How to Practice: Beginners

Often times the teacher may give you a new piece of music to work on, but not go through the necessary steps on how to practice. Follow the steps below to gain confidence towards performing a new piece.
  • Plan. Outline your goal for your practice sessions. Does working in the morning or evening suit you best? Find a time when and where you have no distractions. Plan out a daily/ weekly practice schedule. Does a 15 minute practice session work better for you than 30 minutes? Can you practice 20 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and practice 10 more minutes? Commit to a schedule and set an alarm. Think about what you want to accomplish and plan to meet that goal.
  • Analyze your choices of music. Do you want to focus on wedding music? Orchestral excerpts? Do you have a Holiday piece, or another piece you’ve been wanting to learn for a while? Pick several pieces of music that will inspire you and make it easier to get to the harp. Keep your goals realistic. Biting off more than you can chew will frustrate you and you’ll find yourself not wanting to practice. Keep your pieces within your technical ability, or slightly above.
  • Pick your first piece to learn. Look at your choices you set aside to learn and choose something that will encourage you to get to the harp and practice.
  • Analyze your piece. What skills are needed to meet the goal of learning this piece well? What techniques are required to master the piece? Scales? Harmonics? Arpeggios? Rolled Chords? What key are you in? What’s the time signature? Any tricky rhythmic passages? Make a list of the skills needed. If there’s a technique lacking in your wheelhouse, find an exercise focusing on that skill and work it into your daily practice routine.
  • Break down piece into smaller sections. Take your piece and analyze it further. Where do phrases begin and end? Can you break down your piece into 8, or even 10 workable sections? Break these sections down based on phrasing or ideas. Delineate these sections with boxed letters in alphabetical order. This way of breaking down sections using boxed letters is called “Repair Points” and it is the invention of harpist Dr. Carrol McLaughlin. Her methods can be learned through her book “Power Performance”
  • Practice! Now that you have spent the necessary time carefully choosing your piece and analyzing it, begin practice on the first repair point, or first several repair points. Use a metronome and slow it down to a snail’s pace. Practice it so slowly that you have time to think about everything: Am I closing my fingers into my palm? Am I keeping my knuckles rounded? Am I setting up all the correct fingers [within a bracket]? The most important thing to do as you begin a piece is to practice slowly. This cannot be stressed enough. If you go too fast, or move on to a new section without feeling comfortable with the previous section, you are practicing bad habits which will result in a poor performance. Break down any difficult passage into smaller chunks (3 or 4 beats at a time) and repeat JUST that section slowly until you feel comfortable.
  • Wash, Rinse, Repeat. The hard work you spent on the first section(s)/ repair point(s), now continue to do the same with the next manageable section.
  • Link sections together. Now that you’ve worked on the sections as they stand apart, begin to put them together. Practice the transitions between sections. As an example, take the last three measure of the first section, and the first three measure of the next section and play those 6 measures to finesse the transition between sections. Begin to play bigger sections of the piece. In other words, play repair point A, and B together, or A,B, and C.
  • Prepare for performance. As you begin to play more of the piece as a whole, practice playing the entire piece without stopping. Just as you would perform on stage, when you come to a spot where you miss a note, or mis-step, do not stop! Force yourself to keep going. Make it seamless, as if you meant to do that. More often than not, the audience doesn’t know the piece, and if you look like you meant to do that, they won’t know it was a mistake.
  • Record yourself. In this day and age, we have the ability to record ourselves easily. With the click of a button, on a smart device, or camera, or computer, one can easily look back and critique a run-through. Most people skip this step. Take advantage of all the tools you have. Simply set up the device (audio and visual is preferred to just audio) and record a mock-performance. Watch it immediately and critique yourself. Did you falter? Is there a section that needs re-working?
  • Perform! Gather your friends, family, neighbor, neighbor’s dog. You get the picture, perform for any number of people. Stage presence is just as important as execution of the piece. You worked really hard to perform the piece well, so display that confidence when you get up to play. Stand up straight, place one hand on the harp (neck or column depending on where you are standing) and take a bow. Although the bench and stand should all be placed where you need it before you start, take a moment to adjust if necessary. Make yourself comfortable, as the comfort (or lack thereof) will show. When you’re finished, muffle beautifully (if the piece calls for it), and smile, stand, and take another bow.
  • Celebrate! Take a moment to soak in the finished product of your hard work. Be proud without being obnoxious. If you aren’t happy with your performance, remember, be kind to yourself and realize that more good practice and more performing will iron out a few of those wrinkles. In the meantime, congratulate yourself on the effort you put in towards the performance. Lastly, but just as important… without being braggadocios, maintain an air of humility and… you guessed it, start working on a new piece!
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