The Amazing Practice Magnifier, Part 2

musicianship practicing Mar 21, 2016


This blog post is the second in a three-part series of case studies that will show you how to bring more focus – and more harp happiness – into your practice and playing every day.

In last week’s post, Agatha learned how to stay more focused during her practice time and reduce the mental clutter that was preventing her from doing her best work.

In this week’s case study, we help a harpist who is ready and eager to practice but has no idea where to start or what she should be doing.



“It’s not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” – Martial Arts Master Bruce Lee

Imagine if you were able to focus your practice on only what truly needed to be done, not a minimum in terms of time or effort, but intensive work on exactly what was going to create results. You would eliminate excess repetitive practice, and make your practice more interesting. Your practice would be directed toward playing music, not just fixing wrong notes or fingering. You would be growing musically, not merely learning one piece. Sound impossible? It’s not. Read on.

A reminder: these scenarios are not related to particular harp students. They are composite reflections of problems encountered by many music students of all instruments and levels of accomplishment. The names used are for illustration purposes only.

Case Study #2: Betty Lou

Betty Lou has plenty of time to practice and lots of music that she wants to play. Most of the time she sits down at the harp and begins working away at the music she wants to learn, the spots she needs to fix and the things she needs to accomplish before her next lesson. All of this keeps her very busy.

But sometimes she has the sneaking feeling that she is going around in circles and somehow missing something essential. Sure, she’s practicing faithfully, but is she making progress? It’s hard for her to tell. What exactly should she be practicing and how?

First, let me congratulate you, Betty Lou, for thinking about this issue. It’s so much easier to bury your head in your practice and figure it’s going to work eventually, than to consider if your practice will actually lead to the musical result you want.  And I can assure you that there is a way to think about your practice that will eliminate the guesswork and doubt.

Start with some “big picture” practice. Play through the piece you are practicing from beginning to end. Does the piece have a sense of flow, of continuity? Does it feel expressive? Are you in control of the piece? Do you understand the musical context and form of the piece?

The spots in the piece where you have technical challenges that disrupt the flow of the piece will naturally require some separate practice. Work through the four F’s: Find the issue, Focus on it, Fix it and Fit it in to the rest of the piece. But don’t just practice the trouble spots.  You have more interesting things to practice.

Go back to the big picture. Where can you enrich your musical expression of the piece? Can you extend your dynamic range? Do you need to pay more attention to a rallentando or a phrase marking? You may surprise yourself; just paying attention to these details not only makes for a more musical performance and more creative and enjoyable practice, but it also develops your musicianship skills. This is in-depth practicing, learning the music not just the notes.

So now you’re fixing the trouble spots, paying attention to the musical nuances and practicing the piece all the way through so you can experience it the way you eventually want to play it. There’s only one thing left to do.

Play it for someone else. You can play it for your teacher, a friend or family member, or just the cat, but you need to “test drive” your piece. Playing it for someone else is very different than playing it on your own in your practice room. This is why seasoned performers always give preview performances of new works or recital programs. It works out the kinks, shows you what is going well and where you still need extra work.

But most importantly, you will be able to see the progress you have made. Even if you still have some work ahead of you, give yourself a pat on the back for having made it this far.  Way to go, Betty Lou!

Next week in the final post of this series, Carla is losing her motivation. She tries to maintain her energy and enthusiasm but feels like she’s playing in a vacuum…


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