4 Easy Ideas to Take Your Music Reading from Fumbling to Fluent

When I send out a poll or take an informal survey of a group of harpists, I always ask about their biggest challenge. I want to know what is the biggest obstacle in their path, the one thing that prevents them from playing the harp the way they want. 

Invariably, the number one answer is music reading skills.

The complaints range from “I just can’t learn bass clef,” to, “I have to memorize every piece I learn because I can’t read the notes well enough,” to, “It takes me forever to figure out the notes and fingering.”

Even some difficulties that don’t look related to note reading at first glance, have poor music reading skills at their source. Trouble with your left hand or not being able to put hands together easily are both common symptoms of reading issues.

I know from my years of teaching experience that becoming more fluent in your note reading is key to becoming a better harpist. Practicing note reading isn’t difficult, either; a few simple drills done regularly and systematically will work wonders. In fact, I speak about and teach these drills often. That doesn’t mean, however, that most harpists take the time to do them. Even harpists who have the best intentions find that practicing their note reading is always the last item on their practice plan. 

So today, I urge you to forget the exercises and drills! I still believe they are important and impactful, but as an alternative, I have some creative, fun and sneaky ways for you to improve your reading skills. They won’t require any extra practice time. Instead they are more like a reading boost, extra value that you will get just by doing what you were already doing anyway. 

  1. Drop the needle. Each piece you practice, before you start, close your eyes and point to a random place on the page. Before you play the piece through or work on whatever part you were going to practice, play that measure, and then add the measure on each side of it. You will find you have to read the notes, rather than just play them without thinking. This is also a great way to practice so that you never lose your place on the page!
  2. Fingering fixer. Get a new perspective on a tricky fingering by playing the right fingering in the wrong clef. Simply pretend that the passage you want to drill is written in the “other” clef. If it is a treble clef passage, play it in bass clef; if it is in bass clef, play it in treble clef. Play it an octave higher or lower if you need to. And give yourself bonus points if you change the key and actually transpose it.
  3. Random review. Pull a pile of music from your shelf. Don’t carefully select pieces; just make this a random pile. Turn the pile of music face down. Each day this week take the top piece from the pile and play through it. If it’s an entire book, choose one piece. If it’s a long piece, take one page of it. When you’ve finished that piece or that page, return it to your shelf. (Having the pile face down, means you will be replacing music in the same order on your shelf.) You may discover in this process that there are some pieces you own that you will never play again. Don’t return these to your pile. Give them to another harpist or student who may enjoy them. 
  4. Hands separately solution. If there’s a passage that needs hands separately practice, try playing the left hand line with your right hand, and then play the right hand line with your left hand. Next, play one hand and at the same time say the notes the other hand would play. Repeat for the other hand. You will know the notes so much better when you try to put the hands together!

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