Sylvia's Practice Tips
by Sylvia Woods
Toys and TV
This is the first in a series of articles that can help make your practice time more effective, and more FUN. They will be geared to help get you ready to play in public, no matter how big or small the audience, but they'll also be helpful for all you "closet harpists" out there as well.
When I first began playing the harp, my first "gig" was sitting in front of the Los Angeles County Art Museum with my harp and my "hat" in front of me for tips. The first lesson I learned was that people were much more likely to stop and listen if I made eye contact with them. The second lesson was that they liked to talk to me while I was playing, and that this was a skill I needed to master.
And so, today's article deals with how to practice making eye contact with your audience. And then, how to carry on a conversation while you play. These exercises are not meant to replace your regular practice routine. They're meant to be done in addition to your normal practicing. They're also meant to be FUN!
Pick a piece (or a section of a piece) that you have memorized and you know very well. Look at your strings whenever you need to, but try to wean yourself away from them. The more you practice each exercise, the better you'll get, and the longer you'll be able to look away from your strings.
Exercise #1. Place one or more dolls or stuffed animals in front and around your harp as your "audience." (If you don't have any dolls, photos of friends and relatives will do.) Practice making eye contact with them while you play. See if you can get them to smile back at you!! If you can actually get them to applaud at the end of the piece, you know you're really cosmic!
Exercise #2. Practice in front of the TV, with the TV on. I know this goes against everything you were ever taught ("Don't do your homework in front of the TV!"), but this is only an exercise. The best program to select if possible is a news program such as CNN or the evening news, since the reporters tend to look directly at the camera at YOU. Turn off the sound, and just watch the picture while you play your piece. As with the exercise with the dolls and stuffed animals, try to make as much eye contact with the people on the TV as possible. This exercise also gets you used to the distraction of motion in your field of vision (particularly during the sports segments of the program!)
Exercise #3. Now turn up the sound on the TV, and try to actually pay attention to what the news reporters are saying while you play. Pretend that you have to take a quiz later about what was in the news, so you have to really listen to what they're saying and make sense of it (as much as anyone can possibly make of the news)!
Exercise #4. Now you actually get to talk back to the TV while you play. Good shows for this are soap operas. It doesn't matter if you've ever seen the soap opera before or not, just make something up and talk back to them. For example, if the man on the screen says "But honey, you know I've always been faithful to you!" then you can say something like "Oh yeah? What about that Las Vegas show girl?" Don't worry if he doesn't answer your question, just get used to talking. In this exercise it is important that you actually talk out loud, not just in your imagination. Because of this, it is probably a good idea to practice this when nobody else is around, or they may think you're a bit daft.
Exercise #5. Get out your dolls and stuffed animals again and tell them a story while you play. They really enjoy hearing about "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Try to keep talking and playing the whole time.
Exercise #6. Once you're good with the TV and your animals, actually have a friend talk to you while you play. Try to carry on a conversation without losing your place.
As these exercises get easier for you, try adding more of your repertoire to what you play. Try to carry on a conversation without losing your place.
Remember, these exercises are not easy. Most professional harpists would have difficulty with them at first. But they are lots of fun, and once you master them, you'll be better able to ignore distractions, and will be more in control of your playing.
(This article was first printed in "The Harp Lover's News" Volume 2, Issue 3, 1st Quarter, 1995, published by the Sylvia Woods Harp Center. Many of the articles from this newsletter can be found in our "Fun Stuff" section.)