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    Angela Biggs on #144555

    Hi folks,

    I’ve been playing for four years, and am almost entirely self-taught (no nearby teachers, and lacking the resources to travel). My lever harp was a gift from my husband, friends, and family, so I feel like I can’t just put it down. But I am so burnt out. I’ve played paying gigs 3-5 times each year for the past three years. I failed in some significant way every single time except for one Christmas two years ago.

    I have a background as a vocalist, so I didn’t start the harp as a music or performance newbie, and over the years I’ve used all the tricks I can find. I practice with efficiency. I’ve researched and used techniques for bullet-proofing my performances. I feel like I’ve worn the clichés to shreds. It doesn’t matter to me anymore whether anybody noticed my failure: I did. I’m well past the point of “if at first you don’t succeed”: three years is longer than “at first,” and I have tried-tried again ad nauseam.

    My most recent failure was at the inauguration ceremony for the president of the local community college. It was a very, very simple duet with a flautist; we played from one of her old flute lesson books, me on the piano part. It was not hard, and I knew it, and I even used the music (I usually perform memorized). At the most difficult part, which was not hard, I lost my placement and flopped. Same thing on the repeat.

    This sort of thing has happened over and over and over again for three years. Each time, I give myself a day to cry and recover, then head back into my practice room and double-down. And I go back out and try again. But this one happened almost two weeks ago and my harp is still in its case. I can’t bring myself to take it out. I don’t want to touch it. The thought of practicing exhausts me. I can’t imagine trying again.

    Is it possible to recover from this kind of persistent failure and the resulting burnout?

    Thank you,

    Janis Cortese on #144556

    This is going to sound like another cliche, but have you busked? Flopping in a performance, or with another musician, is not the sort of thing that can be easily dealt with by going into a room by yourself and practicing.

    Are there ANY other local groups of musicians that you can work with to get used to performing and get used to the give and take of working with another musician? It seems that if you are having trouble performing live in front of people, and performing with another musician, that trying to solve it by going into a room by yourself and playing alone is not going to help. 🙁 I’d hate to see you put the harp down for want of not finding the right solution to a solvable problem.

    kay-lister on #144557


    I HEAR YA! After my “Crash and Burn” with the community band last year, I was ready to throw my harp under a bus. BUT, I took a big step back and re-evaluated the whole situation . . .

    Bottom line is ask yourself WHY you are playing the harp. Is it for YOUR enjoyment, do you want to play for others, do you want to play WITH others? Do you (as you said) just need a break?

    You have apparently done very well with your harp so far and NOT having a teacher is neither here nor there. There are some amazing musicians who were/are self taught.

    That being said, the encouragement and guidance of a teacher is priceless and MAYBE could help you with your situation. If you could find someone to Skype with you or even give you a bit of “Harp counseling” by phone, it might help.

    I just hate to see you throw in the towel completely! Yes, you may have a little burn-out and that’s ok. Step away for awhile and give yourself a break emotionally as much as anything. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be the public performer. It just might not be your thing.

    This is an instrument to be enjoyed by YOU first and if that’s what it gives you then GREAT. Don’t feel obligated to others . . . Your harp is NOT an obligation.

    IF you really WANT to play for others, I would suggest the mind-set of “Play the music, NOT the GIG”. Get in the zone and block out your surroundings – let it just be YOU and your harp. I KNOW that’s easier said then done.

    Good luck Angela and don’t be so hard on yourself! Just have fun with your instrument and if it’s not fun right now, no one’s going to (or should) give you grief for stepping away for awhile.


    Sylvia on #144558

    Sorry this is so long.
    I wondered if I read it right. You played 3-5 times a YEAR? That’s barely enough to get a toe wet. Have you played at local nursing homes, retirement centers, etc.?

    When I first started going out to play, I was paralyzed by stage fright…and with a pedal harp, you can have lots more magnificent fails than with a lever.

    I started going regularly to all the nursing homes within range…I was out at least once a week, whether I felt like it or not. It was fail-safe. They didn’t know or care if I played mistakes. (I’m a memorizer, so all my personal rep is memorized.)

    After a couple of years, I added another dimension. We have here what are called Winter Texan parks, so I begged my way into as many as possible, and was going out (except the months the winter people weren’t here) almost every week to one of those…in addition to the nursing homes. The parks take up a collection, but I was lucky to get anywhere from $20-maybe $80 for my efforts….but it was great because they were an audience that was very aware, and I was always on a STAGE. Also, I had to TALK to them…like as in announcing what I was playing, plus standing up to bow, and then sitting back down again and re-focusing for each song. Not easy. (I heard later that it’s country music and preachers that make gobs of money at the parks…I mean like hundreds, for an appearance.)

    However, after several years of this constant exposure, I weathered tremendously and got a lot more comfortable in front of an audience. No way is it like being in your living room. I just had to get the feel of people watching and listening. If I had been going out only 3-5 times a year, I’d still be a basket case.

    Yes, I played a lot for free, but I was the one who benefited.
    And I never, ever play free for an actual benefit, by the way. I did that a couple of times when I was new, and then someone told me they saw me playing somewhere I hadn’t been. Well, that someplace was the same people paying another harpist to play their house party, (BTW, I didn’t even look like her, and her harp was light and mine is dark) but they had conned me into playing the benefit for free. After that, I never did another one for anyone…I always tell them my fee and let them go away.

    So if you think you’re the only one ever to fall on your face in public, you are quite mistaken. My record is probably unbeatable…but I gained the confidence I needed to be able to play paying jobs well. I might add that recording the performance really helps. Sometimes those mistakes seem to last a lifetime, but when you listen, it’s only a few seconds.

    So the word from here is don’t hide at home…share your beautiful harp music…Just get out there and play, and play, and play.

    Sid Humphreys on #144559

    I love love LOVE Sylvia’s advice! Also pick up a book titled “Power Performance.” We all crash and burn but reading this book (written by a harpist) really helped me to understand why I would get flustered. Please don’t stop playing!

    Allison Stevick on #144560

    I’m so sorry you feel like this. I know how it is, too; I’ve gone through some rough patches with the harp myself. There were a few different times where I didn’t open the case for a month or more. It was just too exhausting to even think about playing. These were usually after I had been working up to playing in public or at least for someone else (going to friends’ homes with the harp was a thing they enjoyed where I used to live–mostly older neighbors who needed some company). Anyway, there would come a time when I was just like, “Enough already! I’m tired, I’m bored with these songs, I don’t want to work to learn something new, I need to remember that I’m other things besides ‘the harp lady'” etc. Eventually–sometimes after a couple weeks, sometimes much longer, I would sort of feel like it was time to get re-acquainted with my harp again. I have to ease back into it, just tinkering around, remembering why I started this harping thing in the first place (for my own enjoyment).

    I am also an artist (like visual arts, drawing and printmaking). When I was in college, my last semester before student teaching, I had two consecutive crappy critiques in my main emphasis studio class. That’s like failing a test. Anyway, I was in a place of utter burnout. I didn’t have any ideas that I thought were any good, I was tired of coming up mediocre, and I was angry at the non-studio classes I had at the time because the stress from those was creeping into my art and I couldn’t channel it into good work. My professor was really understanding, but also tough because I couldn’t afford to take a break or stop working. In that situation, the plan my professor and I came up with was to 1)get a smaller sketchbook (the big, blank pages in my current one were just too intimidating to face), 2)start drawing and writing about everything I saw everywhere I went, and 3)find material in that process that I could care about to make my art. It worked. I found a new direction for my work, and came out better than when I started.

    All that’s to say that maybe you just need a break. Some time away from the harp to focus on other things and ease back into it at your own pace.
    Or, maybe you need a “smaller sketchbook”–just playing for yourself or close friends, or just small audiences for a while. Or maybe you need to start playing every day but only certain things–favorite tunes, maybe, or only improvising, or only accompanying yourself singing, or whatever. If getting back into harping is a way you might get through the burnout, I suggest trying whatever it takes to make it feel fun again.

    I’ll be thinking of you as you’re in this season, and I hope you come through and find the joy in your harping again.

    Gretchen Cover on #144561

    I agree. Sylvia’s advice is excellent.

    Angela, there are teachers who teach via skype. I know Vanderbilt Music advertises that service. Some lessons would be very beneficial to you. Also go through tutorials on youtube. Perhaps you need to re-think what you play. Maybe you need to play easier music. Maybe you don’t know the music as well as you think, And, when you perform, jitters take over rather than knowing the music so well that you can play through it. You may want to learn chords better and build upon your singing. I would certainly record yourself playing so you can be objective about your playing and how you sound to others. You can use your cell phone. This may give you some answers.

    The fact you are seeking advice from other harpists shows you still have drive and determination to succeed with your harp playing. Keep moving forward. Remember you are not the first nor the last to go through this. We’re here for you.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #144569

    If you are already reading articles such as the blogs on The Bulletproof Musician, then the problem may be your technique. This is almost impossible to develop without a good teacher. With the guidance of a teacher, Skyping if necessary, practise technique every day. Perhaps you would benefit from doing nothing but technical studies for a few months, to kick-start the process. Once you can run up and down scales, play noodly passages without falling off the strings, hit the harmonics every time, etc., then learn some pieces which are easy for you. Your next step would be to do “practice performances” of these easy pieces in front of an “audience” of stuffed toys or some similarly non-judgmental inert objects. Once you can play your “recital” satisfactorily in front of them, bring in family members, then raise the ante to neighbours. By the time you have done all this, your program will feel really good and you will feel much better taking it to the next stage. Do you have some good technical exercise books?

    Angela Biggs on #144578

    Oh my goodness everyone, thank you so much for your thoughtful and supportive responses. I’ve been spending some time processing them, and slowly developing some understanding which will hopefully lead me to a picture of my next season with (or without) my instrument.

    Janis and Sylvia, I have played outside in public places, and didn’t find it particularly helpful. But – I have not done it often, usually only one outing at a time as part of prep for a specific performance. I spent most of this past summer trying to prep some new pieces and get them ready for busking, but they were difficult pieces and I didn’t make it. Now I’m turning over the idea that treating it like a performance instead of a just-get-out-there thing was a mistake.

    Kay, the parts of harping I like best are playing for my own pleasure and teaching novice workshops. I enjoy learning and sharing, not presenting. Prepping for performance sours my entire life for weeks. I do very much feel the harp as an obligation; it was given to me for a specific purpose, and when I’ve tried to pull back on performing my concerns have been dismissed. Yesterday I calmly but firmly said flat-out that I’m not performing anymore. I feel like now I have a little room to breathe and decide if I want to. But putting my foot down created its own problem – is it right to spend a chunk of my limited time on earth with an expensive instrument that gets its own room, air conditioner, and dehumidifier, when it won’t benefit anyone but me? Music is made to be shared! Does it have any value when it isn’t? I’m not yet sure where questions like that fall within my value system, or whether busking could figure in as benefitting someone else.

    Sylvia, I play for pay 3-5 times a year, but… well, now that I’m looking at it I guess I don’t play out casually much more than that either. It hadn’t occurred to me that this wasn’t a lot of playing. It takes me so long to prepare and I feel the burden so heavily that those 3-5 performances feel like they take up a good chunk of the year. But your perspective is intriguing, not least because I did do something similar when I was learning to sing. I started cantoring (leading song) at church when I was 12. For the next five years I got up in front of 400+ people at least twice a month, often more, and sang. By the time I got to college I was light-years ahead of my classmates in regards to stage fright. I guess I’ve felt like that’s built into me now, and automatically expanded to include to the new instrument: I often don’t experience these flops as fear. My brain or fingers just stop working. I wonder if that’s a different expression of the same old stage fright and I need to start over.

    I tell you what, it’s a perfect day, and all my paraphernalia is still conveniently packed up from two weeks ago, sitting where I dropped it in the harp room. I’m going to go out to Opera House Square and just play whatever and see what happens. The thought is making me a little sick but I’ll just do it anyway.

    Thank you all so very much for your support, and I’ll be back later to respond to more of you.

    Janis Cortese on #144579

    I do very much feel the harp as an obligation; it was given to me for a specific purpose, and when I’ve tried to pull back on performing my concerns have been dismissed.

    I’m concerned — who has been dismissing your concerns? If you want to pull back, you have every right to, IMO. Music is nice when shared, but I’ve been a pianist since I was small. I’m classically trained, and I compose and arrange … and I use a high-quality digital piano with headphones. I plan to sell or otherwise make available my sheet music at some point, but I write and play for ME. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    You’re “meant” to play in the way that brings you joy. 🙂

    Katia on #144580

    Hi Angela,
    I haven’t any good advice for you, but I feel for you because I often experience the same problem (I sing and play a few instruments to varying levels of proficiency). (This is going to get long, sorry.) When I was young, I think I was cocky enough that I didn’t really worry about anything musical in front of audiences. I just assumed I was good. Now it’s terrible, even if I’m just singing at church or something. I have the same problem with dance competitions (I’m a Highland/Scottish dancer). Sometimes it seems like the harder I work at getting it right, the more I mess up.

    (This is how bad my problem is: I have a song I’ve been playing on guitar/singing for a while now, like, it’s been a couple years since I’ve learned it. I don’t play it that often anymore, and it’s not up to “performance” standard, but I still know it. Recently I was talking with another musician and he asked if I could sing something so he’d know what my voice sounded like. I took his guitar and started playing this song. I was so nervous I messed it up royally– both the playing and the singing. Later at home I played it again, just by myself, and did fine. Really weird.)

    I also feel like at this point in my life, I have trouble becoming proficient at an instrument (and, again, in dancing)– I feel like I keep messing up easy things I should be well past. Even just on my own (so I know it’s not just nerves). It’s like I’m unable to develop the muscle memory to get it right. I can practice, get it, am happy… then the next day, I practice again and mess it up again. Sometimes I feel like I start off better at something and then it deteriorates (and I don’t think it’s just that I’m improving and my standards are getting higher). (This is what makes me nervous about learning harp, because I can’t imagine I’ll ever get very far with it.)

    One of he only things I can recommend that has helped me a little (and my apologies if you’ve already tried these; it does sound as if you’ve tried everything you can, but I’ll put all this out there in case it might help you or someone else) is, as someone else suggested, to do it ad nauseum until I could practically do it in my sleep. There have been a few times when I’ve been saved by that, in both music and dance, because I’ll feel my brain check out and get confused from nerves, and my hands or body continue on pure instinct until I can get my mind on track again (has anyone else ever noticed that sometimes it’s harder to play a difficult/fast passage of music when you actually *think* about it? Sometimes I have to just let it flow and then it works just fine).

    The other thing is to not dwell on mistakes. I learned long ago that if I mess up, I have to keep going and not think “damn, I messed up!” Otherwise I’ll mess up again.

    And finally a third thing is what I call the “mind your own business” rule. i’ve learned this one the hard way, as well– it doesn’t matter what other people are doing (unless, of course, you’re doing something like a jam session or some other thing where you need to interact with the other person)… just keep on with what you’re doing and focus on yourself. If an audience member’s phone rings, a baby cries, somebody drops something backstage, there’s feedback from the sound system, an ant crawls up your ankle, whatever… don’t think about it, don’t worry about it. And that includes if other musicians you’re playing with mess up– keep going. If you dwell on it, or try to adjust to them too much, it will only mess you up too.

    (The thing about this, besides the fact that you won’t be distracted/flustered by someone else’s flub, is that if you keep going, it will help them get back on track too, because they won’t have to second-guess where you and the others are in the music. I trust the usual dance piper in my area completely, because I know that if his pipes mess up during a dance, I can just keep going and whenever he gets them back on, he will be at the exact place in the music he would have been if he hadn’t had a problem. I’ve danced to other, less-experienced pipers, who don’t do this and instead try to go back to where the problem was, and then it’s a mess trying to coordinate with what they’re doing as they try to get back into the music.)

    (I was once at a dance competition, during the Sword dance and the dancer next to me kicked her sword {which results in disqualification from the dance}. I heard the “kachunk” of metal on metal. I made the mistake of looking over at her… and subsequently kicked my own sword because I wasn’t paying attention… Now I don’t care what the other dancers or the piper are doing– I just worry about what I’m doing!)

    Music is made to be shared! Does it have any value when it isn’t?

    Absolutely. Music is made, first and foremost, to bring people expression and joy and and catharsis and healing and whatever it is we need it for. No one has a right to your music except you; you have no obligation to share it with anyone at all, ever. If you want to spend the rest of your life sitting in a soundproof room plunking on a harp and no one else ever even knows you play, go right ahead. It is yours, it comes from your own mind and spirit and body, and nobody else owns that. It is nice if we can share our loves and talents and bring something new to other people, but we don’t have to.

    whether busking could figure in as benefitting someone else.

    Yes. I love seeing buskers on the street. It brings a bit of color and joy to the day. Even if it’s not my kind of music, even if I can’t stop and acknowledge them, even if I don’t have a few dollars I can throw their way, it’s fun. And I think there are definitely fewer expectations from listeners, so it might feel a bit easier for you.

    The thought is making me a little sick but I’ll just do it anyway.

    Just do it. No expectations. You can pack it up within five minutes and come back home if it doesn’t feel right. But you’ll probably end up staying longer once you get into the flow, and if not, you got out and did something and it was just a short part of your day.

    Tacye on #144581

    Have you thought about how different mistakes are on the harp? On many instruments a mistake can be immediately rectified – a note started with bad tone or not perfectly in tune can be improved, a wrong note slid into the right one or the next one played right. On the harp the sound is out there and the chances for recovering are later and different. Your fingers aren’t in position to turn a wrong note into a grace note and maybe your placement for the next notes is gone too. So for a harpist completely losing the notes can happen more easily and holding yourself to your own standards on other instruments will probably lead to frustration. You also need to develop different techniques for mistake recovery – I haven’t really thought about articulating what I do before, but keep the pulse going, keep in style and try to get back on track in a couple of seconds.

    How much of your perfomances are of repertoire you have performed before? I find performing a piece for the first time is very different from one that has been out several times before.

    Briggsie B. Peawiggle on #144603

    I think the busking idea is really really a good one. When I spent several weekends playing at the local Renaissance faire, I really made great strides in getting over the nerves, and I even learned to talk to people as I played some of the things. The entire experience was a really good one.

    Also, I once saw a well-known, professional harpist begin and flop on a piece in front of hundreds of harpists…..at least 12 times…..started over and over and over again. Then ran off from the harp and later came back and tried again about 6 times until getting through it finally. It just happens……and maybe this was an odd way to handle it, but everyone handles these kinds of things in their own way.

    No one is forcing you to do public performances — probably before you are really ready, actually. It takes a long time to feel comfortable on a harp. I know because I did it myself….flopped a couple of times…..and I realized I just wasn’t ready for what I was forcing myself to do.

    Relax and do what is right for you.

    Angela Biggs on #144646

    Hello again,

    I played out for over an hour on Friday, and the whole time felt heavy. The only thing I really got out of it was a sunburn. 🙂

    Whatever I decide to do in the long run, right now I need to put this instrument down. Unfortunately I’ve been treating the harp like a “going concern,” so I have a couple of gigs coming up over the next few months, but they’re fairly low-key and I can get away with using music I already know. The good news is that I do have a good amount of this. I played on Friday after being away from my instrument for two weeks, and still had enough repertoire in my fingers to play for more than an hour. There were mistakes, and I skipped some pieces, but that’s still not bad.

    Sid, I ordered the book you recommended.

    Those of you who recommended lessons: I’m thinking about that. I don’t have the resources right now, because I started taking voice lessons again last month (right before the latest harp failure). As a voice teacher, I rely on seeing minute changes in a student’s body, so I’m wary of Skype lessons via grainy webcams and monitors. And there aren’t any harp teachers nearby… but there must be someone on the eastern side of the state. By the time I’m ready to look at my harp again I may have the resources to do something about that, even if it’s limited by funds and distance to once a month. If I’m going to continue harp at all, clearly I need help.

    I’m going to spend some time on the fringes of the harp. I’ve owned “Harps and Harpists” for about a year, but haven’t read it yet; I’ll get on that now. And Sid’s book. I’ll clean up the desk in my harp room. And I have a couple of novice workshops scheduled. I’ll avoid playing for as long as I can before I have to start freshening up for a low-pressure background gig in November, and I’ll be “unavailable” for harp gigs this Christmas.

    Many things you kind people have written resonated with me, or might as well have been my own words! It’s very helpful to know I’m not alone. I would like to respond to each of you individually, but as you can see I’m wordy and that would probably become a journal-length article. 🙂

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your help and support.

    Gretchen Cover on #144655

    Angela, I am sure in time you will figure out where you want to go with your harp.

    I would just like to address one small part of your email: Skype lessons. I recently had a lesson with a Harp Column member, and it was an extremely positive experience. You can see all the nuances and it was almost as good as having someone in the room. The only very minor issue for me was a timing issue because there is a very slight hesitation in sound transmission. But for working on everything else, it is fantastic. I would encourage you or anyone to try this. In addition, there are very inexpensive tablets for about $100 or refurbished Ipads for the same cost if you have a computer with no camera or of poor quality.

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