Listening As Harp Practice

My teacher is preparing for a recital, and yesterday she played her entire program for me.

She wanted feedback on the harp’s sound and projection. Wanting to give her useful information, I tried to pay particular attention to string tone, to the balance and evenness of volume between the two hands and between the different registers, to the dynamics, and to the overall flow of melodic lines in the music.

These are all aspects of playing that she points out and has me work on. Just this week I spent a large part of my lesson on only two measures, experimenting with how to bring out what would be the first soprano voice so that it would not be overshadowed by the second soprano voice. I had to figure out how much additional thumb pressure I needed to make the thumb string sound with the same tone and volume as the string being simultaneously plucked with my fourth finger. Too much pressure resulted in a loud, harsh twang. Too little pressure and the thumb note could not be heard at all. Finding the right touch resulted in lovely harmony supported by a little duet in the left hand.

Listening to my teacher with ears alerted to notice specifics of her playing, I could experience kinesthetically and emotionally how tone, balance, dynamics and melodic line impacted me as a listener, and how they contributed to my whole experience of being immersed in and bathed by the sound and the music. Listening to her play motivates me to learn to do as a player what I experienced as a listener, motivates me to learn to pay attention to all these technical elements and incorporate them in my playing. Listening to her play created living, breathing models of harp sound for me to learn to match. It’s this listening that inspired me to practice creating crescendos and decrescendos with my arpeggio practice today.

Yet there is quite a paradox between developing technique and creating music, another variation of the do-ing/be-ing conundrum.

I know about the musical decisions my teacher had to make about how to perform her pieces, decisions about tempo, color, dynamic range. I understand the technical skills she had to bring to the harp to create the variations in tone and dynamics that created the melodic lines that allowed the different voices in the music to sing. I know that she had to decide how she would play the powerful rising chords in the Hindemith harp sonata, that she had to work out how softly she would start the chord progression and exactly how much pressure to apply to the strings for each chord to create the crescendo. But my experience of listening to these pieces was that everything was organic to and emanating from the music, and not from decisions my teacher made about the music or about how to use her hands on the harp.

The paradox is that the music would not have form or exist for me to hear without all of the choices and decisions and technical work my teacher did to be able to play it, yet all of that becomes transparent and disappears when she plays. The music would not be possible without her “doing,” yet her doing, her technique, her decisions become invisible. There is only the music coming alive through her and saying “This is how I want to sound, this is what I want to say, this is what I want to be.”

It appears my goal as a musician must be to develop such flawless technique that it completely disappears. And to do that I must be able to hear every nuance of sound that the union of my fingers and the harp strings create, and discern if the “doing” of that sound allows the “being” of the music to emerge. Head and heart must be present on the harp bench. Fingers and ears must be equally skilled. Listening is practice.

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16 thoughts on “Listening As Harp Practice

  1. Hindemith Harp Sonata is one of my favourite pieces! And, you have hit the nail on the head. The point of technique, posture etc is that, once effortless, we can focus our attention on the music and letting the music happen exactly as we want it to. The technique is just a tool in getting to that stage.

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  2. How very true….there is an art to appreciation. I myself cannot play anything but I would like to think I have a fairly decent ear. I can hear the difference between when the musican is thinking out the mechanics of playing and when the joy of playing just emerges. It must be a difficult balance to attain.

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    1. You definitely have a good ear! It is an odd paradox….without technique you can’t express the joy and life of the music because you don’t know how. But if there is only technique, there is no joy, no life.

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  3. The same can be said of writing and teaching. As a writer, I learn the most by reading novels and other works in large amounts. The more I read, the more understand what makes a story tick. As a teacher, one of the first things I realized is how much the profession relies on self-reflection. We learn a lot from nit-picking our lessons and watching others teach. 🙂

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    1. I think the capacity for self-reflection is what is most required to get better at anything we try to learn and do. If we can’t think about and know where we are, there is no way we will want to or be motivated to or see the need to improve or change. And so we deny ourselves the glorious possibilities that come with mastery.

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  4. Well said Janet. I too am learning about this “listening” skill too. At times it’s not easy to hear these subtle nuances. Hard work…but that is what makes the difference!

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    1. And to think we thought our big challenges were cross-unders, scales and arpeggios! Deep listening and truly hearing sound wears out my brain more than trying to get my fingers to behave.

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