For those of you thinking ‘When the #*$% is Katya going to write a blog about her new practice techniques?!’ – you can now relax.
I am working with some new practice methods, and I’m going to tell you all about them! [the crowd goes wild]
Credit where credit’s due, these are not my inventions, but have been given to me as practice gifts by my teacher, and harp-goddess Deborah Henson-Conant.
URGENT DISCLAIMER: my computer keeps auto-correcting my use of practice/practise. If any incorrect usage occurs hereafter, you can assume that it is my dick-computer-dictionary making grievous grammatical errors, to try and make me look like an IDIOT.
WARNING (who knew there’d be so much pressing admin to get out of the way before nestling down for a good practice blog?!): This blog contains slightly more niche material than the universally appealing issues of adult cycling and skunk problems addressed previously.
and by ‘niche’ I mean this-is-really-my-life-don’t-judge-me—but-actually-I-don’t-mind-if-you-do-because-I-LOVE-my-new-practice-methods
but really, do get stuck in if you want the SERIOUS inside scoop on practice scheduling. Don’t pretend you’re not brain-freezingly curious.
Wow, I think I just wrote brain-freezingly because I’m drinking a delicious icy coffee as I write this. No need to thank me for keeping you in the loop.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll offer up my new systems in delicious mini-blog instalments. (Hahaha ‘mini-blog’ makes me think of those delicious little chocolate swiss-roll things. I think it’s the ‘mini’ and ‘log’ elements… Mm, I could really go for one of those right now. What was I saying? Oh right, BREVITY!)
Method #1 THE TEN COIN SYSTEM
(I know. Try to stay calm.)
Sooo the system is relatively self-explanatory. But that would be a very short and boring blog if I left it there, so I’ll power on and walk you through it.
- Put 10 coins on a chair (or, say, a table) in your practice area. In my case, that means a tall stool, within easy reaching distance from my harp.
- Easy reachability is crucial, and I’ll come back to the experiments that led me to this conclusion.
- Do a bite size section of the thing that you’re working on.
If it goes wrong, weep uncontrollably.
- If it goes wrong, try again. S L O W E R. And perhaps take a smaller chunk.
- If it goes well, sliiiiide 1 coin away from its minted friends.
- Repeat until all 10 coins have done the victory slide.
- For the hardcore (i.e. Me. … Sometimes) if the thing you’re working on goes wrong, even as far along in the game as coin #7, #8 (or even #9!!) slide em all back and start over. Frustrating though this can be, I find it helps me to be more careful, and to take things at the pace where I can really do my best. At the moment, I’m braving all kinds of co-ordination challenges (and those of you who know me well may remember that co-ordination is not my dearest friend) like rhythmic comping in Bossa/Swing/Bebop styles in one hand, with melodic improv in the other, singing and playing, speaking and playing (even harder! why??) and other such delights. I’m finding these supposedly straight forward things fist-shakingly difficult (I might even stomp on my bicycle helmet just for good measure) so it makes a world of difference to go gingerly & break things down to a manageable size rather than trying to jump ahead and impress myself. Seriously, that’s a thing.
- A confession: I use a mixed selection of English and American coins, and I slide them along in order of size, largest to smallest. I know this is ridiculous, but at the beginning, when I need some extra motivational oomph, sliding a big coin (50p coins go first, then 2ps, and so forth) makes my progress seem all the more satisfying. THEN by the time I’m starting to flag, I’ve reached the little coins – this makes me feel like ‘Pah! I only have those TINY coins left! They wouldn’t even look that comical being rolled along by a Borrower! This can’t be so hard!’
- I’m just saying that’s what works for me.
- Oh, and the things I experimented with in terms of coins locations were as follows:
- Near = very good
- Far away, so that I have to do some kind of physical exercise in between each go, either something to amuse myself like a hop, or something beneficial, like a stretch, star jump or a tiny little jog = Less good. It tickled me at first, but it makes everything that much more laborious. And in terms of motivation and effective time-management, labour intensity is NOT the name of the game (it is The Ten Coin System – in case you have suffered a boredom induced stroke and lost track of what we’re talking about. And apparently it is a Motivation and Effective Time-Management Game. The best kind. Except for Guess Who. I fucking love that game.)
And there you have it! This may seem like a paltry choice for a topic (not worth writing home about, LET ALONE blogging about) but I really have found it to be a very interesting and beneficial process.
An invaluable piece of advice that Deborah has given me:
Make your practice program as mindless as possible (this applies to technical work, as opposed to musical decisions, before you all go nuts and burn her at the stake for practice heresy) so you can just GET ON WITH WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO without ANYTHING getting in the way. If you’re not constantly having to make decisions about what to do next, how many times to do it & so on, you alleviate a huge amount of mental pressure, and efficient ways of learning can become automatic and easy.
- More AMAZING practice plans, including my adventures with a really old metronome which I now love like a brother.
- Tales from my first show with Deborah: a national whistling champion, an acoustic rock orchestra and a man juggling lawn chairs were involved.
- And much, MUCH more!
p.s. If I seem extra enthusiastic today, it might be because I went to the cinema last night and got way overexcited by American movie trailers that make everything look SO INCREDIBLE. Also, it’s just my natural zest for life.
Here’s the information on a need-to-know basis:
- My name is Katya, and I’m at the beginning of a 3 month Jazz-Intensive-Study-Program with Deborah Henson-Conant, the world’s foremost electric harpist.
- She was described by the Boston Globe as ’A combination of Leonard Bernstein, Steven Tyler and Xena, the Warrior Princess.’
- This description is disturbingly accurate.
- A few years ago, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to MEET her, and yet somehow…
- I’m living in her house.
- Over 3000 miles from home
- (which is London)
- in Arlington, Massachusetts.
- I’m learning a completely new way of playing
- and I couldn’t be more excited.
- (I’m actually writing this a week in — I’ll level with you, I’ve been putting off starting this blog all week because I knew there was no way for me to avoid sounding like a real dinkus, but such is life! So I’m ploughing on.)
(see what I mean about the dinkus?)
Before I came to Arlington, I was a non-cyclist.
Not that I never tried to learn. I learnt as a child, and refuting the saying, like a shit elephant, I FORGOT.
Inexplicably, every boyfriend I have ever had has tried to teach me. Tumbles were met with stomped-on helmets and fist shaking. One such fool - generous and patient - tried to teach me how to turn by laying his jacket on the ground:
‘So when you get to the jacket, turn left! Don’t worry, you won’t go over it!’
I went over it.
Next obstacle: a carton of juice.
‘So when you get to the carton, turn LEFT! Nono, you won’t go over it this time.’
In want of a better obstacle, the jacket again.
Sticky, juicy, wheely jacket.
There’s no way to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit that you can’t ride a bike.
However, rather than be presented as cycle-incompetent, I consider myself to be a champion of perambulation. I can go at a fair old lick when needs be, but nothing beats a good amble. Ambling ranks among the greatest pleasures in life. Keeping tremendous company with Pottering and Poking About. These activities are united by their shared emphasis on leisure-curiosity (there should be a word for this — there probably is one in German) and their mutual demand for a gentler pace than that afforded to us by our two-wheeled friend. That said, this is really my ideal mode of transportation. So noble.
Slow and steady wins the race.
This doesn’t apply in your traditional race format, if said race is between someone on foot and someone on a bike. BUT if the race is a contest to see who can listen to the most uplifting songs/instructional tapes on their iPod, have the best catch-up phone calls with family members, or scare the bejeezus out of the least drivers, then pedestrians, kiss your guns, take a bow and do a victory lap at a walking pace.
It may also be worth noting, that when on foot, there are very few happenings that can place me in physical jeopardy. On a bicycle, however, I am subject to the whim of the elements (and the less whim-related, but no less arbitrarily cruel, bumps on the road) AND my fellow creatures of the road, in a way that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Toddlers and dogs, though you’re the least likely to be reading this blog, you are the main culprits, so take note.
When I’m cruising in the foot-mobile, if someone cuts in front of me, I barely need to break my stroll. On a bicycle, however, it’s a whole world of panic-braking and deals with god. You might not guess it from my triumphant riding gait, but beneath my cool helmet & knee-elbow-ankle-wrist-padded exterior, I’m still a little anxious about the whole business.
Though this blog may seem part pathetic memoir/part diatribe, I really started it in order to recount how I actually LEARNT to ride. So I’m going to change gear (for want of a less shaming ‘turnaround’ term) and tell you about that as well.
It’s easy to be a pedestrian in London, but everyone knows that America favours the driver. Boston is pretty good in this respect – there is a great public transport setup, but I’ve yet to meet anyone like myself, who can’t drive. And there are times when the old Strolls Royce just doesn’t cut it in this town.
The house where I’m living is slap bang on a bike path. It couldn’t be closer, and it can take you all around town, even to the next town over. So with my pride tucked into my knee-pads, I booked myself a lesson at the Bicycle Riding School in the neighbouring town of Somerville.
The lesson was wonderful, but also quite peculiar. It was one on one, with a really nice lady, called Susan, who used to be very rich, but spent all her money travelling to Africa over the years to work fighting female circumcision, and on peaceful protesting (it’s strange that I even know that, given the context of our encounter). Every time I set off on the bike, she said:
‘Look ahead! Look towards the glorious future!’
This I liked a LOT.
Susan lives in an all vegetarian commune, in a huge house in Somerville, and I was asking her about it at the end of the lesson, and she started off by saying how great it was (they all cook each other dinners and so on), but then she started reflecting on the problems they have - dish washing, someone having a carnivore boyfriend (!) who wanted to cook SIX hamburgers (!!!) one person had a troubled childhood, so didn’t want to do communal eating, because of bad associations with mealtimes… standard bike lesson chitchat.. and then, most unexpectedly, she told me that her mother said, when she (susan) was about 35 that she’d spent all her energy on this household, instead of having a family of her own. Yowza. Did she think it was worth it? She did not know. Did I? I sagely pointed out that she probably wouldn’t have been able to do all her good work in Africa if she’d had a family in tow. It’s hard to say anything sagely when only your eyes aren’t protectively clothed. But she seemed to accept this and we parted on good terms. A successful bicycle lesson all round.
Next: BICYCLE SCHOOL GRADUATION!
Sadly, there was no hi-vis gown or mortarboard helmet BUT there was a brilliant picnic, and a 40-minute ride with eight other beginner cyclists. During this epic odyssey-on-wheels, I really felt like part of a group of very brave, intrepid people. I was rolling along with people who were willing to do something a bit embarrassing, and a bit scary – maybe for fun, or for someone they loved (two people in my group were joined for the graduation ride by their partners, who couldn’t have been more excited and proud to be going on their first cycle together - seriously heart warming stuff) or just to prove something to themselves.
Oh and I also got a certificate!
I do stand by my love of walking – I will amble the good amble again and again – but I am thrilled to have done it, to have really challenged myself, with a fantastic result (five year olds the world over probably are sharing my elation at this very moment).
This is an extract from an email I sent a few days ago:
I just got back from my second TRIUMPHANT (sort of) cycle ride. By which I mean, I cycled for about 10 minutes up and down the cycle path, but am too scared to overtake anyone so I have to stop every time I get near anyone. So it’s a slow process, but a surprisingly satisfying one. I don’t know whether this is a Boston thing, or a cycling thing, but when cyclists overtake, they shout ‘on your left!’ so you know they’re there. Which I find more frightening than the approach itself. AND they don’t all do it, so it’s a flawed system in many ways.
HA Katya-from-the-past! How little you knew then!
This just in: Deborah bought me a really great headlamp so now I can cycle at NIGHT!
This REALLY just in: Nighttime cycling is very scary - not only was it pitch black (apart from my headlamp, which evidently made me seem very sexy to moths everywhere) but I had to be on the look out for wandering skunks! Did I sing Funkytown to myself to the word Skunkytown? Yes, yes I did.