There Might Be a Musician in Here

I am on a break, a brief summer vacation, from my weekly harp lessons. So, while I am still working on my sight-reading and on placing first inversion triads and on the arpeggiated chords in Grandjany’s Reverie, I’m giving myself unstructured and unplanned time at my harp, to just “mess around with sound.”

Out of this messing about, there seems to be something new happening in my head about playing the harp. I’m looking at Christmas tunes, and folk songs in lead sheet format, and I hear myself saying, “I can play that.” I’m trying out left hand accompaniments and patterns, drones and broken fifths and octaves and 1/5/8’s, while my right hand plays these melodies. I’m experimenting with what I like the sound of and what my left hand is able to do, and seeing where the two meet. I’m surprising myself. My left hand can manage lots of these patterns, and there’s lots of things I can do with these tunes, that I end up liking.

It strikes me that finally, at last, I am playing, in the true sense of a child playing. I’m playing with playing the harp, I’m playing with making music. There’s no goal to reach, no skill to master, no new notch to add to my repertoire belt as I do this. I just play.

And out of play, there is some embryonic internal shift occurring that says “I can play the harp.” There’s some part of me that is not worried about perfection or making mistakes or playing tunes ”right,” as they are written on a page. This internal musician, as I’m coming to think of this new part of me, is enjoying just sitting down and playing, just playing with playing. And as this process continues, I am also enjoying an unfamiliar and still tentative feeling of confidence about playing the harp.

With this baby nudge of confidence tugging at my elbow, I find that I am letting go of something I was totally unaware of: I’m loosening the grip of some unknown sense of apology I’ve carried about wanting to, daring to learn to play the harp. I’m letting go of an internal feeling of un-rightness, that if given words, would say “Oh, I’m so sorry, I know I shouldn’t be sitting at this beautiful instrument. I know I shouldn’t be trying to play. Oh, I know, how dare I? What was I thinking? Just let me slink back to my corner where I can be quiet and invisible.”

Where and when I grew up, wanting to play the harp would be described as, “she’s goin’ beyond her rearin’.” There were rules and codes for what you could do, and what you’d best not do, because it was beyond what your family did or imagined doing. It was beyond what people of your background or social class or religion or race or the side of town you lived on thought of doing. I’m not talking about some backwoods, poverty-stricken hard-by-the-tracks upbringing. My family was firmly planted in the middle class, though they did have to work to hold on to that status a few times. And this social stratification was not all bad – my mother’s dreams that I should be a debutant and be introduced to society were effectively crushed before I had to actively rebel against them. But there were so many unspoken possibilities that did not belong to me, and playing the harp would certainly have been on that list.

I remember encountering these same feelings when I enrolled in a Ph.D. program. That was something that no one in my family had attempted or even thought of doing. I remember how untethered and unrooted I felt, how it seemed that I was floating alone in some strange, never described to me, never imagined world. This unconscious apology for wanting to play the harp is similar, but more subtle, and so cleverly hidden behind the physical and mental challenges of learning to play this instrument. But at last I am becoming aware that these unconscious and automatically assumed limits have affected my courage and my confidence about being a musician, about playing the harp.

So I am announcing and welcoming this shift, this birthing of “I’m not apologizing, I play the harp,” because THAT IS WHAT I DO!  And I claim playing, claim having fun making music and beautiful sounds, because that, too, is what I do.

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