THE BIG DAY
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.
(This article first appeared in the Harp Column March/April 2002 issue,
vol. 9, no. 5)
by Carl Swanson
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
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.
ELIMINATE THE HABIT OF
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.”
KEEP GOING, AND GOING, AND GOING.….
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.
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.
CHANGE YOUR PRACTICE ENVIRONMENT
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.
MEMORIZE THE RIGHT WAY!
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.
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).
HAVE MANY STARTING POINTS
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.
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.
SCHEDULE RUN THROUGHS
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.
PLAY DIFFERENT HARPS
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 YOUR LESSON
AS A PERFORMANCE
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.
DON’T NEGLECT TECHNIQUE
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.
PERFORMANCE POP QUIZ
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
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.