Bringing Home the Southeastern Harp Weekend

I’ve been back from Asheville and the Southeastern Harp Weekend for a week. And I’m still thinking about and wondering about what, besides more new music than I’ll ever be able to play, and too many new CDs, came home from the Harp Weekend with me.

My friends ask me if I was inspired by the harpists at the conference. It’s hard for them to understand that these musicians are so totally beyond me that I can’t be inspired. Awe-struck, yes. But we do not inhabit the same musical universe. There are not enough years left in my life to aspire to their facility with the harp.

Instead, it’s so easy for me to come home discouraged about ever really being able to play the harp, having experienced a weekend full of opportunities to discover that there is YET AGAIN even more that I can’t seem to do on the harp, that there is YET AGAIN some new technique that ties my fingers into knots, even though everyone else in the workshop seems to be accomplishing it with ease.

But this time, driving home on a blissfully empty interstate under a clear October sky, I was able to leave the judging voice that proclaims “You should be able to do (fill in the blank) by now,” on the side of the road.  And I realized that what attending the harp weekend, and what attending other workshops does, is expand my vocabulary of ideas about music and about playing the harp. Having grown up without music lessons or music classes, it’s my opportunity to discover more about what music is and how to make it.

So I’ve been remembering the workshops I attended and looking at my handouts and notes, combing them for the ideas about harp and music that came home with me. I attended workshops with Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, a South American harpist, Marta Cook, an Irish harpist, and Maeve Gilchrist, a Scottish harpist. And despite their different cultural backgrounds, training, and approaches to the harp, they presented so many common themes and ideas about playing the harp.

Alfredo Ortiz was my introduction to the incredibly rich world of the harp in South America. Had I not seen and heard him play, I would not have believed that the harp could be used to make such amazing sounds. And the rhythms! He brought a whole new world of Latin rhythms into every workshop he taught, along with the direction that the secret to playing this music is to learn and practice the rhythm patterns he demonstrated until they are automatic.

Then here comes Maeve Gilchrist with her bass ostinato rhythm exercises, where she creates a left-hand rhythm pattern, plays it until it is automatic, and then lays different right-hand patterns/rhythms on top of her steady left-hand. Trying her rhythm exercises, I can feel my brain screeching as my right hand tries to play a contrasting rhythm against my not-yet-steady left hand ostinato. I can only hope that there are new neural pathways being constructed that will allow my hands the more spontaneous independent motion I need to be able to play any of the South American tunes I fell in love with.

Alfredo Ortiz’s instruction in his Preventing Injury workshop to soften the finger that just plucked before the next finger plays, is echoed by Marta Cook in her Core Fluidity steps of pluck – release – wait before replacing a finger or plucking another string. Alfredo and Marta repeat each other almost exactly in their instructions to turn your harp to angle it across your body instead of scrunching your body around the side of your harp; both stress that you must adjust your harp to fit your body, and not your body to fit your harp. Then Marta, using music bench boxes, stacks of books, cushions and extra chairs showed each of her Core Fluidity students exactly how to make her harp fit her body, and how much having the correct placement of the harp affects out ability to play.

Marta’s discussions and demonstrations of choices for arranging tunes, of selecting notes to emphasize, of the musical inspiration that can happen with phrasing, in her Simple Is Beautiful workshop were demonstrated again on Monday by Maeve as she shared her processes and decisions for arranging The Sleeping Tune, which she taught in her workshop.

The other commonality I experienced with all three clinicians is harder to explain. It has to do with their use of time, and their ability to create spaciousness and ease in their music. No matter how lively the tune, no matter how quick the tempo or how many notes are squeezed into each measure, there is never a sense of them rushing, of them hurrying to get a hand to the next chord position or to flip the next lever, of them arriving breathless at the next note. They seem to be saying “There’s plenty of time to get to that next note. We’ll just breathe and enjoy THIS sound for a moment,” even in the middle of a lightning fast Irish jig or a Paraguayan guarania.

Marta talked about this space, this moment of silence, in her Core Fluidity steps. Every pluck and release was followed by “wait.” And it was, as she promised, the hardest step, the greatest challenge to sit fully in that moment of waiting, not anticipating and not planning what would come next. In that one moment of waiting, she said, lies all the possibilities for the next moment, for the next thing you do at the harp. And each note played must be given this moment of possibility from which the next note, the next phrase, the next breath can be birthed. In that moment of waiting, infinite co-occuring possibilities exist for the music and the musician.

And so, today I experiment with creating this sense of breath, of space, of silence between notes. I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t know how to do this, don’t know how to create the moment of “Wait” that Marta says can and must exist after every pluck and release while the tune demands that the right notes be played and the right tempo and rhythm be maintained.

Then I remember my yoga teacher from long ago saying about difficult poses, “Just notice. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice. Notice, breathe, and allow.”

With this decision to “just notice” I start to play Vem Kan Segla, a Swedish tune that has been in my heart since learning it this summer. And for a few miraculous minutes, the tune is playing itself, using my fingers. My left hand holds a space for the melody with a gentle rocking like the rise and fall of ocean waves. The phrases seem to create themselves, the fourth-finger stretch down to A below middle C is effortless, my breathing matches the rise and fall of the short melody. One variation segues seamlessly into the next, and the last ending chord expresses all of the tune’s sadness and longing.

It’s a moment of grace, of unearned blessing, to play this tune like this; to feel spacious and timeless and at ease; to be able to allow the music to happen without getting in the way.

And I still don’t know how to do this, don’t know what I did that allowed the tune to spring forth from my fingers, don’t know what brought me this gift of grace on this particular November morning. But this new idea, this idea of waiting, and of allowing unlimited, unimagined possibilities with each moment of music, with each moment of life, is truly the treasure that came home with me.