Charmed by Little Venice

My last day in London I found Little Venice, a hidden paradise on the Regents Canal in Maida Vale.

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The canal is lined with narrowboats repurposed from their original task of transporting goods through London, to become off-beat homes on the water.

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On Sunday afternoon you can take the Waterbus to Camden Lock, and float through a hidden, wild London.

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Away from the noise of traffic, floating through tunnels of trees, it’s easy to forget the city that surrounds these hidden waterways.

A Day At The Tower

Today dawned another unexpected “bright” morning, so I hightailed it to the tube’s Jubilee and District lines to get to the Tower of London before every other London tourist got the same idea. There wasn’t even a line to see the Crown Jewels. Here’s a few shots from my day at the tower. . .

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The White Tower

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Can you find the harp?

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The ravens remain. The kingdom is safe.

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Henry VIII’s Armor

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Astrological chart graffiti carved by a prisoner accused of sorcery.

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Old and New

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes

I spent this rare English sunny day at Hampton Court Palace, walking the brick-worked passages and courtyards that felt the footsteps of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn.

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The Voice Of St. Paul’s

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On the first day of my London adventure, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the choral evensong service at St. Paul’s. Oh, my! The music was presented by the organ and men’s choir along with one angelic soprano who floated her voice above the richness of the male voices.

Musicians speak about playing in a “live” space, one with lots of resonance, where sound carries. I’ve never heard anyone speak of playing in “an alive” space. But St. Paul’s is truly alive. The stones sing. The resonance of the dome creates another voice that sings in harmony with the choir.

The choir sang a piece by William Byrd from the 1600′s that soared to the heavens. After the choir processed out of the nave, the organist played Bach. I listened in wonder, for the stones of the cathedral sing with the organ, too.

Winter Knitting

Here are photos of what’s come off my knitting needles since finishing the Christmas knitting projects.

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Faux möbius cowl knit with Misti alpaca chunky handpaint.

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Churchmouse cashmere beret pattern knit with Louisa Harding silk and wool “Grace.”

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“Simple Summer Tweed” sweater by Heidi Kirrmeier knit in Cestari Heather Collection cotton and wool blend.

That leaves me with only a scarf, a shawlette, and the endless lace project still in progress. Not to worry – I have my next sweater, a pair of socks, and another shawl already picked out and ready to start.

Hunkering Down With The Woodpile And The Harp Bench

20140212-124153.jpgWe’re in day two of a three-day winter storm that’s blowing through the southeastern U.S.  Yesterday’s two inches of snow took most of our local weather forecasters by surprise. They told us to expect an early morning “dusting.” Instead, snow fell all day, and cooled off sidewalks and roads so that today’s snow won’t melt, and travel on unplowed neighborhood streets will become impossible.

Local and national forecasters got closer to reality today. Snow began falling early this morning, and is expected to accumulate at the rate of one inch per hour during the afternoon. They warn that our 4-to-8 inches of snow will be followed by a coating of ice, courtesy of sleet and freezing rain this evening. Our last big ice storm hit ten years ago this month, and left my neighborhood without electricity for two weeks. So I’m back to the basics of preparing for the worst.

There’s a waist-high stack of dry wood on the front porch, tucked under a blue tarp to keep it dry in the blowing snow. The candles are in their holders, the emergency oil lamp is filled and the wick trimmed, the wooden matches to light the gas burners when the electric ignition fails are on the counter by the stove. The flashlights are filled with fresh batteries, the electronic devices are charged. I might be a city girl now, but my years of living in the country taught me the value of self-sufficiency and not depending on the power grid during bad weather.

I’m back to the basics with my harp lessons as well. Last fall I read this quote from Deborah Henson-Conant’s blog entry, The Mystery Of Mastery, on HipHarp.com.

“I’m not dissing mastery. I’m just saying that – especially for adult learners – is it really about mastery? Or is it about having simple structures that help us express the richness of the lives we’ve created, and to share that richness with others?

When we, as adults, learn something new, what we want is fluency.

There seems to be an idea that ‘mastery’ means adding complexity – but fluency can be about getting more and more comfortable and creative with simplicity – so that we can express OURSELVES through it. 

And expressing ourselves through it is what’s important.

Last year my focus was on performance: playing at Hospice, learning repertoire to play in two harp chapter concerts, and the ongoing jousting with fear and performance anxiety. This year I am still playing at Hospice, but not signing up for other performance opportunities. This year my focus is on fluency and musicality. This year I am investigating what keeps me from expressing myself musically on the harp, what keeps me from playing a tune as beautifully as I can hear it in my head and as fluidly as I can imagine my fingers moving.

My “simple structures” are scales and arpeggios, and my primary tool for investigation is the video camera in my iPad, which when placed on a spare music stand beside my harp, captures everything my hands are doing. Since video-taping my practice sessions, I’ve discovered major inefficiencies in my harp technique that interfere with me playing fluidly and expressively.

I’m back to the very first steps of playing the harp: closing my fingers into the palm when I pluck, and replacing my fingers on the harp strings without buzzes. The videos showed that I have a lot of unnecessary hand motion when I close and replace. These hand motions take more time, which creates hiccups in the fluidity of the music and which traps me into playing slowly.

I am practicing scales with the mental images of “quiet hands,” and fingers that effortlessly fold shut, and then unfold and return to the strings without waving up and landing from above. After lots of very slow practice, I’m able to play ascending and descending scales a good 20 beats per minute faster than before. And my scales sound really good! Not allowing wiggling hands to siphon off energy that should go towards fingers pressing and releasing the strings creates a richer, fuller sound.

With the Alexander Technique lessons, I am developing both the core support that allows my arms, hands and fingers to move freely, and greater awareness of how I am moving and using my body. I can connect suddenly clumsy fingers to subtle shifts in my posture that causes my neck and spine to collapse forward, which then keeps me from supporting my arms and centering my hands on the strings, which prevents my fingers from moving freely.

When my hands are supported and balanced on the strings, my fingers naturally snap closed into my palms without forcing them to move after I pluck a string. That’s what they want to do. With tension released by closing, my fingers unfold, again without “making” them move. This effortless movement feels delicious! For the first time, I’m consciously aware that good technique really does feel good.

But my most significant shift is being able to watch the videos and view my harp technique issues as inefficiencies that stymie fluency and expression, instead of as failures that I should have corrected given the number of years I’ve had harp lessons. The Inner Critic no longer has a seat in my practice room. I know that for all the harp years, I’ve worked hard and practiced conscientiously so that I could play the very best I could.  And I know that I’ll keep doing that for all the harp years to come.