brackets). Move through the whole piece this way, in a steady rhythm, several times, without playing a note. This way, your hand gets to learn the geography of the passage or piece. We’ve just chunked again.
Especially if your passage has repeated arpeggios, put off playing it as written for a bit longer and play each bracket as a blocked chord. This is the single best shortcut to fluency with those beautiful rippling arpeggio passages.
Now you will be playing, but start with ONLY the practice spots. You have found them, haven’t you? After all the analysis and ghosting you’ve done, you should know exactly where the sticky spots are. So take each one and work it out. Go back to the tools above and apply them to make each spot work. If there’s a problem, you should be able to isolate what it is (rhythm? fingering? misreading the notes? ) and take the appropriate steps to fix it.
You should be able to play each practice spot 10 times in a row correctly before going on. Make a game of this by using pennies, stones, or even an abacus to keep track of your repetitions. It takes a little patience to do this, but you will learn your piece much faster this way.
Now you can “run” the passage or piece. Alternate doing the whole thing with reviewing each practice spot, and you’ll learn the piece in record time.
Better yet, it will be correct, and you won’t have to use 35 repeats to “fix” it. Huzzuh huzzuh—you just used smart harp practice techniques to sail into fluency with something new!
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