Tips for practicing harp

 

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What to practice

Practicing should be fun. Practicing should not be a chore. No one likes to do chores. No one who hates practicing will make progress.

Work with your teacher to find ways to enjoy practicing.

The most important way to enjoy what you are practicing is to know how it fits in with your music goals. You picked your music goals, not your teacher. Your music goals are why you are playing the harp. Everything about your lessons and your practice time should be focused on helping you attain those goals.

If you believe that what you practice is necessary for what you want to do, you will be more likely to want to practice. If you don’t believe this, work with your teacher. Have them either explain what you’re practicing with more context, or ask for something else to practice.

When to practice

Once practicing is not a chore, you will need to find time for it. Even enjoyable things get put off when we are tired or when more urgent things call to us.

Try to practice for 5 minutes.

Practicing for 5 minutes will get you 5 minutes closer to your goals. Promising to practice for 30 minutes tomorrow is fine...as long as you practice 5 minutes today. Then if you can’t keep your promise, you’ve still made 5 minutes worth of progress.

To tune or to practice?

If you only have 5 minutes to practice, and it’s going to take you 5 minutes to tune, then don’t tune.

This is a sacrilegious statement in the harp world, but I will take practicing over tuning any day. Practicing on an out-of-tune harp is not good, but not practicing is worse.

Overdoing any activity can hurt you: harping, typing, sitting, reclining, sleeping. As you practice, keep the fun constant, and make sure you are not pushing yourself into pain.

Ready to contact me about making practice fun? You can find more tips and harp resources.

Cold hands

If your hands are cold, you will not be as limber.

First, warm up your hands as well as your forearms. Hold them under your arms, or run warm water over them.

Next, keep them warm. Your hands are going to receive their warmth from your wrists and forearms, so since you can’t wear full-out gloves while you play, get yourself a pair of wrist warmers or arm warmers. They are like socks for your arms.

Here is a great site for nice wrist warmers➚.

Tuning in fifths

Your harp needs to be prepared, too. I recommend having lever harps in E flat with all the levers down, and you should always tune your harp with the levers down to minimize wear on the strings.

Never tune a string without plucking it. It stretches easier when it’s ringing. Tuning a still string is more likely to break it.

Even though you are probably using a tuner, getting your ear accustomed to the sound of correctly tuned strings will help you tune faster. To do this, teach your ear what the intervals of a fourth and a fifth sound like. Then you can tune all of the strings using these same intervals.

For your E flat harp, start with D. You’ll need to use a tuner or another instrument as a starting point to get an in-tune D. Tune all of the D strings.

Now pluck the highest D. Depending on how many strings your harp has, your highest G might be above or below your highest D. If the G is below the D, great—you are hearing a fifth. Pluck the next D and the G below it, and go all the way down the harp.

If your highest G is above the D, that’s fine. This is a fourth. Tune that G, then pluck the same D and the G below it, and continue down in fifths.

Once all your Gs are in tune, go back to the top of the harp. A fourth up or a fifth down from G is C. Pluck your highest G then your highest C, and continue down the harp plucking a G and the C below it.

Do the same thing with C to F, F to Bb, Bb to Eb, Eb to Ab. Now all of your strings are in tune, and you used the same interval to tune them all. You are teaching your ears.

Shoulder stretches

Roll your shoulders back several times.

Reach over your head and pat yourself in the center of your back, then hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with the other arm.

Reach across your chest and pat yourself on the back of your shoulder. Holding that arm there, take your other hand and push your elbow in towards you so that your hand leaves your back. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with the other arm.

Your shoulders hold up your arms while you play, so it’s good to keep them limber.

Staying loose while you play

Between songs or exercises, shake your hands out.

When practicing a difficult passage, play it one time very slowly while saying “Relax” out loud each time you release a string. You are training yourself to release tension during the hard part rather than bracing against the difficulty.

Check after each song or exercise to make sure you are still sitting up straight, without cocking your head towards the harp or letting your left shoulder ride up.

Repeat the nerve stretch and roll your shoulders back every once and a while.

When you are finished playing, repeat any of the stretches above.

Forearm massage

Sitting down, make like you’re going to cross your arms. Put one forearm down on the table. With the other elbow bone, massage the muscles of your forearm. Then switch arms.

You can also use your elbow bone to massage the meaty part of your hand between thumb and wrist.

This gets the blood flowing in the muscles you’re going to use to play.

Nerve stretch

Standing or sitting, hold your arms out at shoulder height so that your body makes a t shape, palms facing forward, fingers together like a karate chop. Try to bring your arms as far backwards as you can, like a reverse hug. When your arms can’t go any farther, bend your wrists back.

Make sure your shoulders are not up around your ears.

This stretches out the nerves you are going to use when you play. Hold for at least 30 seconds.

Forearm table stretch

Standing up, put the back of your hand on a table, bending your wrist, keeping your arm straight.

Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with the other arm.

Forearm prayer stretch

Put your palms together in front of you, fingertips up. Point both of your first fingers towards the opposite elbows, then bring them back together again without moving your elbows. Do the same with your middle and ring fingers. (Make sure your shoulders aren’t hunched up to your ears.)

Stretching

Take stock of what you’re doing right now. Is anything tense? Is your hand curled over the keyboard? Are your shoulders near your ears? Is your head jutting out towards the screen? Have you been sitting in that chair for so many hours that you don’t even notice that your hips and calves are tight?

That’s a lot of tension for not even “doing anything.”

So, before reading anything else, just get up and get a glass of water or something. Break the sitting spell.

Pick one or two of the stretches below to do before you practice—they only take a minute. Look for opportunities throughout the day to do any of the rest of the stretches.

Breathe

When you breathe deeply, you tell your body to calm down. When you breathe shallowly, you tell your body that you are under stress. When you are tensing something up, you also tend to tense up your breathing, creating additional stress in your body for no good reason.

Start by breathing all the way out. A good, deep breath starts with the space to breathe in to, and if you still have air in there, you can’t breathe deeply.

Now breathe all the way in. All the way. Until you think you are going to burst. Don’t hold it, but do make sure you get all the breath in that you can.

Let it out at a normal speed, and again make sure that you let every last bit out before breathing in again.

Use your nose.

Quick tips for practicing and stretching

  1. Work with your teacher to make your practice fun

  2. Always understand how your practicing ties in with your goals

  3. Aim to practice 5 minutes a day

  4. If you have to choose between tuning and practicing: practice

  5. If you have to choose between practicing and stretching: stretch

  6. Check yourself often to see if there is tension you can stretch out or let go of

  7. Breathe deeply, all the way out, and all the way in