Observing A Master Class

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.

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13 thoughts on “Observing A Master Class

  1. (oops, that one was posted too early)

    Yay, finally I found another harp blog! 🙂 Thanks for your comment on my blog.

    You’ve really convinced me to try to visit the master classes at the Dutch Harp festival. I briefly considered going but I thought, these harpists are much too advanced, I think I can only come back more jealous than ever. However, your description of that masterclass sounds really inspiring. By the way, you’re really blessed to have such a good harp teacher!

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    1. Thanks for visiting my harp blog! When I’ve observed master classes, I’ve always come back with some nugget of information or idea that I can use in my own playing, even tho I’m not playing anything as complicated as the folks daring to play for the expert. I hope that you will have the same good experience. And yes, getting to study with my teacher is on my gratitude list every day!

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  2. Yay, finally I found another harp blog! 🙂 Thanks for your comment on my blog.

    You’ve really convinced me to try to visit the master classes at the Dutch Harp festival. I briefly considered going but I thought, these harpists are much too advanced, I think I can only come back mor

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  3. Sounds like you had a very interesting time! 🙂

    Its always good to interact with people above and below your level. We all have something to learn from one another no matter our rank. In music, writing, or any other artistic realm, we are all in it together. 🙂

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    1. I think you’ve got it exactly right – we are all in this together, trying to add our creative sparks to this sweet world. The more we can help each other, the more fire and light we can muster against the darkness. Janet

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  4. Lovely post, and yes, technique is so so important – get that right and it’s a much smoother road …

    And it’s so true about not comparing yourself to others, what’s the point? There will always be someone better than you (I mean that in a liberating way). I believe that most of the satisfaction of making music stems from progress, not perfection.

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    1. It IS very liberating, to not concern myself with who is better or worse at the harp than me. I can only live MY harp journey, and I’ve been blessed that it has included the fundamentals of good technique from day one. Thanks for commenting! Janet

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  5. How fun and interesting to be able to observe that master class. And that it reinforced what a great teacher with whom you are blessed. Pluck on!

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    1. It was a wonderful experience, both to see someone who is THAT good, and to realize I’m already being taught what he was teaching. BTW, I think “pluck on” would make a great t-shirt!

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  6. I love your attitude in this – “don’t compare – don’t judge.” It is something I try so hard to remember and so often fail at doing. I have two very dear friends who are both amazing musicians (two brothers, both were child prodigies) and it has been a long road to not compare myself with them or judge myself compared to them. It is something I had to learn rather than let my own issues destroy our friendship though (which it nearly did), and all three of us are better now for sharing our strengths and weaknesses. Thank you for this very good reminder!

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    1. If you get a chance, click the link on my blog to The Listening Book and listen to the track “I’m Not Musical.” That piece really helped me turn the corner on comparing myself with other musicians. It’s a bad habit that I need to break in order to have faith in my own journey. Thanks for your comment. Janet

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    1. Thanks. My teacher opened the door for me to find music again, after thinking music was gone from my life for many years. I don’t think I’ll ever find enough words to express my gratitude to her.

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