Tag Archives: practice

All you have to do

After plodding along pretty steadily and mostly pretty happily for the last couple of years, I finally made a big decision on the morning of Day 2 of the Saltmarsh 75.

It was shortly before I took this photo. This is looking out along the Blackwater Estuary towards Bradwell power station, which you can just see on the horizon.

It was a beautiful day, in an incredible part of the country. I had run a long way the day before in some pretty tough conditions. I’d been looking forward to and training hard for this event for a whole year, but I was about to pull out of the race. I’d just had enough, and nothing was going to change my mind about carrying on.

I decided that I really needed to start thinking about running a bit more quickly.

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In theory this should be easy. To run a bit faster, you just… ermm… run a bit faster right?

There’s a great quote I read in a motorbike magazine a few years ago. Something along the lines of:

“All you have to do is lean a little further, get on the gas a little earlier, brake a little later and then you’ll win the race”

See? Easy!

But to lean, you have to understand how and why and when to lean. You have to learn when a little further is a little too far.

You have to learn how much gas/throttle is too much. You have to learn how early is too early.

Learning to go fast on a motorbike can be dangerous, even assuming you are in the relatively controlled environment that is a road racing circuit. It hurts when you fall off, and you can break yourself and your bike. If you are anything like most bike racers, you will cry far more about the latter.

I guess I’m trying to say there are always barriers when you learn something new, or try to improve something you can do already. There is a reason why you do things the way you do them. Mostly it’s easy, or comfortable, or you like doing it that way. And you are scared of the unknown.

The main thing that stops me pushing my running speed is my asthma. I had a bad run last night where it wasn’t settling as it should and it really started to hurt. I know enough about managing it to realise when to stop, so backed off and went home.

But once I start to learn how to go faster, I’m frightened my breathing will get out of control and I won’t be able to calm it down. This can be due to a variety of factors, and a damp Scottish winter is a fairly big one.

So what can I do about this?

I have to know why I want to do it.

I have to find a starting point.

I have to understand what I am going to do and how I am going to try and do it.

I have to be sure I want to do it, so that when it gets hard, I don’t give up.

I have to practice it. Lots.

I have to appreciate it might not work, and I might have to change my approach several times before I find a way.

Reading through this list, I realise how much of this applies to music and learning a big new piece, and how my time at the RCS changed how I approach things.

I also think back to some of the incredible things I’ve done this year, and how I never thought I’d be able to do them.

But I did.

So there’s no reason I can’t learn to run faster. I have an inhaler, I know when too far is really too far, I know that there might have to be some considerable discomfort and I know it will be worth it.

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At last …. some Strings!

Given the title of this blog, you could be forgiven for wondering what on earth had happened to the harp. As it happens, the harpist has been pretty quiet too, but the world of full time work has been something of a shock after almost a year away from an office of any kind and it has taken a while to adjust to a different pace of life once again.

I left the RCS at the end of October. It was a horrendously stressful time for all manner of reasons, but finally the final bowline was thrown off and the house down south was no longer mine. In its place, a lot of debt and still far too much clutter in the current abode. But the weight had well and truly lifted. January 1st/2nd/3rd came and for the first time in 12 years, no mortgage payment left my bank account. I had made huge sacrifices each month to pay my bills, and it was very hard adjusting to the fact that financially, I had made some dreadful mistakes that I will be paying for for some years to come.

But. I have a supportive family, brilliant friends both old and new, and the constant that is a pair of furry but windy greyhounds.

I’ve had a long break from the harp. I played in a Remembrance Day concert in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, an experience both good and bad for reasons that are not to be shared here. I vowed never to work again for nothing. I promised myself I would never again play orchestral music I didn’t love.

A couple of weeks later, I played the beautiful harp cadenza from the Ravel Piano Concerto with a local orchestra. I had studied the cadenza as part of my first year technical exam at the RCS, and had struggled with it. After  a few months in the pot though, it had matured and felt much more breathy and effortless, which is exactly how it should sound. Nerves on the night got to me a little, but I did a reasonable job and it was wonderful to hear the concerto in its entirety. The harp has a very small part and so I could relax and really listen to the piano. This is one of my favourite pieces of music and was a very special experience.

I then had a late request to play Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio in mid December. This is a gorgeous piece for small ensemble and choir, and was performed in a traditional Scottish kirk on the Southside of Glasgow in an area I had come to know very well. I was dreadfully nervous and unfortunately didn’t play as well as I had hoped. However, it was followed by a good singalong of some carols afterwards and then curling up in front of Match of the Day with company for the first time in many years, so turned out to be a pretty special night.

I’d had high hopes of videoing a couple of carols for friends and family as a Christmas present, but after the Saint-Saens, I was pretty much done for. The harp spent some time wrapped up safely, and I went running and climbed hills a lot.

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The harp didn’t emerge until the middle of January, when he went on an extended holiday to a very smart house again in the south of the city. I was knocked for six by the green eyed monster as I wheeled my harp into their music room which was bigger than the whole downstairs of my house. But I was glad that I was able to help another harpist out of a predicament, and very glad my harp was being played and enjoyed.

There has been much musing on whether to continue playing at all. If I continue to play, at what level? What do I play? Who with? Am I professional? Semi-professional? Amateur? None of the above? Most importantly, do I keep the object worth a five figure sum that I will be paying for for another three years, that takes up a whole room in my house and dictates the car I drive?

All You Need is Love?

You can probably guess some of the answers. Mostly, they are along the lines of I don’t know. But this is reason enough not to sell my harp. I do want to play, and play regularly. Listening to some brilliant music and great radio programmes keeps me in touch with something that is a huge part of me, and reminds me I have a talent that I enjoy sharing in the right ways for me.

Most of all I love playing with others. I love quirky, off beat, different, unexpected. In my old town I was lucky enough to find a bunch of musicians I adored playing with, and who pushed me in directions I never could have imagined.

Back to reality

 

Back to reality

I have struggled without them, and the time has come to begin the search for some others to join in with. This is a scary prospect, and I’m not quite ready to jump right in just yet.

I’ve been inspired by revisiting some of my favourite albums and songs, listening to the radio in the car on the way into work and on the motorway on my way to visit my family.

I’ve been to some brilliant gigs, and travelled to hear and play music in some incredible places. Music has changed me and continues to do so.

I know a few things for certain:

I’m not giving up.

I’m still a harpist, and a musician, and a good one at that.

I have a good tone and a good technique, and I don’t need to worry about not being good enough (whatever that means).

I love performing.

I have something to say.

If I put on a concert I can entertain an audience and they will come back again.

I love practising but am easily distracted when things become busy or stressful.

I’m not selling my harp. Unless it’s for a better one and even then I would struggle.

I love classical music.

I love pop music. In fact there is very little music I don’t love other than happy hardcore (blimey remember that!!).

I don’t have enough hours in the day. But who does.

Other than that, I don’t know. And I’m fine with that.

Mooching of an afternoon

(Written on a gloriously wi-fi free Thursday)

This afternoon finds me in Leiden in the Netherlands. A quick tot up on the plane revealed that this is my most visited country which both surprised me and made me happy.

I’ve been here before, on a school trip some 20+ years ago. I can’t remember why we came to Leiden, I think it was on the way to somewhere else. We didn’t see much anyway, other than a slightly strange artistic installation of wedding dresses in one of the canal basins.

This time I’m here for a rather different reason. This is my second visit to the Jazz Harp Academy. It’s a full-circle thing – the first time I came in 2010, it was in a bid to do something that scared me silly during one of the lowest points in my life.

It worked, and led to many wonderful things, including my move to Glasgow. I met a very dear friend and we have supported each other on our own individual musical adventures.

We are very similar and yet very different. Someone asked how they would recognise us to collect us from the airport once. I said we are both very small with big smiles and we will probably be the noisiest people there as we will be laughing so much.

My friend arrives this evening so I made the most of an afternoon in a different place. For all intents and purposes it’s a new place, as I don’t really recognise any of it.

It was raining heavily when I got off the train from Amsterdam. The windmill count was up to 2 within 15 minutes. I saw a museum and wondered about going in, but at 11 euros I decided against it. Not a huge sum but I figured I could make better use of the time and money.

I had a map but only used it to make sure I was heading in the right direction from the station to check out the venue for the next few days. Other than that, I just strolled, taking whichever street or canal I fancied.

It is so quiet here. It’s a mixture of old and new and they sit comfortably with each other.

The reason for the peace is the humble bicycle. This is Holland, where the bike is king. Near the station, bikes are all you can see wherever you look. There is an occasional car in the town but they are conspicuous by their sound.

I found a gorgeous cafe to have lunch in. I settled down with a book and enjoyed seeing the world going past outside. The cafe was quiet too – unusually in a world of piped music, there was no soundtrack at all, not even a radio. I enjoyed this. I’m a musician but there are times where silence is just what’s needed.

I’m reading Miles Davis’s autobiography and have just read about the first time he heard Thelonious Monk play. He was struck by the spaces left in between the notes as much as the notes themselves.

My harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals. As a classical harpist, when I’m improvising I often feel obliged to use as many of these as possible. (With some orchestral parts it is not so much expected as compulsory to use all of them at once!)

This often adds unnecessary pressure and complexity, and leaves no space for breathing (for me or the music) or thinking about what comes next.

My first time at the jazz academy taught me the importance of listening to what was going on around me, and thinking about bass, rhythm and lead. Now when I create music of my own, I try to use as few notes as possible, to leave room.

It’s hard to find space in everyday life, and today has been a great opportunity to sit, to breathe and to think before the next few days of full-on learning and bashing against my comfort zone in an attempt to push myself forwards som more.

My afternoon cost me considerably less than 11 euros, but was worth much, much more and I’ve probably learnt more than I would have done in the museum. It did have an awesome totem pole outside, though, so I’m off for a proper look at that tomorrow.

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Shine

A few years ago, I decided to start helping out at my local Brownie pack. Our little meeting and the weekly rituals involved (no sacrificial lambs, just songs and games) became one of the highlights of my week and I knew that regardless of the craziness that was going on in my world at the time, come 7.15pm every Thursday we’d stand together and sing our goodbye songs.

At the first promise ceremony I went to as an adult, and took part in as a leader, I was moved by another song we sang together. This Little Light of Mine is known to many people around the world, and I loved the words and the setting. I was proud that we were sending them off into their lives outside Brownies with a sense of confidence, and I hope that they might remember the song when they get older.

At around this time, some other words appeared too, once again via my quote-loving friend. I was starting to make some pretty bold steps with my harp playing, and the fear this produced was overwhelming at times. I found some strength from these words at the time.

This week I will be spending a few days in the company of some very talented and very young musicians. I’ve not been able to prepare as well as I’d like, and I really don’t want to play badly.

So I’m reminding myself of these few lines from A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson, which are often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela. I don’t feel the religious significance but this doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the words.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

(The picture is of a beautiful church window from a concert I played at in Stonehaven a few months back)

Pre-Exam Trauma

This is my old dog Bubble, who died almost 3 years ago aged 12. This picture was taken not long after we (me and ex hubby) adopted him when he was 5. His bed was by the back door in our old kitchen, and one of his favourite activities was rearranging his bedding, very noisily, until it was in a desirable position for a thoroughly good snooze.

I particularly love this picture because he looks thoroughly disgusted to have been woken up from his slumbers, and is clearly desperate for us to just leave him alone and let him get back to his highest priority activity, that of hiding beneath the covers.

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The day before a music exam or a big performance, this is exactly how I feel.

I’ve spent months working for this. Tears have been shed, blisters have been popped, tendons have been strained and my poor brain has had enough. I am well prepared. I won’t play perfectly, but I won’t fail.

No one will die if I fail this exam. I’m not a brain surgeon, or a rocket scientist, or a pilot or a ship’s captain. It helps to keep things in perspective, but there’s also no harm in acknowledging that it’s a big deal, I’ve invested a lot in this and I want to play well.

I know that tomorrow, as with most performance days, I will feel fine until about 20 minutes before I have to play.

The few days before, however, is a different matter. I am thoroughly unpleasant to be around, I am grumpy, nervous and drop almost everything I touch which adds to the grumpiness. I am at high risk of injuring myself. True to form, I burnt myself this afternoon (nothing major thankfully). I try to stay away from sharp or heavy objects at this time as I am highly likely to either drop things or cut myself.

I hate practising the day before. It’s too late to do any meaningful work fixing things, a bit like cramming the night before a big science exam. I’m too flustered to take anything in. If I play well, I worry that I’ve run out of ‘good’ stuff for the exam. If I play badly, I worry it’s an indication of how I’ll play in the exam. I try to stick to calmly running through from beginning to end of my pieces, doing a little work on the tricky bits.

I hate the guilt that I feel, thinking I should be practising constantly but knowing it’s pretty much pointless. Fresh air is good, but I hate going out for distraction therapy, that makes me guilty too, and I worry I’ll forget everything I need to play well.

Generally I cope well with performance anxiety on the day of a performance, provided everything is under my control (although this isn’t always possible). I have lists for everything I need to take with me so I know I won’t forget anything. I know to leave plenty of time to get anywhere. But I hate the last turn of the key in the door, I check everything constantly and find it hard to actually get gone and on my way.

I know to avoid eating too much (or not enough), and I avoid drinking too much caffeine even if I am tired.

A few years ago, having read one of Bradley Wiggins’ books, I was introduced to the concept of Exercising the Chimp. I’ve since read more about this in Dr Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox, and it’s really helped me this year. Exercising the Chimp means confronting all your niggly little fears in a controlled, rational way in order to convince yourself that you have all bases covered and you are as prepared as can be.

Mine goes something like this.

Chimp: Why are you even bothering with this, You know your fingers will shake, you’ll miss all your harmonics and you’ll probably forget all the notes

Me: My fingers will shake, yes, but it’s not the end of the world, they will expect me to be a bit nervous. I won’t miss all my harmonics, I might miss a couple but once I settle they should come better and the more I relax the more likely they are to come. I won’t forget all the notes, if I forget some I’ll just go back to a bit i can remember.

Chimp: Why are you even trying to do this, you’re an accountant you’re not a musician.

Me: Everyone is allowed to change their mind. I passed the audition to get here, I’ve had good results so far this year so I must be doing something right. I’ve been a musician a lot longer than I was an accountant, I have every right to be here.

Chimp: You’re not going to be the best here, I’d give up now if I were you.

Me: Shut up chimp, it’s not about being the best here today, it’s just about getting through this 20 minute exam and doing my best.

Chimp: I bet you make a really huge mistake in that horrible bit where you always go wrong. Actually, I bet you make mistakes in the good bits too.

Me: Shut up chimp, I know if I make mistakes, as long as I don’t lose my rhythm or flow, I can cover it. It won’t be perfect but I can keep going. If I fall off big time, I will cope and it will take a lot to really shake me. I’ve worked really hard, I’m well prepared and I can do this, I don’t need you banging on at me.

You get the picture. In the moments preceding the exam, the Chimp will be going overtime shouting horrible things. The idea is that you Exercise it regularly on your own terms, and it gets tired and gets back in its box. So you tell it to go away and you’ll talk to it later, when you can listen to it and give it your full attention. After the exam I’ll have all the Chimpy moments – could have done this better, made a real arse of that, what on earth did I do that for. It’s OK after the exam, I can learn from this and make it better next time.

Various people refer to this in various terms. It’s a common technique but I love the analogy of the Chimp banging away in his box, making a big noise so you feel you have to let him out, then letting him out until he’s tired and putting him back in again.

I’ve not found the way to deal with the shaky hands and slightly sweaty palms yet, but in truth if I didn’t feel remotely nervous, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with that either.

Tomorrow, at 1.30 it will all be over and I’ll be getting in the car to head south. Over the weekend I’m seeing my family for the first time in ages, and I’m off to meet my friends’ new baby. I have two weddings to play at, and a lot of driving to do, but otherwise I am free to enjoy myself.

Next week I have promised myself a week of doing as I please. I have lots of things I want to do, and a big stack of new music to learn. I had banned myself from even looking at the first page of any new pieces until the exam is done. After next week the big job hunt starts.

Until then, all I will be thinking about is 20 minutes of music tomorrow at 1pm.

A little pause

Today is a little lull in the storm. Unfortunately this has been induced by a boomerang lurgy, however I am taking the hint and am taking it very easy.

I should have been running my very first half marathon today. However, just over a week ago I injured my right knee while out on a long run (frustratingly it was going very well and I felt great until then!). It left me very sore and very worried in case I couldn’t play in all the various things that March would bring. It eased a little, but when it didn’t show any signs of disappearing, I went to see an osteopath (found via Twitter!) for some treatment. Thankfully it doesn’t look to be serious and I was passed to run if I wanted to. Sadly that day I was also feeling the first tickle of a cold. I decided that I would take the hint and would probably not be taking part in the half marathon.

I spent most of last Thursday afternoon attempting to snooze off the cold, in the hope of being fit for 6 hours of Carousel rehearsals on Friday. It was not to be. I woke up on Friday morning, dragged myself out to tend to the hounds and then went straight back to bed. I could barely have held the harp up let alone stayed focused for any meaningful period of time, and I was devastated to have to call in sick.

I made it in yesterday afternoon for the first rehearsal in the orchestra pit which brought challenges of its own. Heavily drugged up and very snuffly, I survived but did not play well and was upset about this. Some of this was nerves, some of it was a tough harp part, the rest of it was really caring about being lucky enough to be a part of such a fantastic production and not wanting to stuff things up for anyone else.

Tomorrow evening I am playing in a concert, and have lots of rehearsals for this tomorrow afternoon. The final number of the concert features 4 harps plus the entire RCS jazz department, so I am really excited to be taking part in this.

So today is about resting up and getting better, although some practice will still be happening as there is so much to work on. And a little reading for an approaching history essay deadline. And some washing up. Hopefully another couple of days and I will be back on form – I’m missing running, and I really want to be able to enjoy everything that’s coming up rather than just surviving it.

There’s a few things bubbling away under the surface that are very exciting but very scary too, and these will need every ounce of energy and strength that I possess in order to make the most of them.

Sport and Music

I’ve struggled to adapt to my harp lessons at the conservatoire, for a variety of reasons.

I’ve found it hard to structure my practice, hard to get to know a new teacher and her ways of working, and incredibly hard not to let my emotions get out of control when things aren’t going my way in lessons. I expected all of these, but didn’t know how it would feel.

Over the weekend I’ve been reading an amazing book by Dr Steve Peters, he is a psychiatrist who works with the British Cycling team and many other athletes. The book is called The Chimp Paradox and it’s about the different functions of your brain and managing these appropriately.

As someone who is chronically prone to self-sabotage and being ruled by my emotions, I really wanted to read this book.

Victoria Pendleton talked a lot about emotions on her recent BBC documentary and for a long time I have been fascinated by the similarities between performing/training at a high level as an athlete, and practising/performing as a musician.

I’m not very sporty, but this year I decided to challenge myself in an area other than music and my old job, and I entered a midnight bike ride challenge around London and an Olympic distance triathlon.

I’ve really surprised myself in numerous ways, in terms of being able to discipline myself and manage my time, and using my performing skills such as not giving up when things get difficult. I also discovered that I love running, which I never thought I would say.

Sport and music are something you can’t fake – if you don’t put the effort in, unless you are incredibly lucky with an incredible fluke, you are very likely to fall flat on your face when it comes to the big day.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself using my running to help me when practice has got tough. If I go out running, and get stuck halfway, there is no other solution, I have to get myself home somehow and running is by far the quickest way.

Now I say to myself, if I was running, I’d have to finish so I know I have it in me to carry on with this horribly difficult phrase or whatever.

Back to the book….. I’ve started using some of the ideas already and managed to get through my lesson today without getting upset or frustrated when things were particularly tricky. There were things I hadn’t covered before, but I stayed calm and kept my head.

Over the week I hope to maintain my focus and improve the efficiency of my practice sessions. My concentration span is increasing all the time. With the help of another book, The Musicians Way, I’ve learnt a bit about structuring my practice and setting goals etc. Another book, Scientific Practice for Harp Students, has also been useful as it relates specifically to my instrument.

As I get to know my local area, which is surrounded by fields, hills and forests, I am more inspired to run. Running gives me space to think about the harp, studying, practising, and many other things besides. If I skip a run, I know about it the next time I go out.

Running also teaches me that I can’t push things forward without making sure the right things are in place. I’m also asthmatic, so have been gradually training my lungs as well as my legs. This requires a good sense of rhythm and an ability to keep my cool when things start to slip out of control on the breathing front. A musical parallel would be, I won’t be able to play the more advanced repertoire I am desperate to learn, if I am physically unable to play because I am too tense because I haven’t sorted out my technical issues.

I know there will be times when practising is going better than running, but I look forward to using them both together to give me the strength and motivation that I need.