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).
If you’re anything like me, sometimes it’s hard to practice. Some days, the motivation just isn’t there, it just seems like too much. So we end up procrastinating and putting it off until eventually the day is over and it’s too late (who else does this?)
I think that the reason for this is the fact that practice – good quality practice – is mentally tiring. You’re always thinking, always trying to improve, actively looking for imperfections and then trying to iron them out. It’s not easy! It takes effort. That’s why I think it’s hard to get started sometimes.
So I’d like to use this post to make a list of things that seem to help me to practice (even when I don’t want to). If you have any of your own tips please leave them in the comments – let’s help each other with this.
Find what time works best for YOU
For me, it’s first thing in the morning, before I’ve had chance to get distracted by emails and other commitments. Straight after breakfast, sit down and play. I find that I focus much better in the morning and practice is much more productive (in fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s probably twice as effective as afternoon or evening practice).
I realise that with family and work commitments, morning practice isn’t always possible, but even if it’s a couple of days a week, morning practice could make a massive difference to your overall progress. Give it a try.
Set a weekly practice target
We all have busy, crazy days where practice just ain’t gonna happen. Let’s not beat ourselves up about it. Instead, set a weekly target of how much practice would be ideal and try and stick to it. Start small, how about four hours a week? If you get to the end of the week and find you want to do more, increase it. If you find your target was way too high and you’re feeling guilty for missing your target, relax a little and find an amount that works for you. If your practice is good quality, you may not need to do as much as you think.
Schedule your practice in for the week
So you’ve decided how much practice you need to do this week, now let’s schedule it in. Ahh I love a good schedule and I’ve written about this subject before. But trust me on this. Schedule your practice in and you remove the guilt of always feeling like you ‘should be practising’. Turn it into a commitment – you wouldn’t be late for a coffee date with your bestie or a flight to go somewhere exciting, so don’t be late for practice. Show up, get it done, and then reward yourself…
Reward yourself for staying on track
I’m still not very good at this, but there are lots of ways to reward yourself if you are really struggling to get your practice done. Obviously improving your playing is a reward in itself but thinking more short-term – when you hit your practice goal for the week reward yourself with a treat. Fancy hot chocolate with mashmallows and whipped cream? Watching your favourite tv show? Buying some new music? Having a super-long bath with fancy oils and a glass of bubbly? Whatever you fancy, if it’ll make you do your practice, it’ll be worth it.
Set specific targets for each session
Look at what’s coming up in your diary. Any gigs in the next six weeks should be your priority. If you’re just playing for a hobby, why not set yourself a deadline of when you want a piece to be ready for? Your next lesson is an excellent goal to work towards and gosh I miss that weekly lesson to kick my behind into gear and focus my mind on what I need to improve.
Have a goal for each hour of practice. Even if it’s just ‘I want to play the first line of my piece from memory’ or ‘I want to be able to play fluently at x speed with the metronome’ or ‘I want the left hand to be smooth in this section’, set a target so you’re not just playing a piece through and hoping it’ll get better. Focus on the bits you can’t yet play and practice them until you can’t get them wrong (practising until it’s correct is not enough – practice starts when it’s correct). Whatever you’re working on, see if you can play it ten times correctly before moving on – if you make a mistake on the ninth time, it’s back to the start for you (sorry).
So there we have just a few tips on how to improve your practice – if you have any thoughts or anything to add please do comment and let me know what you think. Or at least let me know that I’m not the only musician out there who sometimes doesn’t want to practice!
As ever, thanks very much for reading.
Here we are in the best month of the year (birthday month) and I think it’s high time for another ‘What I’m Practising’.
I feel very spoilt this month as I have plenty of lovely things to be getting on with, yet it’s not so much that I’m feeling overwhelmed – a good balance.
I’m currently working on some solo repertoire for a gig in Halifax on the 9th of November. Solo gigs are the perfect opportunity to polish up old favourites and maybe challenge yourself to learn something new too. As I’m very keen to have enough music to fill the required time I’ve actually ended up with too many pieces and have had to cut one thing out of my programme. Sorry Grandjany – your fantasie will be getting an airing soon, but not next week. The pieces that made the cut are Watching the Wheat by John Thomas (apologies for the ancient video but check out my tan! Thanks Italy), Bach-Grandjany Etude 12 and Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
The 9th will be one of those wonderful gigs where dinner is provided, and I get to bring along a guest for harp-help and moral support too. It’s highly likely I’ll be posting all about it on Instagram so follow me there for updates.
Next up, an orchestral gig in Todmorden on Saturday, 12th November (also known as the day after my birthday). The rep is Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – one of my absolute favourite orchestral parts. Have a listen to the second movement (the harpy one), conducted here by Leonard Bernstein.
So those are the main players in my practice at the moment. Good times! Other gigs looming are mainly background music and weddings – so that’s nicely under control too.
Thanks for reading and have a lovely November all!
You think being excellent at your instrument automatically makes you an asset to your orchestra?
Well… not necessarily.
I started playing with orchestras as a child, going away for week-long orchestral courses for IAPS and NSSO. These early experiences of playing in an orchestra are absolutely fantastic and get you into some great habits. As a young harpist, I was lucky to receive guidance from many amazing harpists – all of whom I still know and respect today (Honor, Gabriella, Eira, Rachel, Georgina and Anita to name just a few).
The following is a list of some of the things I’ve learned about playing in orchestras, if you are new to orchestral playing, following these tips will certainly help you make a good impression.
If some of these seem stupidly obvious, please forgive me, it’s my attempt at being thorough. Please know that this isn’t me being ‘holier than thou’ – believe me I’ve often fallen short of these standards. But I believe this is what we should all strive for.
Being on time is not good enough
First thing’s first. If a rehearsal starts at 10am, turning up at 10am means you are late and inconveniencing the conductor. I’d recommend if you have a large instrument (harp or percussion), aim to arrive AN HOUR before the starting time of the rehearsal. Everyone else, half an hour.
Hear me out here.
Arriving sufficiently early means you have time to find somewhere to park, unload, sort any potential disasters, find where you are going, settle in and tune before wind and brass start warming up, and maybe even grab a coffee too. By the time 10am rolls around, you’re relaxed, warmed up, caffeinated, and good to go. Plus, with traffic and the (very real) possibility of getting lost, we often arrive later than we expect – so this plan at least gives a good margin for error
No chatting, NO PHONES, no reading, unless the orchestra is rehearsing a movement you’re not in.
I get it, you’re not playing for a hundred bars and you need the gossip from last night. Maybe just send a quick text to see what’s going on.
Conductors see everything and being on your phone in a rehearsal is unprofessional and rude. Just don’t do it. If you’re not playing for a whole movement that’s perhaps different but in general, keep in off, in your bag, away from you so there’s no temptation. Personally, during movements I’m not in a prefer a good book or a crossword/sudoku.
Whispering and chatting to your deskie while the conductor is talking is also a no-no, it’s obvious and distracting to others.
Tune quickly and quietly, when it’s your turn, and stop playing when you are in tune.
Oh, the joys of getting an orchestra in tune. Harpists, sit back and hope that you tuned to the same A that the oboist is now playing – personally I prefer 440 Hz but different orchestras might do things differently (441 or in some places even 442 *shudder*). Everyone else, tune when directed to do so, but please do it as quietly as you can (so as to be considerate to the players around you who are also tuning) and stop playing as soon as you are in tune – to make it easier for those still tuning.
Practise the music beforehand
I hope this one is obvious, particularly for harpists. If you can get your hands on the music in advance, do it! What helps me a lot is finding the score online (try imslp.org) and then listening to it on spotify. Notice any tricky or solo passages and work on those. Mark up your part as necessary. The better you know the music, the better prepared you are on the day. Preparation is key and no one wants to get caught out.
Have a specific bag that you bring with you to rehearsals, or keep these bits in your instrument case. A couple of 2B pencils (darker lead and easier to rub out), a wire stand in case there aren’t any at the venue, and a folding light just in case the light is poor for the concert.
Depending on your instrument of course you will need other bits and pieces, for me, I take my gig bag, the contents of which I list here.
Having these bits with you just puts your mind at ease that you won’t be caught out. It’s embarrassing to not have a pencil when you need to mark important instructions (cuts, repeats etc.)
Always, always, count.
So you’re not playing for a hundred bars, cry me a river and just make sure you count. All the time. SO many times I’ve been counting for what feels like hundreds of bars only for the conductor to stop just before I come in. Classic. But it’s still useful. You learn and can note down any important cues and get so much more of a feel for the music this way – and ultimately – that will add to your confidence when it comes to the performance. You’ll know exactly where to come in – and the conductor will love you.
Never rely on getting a cue from the conductor.
I say this with love, I really do. Conductors have so much to think about I don’t know how they do what they do. They won’t always be able to bring you in for your entry. This is why you need to count 100% of the time. Still WATCH the conductor at all times, but don’t be afraid to come in if they don’t give you a cue.
Harpists and other lone instruments: if you are not sure about your entry, come in anyway, if it’s wrong, it can be addressed, if it’s right, great work! Have the confidence to just come in, even if you’re not completely sure where you are. This comes with time and experience.
After a concert, sit when the leader sits, leave only when the leader leaves.
All this bowing, clapping, and standing after a concert has finished can seem silly, I mean, some of us actually have homes to go to, homes that are really far away. If in doubt, do what the leader does, when they sit, you sit, when they have left the stage, you can leave the stage.
Just don’t actually bow, you’ll feel ridiculous and you’ll be the only one. Smile at the audience and stand up straight, act like you are proud of what just happened.
Long Black is more professional that All Black.
Ladies, when it comes to concert clothes, let’s keep it decent. You don’t want the audience thinking you must be going clubbing right after the concert. This is less of an issue in winter, when church concerts make you want to put at least ten layers on as well as a hot water bottle and mittens.
But seriously, smart, professional, and long is best in my opinion. No miniskirts. ESPECIALLY if you straddle your instrument (I’m looking at you, cellists and harpists).
I used to love flouncing around in a black ball-gown at every orchestral gig I did. Nowadays I prefer smart black trousers, a black plain top and a black cardigan for smaller concerts and I keep the dresses for the bigger concerts halls and solo gigs.
So there you have it! Just a few tips to help make a good impression on your colleagues at orchestral gigs. Thanks for reading and I hope you find them useful.
Do you have any others that I’ve missed? Leave them in the comments below.
After the relative quiet of January, there’s a lot to be getting on with this month.
When I’m practising, I like to look ahead in my diary and see what orchestral gigs are coming up in the next six weeks or so, and then work on the music for those things. Background gigs don’t need specific practice unless there are special requests that I need to learn. Solo recitals will obviously need more than six weeks too.
I like to spend the first half an hour warming up. Typically this will involve exercises and Bach. I’ve been really enjoying revisiting the Fugue I played for my Final Recital back in 2011:
I find that starting my practice in this way really helps me focus and get into the zone before getting my teeth into new stuff.
The main concert I’m practising for is in March in Chesterfield. Lots of English music is on the programme, and a few pieces I’ve actually never done before:
We are playing a different arrangement of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, which feels really strange! I know the traditional harp part so well that it seems weird to learn a different part to the same piece…
I’ve also been getting back into the habit of daily piano practice…
Up until recently the most piano playing I would do is sight-reading through duets with my dad when I visit my parents in York. I still do that of course but I have been loving getting back into regular practice.
I could do with ideas for new repertoire to learn on the piano, as I’ve been doing the same four Czerny etudes for about ten years! Please comment below with suggestions. Am really enjoying clattering through the last movement of Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D major and Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat.
I’d like to do more duets, and I’d like some piano lessons. I will investigate and report back next month.
Only a couple of gigs to report on this month. Both background gigs. The first was at Bolton’s Museum and Art Gallery – a drinks reception for KBL Solicitors. It got a write up online that you can read here.
I have to say I was looked after so well in Bolton, I was given a plate of delicious canapés and everyone always made sure I had a soft drink of some sort. That makes such a difference. I often have to travel to somewhere totally unfamiliar, greet people I’ve never met or spoken to before so little things like food and somewhere to change my clothes really make a huge difference.
The next gig was down at Alton Towers Conference Centre. This was an unusual event. Firstly, I’ve never been to Alton Towers before. Yep. Never. I had no idea that it’s actually in the middle of nowhere! It was already dark when I arrived and I hadn’t seen another car for several miles (the same happened on the way home, quite spooky really). Oh, and the building seemed deserted when I arrived, walking down empty corridors in a strange building after driving down empty roads in the dark for ages is so weird!
Anyway, I did eventually find where the dinner was taking place and wow, it looked pretty cool:
The whole evening had an Enchanted Forest theme, and I wish I could have taken pictures of the guests – a lot of effort went into the costumes! Everyone was there, chimney-sweeps, Snow White, Aladdin, Captain Hook, it was crazy!
So that’s pretty much it when it comes to gigs this month. Luckily I had loads of work in December, and because of the way I now organise myself financially I’ve been able to keep paying myself each week as usual. Looking back on previous January blog posts, it’s interesting to see how things have levelled themselves out now. No panicking if a gig doesn’t pay for a while, not too much stress if there’s a quiet time with not many gigs, hey, they’re pouring in now! I guess that, after freelancing for over four years now, I’m learning that it’s all going to be ok. There is work out there. There are jobs out there. There are opportunities out there. And I intend to grasp all of the above with both hands.
So I’ve been pretty nervous about doing this, but I’ve taken the plunge and uploaded my first vlog to YouTube:
Check it out and let me know what you think. While you’re there make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel, I’m planning on posting lots of videos of pieces I love, wedding music ideas, and vlogging what it’s like to be a harpist on the road.
If you’re more of a tweeter or an instagrammer then you can always follow me on those platforms too @harpistangelina
Happy Friday everyone!