Musicality/Improvisation Tips

Posted In: Coffee Break

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    George Mendes on #226934

    I am in my late 20s and have been learning harp for nearly a year now with no prior musical experience. I picked up site reading well enough and am a very by-the-rules person in general, which has carried into my harp playing in that it feels stiff and confined to exactly what’s on the page.

    So I am looking for tips or suggestions on how to start playing in a more “musical” manner and not be so tied down by the exact notation and my own brain. My initial thought is, of course, to find more rules and look into music theory, but I am somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of info out there. Speed Test Should I memorize a bunch of chords and work off those as building blocks to understanding sound better? How can I step into being a more playful Scrabble Word Finder or fluid player? My goals are to eventually be able to possibly write some things myself and pick up Solitaire on how to play songs without having sheet music.

    I’ve taken to trying to freestyle for a few minutes whenever I practice in order to loosen up a little bit. Just whatever my hands gravitate towards doing. Appreciate any insight!

    • This topic was modified 2 years, 3 months ago by George Mendes.
    wil-weten on #226935

    My (flute) teacher once advised me to sing or hum the melody in order to develop a better feeling for a piece of music. For me, this proved to be great advice. It also works, more or less, for the harp.

    evolene_t on #226936

    Hey George!

    I find myself asking the same questions and being on the same progression path. So here are ressources that I personally found helpful in the last few month, to make myself try something new.

    First, Josh Laynes Fundamental exercises on the harp – chord progressions. Harp Tuesday ep. 122.
    You probably already know this great harp teacher with a lot of wonderful videos.
    This one kind of “unlocked” something for me : by understanding inverted chord and practicing them, this video really helped. I tried to replace my usual “C 1-5-8” (C-G-C) pattern with inverted chords and it can make very different things.

    Then, you can look at Tiffany Shaeffer‘s How to Add Left Hand Chords.
    She has a lot of videos of traditional Celtic tunes such as O’Carolan tunes, and she only teaches the high-hand part, using the oral tradition. It is then up to you to creates the left hand, with no notation. This is great exercice to let go of the music score.

    Starting with “Lead Sheet” or “Fake books” helps : they only write down the right hand but give the general chord for the left hand, so that you don’t have to fumble around for ages. Knowing that the chord you should use is “C”, it is up to you to find the chord that fits best.
    This video explains what you can do with that. I have found it a great help for letting go of what is “right” and focusing on what I want to create.
    And O’Carolan is great because it has been adapted by so many people on so many instruments that you can draw inspiration from everyone for your own tune.

    Finally, if these free tutorials helped you, I found that the book Music Theory and Arranging Techniques by Sylvia Woods takes that to the next level.
    Sylvia Wood – Harpcenter – Arranging Techniques
    If you know how to read sheet music, this has 24 chapters of progression to try out different arranging patterns. There is about a hundred piece in there with tips on how to arrange them.
    I personally bought it in pdf so I could have it immediately, and it’s great to read on a iPad or computer and print out (for your own use) one or two favorite tunes so that you can scribble an arrangement on paper.
    I haven’t progressed much in this book because of a lack of time, and also because I’m quite bad at reading sheet music, I take a long time to decipher them. I would love a CD to go with it. But the tips and really useful anyhow!

    So here’s my advice for starters. Do tell me if it has helped you along as well!
    I think that by starting with well-known tunes, it’s easier to move on with your own interpretation, and eventually compose simple tunes by yourself.
    Good luck and keep us informed!

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 3 months ago by evolene_t.
    Biagio on #226938

    Wood’s book is excellent; Arranging for the Folk Harp by Kim Robertson, while shorter, goes into greater depth on alternatives: inversions, arpeggios etc. of the same chord.

    Two fun exercises shown by Harper Tache might also be useful. Exercise 1: set up a rhythm using just the tonic and two dominants, then start to improvise a melody around them. Exercise 2: play a phrase from the melody and listen to how the harmony sounds using first major chord, than a minor one (e.g. if the melody “wants” a Cmaj try instead an Amin).

    It’s tempting to try to rush this sort of thing but that can end up being frustrating – understand that much of modern music especially choral, might be thought of as two or more melodies played or sung simultaneously.

    Gretchen Cover on #227009

    I see this was posted again in harps and accessories but under a different name.

    hearpe on #227161

    Arpeggios and open chord patterns have really helped me. If you feel confined by the written piece, play the same notes elsewhere. Move it all up or down jus for fun and to see how you like it.

    Deborah Henson-Conant on #227180

    George – this is exactly why I created the course “Hands on Harmony” ( – to show harpists how harmony ‘works’ on our instrument — so you have the skills to build musical inventions.

    Asking for a game-type environment for learning is brilliant — I’d say that Hands on Harmony is less like Solitaire or Scrabble, though – and more like Lego’s: small pieces you can use together to build things over and over and over, taking them apart and putting them together in different ways.

    There’s also a free chart I created that shows all the chord types (Minor, Major, ‘7 (b9)” etc.) – it’s not the kind of ‘drill’ or game-environment it sounds like you’re looking for, but it’s a place to start for free and and you can see it (and other free resources) on this page:

    Bravo to you for wanting fluency and asking for specifics. That says to me that you’re someone who’s really committed to collaborating in your own learning – and that’s my favorite type of person to work with as a coach an teacher – and that approach helps everyone in any learning environment. So … Bravissimo!

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