I’m always ambivalent about going to harp things that are primarily for the pedal harp community. It’s not that I don’t feel welcome as a lever harper – it’s that these events are usually peopled by children and adolescents who began studying harp before they were weaned. An afternoon of the wonder-kids makes me begin to wonder how much I’d get for my harp on Craig’s List, as there seems to be little point in continuing to plink along learning harp in my slow plodding fashion. But on Friday my Buddhist guardian angel reminded me that being with the child-virtuosos is just another opportunity to practice “don’t compare – don’t judge mind,” so I headed to a local church to observe a harp master class given by Sivan Magen, the first Israeli to win first prize in the International Harp Contest in Israel.
The harp repertoire the kids played belongs in a concert hall instead of a church activity building. Yet despite hearing these advanced pieces, Sivan Magen’s feedback and instruction returned again and again to the fundamentals of harp technique. With every player he focused on posture and support, hand position and balance, string contact and preparation, placing and articulation, and closing fingers fully into the palm. He stressed understanding and following the composer’s instructions for tempo and dynamics as written in the score, as well as playing with strict adherence to the rhythm. And he repeatedly stressed the importance of listening – of training the ear to hear what the fingers play. He asked these young harpists to be aware of the clarity of each note, to feel the flow of the musical phrases and melodic lines, and to hear the interweaving of the different voices. He asked them to both notice the flow of chords in the score and to listen to the unfolding harmonies, and then discern the more important and less important notes, and play them as such. He repeatedly sang both the melodic and the bass lines to show how notes should be turned into phrases, how volume should rise and fall, how notes should be crisply articulated or smoothed into a legato line, and how tempo should be artfully adjusted to represent the composer’s intent.
Instead of being ready to go home and list my harp for sale, I was heartened and encouraged by Sivan’s feedback and instruction. It’s a pretty safe bet that I’ll not play Grandjany’s Fantasy on a Theme by Haydn, or David Watkins’ Fire Dance, or any of the other pieces I heard, given the number of birthdays I’ve already had and the number of birthdays I have left. But everything he said to the kids who played on Friday is just as important for the music that I can play today. Everything he taught about harp technique and musical understanding applies just as much to how I play the harp. And they are all things I can do now, in this lifetime.
And the best thing about what I heard on Friday? Not one bit of it was new to me. Everything Sivan talked about, my teacher focuses on in my lessons, and has since the first time I sat in her studio and plucked a harp string. Every week she notices if my back is supporting my arms and hands, or if my weaker shoulder is allowing my elbow to hug my side and pull my hand off the strings. Every week she notices if my thumbs are high enough to create a beautiful sound from the string, and if they are leaving room for fluid cross-unders and cross-overs. Every week she notices if my hands are balanced on the strings, and if my fingers are closing completely. And due to her insistence that I notice and correct any flaws in technique at my lessons, I’ve learned to notice these things when I play on my own. I know that if I’m having trouble with getting to left-hand strings, the first thing to check is my left elbow. If my fingers get tangled as I try a passage, I’ve either let my thumbs get lazy or I’ve moved my hand too far forward on the strings. If I’m misplaying a transition, I know to pay attention to where my eyes are looking, and to remember that I need to see where I’m going, not where I’ve been. If I don’t like the sounds I’m making, I’d better check thumb height, finger articulation, and how completely I’m closing.
And every week my teacher listens, deeply listens to me play. No matter what it is, we focus on phrasing, dynamics, and creating a singing legato line. Whether it’s an exercise, a passage from a new piece I’m learning, or something from my repertoire list, she hears, and teaches me to hear the subtle differences in the solidity and fluidity of sound that result from deliberate placing, articulation and closing. There’s no mindless repetition allowed; instead she insists that I be mindful and conscious of my intent as I play. There is always the question “What am I trying to communicate at this moment?” to be reflected upon, and possible answers to be tested and expressed as I play a passage one more time.
It’s exciting to meet an internationally recognized harpist, to have the opportunity to observe his teaching, and to glean new insights and techniques from such a skilled musician. But I am grateful that I do not need to depend on imported expertise and wisdom. For every week my teacher helps me transform the notes on a page or the tune in my head into music created by my hands on harp strings. Every week she helps me find and play the music in my heart.