A new year, a fresh start. But is this really the time to start over or should you just forge ahead?
I’m always tempted to wipe my slate clean at the start of a new year. It feels empowering to choose to discard the habits that are holding me back and to jettison the things that are cluttering my closets.
There’s always the possibility, however, that in this sudden urge to purge I might be getting rid of something that I shouldn’t. When summer comes around, will I wish that I hadn’t donated that blouse? Usually my decision to let things go has been the right one.
If you’re making similar decisions right now, I applaud you. As the French author Antoine de St. Exupery wrote, “He who would travel happily must travel light.” But in your musical world, I would urge you to not make any hasty decisions.
Perhaps the biggest frustration I hear from harpists is that despite their hard work and dedication, they still have no music they feel prepared to play for anyone. The story usually goes like this: harpist hears a piece of music, falls in love with the piece, purchases it and starts to learn it. Harpist practices hard and sees some progress. Then the progress grinds to a halt. Harpist doubles down on practice and the piece actually seems to get worse. Eventually harpist gets frustrated and puts the piece in a drawer for “later.”
If this has been your experience, I have good news and a new idea for you. First, the good news is that your piece that has been appearing to stagnate has probably just been getting ready for a growth spurt.
Do you remember the growing pains you may have had as a teenager? In my family of tall people, we all had growing pains. They made us cranky and achy in the knees, but then they vanished and we were miraculously three inches taller.
Music study actually works in a similar way. Progress in the early learning stages is easy to see as you work your way through the details of learning notes, rhythms and fingering. But the next level of accomplishment, the level where the piece begins to come together and sound like music, takes much longer to attain. It takes familiarity over time.
When we don’t account for the time necessary for that deep familiarity to develop, we become frustrated. We try to force the piece to the next level. Sometimes this isn’t a bad tactic, but other times it actually makes the situation worse. It begins to feel like we are regressing with the piece no matter how hard we practice. In truth, all we may need to do is to patiently stay the course and wait for the growth spurt to happen.
Here’s my new idea for you. Resist the urge to put your piece in that pile of pieces you want to finish someday. Let’s take this one to the finish instead. But don’t keep hammering away at it just waiting for something to change. Let’s try a different and less frustrating approach.
Your piece needs time. You need to be able to practice it without gritting your teeth. There are ways you can ease the pressure without taking your foot off the gas pedal altogether while you let the piece sink into your fingers.
Try taking a step back and playing your piece at whatever tempo is comfortable. Don’t try to make it better; don’t practice it. Just play it and let it stabilize.
Alternatively, you could take the aggressive approach and push it to that next level. Play it fast, if tempo is the issue. Or start trying to play it the way you want it to go without worrying about the mistakes that happen. Sometimes taking the plunge is more effective than dipping one toe in the water.
Or you could take this growth spurt time to discover new things about the piece. Learn about it, rather than just learn it. What can you discover about the composer? What patterns do you see in the music that you may not have noticed before? What story could you fit to the music? How would you introduce this piece to a listener? This discovery period will help reconnect you to the piece when you most need it and buy you some crucial patience while your piece is simmering waiting to grow.
Don’t put your hard work in the drawer. Take this moment at the start of a new year to try a new approach, knowing that you’re on the cusp of the next level.
Remember that the ugly duckling turned out to be a graceful swan. All he needed was a little time and a little acceptance. Be kind to yourself this new year. Treat yourself with grace and patience and persist gently through your growth spurt. And be ready to enjoy the music that waits on the other side.