Practice Lessons

A recent quote from my teacher: “No matter what you want to do or plan to do with the harp, you will never be hurt by working on technique.”

I discovered this harp technique fact some months ago:  There is no fingering problem or technique problem that cannot be helped by lifting up my elbows. While the problem may not be entirely fixed, lessening gravity’s pull on my hands sets up the opportunity for the fix to emerge.

Last week I discovered that if I slide my right thumb up the string just a tiny 1/8th of an inch more, the arpeggios in Grandjany’s Reverie have a beautiful, clear ending. My right hand can feel the subtle difference in control, and my ears can hear the not-at-all-subtle difference in the ringing of that final note. I can play my thumb with enough pressure for the string to be heard, without concern that it will sound raw and garish.

And this morning, working on arpeggiated chords (one of my ongoing harp technique projects,) I am feeling and hearing how much richer these chords sound when my shoulder blades are down my back and supporting my arms, and when my hands are centered on the strings, which for me means my hands are more towards the column than what they typically want to do on their own. When my hands are centered, my left hand fingers, particularly my wimpy fingers #3 and 4, have the strength and power they need to start the chord with a full, rich tone.  But if my left elbow is glued to my side, where it likes to hang out, and I don’t have air under my armpit, I can’t get my hand centered on the strings. Then I have significantly less strength and control, and my chords sound whispy and uneven.

When I’m arpeggiating a left-hand three-note chord, the next most helpful thing is having my palm open and relaxed with finger #4 next to finger #3 instead of dangling limply in the air. That tiny bit of gravity pulling on finger #4 as it hangs takes strength away from finger #3. When I hold # 4 relaxed and next to #3, I have more power and better tone.

None of these discoveries are new. Elbows slightly raised and thumbs up are harp technique basics, part of my pre-flight checklist to run through while I prepare to pluck the first notes of an exercise or a piece.  At my lesson, my teacher vigilantly watches for my left elbow’s lazy slide back to my side, and for my thumbs’ unwillingness to place high on the strings. But making these things happen every day, on my own, in every piece, whenever I touch my harp, requires my own self-directed discovery of how to make beautiful sounds.

If I sit and wait to “be taught” I will never be able to claim my own sound, because I will never make it. It will always be my teacher’s sound, not mine.

It’s when I give myself the practice time to experiment with the techniques my teacher shows me, and when I take the practice time to find the ways I can elicit the same full, rich sound at my harp that my teacher helped me create at my lesson, that I can create and claim the beautiful sound my harp makes as mine.