The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am and Where I Want To Be

I really thought I was making progress on sight-reading. I can use music notation to learn a tune that I didn’t hear first, which I never thought would be possible. Even though I have to work through it measure by measure, with a lot of patience and a lot of slow practice, I can learn to play it. In the early music ensembles I can keep up with what and where I am supposed to be playing even when my fingers aren’t grabbing the notes on the recorder. Now that I am not panicking every time I miss a note, my eyes can move forward and I can get back in and play without getting totally lost. And over the holidays I discovered that I could slowly sight-read and sight-play most of one of my Celtic tune books, as well as sight-play some of the simple Christmas carol arrangements published in The Folk Harp Journal.

So, I really thought I was getting somewhere with the reading. And I thought that I would be ready for this spring’s “boot camp” harp ensemble class, even knowing that most of the class would be spent sight-reading.

Last Monday’s class proved otherwise. Our teacher excerpted several measures from classical harp pieces, changed the time signatures, and created fingering exercises which we were to sight-read and play. There was nothing that sounded familiar, nor any tonal patterns that my ears could grab hold of to help my eyes make sense of the notes. With my auditory system useless, my visual processing system failed. I could not see any recognizable patterns of notes that could tell me where on the strings my fingers should be. There I was, playing my own discordant solos as other class members plucked their way through the exercises in melodious unison.

During a break in playing I tried writing in note names and drawing circles around familiar note patterns, but even with notes, triads and scales identified, the tempo was too fast for me to shift from one little bit of what I could understand and play, to the next little bit. The notes once again were incomprehensible spots on a piece of paper. The sight-reading door in my brain that I thought was finally propped open a bit, slammed shut.

Being with others who sight-read easily is like being with people at an ice cream parlor who know how to whip up fabulous hot fudge sundaes and banana splits and parfaits. They walk inside with confidence, grab their scoops, and fill their bowls with delicious creations that I am never going to taste. After the holidays, I was excited that I could tiptoe into the ice cream parlor and dish myself up a scoop of vanilla. But now I am back on the sidewalk, nose pressed against the window looking in, with all that is inside inaccessible once again.

Five days later, that door in my brain is still shut tight. I’m working on new pieces for a harp chapter concert a month from now. I asked for the easy-peasy harp parts, the ones that the beginning students will play, since I’ll have to use the music to perform them. There’s just no time for my usual strategy: learn how to play and then memorize the tunes, so I don’t need the stinkin’ music.

Today the sight of the black concert notebook on my music stand makes me cry. Tension spreads down my arms and into my hands as I open it. The chords of the Pachelbel Canon might as well be bowling balls stacked on top of each other, for all the sense I can make of them. I feel my brain shut down, feel the “road closed” sign for the route from my eyes to my visual cortex start flashing. There’s no point in working on this music today. I wonder if there will be any point in working on it tomorrow. My only hope for the concert may be to hide behind a row of pedal harps, where my one-handed playing of the simple, repetitive bass melody can’t be seen.

I still struggle so to feel anything resembling confidence about playing the harp. I’ve no natural agility or coordination that allows my hands to dance upon the harp strings. Every finger motion is won with hours of drills and exercises to program the move into my muscles. Every movement of my right and left hand is choreographed and practiced so that the music flows between them. Every note I see and comprehend requires a circuitous route from eye to brain and internal naming, and then to my hand and my finger on the correct harp string.

It’s hard to remember and hard to believe that not being able to sight-read doesn’t mean that I am not able to play the harp, doesn’t mean that I am not able to create music. It’s hard to remember and hard to believe, living in a world that expects music to be something written and read, that music is sound and vibration, beauty and feeling, not notation, not black dots splattered on a ladder on a piece of paper.

It’s hard to remember that my ear and my heart love melody, that I learn a tune easily, that once I hear it, I remember it well. And it is hard to remember, in this midst of this latest failure, that there is a place for how I learn and how I play, even if no one is dishing up ice cream there.

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22 thoughts on “The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am and Where I Want To Be

  1. I am so proud of you my friend. To do what you are doing takes such courage and determination. I’d never be able to do what you are doing in a million years. I am so inspired by you!

    Keep in up but give yourself a break now and then, incredible as you are; you are still human. I can see it now…one of these days you’ll be sitting there at the counter with the rest of them and you will be tasting the sweetness of victory…whether it be deep dark Chocolate, wild Strawberry, or smooth and rich Vanilla…it’s all good!

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    1. Thank you, Nancy, and yes, I am giving myself a break. I decided that I would not do the rest of the class, that I was just not in a good place for any more challenging music. I am not one to quit something, but it must have been the right decision, because my heart lifted and the world started looking sunny again, despite another day of pouring rain. The understanding and encouragement and support I received from wonderful people like you who read my blog and who rallied to my side, helped me get through this setback. I almost feel sane (or what passes for sane with me) tonight! Thank you, my friend, for holding onto my song for me!

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      1. I’m so glad you are feeling more at peace. It is a wonder how friends can help when you’re feeling low. I’ve been down recently and am now just feeling my happy self again, thank goodness…and thank you because you’ve helped me too.
        I value you so much.
        Try to stay dry. The rain will let up. I totally understand rain, believe me. Where I live we have webbed feet…. 😉

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      2. We may need snorkels along with your webbed feet soon. Rain again tomorrow. After the months of drought I said I wouldn’t complain, but I am desperate for two consecutive days of sunshine. I guess I need to be grateful for the half-day of clear skies today.
        I value you too, Nancy. Thanks for being a part of the journey.

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  2. I’m touched by your bravery in telling your story, Janet. I also appreciate reading that the harp poses unique challenges with sight reading – something I hadn’t known. And I’m glad you have support from so many friends.

    I wasn’t a natural sight reader as a child at all – I could hardly sight read anything. I learned to sight read at 13 when my teacher went away for 3 weeks and asked me to only sight read during that time, not practice any pieces. His instructions were:

    1. Notice the key signature and briefly scan the piece.
    2. Pick a moderate tempo and play without stopping, no matter how many mistakes you make or how many notes, or whole bars, you skip entirely. Just keep the pulse and get to the next bar on time.

    I piled up a lot of scores and went through them with that one aim: to not stop, no matter what. It was liberating to let myself make a million mistakes and not care. When my teacher came back three weeks later, I could sight read, mistakes and all. And I’d discovered a lot of pieces I’d never heard before.

    We judge ourselves so much in our lives. It’s such a waste. I would say, even if NONE of the notes are right, just charge ahead. Enjoy making a mess.

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    1. Madeline, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post, and for your encouragement. Perhaps I should reframe sight-reading practice as practice in not being attached to outcomes. I could use greater skills with that as well!
      I’ve practiced reading as you described, using easy harp pieces and first and second grade piano books. Which is probably why I have any reading skills at all, given my kinesthetic and auditory learning preferences. Reading for recorder works pretty well, I think because there are limited places to put my fingers. With harp, even if I know what the notes are, it’s a challenge to get to the right strings before that next click of the metronome. But if the tempo is between 50-70 bpm I can often now play downbeats at the same time as everyone else. When I started harp I would rejoice at playing a downbeat in the first measure of every other system. My teacher reminded me of how far I’ve progressed since starting harp study, which helped.
      You and another musician friend reminded me that sight-reading is a skill that will develop with practice. So it’s back to diligent sight-reading practice for me, with renewed faith that as I keep working at it, I will get better at it. Thanks, again! Janet

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  3. I am truly amazed that anyone can play the harp. I think you have come a long way. I am sure that you wil continue to learn more skills, in your own time and your own way.

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    1. What you said about learning more skills in my own time and in my own way was so helpful. I am such a kinesthetic learner, and with music such a by-ear learner, that it is amazing that I make any sense out of written music at all. It really helped to be reminded that I do have my own way of learning that is still alive and present whether or not I am successful at sight-reading. Thank you so much for your encouragement, and for such an important reminder.

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  4. Sometimes you just have to breathe and let go. Many times when we tell ourselves we can’t do something, it’s like we’re telling our brains to stop trying. I tell this to my students all the time when they say they aren’t creative or can’t take tests. We are our own worst enemies! Breathe. Relax. And remember that things we want to do will happen good time. 🙂

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    1. Your comment made me reframe this experience. It is as though I ended up in a French Literature class that is reading Lés Miserables, when I am reading Bonne Nuit, Lune and Pierre Lapin. I would not expect myself to make the leap from reading Beatrix Potter to Victor Hugo. So I am letting go, not doing the rest of the class, and trusting that as I keep working, sight-reading skills will continue to grow. I really appreciate your encouragement and support, C.B.!

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  5. Hang in there! I have always love to sing. I have always been able to sing well and to sing back to anyone who sings a phrase to me on exactly the right notes by ear. I found learning to sight read to be hard but I did hang in there and I was successful. Take heart and know you can do this.

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    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. I’m like you- if I can hear it, I can sing it and I can work out the melody on an instrument, without any of those pesky notes. It really does help to know that others who found sight-reading difficult were able to master it. I will keep working on it.

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  6. How sad that you had to go through all these tough emotions, Janet. It’s amazing what you accomplish with your music and harp, but I’m most impressed with how dedicated you are to both. You WILL find the way to your REAL desire after this legitimate angst burns off. Thinking about you.

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    1. Thank you, Cheryl! Your encouragement really helped me begin to move beyond the bleakness I was feeling last Friday. I had a good talk with my teacher and decided not to return to the class. I decided that now was not the time to continue with that level of challenge. I’ve played lots of the tunes that I learned by ear which is a good antidote to thinking that it takes sight-reading to be a musician. And I am remembering that while my way of learning music is in the minority in classical harp world, in Ireland and with traditional music in general, my way of learning, all by ear, is exactly how it’s done. So I am back on the harp bench, and once this concert is over, I’ll be working on sight-reading again.

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  7. I’m still at the very beginning (three months!) of learning to play the harp, and I’m already wondering how the heck anyone sight reads with a harp. Usually I’m pretty good at following music, and while singing I feel much more comfortable with the notes written out in front of me, but the only way I can learn harp music is to learn all the fingering by rote, in the process of which I memorize the piece. Pieces I know I can play really well, but it takes a long time to get to that point with a new sheet of music. Sorry you’ve had a hard week; it sounds like you’re trying really hard and I hope you regain your confidence in your abilities soon.

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    1. Thank you, Grace, for your support and encouragement. You and I have the same strategy for learning music on the harp. It’s slow but it works. Once I have learned a piece I rarely look at the music. Which probably does not help my music reading skills! I think I am feeling better about where I am. I played at hospice today and the nurses were thanking me for being there. That helps me remember that making music is more than being able to sight read. Thank heavens!!!!

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  8. I totally can feel your despair and disappointment Janet. My teacher who is a wonderful harpist and has been playing for nearly 40 years always tells me how difficult sight reading is for harpists. Much more so than for most instruments. She freely admits she is not a great sight reader but also that other musicians often expect harpists to sit down and play a new tune from scratch but harp is more complicated than that because of the fingering and bracketing. Think back to where you were when you began and congratulate yourself on all that progress. I have to agree that perhaps “boot camp” (a term, by the way, that I despise) was maybe not suited for your learning style. Support yourself with that which does make you feel accomplished and challenged just enough. You’ve come a long way!

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    1. Nanci, thank you so much for your encouragement! Your suggestion to think back to where I was when I started really helped. I’ve come a long way since I started studying the harp. I am not being fair to myself to compare myself, starting as a beginning-beyond-the-middle adult, to people who started studying music as children.
      I decided to not return to the harp class, which for me is a big deal. I am one of those finish it even if it kills me types. I guess that is another unhelpful pattern I am changing. The stretch from where I am is just too big for me right now. I’ll go back to my reading practice, and remember to be grateful for the progress I’ve made.

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  9. Don’t give up; sight-reading takes a lot, lot of practice, as with basic playing of any instrument. If you want to improve your sight-reading skills, I suggest you begin at the easiest level of all – the harp bootcamp might have been a bit too advanced for you perhaps? – and work your way from there. I am quite certain there are books published especially for sight-reading harp music. As well as this, it is a good idea to know basic music theory and chords. I also struggle sight-reading on the harp, especially when there are pedal changes not written in … Well, here are some of my ideas on this subject. Don’t let sight-reading get you down! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Eliza, for your encouragement and support. There are sight reading books for the harp, i have two in a series, and you can bet I will be back to working with them. This experience taught me that I need to do a lot more work on my reading, and go for a level only slightly beyond where I am now, even if it means reading really easy stuff. So back to the harp bench I go!

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