My Harp Practice Experiment Is a Success!

Back in January, I posted that I was experimenting with changing my harp practice. I decided to work intensely on only one small section of a piece at each practice, and really focus on getting that one section totally in my fingers and absolutely beautiful during that practice session. The experiment was a success!

My teacher played Marcel Grandjany’s Nocturne during my last lesson before the semester break. I worked on the notes and fingering during the break. I spent parts of only three lessons working with my teacher on the technical/musical aspects of the piece. At last week’s lesson, my teacher said that Grandjany’s Nocturne was just about performance ready, and that I should play it at our harp ensemble class on February 28th! This is a record for my learning and performing a piece. I worked on Grandjany’s Reverie off and on for three years, for gosh sakes, before I performed it. I’m convinced that it’s the way I’ve practiced that made the difference in how quickly I learned Nocturne.

Here’s what worked: I divided Nocturne into very small bits, no more than one or two measures long. At each practice I worked on one small bit. As I mastered these small chunks, I joined them into slightly longer sections to work on. Then each practice I worked on one longer section. Finally I was playing whole musical phrases.

I labeled each phrase with a letter, A – J, and I focused on one phrase at each practice.  Also, I didn’t work on phrases in sequence – I might work on “I” at one practice, “C” the next, and “F” the practice after that. Now I have multiple “starting places” where I can regroup if my fingers and memory get into a tangle.

Once I was playing the phrases cleanly, I started linking them together. Again, I worked on only one new longer sequence at each practice. Soon I was playing half pages, then whole pages, then both pages. Then I noted what places consistently were a problem and needed repairs, and worked on one repair at a time.

This piece forces you to work on multiple technical skills, including rhythm, tempo, dynamics, turnarounds, placing one finger at a time, and playing legato. It also has recurring transitions between measures and repeating note patterns. So I chose one technique or one repeating pattern to work on during some practice sessions.

None of this practice structure was my idea – everything I’ve read about practicing advises working in small chunks and building bigger chunks to practice. I’d been doing that, but it still took me way too much time and practice to learn a piece. What seems to have made the difference is working on only one thing at each practice. Each bit of fingering I worked on seemed to stick in my brain and in my fingers and still be there at my next practice, so I didn’t have to learn the same notes and fingering over and over again. My fingers and brain seemed to remember how to implement whatever solutions to technical issues I’d worked on at my previous practice, so that I wasn’t starting all over again trying to get a turn-around smoothed out or a thumb note more legato.

The most challenging thing about this experiment was holding myself to working on only one thing at each practice. I’d finally get a phrase sounding really good, so I’d want to start working on another one. I had to keep reminding myself that my brain and fingers needed time to consolidate what I’d worked on and learned.  More than once I had to tell myself to just take take the music off the stand NOW, and stop.

I’m trying the same strategy on the second piece I’m learning, Alfredo Orlando Ortiz’s Danza de Luzma, the easy version. This week I’m working on getting rid of the hiccup between the first and second measure that appeared when I upped the tempo. It’s getting better but it’s not fixed yet. So, I’ll be back at my harp bench, working on only measure one and two, tomorrow.