I was wondering if anyone gets frustrated and ‘fed up’ with not feeling they are mastering tunes quick enough. I love all things harp and have downloaded a lot of songs of youtube by relatively senior harpists (as in they are playing the Fountain by Grandjany which to me looks positively magical, or Arabesque by Debussy). I feel very inspired watching harpists play but then when I practice I feel almost intimidated realising how far off I am being at that level.
It’s absolutely not that I think it should come easy; what i see on youtube and on clips posted here is sometimes years of effort, dedication, blood, sweat and tears and I don’t want you think I arrogantly expect to be that good so quickly. I admire those who can play so beautifully and I can only dream of getting to that level.
Harp for me is a hobby and something that I love; I don’t see a future for myself professionally but I do enjoy playing music and I love the impact it has on people.
I’m made a pact with myself if I can get to 6th grade I’ll invest in a pedal harp. They aren’t cheap! So I want to have a certain degree of proficiency before I take the plunge.
Out of interest, how long should it take me to master a piece? Not a concert piece but an exam piece. I know it depends on how much you can practice. I practice for 20 minutes a piece per night (skip the odd night due to work commitments). On weekends I sit for longer. I’ve been working on the same piece for 3 weeks and there’s a tiny bit I can’t master and it’s driving me barmy.
Any advice would be most appreciated. What do you do when there’s a particular spot that won’t ‘stick’?
As you get more advanced and your pieces get more advanced, it takes longer to learn a piece. I think to truly master a piece and be comfortable performing it takes much longer than 3 weeks. It sounds like you have good practice habits. I wouldn’t worry about how long it takes or compare yourself to other people. Just keep practicing and it will come eventually. If there is something that seems truly impossible in the piece, you can always put it down and try it again in a few weeks or months and it will probably seem easy.
For me, sometimes if it takes too long to learn a song, I stop trying to practice that song, and switch to etudes and exercises, and then after a break of 1-2 weeks, I come back to the piece. I also try to work on my sight reading, as that is a major help when you are learning a new piece! If you enjoy The Fountain, which is by Zabel I believe, try Samuel Pratt’s The Little Fountain. It’s for lever harp, and it is quite pretty and is fairly easy, as most of the time you are in the same position, and the chords get repeated throughout.
Don’t neglect technique! It actually does make a difference. Another thing that I do when I am stuck on a particular hard part is to take it measure by measure and try to break everything down. Then I will practice the same 2 bars over and over again until I feel comfortable, then move on to the next two bars, practice those two, then try to put the 4 bars together.
Or, you can start at the ending, and then practice the end, followed by the middle, then the beginning. Going backwards sometimes helps too!
I hope these tips can help you too!
I think on almost any instrument the key to learning any piece can often be to break the song down into its’ structure, rather than just play through the notes. (And I’m VERY bad at learning pieces, because I’m spread too thin on too many instruments and I haven’t cared about my repertoire, I never worry about performing, I just want to do something new too often and have no consistency. So things move forward slowly, although move along they do eventually.
Anyway if you play some other instrument better, it might help to do a rough play on that, to see and be aware of the chord structure more: so many tunes relate largely in some way to I, IV, V structure, with at least two of those chords especially- so it might help you get there better in a more general way across the strings on harp. It also helps to be aware of octaves on harp especially, and when you realize it, a lot of some pieces are just the same patterns , sometimes on different octaves that might not be so apparent written on a score. And so some of the mental block can disappear at that point, and you can gain in sight reading “in reverse” by being aware of the chord and arpeggio patterns and then seeing them on the staves.
I learned a long time ago in education classes that there are three basic steps that help you learn anything: 1. Preview the material, 2. study or practice the material and 3. the review of the material. The preview and review are much shorter periods of time, but really maximum your time otherwise- they can be the mortar between the bricks of learning.
With a musical piece, the preview and review are more about engaging the brain on any pertinent aspect of a piece that helps your understanding. They help you remember and you’ve already engaged your mind before you practice it again. They focus you and that saves time, especially when you haven’t practiced regularly.
Studies have also clearly shown that mental visualization even when, and maybe especially when, you are not at the instrument or practicing otherwise, can be very beneficial in advancing a study of something. The power of mental visualization is a powerful thing and should be cultivated. Mentally picture the staves and name the notes of the lines and spaces, and mentally recall where your piece goes. Any time doing that is really just as valuable as playing the piece itself, except perhaps in terms of physical technique, and yet every musician can tell you, you have to have a mental rememberance of where the notes are to play them smoothly. You don’t want to have to unlearn something you’ve learned to play incorrectly simply because you’ve focused on the speed.
Be of good cheer – two of the most admired artists I know both say that they may work on a piece for over a year before they are ready to play in performance. What we see and hear on Youtube is inspiring, but here’s the first tip: leave it at that. Be inspired, then study what they are doing and simplify it to your level. Other tips (ones that apply to me anyway):
Slow the piece way down to a speed that is manageable for the trouble spots. You will enjoy it more and be less likely to end up with erratic rhythm.
Become friends with your metronome and use it especially on those trouble spots.
Don’t neglect exercises – make 10 minutes of arpeggios, scales etc. part of your practice routine. If some passages are giving you trouble that is often due to fingering. Work just on that part and supplement with an appropriate exercise.
Any amount of playing can be good and make it playing, not drudgery. So keep the harp in an accessible place and when the spirit moves outside “practice time” just sit down for a few minutes.
Visualize! Maybe before bed, at work when it’s boring, whatever. A famous wire harper broke her wrist and her entire practice for weeks consisted of visualizing how she might play some things. When her wrist healed she was astonished to find that not only did she play it well right off the bat, but that her fingerings had changed as well!
Make the practice time fun! Start with something you know well and like and end the same way. Give yourself a reward at the end – perhaps compose a little tune, improvise, or just gliss all over the place.
Hope that is useful!
There is some great advice already suggested.
I share your frustration. I have a piece I’ve been working on for about a month, a piece that is not very difficult, but there’s one spot I mess up on every time. I need to memorize that spot so I can play it without having to look at the pages. I think that will help.
Another thing that helps is taking that part slow–painfully slow. So slow that you absolutely can’t make a mistake. Keep it at that speed until you have it memorized. Start with only a measure or two at First. Then add a few measures before that part, and practice the transition into it. Speed it up very gradually (metronome!). Eventually you will get it. If you do the same mistake every time, it sounds like you have learned it incorrectly, and so will take many repetitions to relearn that section.
Also, if you were to tell us what piece, and what measure(s) of it you are having trouble with, you may get some more specific advice on how to practice that particular spot.
I like the idea of putting it aside for a while if it’s driving you nuts. Maybe pick up a piece that is simple and can be learned quickly, or find something you learned before and haven’t played in a while, but that wouldn’t take much to get back into your fingers. It can be a good confidence boost. 🙂
This will get worse as you get more advanced! But the music will get more interesting too, and you will have a bigger repertoire of pieces. I played harp for two years as a kid, most of which I’ve forgotten, and have also been playing the piano for 33 years, so I got to an advanced level at that. Taking up the harp again, it was rather delightful learning pieces that were so short and quick to learn. One suite has movements that start at only three pages long! Very different from learning entire concerti.
Something you might like is to get some music collections that are noticeably easier than the pieces you’re studying, the sort of thing where you can learn the pieces contained quickly and easily, and perhaps have one on the go in addition to your more challenging pieces. It’s great to be able to get something under your belt more quickly, it helps broaden your repertoire, you learn various techniques as you go, and it gives you pieces you can play when you are tired or not well-focused and just want something easy. So for instance, I am learning a couple of Bach preludes and the first Epices suite by Andres, which require proper study, but I also have Deborah Friou’s collection of early music for the harp, where I can polish off pieces quickly and which are great for relaxing with. I think I may be a few grades ahead of you, since I came to this with a lot of musical experience, so don’t assume that a book which I think of as relatively easy will be for you until you’ve had a look at it! But there is lots of harp music at various levels, so you should be able to find something that clicks for you.
Practice techniques: this is carried over from my piano experience, as I’ve only had a couple of harp lessons this time around, but here are techniques I’m finding work well on harp as well as on piano.
If you’re playing continuous semiquavers, try playing them in dotted rhythms, both the dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver and the semiquaver followed by a dotted quaver. I’m finding this particularly useful for lever changes.
Slow practice, taking the time to listen carefully. When I was studying a couple of Messiaen preludes for my music A-level, I remember doing quarter-speed practice. (I more commonly did half-speed, so this was new to me.) It was a very meditative experience, and really helped me understand and connect with the complex, colourful music, as well as do things like get my tone really well-balanced.
If you are finding that you keep stumbling, slow down, even if you are raring to go. You often don’t need to slow down as much as you think, usually to the point that no one listening even notices that you are playing more slowly.
All of these tips and suggestions are awesome! I’ve been a musician since I was 8 years old, in one way or another. Learning harp has it’s unique challenges. But the approach to practicing is somewhat transferrable.
Two sources of ideas for you might be Yolanda Kondonassis’ book On Playing the Harp has great exercises and practice approaches, and Fionnuala Gill’s mindfulness website has great insights about how to use mindfulness to achieve success in playing the harp.
As a teacher (of nursing), I am interested in pedagogy. As an incipient harpist, I found Jo-Ying Angela Huang’s master’s thesis, Effective harp pedagogy – A Study of Techniques, Physical and Mental, to be a font of interesting information to explore further about practice techniques and methodologies specific to harp. It can be downloaded from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury’s website.
Hope this is helpful. John
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