There is a special element of great duo or group musicianship that, to an outsider, can seem uncanny; something more than just two or more people who are able to play the same piece at the same time. When the music is flowing out of them expressively and with an almost electric energy, it’s as though the group members can each read the others’ minds.

Well, they can. It’s not something that happens among just any two or more musicians. Finding those with whom this intuitive musical communication can occur is a bit like finding a new romance; it’s “chemistry”. It’s possible with two musicians, and occasionally with three or more. I’ve played in duo and in groups throughout my life, and have been very lucky to have found this magical quality in many of the people I’ve played with. It adds an extra element to the music that makes it effective and exciting for the listeners.

My first musical partner was my sister. We were trained by my mother in stage skills and vocal technique. Mom was a tough tutor. We cried a lot. But we learned important skills, and since we shared genetics as well as environment  –  nature and nurture  –  we developed that ability to communicate without signals or instructions. We could add an indescribable element to our music that made it more than the sum of its parts. I remember that on many occasions we’d be performing some song that we had carefully practiced in a specific way, and would suddenly get an idea for some enhancement or change. We’d just look at each other and know exactly what the other had in mind, mostly because we both had the same idea. It was like having one mind. We could adapt our arrangements on the fly in a performance without planning or verbalizing the idea for the adaptation.  There was nothing insecure about this. It felt the same as though we’d planned and practiced it.

Later I ran into a group of folk-rock musicians who gelled instantly. When we met, we really, really liked each others’ music. The first time we met, we were all playing at the same concert, we got together backstage and decided to try out a tune together. We quickly worked out four-part harmonies and blended accompaniments, so easily it was as though we’d always been together. You know what it’s like when you meet a special person and the conversation just flows, and you get each others’ humor, and you can’t stop talking? That’s’ how it was musically with these fellows. Over time and with focused work (we practiced five days a week, three hours a day) we got quite good and became very popular. We didn’t get along personality-wise, but our music was wonderful.

Many years later, I had the honor of playing with the Chieftains, the supergroup from Ireland. Their harpist, Derek Bell, had passed away suddenly, just before an American tour which they could not cancel, so they asked me to play with them for their first concert without him (other harpists played with them in other cities on that tour). Due to union regulations we had exactly ten minutes to practice the four tunes I was to do with them, which of course would normally not be adequate for developing a rapport. We would have to depend on our expertise and experience and trust that it would work. They had me start the pieces (probably to see what tempos I was inclined to use), and for two of those pieces, their flutist Matt Molloy then joined in with me before the rest of the group did. I didn’t know in advance that he would be doing that, but I was open to whatever they did. What happened in those moments of flute and harp together astonished me. I had not met him except to wave hello at the ten-minute rehearsal, and I only knew his playing from hearing their recordings. He was so far across the stage from me that I couldn’t even see him in the dim light. But the sound system was good, so we could hear each other very well. The magic of his paying was such that it almost made the hair on my neck stand up, and the two of us played together as though we were one musician. I felt as though there were a bridge of energy arcing across the stage between us, pulling the music together into a flowing stream of sound.

This magic can happen in sessions, too. My nephew Victor Provost, who plays jazz steel “pan” (google him and listen  –  he’s phenomenal) often posts remarks on Facebook about how it feels to play with some of the great contemporary jazz musicians. I can well imagine the almost physical sensation, the electricity that makes the whole body tingle, when these musicians get in the zone! I’ve seen him in concert. It’s indescribable.

This phenomenon is also common In Celtic sessions, if the musicians are experienced and are attentive to each other. It doesn’t work at all when someone is trying to stand out, show off, or play too fast or too loud. But when everyone is in sync, it’s like the groove on a bobsled run  –  it just carries you along. The key is to aim for the blend, to listen to each other and become a seamless part of the whole. This magic cannot happen unless we get away from just concentrating on reading the music and counting beats, and start really listening to each other as we play. Hear the way the music flows and moves. Feel the harmonies interact and the notes bounce off each other. Take cues from the tonal quality, nuances and subtleties of your partner’s or group’s playing. Music is so much more than a sequence of correct notes!

I relate these stories because I know of no other way to describe the phenomenon. If you wonder whether you’ve ever felt it, the answer would be that if you have to wonder, then you haven’t. But you probably will. As you truly master your instrument, as you listen deeply and respectfully to other musicians, it will come. When you feel it, you will know it. It cannot be forced or faked. And when you find it, nurture it.

Posted by: laurie689 | February 18, 2018

How Do You Teach Creativity?

Those of you who are teachers have surely noticed that some students are creative learners, while others prefer to use a formulaic approach. Both ways of learning are, of course, valid, and both types present challenges and delights.

Generally speaking, the formulaic learner is often someone whom we might refer to as left-brained  –  someone who works best with a very specific method, detailed instruction, and does not want to have to infer or interpret. This type of student is likely to become adept technically, and may do very well in orchestral settings and ensembles. If they compose or arrange music, it’s likely they’ll write it on paper before they’ve played it, using their knowledge of music theory and construction to build a piece.

Generally speaking, the creative learner is often right-brained; they learn well by ear, they are intuitive, they prefer to make up their own music or their own arrangements rather than learning from a page. These students can sometimes be challenging to teach if they feel that they don’t need technique or guidance. But they can go quite far if they do accept instruction, and many become brilliant performers. When composing music, they usually do it by “hearing it in their heads” and playing it before writing it down, or by improvising freely until they hear something they like, and then saving it.

Being strictly one way or the other can be a handicap. The formulaic learners aren’t as likely to allow themselves the freedom to arrange or compose their own pieces, or to improvise or jam; while the creative learner may not realize that there is inspiration in what they don’t already know, and that learning more may increase their skills in ways they have not imagined. And each may think the other’s way of learning is inferior.

I’m one of the creative learners. I was dyslexic as a child  – still am to a significant degree  –  so although I wanted to be a classical violinist, I could not read notation. I understood notation but could not see it; the notes and the lines got all mixed up visually. So I composed and arranged using my knowledge of basic music theory as a guide, and my inherent musical sense as a muse. I was lucky that ethnic and traditional music were available to me, since historically they developed without the use of notation. I would like to go back to the piano teacher who kicked me out at age ten, and show him my Lifetime Achievement Award in harping. Being dyslexic did not mean I could not play. I’m saying this because I want all teachers to know that students can learn whether they are formulaic or creative learners, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out which are which, and to be flexible enough to work with both types.

Some students in both categories sprout wings and fly, and some who could have accomplished much just settle for mediocre. Some believe they are great when they have a long way yet to go, and there are others who are great don’t realize they are. Very few really buckle down and do the work required to achieve professional status.  I’m sure most teachers wish they would. But in reality many students just want to have fun playing whatever music they play, and that IS a valid reason to play. After all, music is for enjoying. But do nurture all your students. Some will go far indeed.

If, however, someone asks you to show them how you play creatively, how do you teach them that skill? After all, creativity is a natural talent, right? Not necessarily. Various influences can affect our beliefs about our abilities. What about the child who, because they are a creative learner, has had a teacher who told them they can’t ever play well? Or who, because they learn better aurally than visually, was at odds with some teacher’s method? Or whose parents force them to practice when they should be outside playing with their friends?

The first thing a teacher needs to do is help a student believe in him/her self. To know they have the right to be creative, and that there is no standard by which creativity is measured, so their own creations are valid. They need to be encouraged, praised, and nurtured.

I once had a brilliant student who learned best by ear, but for some reason was not creative. When I would encourage her to compose or arrange, she’d say, “But how?” – even though she knew the music theory she needed to do it. We tried a number of methods for inspiration, but she just wanted to play what I played, exactly the way I played it. It made me sad, because I knew she had what it takes to create her own music and do it well. But she didn’t know that. After I moved away and she grew up, I heard that she’d been playing in a band and that most of her music was improvisational. And that it was very, very good. So… she had been listening. It just took her a while to try it, and when she did, there was no stopping her.

Teaching at least basic music theory is essential to give students the skills to compose and arrange intelligently. It irks me that music theory is usually taught only on paper or a blackboard instead of directly relating it to the instrument. Music theory is not a description of how to read music notation. It is a description of how music is structured, and it therefore automatically explains why and how notation works, but it is so much more than notation! It is a portal to a world without limits, where music becomes a language. And when one knows that language well, they can use it creatively.

The creative learner who does not want to learn music theory may forever have a stunted musical “vocabulary”, and will fall into ruts in which all their music sounds pretty much the same. Conversely, the formulaic learner who will use only music written by others is like a speaker who can only read from a written page but can’t carry on a conversation. Either way, teaching every student both ways of making music will open the most doors. And for the student, being willing to learn what is outside of your own realm of experience will keep those doors open.

Posted by: laurie689 | November 22, 2017

Overtones, Sympathetic Vibration, and Resonant Frequency

Recently there was a discussion on one of the music list-serves regarding overtones. There seems to be some confusion about what they are. Many were confusing them with sympathetic vibration, when in fact they are not the same. Here’s what the difference is: sympathetic vibration is when a vibrating object causes other objects to vibrate, whether or not they are touching. Hence, in the case of something such as a plucked string, other strings sound because they pick up the vibration. Or some unrelated object vibrates in response to a musical tone. Some people call this “resonant frequency” – certain objects will vibrate at the same frequency because their density or materials are “sympathetic” to that specific frequency.

Musicians certified to play in therapeutic/medical settings often use the concept of resonant frequency, noticing what notes seem to feel best to a patient and then using those notes predominantly in the music they offer to that person. In that case the science is not exact, as there is no way to measure how or why each individual responds physically or emotionally to certain tones. We do know that it often works very well; patients usually report a feeling of well-being, or we see improvements in vital signs among patients who are seriously ill. (That is not, by the way, the only skill therapeutic musicians are taught  –  it’s just one of many.)

Sympathetic vibrations are transmitted through the air or through matter. In fact, the vibration of a soundboard on an acoustic stringed instrument could be called sympathetic because the vibration is transferred through the material of which the instrument is made  –  the string is attached to the soundboard in some way, depending on the instrument, and that material responds, its vibration transmits the sound of the string into the air chamber of the soundbox, inside which it increases, thereby making the soundboard vibrate even more. This amplifies the sound (a plucked string is not nearly as loud as one attached to a soundbox). But usually the term ”sympathetic vibration” refers to another string or another object vibrating in response to a tone.

Sympathetic vibration can be annoying if something in the room is vibrating, or when something on the instrument itself is buzzing when you pluck a string. Identifying the offending part or object can be challenging.

On the other hand, some of the pleasant uses of sympathetic vibration are those such as sympathetic strings on a nyckelharpa or a Hardanger fiddle. Their resonance makes these instruments sound like they are being played in a cathedral. (Some of their richness is from sympathetic vibration; some is from hearing overtones and undertones.)

Not to be confused with sympathetic vibration or vice versa, overtones are the spectrum of sound one plucked string makes on its own – including above, below, and within the range of human hearing. We subconsciously train our brains to be aware of just the fundamental tone, and we usually don’t notice the overtones because we are listening for the fundamental. But you can tell the difference between an instrument that has a “rich” sound (lots of overtones) and one that does not. The richness or lack of richness of an instrument may or may not be due to how well it’s made, but some are purposely made to emphasize just the fundamental note. Some people prefer them; others prefer richness.

You can listen closely to a plucked string – probably in the mid-range is easiest – and see if you detect more than one note. The overtones will be very subtle. You can prove, however, that they do exist by making harmonics. Most string players know how to create an octave harmonic by gently touching a string in its exact enter and plucking it at the same time; if you do it just right you get a note an octave higher than the note the string is tuned to. Fewer realize that you can also easily get fifths and thirds or octaves plus fifths and thirds by touching the string in various other spots. Experimenting with this is fun. The tones will “mirror-image” on both sides of center. What you are hearing are the overtones that are present whenever a string is plucked. The reason you can hear them now as the main note is because you have stopped the fundamental note from sounding, so they are no longer disguised by its relative volume.

Pythagoras said that all notes are contained within a single plucked string. He experimented with a one-stringed instrument to find and document that all chords come from harmonic mathematics, and the diatonic and chromatic scales do as well, because ideally (though not usually in actuality because it’s impossible to make a perfect string or soundbox) one plucked string produces all notes.

That brings up the subject of undertones. These are lower than the fundamental note, but occur for the same reason that overtones occur. There is argument about whether undertones exist. They do; they are just much harder to produce audibly.

For more detailed info see my book “Singing the Universe Awake” on the
books page of my website at

Posted by: aliveinthewild | August 30, 2017

Getting the Most out of Workshops and Classes

Every musician can benefit from taking an occasional workshop or class related to their instrument, regardless of whether you take private lessons as well. Getting extra instruction and a fresh point of view is always a good idea.

Classes and workshops are usually designated by category of instrument and/or style, and by skill level. Making the right choice is obviously important; it make the difference between learning and frustration.

Choosing by Skill Level

Of course you’ll choose a workshop meant for your skill level – most of the time – but we can also take advantage of how much help it can be to study at a skill level that is different from yours.

For instance, try a class that is offered at a lower level than you perceive your skills to be. There’s not a musician on this planet who has managed to learn all the skills he or she could and should have learned for their perceived skill level. Skills usually develop selectively, rather than in a broad-spectrum way, thereby leaving the musician with a limited set of advanced skills. This is one reason you will often see professionals taking classes from other professionals. No one knows everything, even if they think they do! If you missed something along the way, how would you know? After all, you, uh, missed it. Letting someone take you back to a more basic skill level and show you what you missed will open up new worlds to you.

Yes, some workshops or classes could truly be below your level, or the techniques different from what you’ve mastered. But you can use them as an opportunity to focus and review. It’s likely, though, that some information will be remedial.

It’s considerate to refrain from trying to show the class or the teacher that you’re a better player than everyone else. Doing so intimidates the other students, and puts the teacher in a compromised position; they may feel they must teach to your level to keep you interested and challenged. Teaching to disparate levels in a group often results in no one learning much. You can keep your skill level to yourself, just be a really good student, and don’t be insulted when you’re treated like everyone else.

Another great option you can consider is to sign up for a workshop that is beyond your skill level; if it’s too advanced you can still gain inspiration. If you’re not inclined toward discouragement, such an experience can propel you forward by light years. It’s a good idea to inform the teacher beforehand that your skills are not up to the class standard, and tell them not to hold the class back just for you.

Choosing by Teacher

When someone we admire is teaching a workshop or class, it’s an opportunity to learn how they do those special things that make their music unique. Yet many beginner or intermediate students assume they can’t study with a famous person. Contrary to that assumption, the famous folks often have the most patience and empathy. So don’t hesitate.

Inquire About Format

Be sure to ask in advance whether the class is hands-on, demo only, or lecture. I once toted my heavy wire strung harp to a “wire strung harp workshop” by a famous player, tuned it carefully and set it up, as did other students, only to have the teacher do a lecture-demo. We already knew what he did because we’d seen and heard him play many times. We wanted to learn how he did it. If a teacher has not thought to announce the format, your asking can remind him or her to do so, and spare you some aggravation.

How Much Will You Learn?

After a workshop or class  –  whether it’s an hour, a day, a weekend, or a week long  –  you might remember just a few, or maybe even just one, thing that was taught. Although it may seem like you’ve wasted money and time, in actuality that one thing or few things can make it worthwhile. I once spent ten days at a music camp learning from my favorite teacher, only to find when I got home that I consciously remembered just one thing. At first I was frustrated, but it took a year to integrate that skill into my playing, and it has served me well ever since.

If you don’t consciously remember everything presented in a workshop or class, rest assured that it’s in your brain somewhere, and next time you hear it you’ll be closer to being able to remember and use it. The brain works behind the scenes when we’re not aware that it’s doing so. It’s amazing how much we learn without knowing we have.

Building Repertoire vs. Building Skill

There are different sets of skills for different situations. In the folk world we have jamming/session skills and performance-quality skills, solo playing and ensemble playing skills. In the classical world you have orchestral, ensemble, and solo playing skills. Each of the above requires a different focus.

For jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, and need to play well enough to keep up with the gang. If on the other hand you’re performing a lot, you need to play your repertoire in an exceptionally clean, accurate and polished way. But concerts only require about 90 minutes of material (usually about 15 pieces total, or fewer if they are very long ones). Many professional performers don’t do their best in jam sessions because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire, which of necessity is not as extensive and will not usually contain many commonly heard session pieces. And many jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible rather than polishing it to professional level. Ultimately, unless an audience has paid to hear you, music is for the player’s enjoyment, so what you do with it is your call.

When you take a class or workshop, ask in advance if it’s geared for jammers or for performers, and also if it’s about improvisation or about tradition. This information will give you the perspective to integrate the information in the most realistic way.

Whatever you do, enjoy it  –  if you don’t, why do it? Playing music isn’t about drudgery. It’s about loving what you do. Admittedly, some of the instruction and some of the practicing can feel like more work than you want to do, but it helps to ask yourself whether you will enjoy the result. If you will, then the work is worthwhile.

Posted by: aliveinthewild | July 5, 2017

All About Practice

We tend to think when we are practicing that we are not being successful if we make mistakes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even if you know your pieces well, mistakes can and will happen, just as they can in performance. The fact that they do occur in performance is the key element here  – because when we practice what we need to be doing is practicing how we will handle  our msitakes. If you practice enough, it’s probable that over time every possible mistake you can make will be experienced. That’s good. It gives you the chance to purposely become aware of how it happened, where it happened, and how you can avoid it, play through it, or improvise with it next time.

I find that if, during practice, I keep my mind open to hearing my mistakes and never ignoring them, I can analyze, respond, fix and/or camouflage errors. If I don’t practice enough I won’t have that opportunity, and then during a performance I will be unable to handle them; if during practice I am simply going back and re-playing without any analysis or effort to deal with what went wrong, there will be no improvement.

Let’s look at the kinds of errors you need to be aware of:

  • Simple wrong notes. Your fingers went to the wrong place.
  • You played the note but it didn’t sound.
  • You made a noise that wasn’t part of the music (buzzing, rattling, squawking, etc.).
  • You played a sour note (fretless instruments).
  • You forgot how the piece went (either briefly or the whole thing).

What are the possible causes?

  • Lack of focus/wandering mind
  • Unexpected distraction
  • Poor fingering
  • Eyes not looking ahead (if you play an instrument you have to look at)
  • Poor lighting/can’t see (if you play an instrument you have to look at)
  • Not breathing/holding your breath
  • stress
  • Poor technique
  • You don’t really know your piece well yet

There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. I found two of them particularly interesting: one was about what kind of practice habits are most effective, and another claiming that the much-touted 10,ooo hours or practice is not what makes a musician good. I have some opinions about both of these so-called studies.

First of all, one cannot do a truly scientific study on something as esoteric as how musicians practice, because there are too many variables to consider or to eliminate. Every musician is different in background, attitude, and aptitude.  One simply cannot make blanket statements about what makes us good musicians or not. And it always amuses me that such “studies” are often done to acquire information that could have been obtained by just asking musicians how they gained their skills. (Sort of like the anthropologists who study indigenous petroglyphs in an effort to discover their meanings. Why not ask the indigenous people who still live in the areas where the petroglyphs are found? They have passed the knowledge through generations of their own people. They know what they mean.)

The study debunking the 10,000-hour rule hints that you’re born with talent or you’re not, and that if you’re not, no amount of practice will help. Worse, it suggests that if you are talented you don’t have to practice. Both of these ideas are proven wrong by millions of musicians very day. As a professional musician, I can definitively say that if you don’t practice you can’t play well, no matter what talent you were born with. Yes, some people have an affinity, but that’s not enough. An incredible amount of practice is necessary to become truly proficient at your instrument. And I can also tell you from a lifetime of careful observation that many people with talent who don’t work really hard can be bypassed by those with minimal talent but who work harder. (A very few people cannot learn music, but they are rare. You’re probably not one of them.)

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, states in his book Guitar Zero, “Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing.” Well, yeah. I took a number of courses in school about which I remember nothing. Why? Because they didn’t interest me. Any kid forced to take music lessons without wanting to is not likely to remember much. That’s not a significant way to look at the effectiveness of practice.

Another study stated that the difference between ineffective and effective practice, which leads to the difference between mediocrity and mastery, is practicing deliberately. This I agree with. It’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice. Your practice habits make the most difference. Without self-evaluation and constantly correcting weaknesses, progress is not possible. Simply playing what you play best is fun and necessary, but that’s not the same as striving to reach a new level. You have to push yourself and focus on what you don’t yet know, or can’t yet do, if you are to make progress.  We have a tendency to be self-congratulatory about our progress much sooner than perhaps we ought to be.

Also, just reading through tunes on a page doesn’t do a lot for one’s skills unless the music is also used as a tool for focus, analysis, and deliberate skill enhancement.

What are good practice habits? There are three necessary kinds of practice: that which you do when learning a piece, playing for your own enjoyment, and that which you do in preparation for a performance. These three habits are very different.

When learning a piece, it’s a good idea to get it committed to memory and kinesthetic sense, thusly:

  • Learn by playing every tune slowly and deliberately.
  • Learn a phrase at a time (don’t just read through an entire piece; that is not productive).
  • When you make an error, don’t just correct it and go on –  that is practicing the error! Figure out why you made it.  (Is it poor fingering, poor eye planning, a technique you don’t know?)
  • Correct the fingering, eye movement or technique.
  • Address the error by making the phrase into an exercise and repeating it many times slowly until it feels natural and is easy to do right.
  • Then play the phrase in context.
  • Always remember to breathe, especially while playing the hard parts.
  • Play the piece with a metronome to increase accuracy.

Never shirk on any of this. These steps are absolutely necessary.

Above all, play music you love. Otherwise, why play at all? Enjoy it!

Posted by: aliveinthewild | June 12, 2017

Laurie’s Tour Schedule!

Laurie Riley’s Tour Schedule!

July 1 – DENVER, COLORADO – workshops and concert at Unity Spiritual Center, 30215 S. University Blvd. Call David Kolacny at 303-722-6081

July 2DENVER – Private lessons at Kolacny Music, 1900S. Broadway – call 303-722-6081

July 8 – LINDSBORG, KANSAS – concert and workshops at Evangelical Covenant Church, 201 S. Washington. Call RoJean Loucks 785-829-0688

July 9 – WICHITA, KANSAS – Afternoon Concert at St. James Episcopal Church, 3750 E. Douglas (3PM).

Call Suzanne Shields 316-200-2245

July 11 – TOPEKA, KANSAS – workshops only – Carole Chapel, Washburn Univ., SW Jewell Ave. Call Erin Wood at 785-760-2973

July 16 – LOGANSPORT, INDIANA – workshops and  concert at Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, 5588 N. SR 25. Call Sara Walthery 574-753-8169

July 20 – PARSIPPANY, NEW JERSEY –  concert set and receipt of Lifetime Achievement Award at Somerset Folk Harp Festival, Sheraton Parsippany, 199 Smith Rd.

July 21, 22  –   PARSIPPANY, NEW JERSEY – Workshops and sales booth (Laurie’s books, CDs and DVDs) at Somerset Folk Harp Festival, Sheraton Parsippany, 199 Smith Rd.

For workshops this fall and winter, please click on the Center for Musical Enrichment button at the top ofthis page.

Posted by: laurie689 | May 15, 2017

Understanding the Building Blocks of Music

No matter how much we learn about music, there is always something additional to learn. But also, whatever our skill level, there’s always something we should already know but we missed or skipped. Those missing pieces limit our skills and our enjoyment in playing. We may not even realize there is something missing that could solve a problem or fill gaps you can sense but can’t quite identify.

In my first 25 years of playing music, I used to assume I was too dumb to learn all the information other people knew, and got by pretty well without it, until I took up another new instrument and had to figure out for myself how it worked. I had missed a lot of information, partly because as a dyslexic I could not read the music notation and was kicked out of classical lessons, and partly because the only instruction available to me thereafter was by rote. I realized that if I had been taught certain concepts early on – independently of the printed page –  it would have made learning any instrument much easier. Although I had an inherent sense of harmony, melody, and so on, I didn’t know why the things I did worked.

Even among paper-trained musicians, I find that the most common missing pieces are the most basic ones. Such as: what makes a chord, how do you know what chords to use where, how do you find the notes you hear in your head, etc. etc.

The collection of  data that is referred to as music theory is usually taught on paper rather than directly on an instrument, and is assumed by many musicians as applying only to reading music. Actually, those concepts describe the structures of music itself – its frequencies, its sounds, and how to make music make sense.

Most musicians learn music either by note or by rote, and either way there’s a lot missing. When you can read the music but you don’t know why it is what it is, that’s as much a handicap as learning by rote without being able to read. But if you understand and use the knowledge of music’s structures, you can do just about anything. You can enhance arrangements, you can compose, and you can do simple things too, like finding the right chords, use more interesting chord forms, transpose easily, and understand modes and how scales are set up.

If you’re reading this you probably have a fair amount of knowledge of music in general. But how would you know what you’re missing? (You wouldn’t, because you missed it!)  Although I cannot cover here the entirety of music strucure information, I can get you started. In a very general and simple way, allow me to guide you through a review of the basics. Let’s begin with terminology  –  if the first part is too elementary, read on  –  it gets better. If you have access to a keyboard, or to an instrument on which the diatonic (do-re-mi) scale is linear, this will be easier to visualize and hear.

What is a scale? A scale is a sequence of notes. There are many kinds of scales used in different cultures and different applications. The easiest scale on a piano, for instance, starts on the  C note and progresses thusly up the white keys: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.

What is an interval? When two notes are played at the same time, the term “interval” refers to the distance between them. For instance, choose a note and call it “one”, and then choose another note and count how many notes of the diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) there are between the two, including both of the notes you’ve chosen. The number you count is the interval. If, for instance, there are five notes, the interval is a fifth. If there are three notes, it’s a third. And so on. 

What are chords? A chord is three or more notes sounding together. There are many kinds of chords; the sequence of notes determines the exact type of chord in addition to its name.

What is a phrase? A phrase is a group of notes that complete a musical thought, much like the words between commas in a written sentence. (Phrases are not defined by measures. If they fall neatly into measures, it’s coincidental.)

The Diatonic 7-tone Scale 

Thinking of your notes as numbers simplifies everything. You can, for instance, play a scale (in any octave), but call the notes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 and 1. This is a “do-re-mi” scale, also known as a 7-tone, major, Ionian, or diatonic scale, which can be played in any key. In every key, the same numbers, in the same order, are still applicable. Simply assign the number 1 to the first note of any scale.

The scale described above consists of a specific pattern of musical sounds called half steps and whole steps. In Western (rather than Oriental or Arabic) music, the half step is the smallest change in pitch we can make when moving from one note to another. A whole step is double the range of the half step. The 7-tone scale, on unlevered strings only, goes: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

Why isn’t the scale set up evenly? Why are there only half-steps between the third and fourth notes and the seventh and eighth notes? Because, based on the harmonic series, Pythagoras (who is credited with being the “creator” of our modern scale) set it up according to mathematic principles that match those of every natural form in the universe, making the diatonic scale pleasing to the ear. (See my book Singing the Universe Awake, available from 

The 12-tone Scale

If you have a keyboard handy, you’ll notice that you create a half-step raise in pitch when you play a white key and then the black key just to the right of it. Or if you’re on a chromatic fretted instrument such as a guitar, you get a half step when you play a note on one fret and then one fret higher.

If you have a harp, you will also notice that the levered third and seventh string of any diatonic scale will give you the same note as the unlevered string immediately above them (the fourth and eighth string).

If you start at C and play all your notes, you get C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B – that’s twelve tones – before you get to the C an octave above where you started. The twelve-tone scale is also called the chromatic scale. It is composed of all half steps. You can get a chromatic scale in any key – in other words, you can start anywhere on a piano or a guitar and play a chromatic scale. The note you start on will be the name of the key.

Using Chords

A triad is a three-note chord in which the notes are each an interval of a third away from each other. When playing a triad, the name of the chord is always the lowest note (the root). A triad with C as the lowest note, for instance, is a C chord (or a “one” chord, whch is expressed by the Roman numeral I).

A three-note chord in which the notes are less or more than a third away from each other is not a triad.

When referring to chords by their numbers, we use Roman numerals. I, II, II, IV, V, VI, and VII.  This keeps us from confusing chord numbers with single note numbers. When we refer to note numbers, we use Arabic numerals 1,2,3,4,5,6, and 7.

You can expand a triad chord to make a full chord. If you add the octave note (8) you will have a four-note or full chord. Like a triad, the name or number of the full chord in the root position (not inverted) is the name or number of the lowest note of the chord.

You can also play open chords:  if you play notes 1,3,5,8 and then take away note 3, what’s left is 1,5,8. This is very pleasing to the ear because of its uncluttered sound. The name of the chord is still the lowest note.

You can also play expanded chords. If you place 1,5,8,3 (the 3 above the 8) it produces a very open and lovely sound.

You can also play more complex chords. If you place 1,3,5, and 7, you’ll have a 7th chord, because the 7 note is included in it. (Don’t confuse this with the VII (“seven”) chord, which is a normal triad or a full chord whose lowest note is the 7 note.)

What makes a chord Major or Minor?

If you play a 1 (let’s use C) chord in triad form, you will notice that it is made of two intervals of a third. Notice also that the lower third has two whole steps within it. In other words, C, C#, D makes two half steps (one whole step) and D, D#, E makes two more half steps (one whole step). Therefore the lower third of this chord contains a spacing of two whole steps.

But notice that the upper third of this chord has only one and a half steps within it. From E to F is a half step; from F to F# is a half step, and from F# to G is a half step, equaling 1½ steps. There are more half steps in the lower third than in the upper third of this chord. A third with two whole steps (four half steps) is called a major third. A third with 1½ steps (three half steps) is called a minor third.

When the major third is on the bottom of the chord, you have a major chord. When the minor third is on the bottom of the chord, you have a minor chord. I like to think of these this way: the major chord is bottom-heavy (more half steps in the lower third), and the minor chord is top-heavy (more half steps in the upper third).

Chord I is a major chord.

Play a chord containing notes 2,4,6. This is a II chord. Look at the number of steps in the bottom third and then in the top third. This is a top-heavy chord, so it is minor.

There are three major and three minor chords in every major key. The major chords are I, IV, and V. The minor chords are II, III, VI.

The character of a major chord differs from that of a minor chord. It’s been said that major chords sound cheerful, and minor chords sound melancholy or introspective.

There is one chord we have not yet discussed in regard to major/minor. It is the VII chord. If you play a VII chord you will notice that it is not very “pretty” (again, a VII chord is not a 7th chord). If you count the steps in each of its intervals you will see that it has 1½ steps in both thirds  –  fewer steps than the other chords. Therefore, it is called diminished and is neither major nor minor.


Chords can also be inverted. You might think of it as “yoga for chords”.  For instance, play a C triad and then, move the lowest note up an octave. You now have 3, 5, and 8. This is called an inversion. You have changed the order of the notes, but still have the same note names in the chord, though one of the notes is in a new octave. In this new configuration, which is called the first inversion, the name of the chord is the name of the highest note rather than the lowest note. The chord is turned upside down; the lowest note is now the highest note. It is still a C chord.

Now move the second note of the original chord up an octave. Now you have notes 5,1,3. This is the second inversion. In this configuration, the name of the chord is the middle note. It is still a C chord because it still contains the same note names, even though some are in a new octave.

Now, move the third note of the original chord up an octave. You now have 1-3-5, a triad one octave above the original triad.

You can do the same process with a full (four-note) chord.

Inversions are useful for providing variety in your arrangements, and they are also useful when you have an instrument with a limited range of notes.

This is not a complete tutorial, obviously. There’s more in past posts and probably will be more in future ones. But if you keep your ears open, you can get good information from many sources.

Posted by: laurie689 | May 2, 2017

News from Laurie!

NEWS FLASH! I will be on a concert and teaching tour in July – please go to See

NEWS FLASH! I am pleased and humbled to announce that I wil be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival in July! This is an annual international gathering of harpers.

NEWS FLASH! After August 2017 I will be teaching in my new retreat center – The Center for Musical Enrichment –  in Port Townsend, Washington. A schedule of my workshops, and house concerts by musicians in many genres, is at:

Posted by: laurie689 | April 15, 2017

It’s finally here – my new book…

My Life in Music

My Life in Music

By popular demand! Laurie’s autobiography!

A must-read for all musicians! This life story expresses the challenges and joys of becoming a successful professional musician, from earliest childhood influences, through detours and uncertainties, and through the career that has been my lifelong passion.

Formerly, I wrote about a portion of my touring life in my books “All Roads Lead Home”  and “More Roads Lead Home”, but this complete autobiography explores all the years previous and all the years since those were written, to contain a wealth of experiences and insights.

Please click on this link to order it:


Posted by: laurie689 | April 7, 2017

I am thankful for this honor!

April  2017           JULY 20-23 at the Sheraton Parsippany
Harp pioneer Laurie Riley has been there, done that!

When Laurie Riley took up lever harp in 1981 there were very few musicians playing the instrument and very few harpmakers making folk harps. Laurie Riley is this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, recognized for her pioneering work in three facets of harp which we now take for granted.

We recognize her early and on-going work in ergonomics and harp. With her background in anatomy, she held the first-ever ergonomics class for harpers in 1987 and saw such dramatic positive effects that it became a major teaching focus for her, including her creation of a certification program for Music Ergonomists©.

By 1990 Laurie began looking for ways to augment what she wanted to do on harp and explored Welsh triple harp techniques but couldn’t get the sound she wanted. She met Liz Cifani (who sometimes played two harps at once) and they came up with the idea of two rows of strings with levers on each side to achieve the music they wanted to play. They approached Triplett and Stoney End to protoype it and the contemporary double-strung harp was born. It’s been her main instrument ever since and Laurie is recognized as being a leading player.

Harp music in a hospital was unheard of in 1991 when Laurie says she “became curious about the effects of music in medical settings” as she played for her own father in an ICU. This was the beginning of the nascent therapeutic harp movement. She was a co-founder of the Music for Healing and Transition Program in 1992 and a charter member of the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Music. In 2002, in recognition of the need for home study, Laurie created the Clinical Musicians’ Home Study Certification Course, now known as Harp for Healing. She continues to actively work in this field.

Please join us at the festival at Thursday night’s concert  to hear Laurie perform and then be recognized for her achievements in the harp community. An reception in her honor will follow the concert.

Kathy DeAngelo, Festival Director

New Faces & Old Friends
Ellen Tepper began playing harp at 8 and said she spent years as a “musical singleton.”  She never knew that she “had been starved for ensemble playing” until an Irish music session many years later. In teaching and performing she was drawn to creating arrangements to help her students. She began using rounds to reinforce counting and playing with each other and created her new book of rounds, which she’ll debut at Somerset in her Rounds in the Round on Thursday. About Somerset she says, “I always look forward to rooms filled with harps and players, all of us hungry for new material, technique and personal and professional connections.I wish this had been available when I was beginning!”  Me too!
Alfredo Rolando Ortiz and his lovely wife Luzma have been “regulars” at the festival since its inception! Alfredo was recognized with our very first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, marking then his 50 years of harping. If it’s a Latin rhythm workout you’re needing, take Alfredo’s new Cuban Rhythms & Spice or Latin music techniques & fun effects. On your request we’re offering his very popular and essential Prevent Injury twice so you can fit it in your schedule. When he’s not doing workshops, you’ll find Alfredo in the Silverlight booth in the Exhibit Hall with  Luzma and her amazing jewelry. Stop in and say hello. They just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. F eliz aniversario!
Deborah Henson-Conant’s Somerset Warm-Up Rally REPLAY
There was a big turnout for Deborah’s free webinar preview of the Improv Expansion on March 26. This hands-on playalong gave everybody solid tips and tricks they could put to use immediately in their playing. And of course, I loved DHC’s overview of some of the great presenters and workshops we’re having this summer.  If you couldn’t be there, you can catch it on the replay at any time, right in the comfort of your own home. Click here to get the replay page.
This month’s concert video spotlight

Check out the Concerts page for who’s playing and when. Bigger hall this year so there will likely be tickets for the general public. Now, enjoyTristan LeGovic’s performance in 2016. See some of our staff and presenters singing the chorus in French and doing a Breton line dance that eventually disintegrates into a Rockettes-style kickline all to Tristan’s impeccable playing and singing. Hilarious.  Click on the image to play.

Collection box at Somerset for the Guatemalan Teaching Project
The Guatemalan Harp Teaching Project is a harp teaching program for students in Guatemala City, supported by the New Orleans Chapter of the American Harp Society. Thousands of dollars of harp supplies have been donated by harpists all over the world since 2003. We had a collection drive for them at our 2013 festival and we’re going to do it again! Patrice Fisher, who is the energy behind this project, credited Dusty Strings with donating more than 1000 strings so they don’t need strings this time. She says, “We need music, tuners, stands, and levers, (especially levers).” We’ll have a collection box at the festival desk. If you’re culling your sheet music collection, bring what you don’t need anymore to the festival to donate. If you upgraded your tuner, bring your old one!  You can read all about the program on their GoFundMe page.
No-Cost Loaner Harps Deadline
I’m so appreciative of everybody who gets on a plane or train to get to the festival that I guarantee you a no-cost loaner harp but only if you register by the early-bird deadline of May 1. Besides my own personal stash of harps, my staff and lots of others coming to the festival share their spares with the temporarily harpless. Some of our vendors also stock our harp pool. If not wanting to put your harp on a plane was your reason for not coming to Somerset, I just took away that reason!
Before the Festival:
Hambly & Jackson Spring Tour
Grainne Hambly and William Jackson  will be in the US for their Spring tour, which kicks off April 8. They’re traveling up and down the Mid-Atlantic states from MD to MA so check out their tour page to see if they’re near you!
They’ll also be teaching and performing at the festival too. Do a full day with them in our new  Harpers’ Escape at Somerset on Sunday, an add-on to your festival registration for only $100 more. That saves $50 if you do it by the early-bird deadline of May 1.
Find out why the Escape motto is “Harp Till You Drop.”
Our Phone App Released
If you’re one of the early-birds who has already registered for the festival, you got a special invitation from me on March 29 to download our phone app. Go do it! It’s a great tool for creating your personal Somerset itinerary. New registrants will get instructions for getting the phone app in their registration confirmation. The app is limited to the first 200 users to download it!
Here’s feedback I got from Tracy: ” Got my Guidebook schedule, and started adding things to my schedule!  So exciting! This Guidebook app is very handy.  I’m so glad you found it. Makes my life easy.”

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