Three Little Things that Add Up to Big Changes

This post was first published on November 19, 2013. Updated on June 14, 2021.

So much to do and so little time.

If you're like me, you have stacks of music that are waiting for you to learn them someday. You have pieces that you are learning now and ones that you plan to start soon. You have exercises or etudes or other music you think you should be doing too. Who has time for all of that?

What if you could keep your harp skills progressing and still learn the music you want to play without spending extra hours on the harp bench?

The happy truth is that there are only three things you need to work on to improve your playing. These things are true whether you are planning to play concerts for thousands of  people or just play for yourself in your own living room. They are true whether you play the harp or another instrument. And the principles actually apply to any endeavor, musical or otherwise.

Learning to play an instrument, and to play it well, is a process and a puzzle. The process part seems easy – practice. The puzzle is when your practice doesn’t seem to be getting you the results you want, or getting them fast enough.

The problem lies in at least one of three areas. 

Are the three things magic solutions? Of course not. They all involve hard work and dedication. The amount of hard work depends on your personal goals for your playing. The more lofty your goals, the more work you will need to do.

But if you HAVE a goal for your playing, even if you think your goal is a small one, you will still have to do these three things. Plus, you will find that when you begin with these three things, you begin to learn music faster, to play it more confidently and to enjoy the entire journey more.  That's a big win for any harpist.

1. Technique. Your technique needs to be developed slightly beyond the demands that you expect to make of it. Your technique is your toolbox, without which everything is more difficult. I used to watch DIY home shows on television and marvel at how easy they made it all look. Why was it so hard for me? Then I realized that I didn’t have a tile cutter or a table saw or a miter box or any of the fancy tools the TV hosts were using. Without the right tools, I couldn’t do the job. Fortunately, my own harp “toolbox” is better equipped than my Black and Decker one.

2. Musicianship. This is the biggest category. There are so many pieces to the musicianship puzzle. We must include not only expressive tools like dynamics and tone color, but also more fundamental pieces of musical literacy like basic theory, ear training and a smattering of music history. These things inform your performance and help you learn pieces more quickly and efficiently. It’s not as overwhelming a task as it may seem, though. 

3. Repertoire. Once your technique says you CAN play, and your musicianship helps you know HOW to play, all that’s left is the WHAT. You build your repertoire, learning the specialized skills that help you perform it in whatever situations you need. Whether it’s just achieving the continuity to play it well for yourself or conquering your nerves to perform for others, this is part of the big picture.

Your success depends on your decision to focus on one of these areas at a time and then to rotate your focus regularly between them. For instance, you could allocate a larger portion of your practice this week to technique work, while still practicing your repertoire and possibly adding in a little focus on expression. Then next week, put your emphasis on musicianship, specifically refreshing your knowledge of keys, scales and chords. This will double as technique work, leaving the rest of your practice time free for your music. Get the idea?

Which of the three areas will you work on this week?

Want to listen to my podcast episode inspired by this post? You can do so by clicking here.


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