From beginner to pro, our need to practice unites us
If there is one element of being a harpist that unites us all, it is practice. We may play different music, have different goals, or use different types of harps, but we all practice.
No one is born knowing how to play a clean crossunder or an evenly rolled chord. Even when a performance of a piece looks and sounds effortless, it is undoubtedly the result of countless hours of practice. The 10-year-old’s first harp recital where she nailed all the notes? She practiced. The stunning gold-medal performance at the USA International Harp Competition? She practiced. The adult student who performed a masterful Bach prelude for his friends? He practiced. The orchestral harpist who hit every exposed harmonic in the concert? He practiced.
All of us—young and old, beginner and master, amateur and professional—need practice in order to make better music. The need for practice is almost as universal as our reluctance or even avoidance of it altogether.
Practice is hard. It involves a lot of failure and reminds us about all the things we cannot do and we have not mastered. There is no instant gratification in harp practice. It is usually a long, tedious, frustrating process with little to show at the end of the day. Much like physical growth that you don’t notice until Aunt Mabel pinches your cheeks at Thanksgiving and tells you how big you’ve gotten, you don’t see musical growth as it is happening. But then, one day you realize that you can finally play that one tricky passage without any buzzes.
In the hierarchy of practicing, we tend to devote most of our practice time to repertoire—the pieces we need to work on for our next lesson, the bride’s request for that new song we need to learn, the orchestra part that needs to be ready for rehearsal next week. It makes sense to practice for the looming deadline first. Next in the hierarchy, is usually etudes or exercises. We know we’re supposed to do them. Maybe your teacher assigned an etude. Maybe you warm up with them each time you practice. But they don’t get the same practice love that your repertoire gets. At the bottom of the practice hierarchy is usually technique. Sure, you might practice a technical element here or there in your repertoire or etudes, but dedicated, deliberate, thoughtful technique practice tends to fall pretty low on the priority list—somewhere between alphabetizing your spice cabinet and changing your bass wires.
Given this generally less-than-enthusiastic attitude about technique practice, we were pretty surprised here at Harp Column when over 600 harpists took our 30 Day Practice Challenge to work on technique 20 minutes a day for the month of January. We thought we might get 50, maybe 100 motivated types to accept our challenge to drill down on technique for a month. But the enthusiastic response we got overwhelmed even our highest expectations. “It was like we were given permission to put aside repertoire and work on technique,” said one participant. “This has put us back in the habit of the daily experience of what the harp can teach us and we are again loving the harp!”
If you missed our online challenge in January or took the challenge but want to do it again on your own, check out our “30 Day Practice Challenge Redux” on pg. 36. We gathered the best of the month of technique practice in one place. So grab a practice buddy and see what happens when you move technique to the top of your practice priorities. We think you’ll be pretty happy with the results. •
Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan. Email her at email@example.com.