How to Practise – reduce distractions

Practice – if you’re a working musician, it’s part of your life. But some of us feel like we can’t really talk about it – we ask ourselves ‘what if everyone else is doing more than me?’ or worse, believe that having to do more practise makes us a worse musician. Ever heard the phrase ‘practise is cheating’? I know I have. Musicians are often a bit cagey about how much they’re doing, which can lead people to feel almost as if it’s a taboo subject – let’s try and end that. End the stigma, people!

I’d like to share a few practise tips that I’ve learned over the years. I hope you find them helpful.

One of the biggest ways to increase the quality of your practise is to reduce distractions in your immediate surroundings. I may have mentioned the Pomodoro technique on this blog before but basically, it’s the idea of concentrating without distractions for twenty-five minutes, followed by a five minute break. This is repeated four times so you have four periods of totally focussed work in two hours. You wouldn’t believe how much you can get done in twenty-five minutes just by removing distractions.

The main distraction in most of our lives is our phone, and yet it sits there next to us, notifying us of things that don’t matter right now – oh hi Instagram! – so what I try to do is put it on Do Not Disturb, put a timer on for twenty-five minutes, and then put the phone out of reach.

In my opinion, twenty-five minutes is long enough to practise one, maybe two pieces. If you are reeling through more than that it might be time to ask yourself if you are practising or just merely playing pieces through, mistakes and all… So try and have everything you need to work on for the next couple of months in a pile, and work through it slowly in twenty-five minute chunks. This works much better than ‘I’ll work on it until it’s better/perfect/fluent’ – this is not a quantifiable goal and you’ll end up unsatisfied. Instead, work for your allotted time, say ‘well done’ to yourself for working hard and without getting distracted, and pick up where you left off next time.

Practice is a bit like exercise, it can be hard to get the motivation to start, because it is hard work (if you’re doing it right). However, it’s worth remembering that the only practice you’ll regret is the one you skipped. Trust me, I’ve been down that road many times…

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Autumn Update

Hello lovelies,

Autumn is here – my favourite season – and we’re all getting ready to snuggle down while the nights draw in and the weather turns chilly.

For myself and for most of the harpists I know, wedding season is drawing to a close. I am currently taking bookings for weddings in 2018 and 2019 so please do get in touch if you want to chat about hiring a wedding harpist. Personally I think autumn/winter weddings are absolutely beautiful and probably what Tim and I are going to go for. Having played for so many weddings in my career so far, I have lots of ideas for things I would like at my own wedding and am so excited to start planning!

 

This brings me to my next life update – we are buying a house! Not sure when we’ll be in at this point but fingers crossed we won’t have to wait too long. Having been engaged since May it’ll be lovely to actually live together at last. It’s been tricky to find the right place as we were looking for somewhere with a separate downstairs room to be my music room (the trials and tribulations of a harpist’s life!) but we have found a place we love and hopefully it’ll be ours soon enough.

Back to harp-related news now, I have a few lovely gigs coming up, which provide a wonderful excuse to practise some really fantastic repertoire. Hasselmans La Source, Grandjany Aria in a Classic Style, Faure Requiem & Cantique de Jean Racine, and my favourite: Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols – such good stuff coming up! Make sure to follow me on instagram to follow the adventures of a Manchester harpist. I’m planning to record some more material for my youtube channel too so head over and subscribe for some of my favourite harp music.

One final piece of news, I’ve enrolled in a Foundation Course with the British Wheel of Yoga. Very much enjoying it so far and who knows, it may even lead to teacher training sometime in the future. That would be a wonderful extra string to my bow (harp?). Yoga is absolutely amazing for musicians as we spend so many hours hunched over our instruments (and increasingly, our laptops), it’s easy for niggles to creep in. Yoga also gives us a bit of mental space, being a musician isn’t like your regular 9-5, it’s a lifestyle and you’re probably thinking about it 24/7. Yoga involves practising clearing the mind of these thoughts and turning the attention inwards, practising mindfulness and meditation, it is so refreshing and really worth doing.

I think that’s enough from me for now! Harpists: how was wedding season for you? Musicians: do you practice yoga and find it beneficial? Let me know in the comments.

Bye for now,

A xx

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What I’ve been up to…

Over the past couple of weeks, my harp quartet CLOUDS have been on tour all over Great Britain.

Of course I had to document the time some way or other, and here are a couple of videos showing a little bit of what we got up to while we were away:

 

But even though our tour is over, the concerts continue over the next month or so in Manchester. Here’s where you can see us:

Tuesday, June 27th at 7.30pm as past of Didsbury Arts Festival. More details here.

Tuesday, July 11th at 7.30pm in St. Ann’s Church, Manchester City Centre.

Thursday, August 3rd at 3.30pm in Manchester Central Library as part of Manchester Jazz Festival.

Sunday, August 6th at 3pm in the Whitworth Art Gallery. More details here.

Please do come along and say hello if you attend one of our concerts.

I also wanted to just say a massive ‘thank-you’ to everyone who supported us along the way on our recent tour. Our parents looked after us a lot and kept us well-fed (largely with garlic bread – my request) and the staff and teams at the various venues for welcoming us with open arms and encouraging the locals to get involved and support us.

And (I’ll try not to get emotional here) thanks to my fellow CLOUDS for being amazing and inspiring musicians and fierce friends. I love you all so much x x x

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Six days to go…

This time next week, I’ll be in the Scottish Borders with CLOUDS Harp Quartet, preparing for the first gig of our Summer Tour 2017.

We have launched a kickstarter to ask for your support towards our travel costs, and there are just six days left.

If we don’t reach our target, we get nothing.

The reason we are asking for support is that we absolutely love the music that Esther Swift writes for us, and we want to bring it to as many people as possible. Over the course of the tour we will be driving 1,500 miles each. That’s 6,000 miles of fuel we need to cover. In real terms, that’s £2,700 we need to make just to cover mileage.

We are literally driving the length and breadth of the country to play for as many people as we can. Just keep your fingers crossed that our cars can survive!

Thing is, we can’t really afford to do this if we don’t make any money from it. Of course we are passionate about the music but we need to support ourselves too during increasingly uncertain times.

This is the biggest tour we’ve undertaken since the quartet formed in 2008 and we are SO EXCITED to get out there and release this new music to you. Even if you can’t support us via kickstarter, please have a look at the concert dates and come along if you can.

Our kickstarter page can be found here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cloudshq/clouds-harp-quartet-summer-tour-2017

As ever, thanks for reading, we’ll hopefully see you very soon!

A x

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Britten – Interlude from Ceremony of Carols

My exam piece project has reached Grade 6. We’re getting into the higher grades now and the music leaves plenty of room for interpretation and individuality.

I often hear this piece performed very slowly, but if you look at the metronome mark it should actually move along a bit.

First thing’s first, you need to be confident with your harmonics in this piece. Really make them as beautiful as you can. You’re in all flats so they should ring really nicely – Britten knew what he was doing.

The rhythm is tricky but exceedingly important, spend some time looking at the music away from the harp and really work out where each right hand chord should be played. In my opinion the entire first page is a slow build up to the climax of the piece at the top of the second page, so really play as quietly as you dare at the beginning.

There’s a section in which the left hand plays straight chords while the right hand is playing spread chords, I remember this taking a long time to master! It’s an important skill though and well worth the time invested.

The final line is also open to interpretation, some harpists stick to Britten’s exact markings in terms of the right hand glissandi, while others gliss more freely. I think this performance falls somewhere in between, trying to stick to Britten’s markings but also keeping the gliss flowing as much as possible.

If you haven’t heard the rest of the Ceremony of Carols, listen to it immediately (if you can listen to Christmas music in May). It’s atmospheric and very moving.

Do you play or teach this piece? Please leave any tips for students in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

Chat soon,

Ax

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I was so ill!! Vlog #6

Sometimes, as musicians, we are reminded of the fact that we do not get sick pay. It’s not possible for us to pull a certain number of sick days and know that we’ll still be paid our salary.

This has been my story this week, last Wednesday I literally could not get out of bed because of achiness and fever. The following day, I had to play for a wedding. Leaving a couple without music on their wedding day is not an option – so I had to go and do it.

It’s now a full week later and I’m still not 100% but I’m much better than I was. Thank goodness!

 

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February on #YouTube

It’s been another month of regular YouTube uploads! Thank you to those of you who have subscribed to my channel. We are slowly growing and already I’ve had a surge in enquiries so that’s absolutely brilliant.

The first video to be uploaded onto my channel in February was a tutorial giving a basic overview of how to sit at the harp and how to actually play the harp:

Next up, Vlog #5:

This was a big week as it was the first week of being completely freelance after quitting my part-time ‘side-hustle’. So give it a watch and follow along for a week of musical adventures. This was the first time I’ve attempted a weekly vlog and I had no idea how long it would get! I had to cut out a lot of footage to keep it a reasonable length. Let me know what you think.

I’ve talked about this next video in a previous post but didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share it again – I made another CLOUDS video:

CLOUDS are going on tour in June and we are very excited to be bringing you a whole new programme of music (I’m sure some old favourites will be in there too). We’ve been busy rehearsing and learning all the new music that Esther has written ready for summer. Tour dates are up on our website so check those out.

Last but not least, I couldn’t let the month slide by without uploading a classic wedding favourite. Here is my performance of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. I get asked to play this very often, and it’s particularly fitting for the couple’s exit from their Wedding Ceremony:

I had the bright idea of recording these videos from memory. I know this piece so well and yet it still took ages to get a full take! I think it’s definitely worth the extra work to have memorised performances, but what do you guys think? Also, I’d like to say a big thank you to my housemate Chris for letting me use his fancy DSLR to record this last video. I love the quality but still need to learn how to use the camera properly (beyond just zooming in and pressing Record).

I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you for reading, watching, and just generally supporting me along the way. I know some of you have been reading this blog since it started back in 2012 – that’s five years folks! Your support is much appreciated. I adore having a writing outlet and getting the chance to share my musings with you.

Chat soon,

Ax

p.s. I’d also like to ask you for some feedback. If you received this post via email, did the links to the videos work ok? Did you just receive the one email? I’m transferring my email list to MailChimp so please bear with me while I sort any niggles out!

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I’ve been spoilt rotten.

Musically speaking, that is.

This past week has been a week of inspiring, amazing music, and I wanted to share a little bit of it with you.

Firstly, I spent three days with CLOUDS Harp Quartet. We are learning a brand new programme for our upcoming tour in June (more details on that to follow). Spending time with CLOUDS is without doubt one of my favourite aspects of my career to date. Esther‘s music is challenging and beautiful and the act of learning it is making us all better musicians. Here’s a little video I made of a tiny snippet of the music that we’ve been learning:

At the end of the three days, Elinor and I went to see Swan Lake at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. Despite having a mild obsession with Tchaikovsky I have to admit that I’d never seen a professional ballet production in my adult life.

I absolutely love the music and it was such a treat to see the ballet as well. Although, hearing the harp cadenza being played on electric keyboard was a disappointment. Playing in a ballet orchestra is a huge dream of mine and when even Moscow City Ballet don’t think it’s worth having a real harp in the pit, it’s a little demoralising to say the least.

The following day I had a gig in Sheffield (my favourite). The drive over was a bit scary and involved fog, wind, and snow. Nevertheless, Hallam Sinfonia needed a harpist for their performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. If you haven’t listened to this work before, do it right now – especially the Adagietto – it is gorgeous and heart-breaking. Sometimes I can’t believe that my job is to practice and perform such beautiful music.

To finish off the week, I was singing for Sunday’s morning service with my choir at St. Ann’s Church, directed by Simon Passmore. Not only was the setting composed by one of our members – Dr David Liggins – the music for the anthem Lead, Kindly Light was written by our late director of music – Canon Ronald Frost – in the form of the hymn tune Loppergarth. I’m trying to find a recording of us singing this gorgeous and emotive piece, leave it with me… Ronald was a wonderfully kind and talented soul and all of us in the choir who knew him, miss him greatly. It’s such a blessing that we can carry on performing his music in his memory.

I have to say that I feel so grateful and lucky that I have such wonderful music and wonderful people in my life.

As ever, thanks for reading, and don’t forget to pop your email address in the box to subscribe and receive these posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

Chat soon,

Ax

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10 Reasons to Love the Freelance Life

As you may have seen in this week’s YouTube video, I wanted this post to be a list of reasons to love living and working freelance.

Having recently quit my part-time retail job, I can now safely say that all the work I do is either self-employed, or, if it is employment, it’s still music related, it’s still helping my career.

If you have any additional points to add to this list – let me know in the comments, why do you love the freelance life?

  1.  Effort put in is directly proportional to Results & Success.

    When you’re working for minimum wage, it’s easy to feel like you’re just paid to ‘be there’. You get paid the same amount as the colleagues who perhaps don’t pull their weight, leaving you to pick up the slack. However hard you work, your hourly pay is the same.

    Not exactly motivating is it?

    What’s your incentive to work hard if you’re getting paid just as much as if you literally do nothing except stand there?

    When you’re working freelance, the amount of time and effort you put in is directly proportional to your success. You’ve gota put in the hustle, baby

    2. Financial freedom.

    You decide your pay at the end of each week/month. For example, I like to put all my earnings into a separate account (my accountant likes it that way) and then pay myself a set amount each Friday. That works for me because I like the feeling of having constant, regular income. If another way works for you, do that. We decide how it works.

    I also use what’s in my business account to reinvest in my career with new music, gear, and keeping my harp and car in tip-top condition. My profits go back to me and my business, not to a boss, CEO or shareholder. Imagine if more companies did that? Reinvesting the profits rather than lining other people’s pockets is just the sensible way to go and it increases your intrinsic value.

    3. Setting your own schedule – or not setting a schedule at all!

    Some people (and by some people I mean me) absolutely love working to a schedule. Other people work best when they can go with the flow. Some people do their best work early in the morning, for others 2am is ideal. When you’re freelance, you’re not bound by anyone else’s schedule and can work at a time that’s best for you.

    I’m currently experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique and will let you know how I get on with it.

    4. YOU ARE THE BOSS.

    Have you ever had a job where you hated your boss or a particular colleague? It’s pretty difficult to hate yourself to the same extent.

    I’ve worked for bosses before and luckily most of the time we’ve got on fine, but the feeling of being your own boss is pretty difficult to beat.

    5. The possibilities are endless – no need to convince anyone except yourself.

    If you have an idea for your business, and if you are confident you can pull it off, nothing can stop you going after your goals. Want to move in a different direction? Narrow down or change your niche? As long as you can convince yourself, go for it!

    6. You choose your clients and set your own fee, plus you only accept the work you are happy to take on.

    This may not exactly be the case when you’re starting out. But as you get more and more work you can start being selective with what you take on (if you want). If someone doesn’t want to pay your fee or says it’s too high, just let them go. If you believe that your rate is reasonable (and I hope that you do) then trust that if this particular client won’t pay your fee, then you can politely decline the work and leave the date free for someone else who is wiling to pay for the value that you are offering.

    7. You choose your own holidays.

    I’ve worked jobs before where there’s a flat-out rule of ‘no holidays in December’. I don’t really enjoy having my time dictated to me like that. When you’re freelance, if there’s an important event (a family wedding for example), if you have enough notice, and it’s important enough to you, you can block that day out and say no to anything else that comes in. You don’t need to worry about fitting your holiday in between those of everyone else at work – all you need to worry about is what’s best for your situation.

    8. The satisfaction of knowing that your success is down to YOU.

    When I pay myself at the end of every week, that money goes into my account and I feel so proud that I created that income. I found the gigs, I wrote the contracts and invoices, I spoke to the clients and got to know them, I did the practice, I performed, I handled any logistics necessary. Maybe I’m just fiercely independent and hate relying on anyone else, but it’s a great feeling to be steering your own ship.

    9. You’re never finished.  There’s always more you can do.

    Freelancing isn’t for those who just want to leave work ‘at work’. It follows you everywhere, it’s always on your mind. It’s a lifestyle. All you can say is ‘I’ve done enough for today’, and know that tomorrow, you’ll pick up where you left off. Let’s not even talk about how much more practice all of us musicians could be doing. I’m choosing to see this as a positive. If you’ve got the drive and the energy, nothing can stop you.

    10. FREEDOM.

    The idea of freedom encapsulates everything I love about being freelance. You choose the work you take on, you choose the days you take off, you have total control over every aspect of your business. From what time you get up to how much you get paid, it’s all up to you.

As ever, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to pop your email in the box to subscribe and get future posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

Catch you in a bit.

Ax

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