Are These 3 Things Holding You Back?

Are you putting the brakes on when you play or practice? Or are you frustrated with slow progress?

A quick story…

One summer when my husband, son and I were vacationing in Europe, we stopped in the Alps to take a ride on a Sommerrodelbahn, a summer version of a toboggan run. After all, what do you do in the Alps in the summer if you don’t have snow?

This particular ride was a long, winding, downhill track, shaped like a trough, and the riders sat in small individual sleds. Each sled was controlled only by the rider, so you could go at your own pace. My son and husband zoomed down the hill, their sleds scooting up the sides of the track like an Olympic luge. I was much more cautious, applying my brake often. In fact, I applied my brake much too often for the person in the sled behind me. I still had a good ride, but I knew that I really wanted to go faster on my second ride. My caution might have won awards for safety, but I missed some of the thrill I could have had on the sled.

I hear from harpists nearly every week who are frustrated by a lack of progress in their playing. They just aren’t going as fast as they had hoped or expected. Whether you have been playing four weeks or four decades, if this is happening to you, there is hope.

This is not a post about overcoming fear, and I’m certainly not offering an overnight miracle. But if you’re not making the progress you had hoped for in your music playing, then you need to make a change. And there are three skills that you can practice and improve that will remove most of the frustration and smooth the path for you.

1. Flexibility. Fortunately for those of us who have passed our more limber youth, this kind of flexibility doesn’t require actual athleticism. But it does require us to remember that playing any musical instrument is a physical endeavor. And for us harpists, our fingers must be able to meet the challenges we present to them. That’s why exercises, scales, arpeggios and etudes are so crucial to our development. These exercises repeat the patterns that we encounter most often in our repertoire. By practicing these drills, we are preparing our fingers to respond automatically to these patterns when we encounter them in our daily playing. There is no substitute for dedicated technical work. Seek out exercises and etudes that are just beyond your current playing level, or ask your teacher to advise you. Practice them thoroughly and you will see the immediate improvement in the rest of your playing.

2. Speed. Like me on the Alpine slide, you must learn to go for speed. If you want to play something fast, you actually have to play it fast. Most of us don’t have the time to wait for a metronome kick-it-up-notch-by-notch approach to work. If you’re tired of playing a piece slowly, it’s way past to time to try it at the correct tempo. Start there – playing the piece at the correct tempo. Even if you can only manage half a measure at a time, you and your fingers will now have the real goal in their sights. Find a tempo that is midway between a comfortable tempo for you and the goal tempo. Practice at that speed. You don’t have to do all your practice at that speed, but you will find that you adapt to the new speed. Don’t wait for “fast” to happen; make “fast” happen.

3. Note Reading. Many students spend lots of time on their technical work and repertoire, only to have their efforts sabotaged by poor note reading skills. Note reading isn’t something magical that just happens, or a mysterious talent that only some people have. It’s not a gift; it’s a skill, one that you can and should practice.

There are many textbooks and drill books that you can use to practice note reading, but you will find it more beneficial to practice note reading using music you are already practicing. Here’s a very simple exercise:

  • Take a phrase or two from a piece you are learning. A melodic phrase (as opposed to one with lots of chords) works best, although if there are chords in the melody, just read the top note.
  • Set your metronome to a rather slow speed. Start with 60 and adjust the speed from there as needed. Ignore the rhythm of the line.
  • Simply say the name of each note with each click of the metronome. The most important thing is to use the metronome to keep your reading even and steady.
  • If your melody is in treble clef, read it again as if the notes were in bass clef, so you practice both clefs. If ledger lines are difficult for you, seek out a line with those notes to practice.
  • For added challenge, you can always read the notes backwards!

What’s holding you back? Leave a comment below…

Ps. Need help with note reading? You might want to check out my “Become a Speedier Reader” PDF course.


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