In no particular order, here are some “ingredients for success” I have found useful for harp students. What is “success” at the harp? It means having the music you want to play within your reach and making your musical dreams a reality.
1. Productive habits. How you practice, when you practice, tuning all your strings every day, breaking new pieces into manageable sections… these are the sorts of small elements that will make a huge difference in your work. Your teacher will give you suggestions about practice methods; do not turn them down unless you have proof that a different method is superior for you.
2. Listening to a lot of music. The difference between you and a programmed, synthesized harp machine is musical expression. Having a lot of music in your life enhances your ability to convey emotions, sound textures and colors through your playing, to conjure mental pictures for your listener, and even to simply have good pitch and rhythm.
3. Sight reading, aka knowing written rhythms and notes. Duh. No, not duh! Many students find themselves stuck with a limited repertoire or a stale learning style because they are not proficient sight readers. Always keep in mind that sight reading is a continuum, not a destination. Any progress you make in note and rhythm recognition will be very helpful and beneficial. Never compare yourself to others; just keep moving forward. Become adept at clapping difficult rhythms. (I recommend what we fondly call “the drummer dude book” for practice if you don’t have a lot of sheet music around.) For note reading practice, set a metronome at a slow beat, get out some sheet music, and — starting at the bottom-most note of each beat and moving vertically through all the notes that occur on that beat (including both bass and treble clefs) — name each note aloud on each beat of the metronome.
4. Balance in your life. Work hard — because harp is a difficult instrument to play well — but when you go on vacation leave the harp at home. When harp has been physically strenuous, read a book. When harp has been mentally taxing, go for a walk. When you have been shut up practicing too long, call a friend. It is just as detrimental to overwork yourself as it is to slack off. I love using a practice log because students can clock the hours they need and then enjoy the rest of their day without feeling guilt and stress over imperfection. Consistent practice is like regularly putting money in the bank. It adds up quickly.
5. Good physical technique. There are several methods for harp that use different hand positions. I will not even contemplate saying one is “best,” though there is only one technique I personally teach. (The one I know of course.) Whichever technique you are learning, commit yourself to it and work hard to master it. Good technique makes you agile and ready to tackle hard music. Focus completely on technique when you have exercises or etudes so that hand position will be automatic when you play your “real” music and your mind is busy with non-technique issues. Avoid “too cool for school” thinking; good hand position is the means to an end, and you do need it to advance.
6. Knowing what kind of music you really love. When you are learning harp, your teacher will give you pieces that teach specific skills and move you through a planned progression. But whenever there is a choice of music you should be very aware of what you want. We don’t have to specialize to the exclusion all other genres. Rather we need to have a focal point, a calling. Choose to do a few things well. With music, if you close some doors you can usually open them again later if you change your mind.
7. The best instrument you can afford. I just cannot stress this enough: don’t buy a cheap harp. With harps, you get what you pay for. (And a more expensive harp will hold its resale value better if your circumstances change.) Furthermore, identify the harp tone you like best. Harps differ enormously in tone, depending on so many factors. Listen to a lot of harps! Watch YouTube, attend harp concerts and AHS meetings, visit any harp stores you can, and if possible go to the mother of all harp retail venues: the expo of a major harp conference. Finally, if you must choose between two or more harps whose sound you’re sure you’d be happy with — I’m going to say it — buy the “pretty” one. Seriously. This is going to be a great big object in your living space, and its beauty should fill your heart with joy. If you currently own a harp but are unhappy with the tone, get a better one and sell the old harp. This isn’t the Great Depression. Stop feeling guilty, save up your money, and upgrade. In order to reach your goals, you must have a harp you love. [Note: if you are buying a used harp with no warranty, ask your teacher or an experienced harp player to look at it with you.]
8. Support. If you are under 20, positive input and involvement from a parent is crucial. For adult students, anyone living with you can be a help or a hindrance when practice time comes along. Work out any issues, and express your gratitude sincerely and frequently.
9. Audience. Wait! Don’t run away. “Audience” just means you are playing your best — with no stop-and-do-overs — with the distraction of being heard and yes, judged, by a sentient being other than your cat. For the shy among us, audience can mean a recording or video of yourself, only for yourself. Whether you choose to record yourself, invite the neighbors over, or book yourself at the local nursing home, having an audience will provide tremendous benefits. You will learn so much about your piece and yourself. You will have an opportunity to really express yourself musically. And the practice leading up to your performance will have more meaning and motivation.
10. Variety. Although I believe in having an established practice routine*, we need variety to prevent staleness. Think of ways to spice up your practice time. You could have one “sight-reading day” each week to look at new music, move the harp to different locations in your home, or play pieces in different octaves than usual. Or, you could take a piece you know well and write out the chord progression so that you can improvise a musical bridge between repeats. For ear training, try to play along with a favorite recording: either pick out the melody, or try to play the backup chords.
I hope you will find this list helpful. Even if you are only learning harp as a relaxing hobby and have no intention of sharing it outside your home, you will get so much more personal benefit from playing well. Having harp in your life should be worth the time and expense, both of which are unavoidable — unless your harp is only serving to adorn your living room. Dig deeper and find gold!
*Practice routine… My practice routine starts with repertoire because that is how performances begin. Those lucky flute players can warm up in a back room with exercises, but we harp players must march out and dive straight in.