(This article first appeared in the Harp Column March/April 2002 issue, vol. 9, no. 5)
by Carl Swanson

     It doesn’t really matter what your level of expertise is, nor your ambition in playing the harp. Whether you play only for your own enjoyment or are preparing for a competition, recital, or orchestra audition, sooner or later you are going to be called on to do something other than sit and practice alone. You are going to have to play for an audience! And performing, dear friends, is very different from playing by yourself.

     The standard lament of every student is, ”It sounded so much better in the practice room.” And it probably did. The question is, why? Why is it so difficult to perform? And what can you do to improve your performing skills?

      Here is the core of the problem: you spend all your time at the harp either practicing (alone), or playing in the presence of one other person (your teacher). In both instances, you are usually working on a piece, and you are starting and stopping, repeating, critiquing, and so on. In addition, whether you realize it or not, you practice and take your lesson in a very specific set of circumstances. Without even being aware that it is happening, you become accustomed to the same lighting and surroundings. You may even become accustomed to playing at a specific time of day, like in the evening after supper or right after getting home from school. In short, virtually all your time at the harp is spent learning to play one piece or another in very specific surroundings. You may think you can now perform your piece because, after spending an hour or more on it each time you practice, going through it slowly, then faster, and working out hard spots along the way, it’s really sailing. You can play it well, up to tempo, with few, if any mistakes.

     But that’s not the same as performing. It’s not even similar. Performing, as opposed to practicing, means playing a piece at a given time and place, with no warm-up, and no second (or third) chance. It can mean sitting on stage through the first movement of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique and then playing the second movement cold, or sitting through an interminable student recital to play your piece after 15 other harpists have played and it’s been more than an hour since you touched the harp. The most intimidating part about performing is that you get one shot, and one shot only.

     So when the big day finally comes, that performance you have been working towards is a huge disappointment. You make lots of mistakes, frequently in places where there was never a problem before. You may even have a major “crash-and-burn” where the only remedy is to start over from the beginning or at least stop and regroup. In an extreme situation, you might not even be able to remember how the piece starts or how the pedals are set. Even if you don’t have any big disasters, you may feel that you did not express what you wanted to say with the music because everything felt so strange and alien, and you had to focus entirely on just getting to the end of the piece.There are things you can do to prevent, or at least minimize, the problems that can occur in a performance. It is extremely rare that any performer—even a great international artist—plays a flawless performance. But their performance skills and knowledge of the music are so complete that they seem to play perfectly. Several years ago I heard one of our best harpists give an opening recital at a conference. It must have been an off night for her, because there were a lot of mistakes. But she covered them so artfully that very few people knew. One piece she played—a piano transcription rarely played on the harp—she actually started over (without ever stopping!) after playing the first three or four measures. I knew only because I had played the piece on piano, but I don’t think more than a few people in the audience were aware of the mistake. It didn’t matter anyway because she did it with such seamless skill, and she never lost her musical expression. It was a wonderful recital, and I was in awe of her ability to cover the mistakes. By identifying and working on performance skills, we all have the potential to become good performers.

     What follows are some suggestions that will help you as you prepare for your big day. Try them all to see which work best for you. If you’re brand new to performing, they may all be helpful initially. As you become more experienced, the list will get much shorter. But whether you are an adult beginner playing for friends, or an advanced student preparing a senior recital, exam, competition, or whatever, these suggestions are equally valid. And one more thing to remember: even if you take beta blockers to perform (see A Prescription for Success, July/August 2002 Harp Column), pills are in no way a substitute or shortcut for solid preparation and the suggestions that follow.

     To try these ideas out, let’s assume you have to prepare a piece for performance in front of an audience and you are going to play it by memory. You can easily adjust the scenario to fit your own circumstances because the suggestions are valid for any performance situation.


     Once you have reached the point in the learning process where you can play a piece well (after working on it for a half hour, an hour, or whatever), you have to start learning how to perform it. If you are a harpist who can’t play anything without warming up first, you have to start by breaking that habit. It is a habit and unnecessary. Unless your hands are literally stiff and cold or the piece in question is very fast and difficult, get used to beginning your practice session each day by launching right into your repertoire, even if it means playing the first piece a little (or a lot) slower than you normally would. You can train yourself to warm up almost instantly this way.

     When learning to perform, the most precious part of your daily practice routine is the first three minutes. At the beginning of each day you are cold, without the dexterity that comes from practicing, and you only experience that situation once each day. Take advantage of it. Play your piece stone cold with no warm-up, and don’t stop no matter how bad it gets. This is what I call a “come-hell-or-high-water” run through. It will help you learn to warm up and focus on the piece more quickly and easily each time you do it, and that feeling of playing cold will no longer feel so alien. One well known teacher in the United States tells her students who are getting ready for a recital, ”Get up in the morning, have your breakfast, brush your teeth, and then play your recital, because that’s as good as it’s going to be.”


     Train yourself in these come-hell-or-high-water run throughs to keep your brain moving forward through the piece. Remember, this isn’t practicing. If you make a mistake, fugetaboutdit! Like the Energizer Bunny, you must keep going—both fingers and brain.

    Most mistakes start out as a single missed note or chord. But if you let yourself get frazzled by one, you will then miss a lot more notes. If you keep going,(fingers AND brain, but mostly brain!) I guarantee the audience will not hear the mistake you made. It’s true. They literally won’t hear it. But if you get flustered, particularly if you break the rhythm, then they will notice. Also make sure you don’t demonstrate any visual ticks or bad habits that give away your mistake or mishap to the listeners. Do not grimace or react visually to a missed note in any way. Ask your teacher or a friend to tell you if they see anything about your presentation that is bothersome.


    If you are new to performing, you probably—without knowing it—are used to a specific practice environment such as the same room, the same lighting, the same background, and so on. Change your practice setting at home. Move the harp to another part of the room, or to a different room, so that you learn to adapt to a different setting and background when you look through the strings. If you practice at the same time every day, change that. If you are preparing a whole recital or concerto, play it at the time of day you will be performing it. A concerto performance, for example, might start at 9:30 p.m.. If you regularly practice in the mornings and afternoons, 9:30 p.m. is going to feel alien to you unless you get used to it ahead of time.


     How you memorize your music is of critical importance. When you play from memory, what gets you through the piece is a phenomenon called muscle memory. By practicing a difficult passage or piece over and over again, you eventually learn it because your brain registers the muscle patterns you have practiced. But muscle memory only works if you play all the movements that make up the piece in exact order. Break the sequence of movements, either by missing a note or having a memory lapse, and you are lost and must start the whole sequence over again. Also, when your performance of a piece is totally dependent on muscle memory, you tend not to think about what you are doing. Your conscious brain takes a vacation. But under the stress of performance your brain becomes hyper-aware, and suddenly muscle memory alone is not enough.

    Here’s an example of what I mean: A friend told me that she uses Debussy’s First Arabesque as her warm-up piece whenever she plays a background music gig. “I can play it on a minute’s notice in my sleep,” she said. But recently she did a recording of music for voice and harp. It turned out they needed a few more minutes of music, so the singer suggested she play First Arabesque. Suddenly the piece was not background music. Two people were listening, and a tape was being made. “I couldn’t remember how to start it,” she said. “I couldn’t remember what key it was in!” She had only muscle memory to go on, and under stress it abandoned her.

      You cannot be totally dependent on muscle memory alone to get you through a piece. You have to have an intellectual knowledge of the music as well. Study the music away from the harp. Look at the patterns and where the pedal or lever changes occur. Sing or say important melody or bass lines using solfege. Tell yourself what key the piece is in, what the opening pedal setting is (if it’s not the key of the piece), how many beats are in each measure, and what part of the measure the piece starts on. Analyze chord progressions, and do whatever helps you to “see” the music in your mind as you play it. Sometimes just looking at the music and playing it in your mind is enough. As you get closer to the performance date, study your music away from the harp several times at the very least. Each time you play your piece from memory, make a point just before you start to consciously tell yourself this important information (key, time signature, and pedal or lever settings).


      Find places in your piece where you can start or jump to if things get dicey, and practice doing just that. Depending on the piece, you may have only a few starting points or, for a long, difficult piece, you may need a starting point every fourth measure. If you suddenly have a technical problem or memory lapse, you will have a place to go to where you can re-orient yourself.

     An added benefit of this system is that it can make longer pieces less intimidating; for example, if you have a piece that is, say, eight minutes long, it becomes 16 30-second pieces, because every 30 seconds or so you reach a new starting point. As you make your way through the piece, these starting points are like sign posts on a journey telling you that you are on the right track. To make sure you really can pick up the piece at any starting point, go to the harp at odd times during the day, mentally pick a starting point, and, stone cold and without looking at the music, start at that point. Play several measures from that point, because it is one thing to be able to start there and another to continue on.


     Perform as many small run throughs of your piece or program as you can. If there are family members or roommates in your house, ask them (not too often!) to come listen, and do a hell-or-high-water run through. For a major performance, like a full recital, concerto, or competition program, you must do a minimum of two of these run through performances and more if at all possible. Try to do at least one of them at someone else’s home.

     Some of your run throughs may reveal major problems that you hadn’t expected. Take it in stride. Try to figure out what went wrong and why, and learn from the experience. Don’t get depressed about your mistakes. After all, that’s why you did the run through in the first place. The most important thing you can do at these little run-throughs is try to use the various strategies you have been working on to keep the performance going as smoothly as possible.


     The most stressful part of performing any piece, regardless of its difficulty, is the first 15 to 30 seconds. Just getting into the piece and the performance, relaxing, and forgetting the audience takes about that long. So practice just starting the piece. At odd times during the day, when you haven’t been to the harp for at least an hour or two, go to the instrument and play only the first 12 measures or so. You can do this during a commercial break while watching television.


     Take every opportunity you can to play a harp other than your own, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Get used to adjusting to different string spacing and tension, different makes of harps, different bench heights, and all the different circumstances that go along with a harp other than your own. By doing this as often as possible, you will learn to adjust quickly to a variety of instruments and situations, and in the case of orchestra auditions or competitions, you won’t be thrown for a loop if you can’t play on your own harp.


     Treat each lesson with your teacher as a performance. As you prepare for a lesson, your goal should be to play all of the material you have prepared as close to performance level as possible. By setting this level of expectation for yourself, you will listen very differently to your practice sessions. Even if you have to cut some of the material that was assigned, it’s better to play less material perfectly than more material half-baked. If your teacher normally stops you shortly after you have started your piece, ask him to let you play everything you have prepared in that piece uninterrupted first. Then try your best to play the material you have prepared as if it was a performance with an audience.


     As you practice each day for an upcoming performance, mentally separate the work you do into two distinct areas: technical and musical work, in which you spend time taking the piece apart and really working to keep it at the highest technical level you can, and performance practice, in which you work on your performance skills of each piece doing all the things we’ve just mentioned. If all you do with a piece that is at performance level is run through it every day, it will slowly deteriorate. You will loose the technical precision you once had with the piece. If you are preparing a whole recital, you don’t have to play every piece every day, but you do have to really work on each piece, spending time on difficult passages or reviewing the score away from the harp, when you play it every two or three days. The practice strategies for performance we’ve outlined in this article are very important, but at no point should they take up the majority of your time at the instrument.

     These suggestions may seem daunting and very time consuming at first. They are neither. With a little practice they will become second nature, and you won’t even think about them. They will become an integral part of your practice routine, and as you gain more experience performing, you can hone your skills and think up other ways of improving your performance ability that work best for you.


     How well do you really know the music you’re about to perform? Without looking at the music,
     answer the following questions:
     What key is the piece in?
     Does it modulate to a different key?
     What is the time signature?
     What part of the measure does the piece start on?
     What is the pedal or lever setting at the beginning of the piece?
     Where does the first pedal change occur?
     Do you know the pedal or lever settings at random starting points throughout the piece?
     Can you comfortably begin playing at those starting points?

CARL SWANSON holds advanced degrees in harp performance from Hartt College of Music and the New England Conservatory. In addition, he studied privately in Paris for three years with Pierre Jamet. Carl recently moved his company to Boston and continues to build Swanson pedal and lever harps. The restructuring of his company has given him the opportunity to perform and teach again.