Hunkering Down With The Woodpile And The Harp Bench

20140212-124153.jpgWe’re in day two of a three-day winter storm that’s blowing through the southeastern U.S.  Yesterday’s two inches of snow took most of our local weather forecasters by surprise. They told us to expect an early morning “dusting.” Instead, snow fell all day, and cooled off sidewalks and roads so that today’s snow won’t melt, and travel on unplowed neighborhood streets will become impossible.

Local and national forecasters got closer to reality today. Snow began falling early this morning, and is expected to accumulate at the rate of one inch per hour during the afternoon. They warn that our 4-to-8 inches of snow will be followed by a coating of ice, courtesy of sleet and freezing rain this evening. Our last big ice storm hit ten years ago this month, and left my neighborhood without electricity for two weeks. So I’m back to the basics of preparing for the worst.

There’s a waist-high stack of dry wood on the front porch, tucked under a blue tarp to keep it dry in the blowing snow. The candles are in their holders, the emergency oil lamp is filled and the wick trimmed, the wooden matches to light the gas burners when the electric ignition fails are on the counter by the stove. The flashlights are filled with fresh batteries, the electronic devices are charged. I might be a city girl now, but my years of living in the country taught me the value of self-sufficiency and not depending on the power grid during bad weather.

I’m back to the basics with my harp lessons as well. Last fall I read this quote from Deborah Henson-Conant’s blog entry, The Mystery Of Mastery, on

“I’m not dissing mastery. I’m just saying that – especially for adult learners – is it really about mastery? Or is it about having simple structures that help us express the richness of the lives we’ve created, and to share that richness with others?

When we, as adults, learn something new, what we want is fluency.

There seems to be an idea that ‘mastery’ means adding complexity – but fluency can be about getting more and more comfortable and creative with simplicity – so that we can express OURSELVES through it. 

And expressing ourselves through it is what’s important.

Last year my focus was on performance: playing at Hospice, learning repertoire to play in two harp chapter concerts, and the ongoing jousting with fear and performance anxiety. This year I am still playing at Hospice, but not signing up for other performance opportunities. This year my focus is on fluency and musicality. This year I am investigating what keeps me from expressing myself musically on the harp, what keeps me from playing a tune as beautifully as I can hear it in my head and as fluidly as I can imagine my fingers moving.

My “simple structures” are scales and arpeggios, and my primary tool for investigation is the video camera in my iPad, which when placed on a spare music stand beside my harp, captures everything my hands are doing. Since video-taping my practice sessions, I’ve discovered major inefficiencies in my harp technique that interfere with me playing fluidly and expressively.

I’m back to the very first steps of playing the harp: closing my fingers into the palm when I pluck, and replacing my fingers on the harp strings without buzzes. The videos showed that I have a lot of unnecessary hand motion when I close and replace. These hand motions take more time, which creates hiccups in the fluidity of the music and which traps me into playing slowly.

I am practicing scales with the mental images of “quiet hands,” and fingers that effortlessly fold shut, and then unfold and return to the strings without waving up and landing from above. After lots of very slow practice, I’m able to play ascending and descending scales a good 20 beats per minute faster than before. And my scales sound really good! Not allowing wiggling hands to siphon off energy that should go towards fingers pressing and releasing the strings creates a richer, fuller sound.

With the Alexander Technique lessons, I am developing both the core support that allows my arms, hands and fingers to move freely, and greater awareness of how I am moving and using my body. I can connect suddenly clumsy fingers to subtle shifts in my posture that causes my neck and spine to collapse forward, which then keeps me from supporting my arms and centering my hands on the strings, which prevents my fingers from moving freely.

When my hands are supported and balanced on the strings, my fingers naturally snap closed into my palms without forcing them to move after I pluck a string. That’s what they want to do. With tension released by closing, my fingers unfold, again without “making” them move. This effortless movement feels delicious! For the first time, I’m consciously aware that good technique really does feel good.

But my most significant shift is being able to watch the videos and view my harp technique issues as inefficiencies that stymie fluency and expression, instead of as failures that I should have corrected given the number of years I’ve had harp lessons. The Inner Critic no longer has a seat in my practice room. I know that for all the harp years, I’ve worked hard and practiced conscientiously so that I could play the very best I could.  And I know that I’ll keep doing that for all the harp years to come.


11 thoughts on “Hunkering Down With The Woodpile And The Harp Bench

  1. I just wanted to say that I find you blog so, so, inspiring. I love your writing and your way of seeing things.
    I stumbled on it because I’ve been thinking about learning the harp. I learned to play the piano when I was little, but stopped, for many reasons. I felt as though I’d never be perfect, or good enough, and always got the feeling that if you weren’t a child prodigy, if you didn’t start playing when you were 5, it wouldn’t be enough. (My interest in writing, photography, and crafts went the same way.) Everyone around me was playing (writing, drawing, creating…) things so much better than me, and my parents and teachers were always comparing. A while ago, I started thinking I was too old to learn a new instrument, it was too late, I should have started years ago… I’m actually 18 years old.

    There are so many thing in your blog that make me think of where I’d like to be someday, a lot that makes sense to me (oddly, I’m also just starting to study psychology and and aspiring, maybe, to a PhD 🙂 ) I love nature, have recently been reading about mindfulness… And volunteering at a hospice seems like such a great thing to do!
    For the extra inspiration as I keep searching for a harp, a teacher, and lessons… Thank you 😀


    1. Hi Vicky-I apologize for taking 5 months to respond to your comment. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to write to you, but I’ve spent hardly any time on my blog since my friend died.

      One of the reasons I didn’t start learning how to play the harp until I was 52 years old is that it took me that long to figure out that I did not need to already be good at doing something before I learned how to do it. And it took that long to be able to stand being really bad and feeling inept at doing something while I learned how to do it and developed skills to do it better.

      It sounds like that everyone’s emphasis on your creative activities (piano, writing, photography, crafts) is about achievement, and about you having to be better than somebody else, instead of on whether or not you enjoy doing it, are fulfilled by doing it, have fun doing it, are energized and inspired by doing it, or plain “just want to do it.” Don’t let others hijack your life by insisting that you have to be perfect at whatever creative activity you want to try, or be better at doing it than anybody else, especially those child prodigy brats. A key to a happy and joy-filled and successful adult life is finding out what are all the things you LOVE to do, and then spending as much time as possible doing them. And doing them because they bring you joy, and not to prove that you are better or worse than somebody else.

      This also means that you are going to have to try things only to find out that they are just not what you thought they would be, and that you don’t love doing them, so you are not going to pursue them further. I did that with pottery. Thought I’d love throwing pots. Turned out I didn’t. I’m glad I spent 6 months trying it out and finding out I didn’t want to do that, instead of wondering all my life if I did.

      If you want to win harp competitions, earn a place at a prestigious conservatory, have a recording contract with a major label, you “might shoulda” started harp when you were five. (However, my harp teacher started playing harp when she was in college, and went on to win harp competitions, get admitted to a prestigious conservatory for grad school in harp, and became a symphony harpist.) If you want to learn harp because you love the sound and want to be a part of making beautiful music with it, you love how you feel when you hear harp music and see people playing the harp, you are intrigued by it, you want the challenge and fun of the process of learning to play, then you are NOT by any means too old to start learning how to play. You will NEVER be to old to learn how to play. Your life will be moving forward day-by-day no matter what – you might as well let it move forward with a harp by your side!

      Your piano background will help you immensely. And please share with any potential harp teacher that you want to learn to play for yourself and for the joy of playing, and not so you can be compared with other harp students. Something I did not know when I started is that most harp teachers will have a harp you can rent while you decide if harp is for you. So you may not have to find a harp on your own. And while I think hands-on teaching is the absolutely best way to go, depending on where you live there may not be an easily accessible harp teacher. Many good teachers offer lessons on Skype or FaceTime.

      I hope that of all the things I wrote here, you take away this message: Listen to your heart’s yearnings. Therein lies your true compass for your life. You’ll have the opportunity to walk many paths as your life progresses. Your heart will tell you which paths are yours. Listen.


  2. Again you inspire me. I too am revisiting my earlier pieces and technique., working on arpeggios and scales. Trying to be more mindful of position. The last year of supporting and caring for my mom completely drained me and I had to step back from my progress and harp practice. It has been 7 months since her passing and we did a major move afterward. So here I am trying to pick up where I left off, and here was your latest post with good thoughts about going back to go forward. Perfect timing and thank you for always sharing in such an honest and open way. I loved the idea of using the iPad, and plan to do that today. I am wishing for sunny days for you soon. My California weather is more appreciated lately as I read of your snowy
    And difficult weather. Stay warm by your fire!❤️🎵🎵


    1. Glad this piece helped. My teacher says it is always good to practice the basics. She continuously does scale and arpeggio work, and views it as necessary for keeping up her chops. So I am learning that there’s nothing to be ashamed of by revisiting the beginning steps of playing.
      I hope that you can find some time to pull your harp to your heart and feel the lusciousness of the notes of a scale as the sound enters your chest. No striving, just letting the vibrations enter and help heal your bruised and tired spirit.


    1. In some ways it’s like editing writing. I’m looking for what doesn’t belong, what interferes with the story I am trying to tell with the music. If only it was as easy as highlighting and deleting to get the unwanted and unhelpful hand motions out of this story!


  3. So lovely to read of your snow and cold weather preparations, whilst in Sydney I am making sure my harp room is humid enough in all the heat. I feel cooler just reading your post, thank you!


    1. We are on day three of snow, with it coming down at the rate of 2″ per hour. This is highly unusual for North Carolina – we are lucky to get one good snow day in a winter. I’m glad that this post is helping you stay cool!


  4. Love love love this post. this sentence “return to the strings without waving up and landing from above. ” made me laugh knowingly as I envisioned my fingers doing this funny upward and then downward motion when I do a play and replacement. I think I will try your idea with the iPad too. I like the suggestion of placing on a music stand.
    Stay warm and safe my friend and enjoy the practice of fluency and a little cognac might not hurt in the evening!


    1. The video doesn’t lie……and it is so helpful to see what is really happening, especially when I am concentrating on reading music instead of my hands. BTW, I am going with a tropical theme in defiance of the weather, and enjoying a gin & tonic!


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