The Busy Harpist’s Checklist

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JugglingLast week on the blog, I wrote about things that busy professional harpists have learned that every harpist could benefit from. In the spirit of “turn around is fair play,” today I offer things that those same busy harpists need to remember. Actually, we all need to remember these things, and the busier you are, the more likely you are to forget how important they are.

But this isn’t a checklist of what you need to remember to take with you on the job. This is a checklist of what you need to remember to do when you get back home.

When you have a busy performing calendar, whether those performances are recitals or weddings, you learn to juggle. You juggle the music that you need to prepare, the logistics of getting you and your harp from place to place, and the financial uncertainty of busy and slow seasons. And there is some excitement and a little adrenalin rush in balancing all the commitments you have.

Unfortunately, if you don’t take time to pay attention to some fundamental things, you will find that your juggling loses all of its appeal and music becomes just another rat race. I’ve seen it happen to lots of professional musicians, harpist or otherwise.

Here are my seven top things you need to keep in mind to keep you happy playing music:

  1. Playing a lot is not a substitute for practice. It’s difficult to find the willpower to practice in the morning when you know you will be playing for three or four hours in the evening. But the truth is that practice is how we keep the bad habits from forming. Many problems professional harpists suffer, from sloppy fingers to physical injury, could be prevented by some mindful practice.
  2. Rediscover your tone. Background music work takes a terrible toll on our tone. We either play too loudly because so many people are talking around us at the cocktail party, or we play too softly for fear of being too loud for the atmosphere in the elegant restaurant. Either way, we are compromising the biggest musical asset we have: our personal sound on the instrument whose sound we love.
  3. Refresh your technique. The curse of the busy professional is playing too fast, too loud, too hard, too much of the time. Slow down and remind your fingers of that fabulous technique you worked for years to develop. They’ll reward you by working better for you on your next gig.
  4. Do some detailing. When you have to play a piece and just get it done, there is often no time for the nitpicky detail work that you used to do when you were in school. Put aside an hour and go through one of your usual gig pieces, thinking about everything: fingering, dynamics, placing, finger noise, pedal noise. Work slowly and carefully. It’s almost like a trip to the spa. You will feel refreshed, and you will be able to play that piece with renewed energy and focus.
  5. Do a dynamic check-up. At your last wedding gig, did you play with a wide expressive palate? Or did you just play the notes? If you ever play background music, it’s certain that your range of dynamics has shrunk. It’s tempting to try to compete with the conversation, and even if you’re using amplification, your sound can still be swallowed up in the party noise. Remember that for your fingers, tendons, and sanity not to mention for the music’s sake, you need to honor the expressive quality in everything you play.
  6. Practice with focus. Our focus at a gig can be formidable, blocking out extraneous noise and visual distraction. But we use a different kind of focus when we concentrate on playing the best we know how. Bring those powers of concentration to your practice and try them out on something new.
  7. Remember that you love music. Remember why you are doing this. It’s not just to make a living. You could do that in any number of easier ways. It’s because you’ve found a way to get paid doing what you love. Be sure to keep that front of mind whatever you are doing. You’ll be glad you did.

By the way, you’ll find a great take on the last point on the Harp Column website in a blog post written by Japanese harpist Motoshi Kosako. Be sure to check it out!

Ps. Did you know that email subscribers to the Harp Mastery blog receive weekly tips to help boost their harp playing and performance? You can get these tips too, but only if you subscribe. Subscribe today!

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  • robert stone

    In the course of your life some experiences stand out more than others and serve to inspire you. As a saxophonist, I was hired to perform solo saxophone along with pre-recorded music during a dinner-I didn’t think anyone was listening but towards the end of my performance, I saw a woman looking at me and I could tell that she had been following my performance the entire time. She applauded enthusiastically which made me feel good! There is a saying by Confucius that goes: “you can’t help everyone but you can help one person”. Like Japanese harpist Motoshi Kosako found while performing in noisy cafes, it’s important to keep your values intact, your standards high, even if you think it’s not the ideal place for your musical performance. You never know when just that one person, who really cares, is listening!

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