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.

Slowing Down To My Own Speed

I had the privilege of participating in a teaching call on mindfulness meditation and its potential to help musicians presented by Madeline Bruser, pianist, teacher and author of the book, The Art Of Practicing: A Guide To Making Music from the Heart, and of the e-zine Fearless Performing.

One of the things she said about the meditation practice is that “it slows you down to your own speed.”

I suspect my “own speed” is more suitable for life in a medieval monastery than in 21st century civilization. I don’t do “fast” easily or well. I don’t run. I don’t sprint. I walk. I don’t play jigs. I don’t play reels. I play slow airs. I suspect a serious deficiency of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Yet much of my music life is spent trying to do “fast” and “faster.” Trying to sight-read faster. Trying to move my fingers on my recorder faster. Trying to close and replace my fingers on the next harp strings faster. Trying to play faster. Trying to learn a tune faster. Trying to keep up with ensemble directors whose “moderate” tempos equate to racing a fire truck to a burning building for my 11th century sensibilities.

What brings me joy is slow, contemplative playing, playing that allows me to listen to the sound of each string as I release its tension, playing that bathes me in chordal harmony while I swim in the current of melody and feel the vibrations from the harp body enter my own. But in my practice sessions, I too often bypass joy in my hurry to master the fingerings of a tricky passage or get a piece up to performance tempo. I may end my practice time pleased that another small goal can be marked as “met,” or that I can cross off another measure I have to master for the piece I’m learning. But accomplishment does not equal joy.

I tried ten minutes of sitting practice before playing at the hospice unit yesterday. While sitting, focusing on my exhalations, my thoughts return to “planning” again and again. Yet there are small moments of space between the thoughts where there is just breathing, and my eyes enjoying the rare morning sunshine creating patterns of light on the reds and blues of the oriental rug at my feet. When the timer tells me ten minutes is over, the nagging hints of anxiety and the unsettled quivering in my stomach that still visit when I am preparing to play for others are gone.

My drive to the hospital is peaceful, and by the time I’ve unpacked my harp and bench I feel settled and ready to play. All the beds on the unit are filled. The nurses are working at warp speed, answering call bells, administering medications, checking vitals, answering families’ questions. On this morning, it’s not family members who stop to speak, it’s the nurses, who thank me for playing as they pass by on the way to patients’ rooms. And in this time and place, slow and peaceful music, music that echos the rhythmic beating of a peaceful heart, is fast enough.

I would like to be comfortable playing at faster tempos. I would like to have the option to play a wide range of tempos and be successful at them all. As I type that sentence, what comes to mind is something my first yoga teacher said over and over – that in yoga, for every pose, we start with gratitude from exactly where we are, no matter how far from the desired end result we may be, and allow the posture to emerge over time as we breathe and gradually release and strengthen into it.

I have hints from my first morning of sitting practice that “slowing down to my own speed” is the same thing. That if I can first live and be grounded in my own speed, and start with gratitude from exactly where I am today, I will allow all my desired end results, be it playing faster or sight-reading or learning repertoire to emerge over time. If each day I make time for joy, make time for wallowing in the magic of resonating wood and strings, accomplishment will emerge on its own.

Final Harp Class – Climbing Back On The Horse That Threw Me

Last night was the fourth and final session of the spring harp ensemble “boot camp” class. After my oh-so-difficult first and second classes I did not go to the third one, and had no intention of returning at all.  But a friend in the class and my teacher encouraged me to come to class last night, and I am glad I did.

The bargain I made with the part of me that would have rather prepared for a colonoscopy than go to class, was that it would be perfectly ok to sit with my hands in my lap without playing a note for the whole 90 minutes. Through some combination of a slower pace of the exercises and sight-reading, some time spent playing a familiar warm-up tune that I know by heart, and at least a partial restoration of confidence, I enjoyed the class. With no self-induced pressure or judgements allowed, I was able to do what I could and not worry about the rest. Equanimity blessed me with its presence.

I should write something profound about all the lessons this experience provided, that includes wise words about my patterns of self-induced pressure and the resulting panic and loss of heart. For today, though, I’m satisfied that I took the risk to just show up, and allowed a different ending to the spring harp class to manifest.

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.

Playing At Hospice For The Second Week

I played at the hospice unit for the second time yesterday. I was more comfortable than last week, probably because I knew what to expect. Plus, fewer patient rooms were occupied, and the people inside them were much quieter than last week.

A few people spoke to me while I was playing. The daughter of a man being admitted today stopped to say that the music was soothing. Two social workers and one of the nurses stopped and thanked me for playing. I discovered that I can now just manage to say “Thank you” and “I’m glad you are enjoying the music,” and still keep a tune going. Fortunately no one wanted to linger for conversation, or my fingers would have to come to a complete stop.

I brought two new tunes out to play for the first time. There’s nothing like playing something in public to learn where it is going to fall apart. Both tunes keeled over someplace completely different from the measures I drilled intensively last week. At least those drills fixed the measures I worked on. And I don’t have to wonder what I am going to drill this week.

Despite feeling more comfortable, my brain and fingers played many more tricks this week. I misremembered phrases, forgot whole measures, and repeatedly landed on unintended strings. I did lots of creative improvisation, making something up until I figured out where I was and where I was going. But the huge difference was that in the midst of my confusion, there was no fear and no panic. I knew the note I just played was still ringing, and for once I felt like I had all the time I needed to play another note, whether or not it was the one written on the page. Without the panic, I could work my way out of the slips and tangles. Without the panic, I could remember that I was the only one who knew what were mistakes, and that they just didn’t matter. While I was puzzled about why I was missing notes even on tunes I know so well, in the end that didn’t matter either. What mattered was being there and sharing the music I love.

I still don’t know if the music is helpful to patients. But as I was logging my volunteer hours at the end of my shift, one of the nurses said, “I could listen to you play all day. Thank you so much for coming.” And the nurse manager suggested that next week, instead of setting up at the far end of the unit, I play by the window in the unit’s other short hallway. That’s the hallway right next to the nurses station. So I trust that Music is working her magic wherever it is needed, with staff or patient alike.

Finding New Confidence In Playing For Others

I played harp today for the first time at a local hospital’s hospice unit. A year ago the thought of taking my harp out in public and playing music for an hour seemed as likely to happen as winning the lottery. And it was just two years ago that I despaired of ever knowing a tune well enough to sit down and play it.

It was the evaluator for the American Harp Society Audition and Evaluation (see Slay The Dragon for more about the A & E process) who suggested that I volunteer to play harp for hospice. He thought that playing in a setting where the focus was on sharing music, and not on me as a performer, would help reduce the performance anxiety that was all too evident when I played for him.

The universe evidently agreed with him. A few weeks later my friend who already played at the hospice unit invited me to a volunteer recruitment lunch. She told the staff who greeted us at the door that I played the harp, and suddenly the volunteer coordinator appeared, handing me a clipboard, pen and volunteer application and saying, “Why don’t you fill this out while you’re here?

Following an interview, a criminal background check, fingerprinting, reference checks, a drug test, a health screening, two TB tests, and viral titers determining that I had immunity to all the usual childhood diseases, I was approved as a hospice volunteer. (Young children, old people, and dogs have been left in my care without anything close to such an in-depth investigation.) Then I completed 12 hours of training about hospice philosophy and the hospital’s hospice program. Four months later I finally scheduled my first day to play.

The A & E evaluator was right. Hospice is the perfect place to share music with others without being stalked by fears about performing. The unit is small, only eight beds for now, and the staff are warm and welcoming. An alcove under a stained glass window at the end of a short hall provides a cozy place to play. There aren’t many people in the halls. Those who are, are on their way to somewhere else and don’t stop and watch me play. It was me and the harp and the music spending an hour together, and perhaps soothing people’s hearts in the process.

The nurses said that they could hear the harp throughout the unit, and that the music was beautiful. I didn’t see any patients or families, which in a strange way helped me focus just on the playing, and not on any perceived or imagined outcomes. I remembered to breathe, and to just “keep calm and carry on” when my fingers did something new and surprising. I remembered to listen to the sounds of the strings as I plucked. The hour passed quickly, and I didn’t even play all the tunes on today’s set list.

The volunteer coordinator asked me to come back and to play regularly. I committed to playing an hour each week, every Tuesday morning. I know that playing this often will help me develop ease and comfort with performing. And the tunes in my repertoire are definitely going to stay in my fingers. But as I was packing up today, that’s not what felt important. Instead, it was realizing once again that the harp is such a gift in my heart, in my life, and that passing the gift on feels right, feels like the best next step in my journey to place where Music lives.

Perfection – Not Required, And Not Possible, Anyway

It’s been a little over a year since my harp teacher baptized me into a life filled with new possibilities with the words “You do not have to play perfectly to be worthy to play.” The end-of-semester concerts I attended last month gave me many opportunities to observe performers playing imperfectly, while still creating beautiful music that the audience appreciated and enjoyed.

Voice students forgot words in the middle of their songs, and recovered by vocalizing to the tune until the lyrics reappeared in their brains. Guitar students played unplanned chords and missed strings with their fingers, but kept on playing with only their momentary wider eyes registering their surprise. Piano students lived through finger fumbles and memory slips. The Big Band ensemble had at least one enthusiastic player who, like me with my one-note solo in the recorder ensemble concert, started a number one measure before everyone else. The opera chorus missed some harmonizing pitches.  At one of the professional concerts I attended, a player did not get started with the rest of the ensemble. The group did a “do over” and started the piece again.

None of these “mistakes” diminished my enjoyment of the performances or the music. Hearing such beautiful music still filled me up. I was not any less appreciative, and I did not enjoy the concerts any less because the performances were not “note perfect.” If anything, witnessing the quiet courage and grace of the performers as they managed the unplanned moments of their performances made me feel more connected to them.

As my teacher told me so many months ago, making music is a human enterprise. We human beings are so rarely perfect in anything we do. We try our hardest to play our best, yet our fingers find different strings than the ones we know we are supposed to pluck. Our memories momentarily forget all knowledge of the piece we’ve played dozens of times before.  Our task is not to play perfectly – it is to connect with our audience and share our love for the music and the instrument we play. And for that, perfection is not required.

The Place I Belong

For as long as I can remember, the issue of feeling like I don’t belong and don’t have a place in the world has dogged me. Being an avid science fiction reader since fifth grade, I determined that the reason I did not fit in anywhere was that Earth was not my native planet. I knew that I must have been kidnapped by space gypsies at a very young age, and then genetically modified to resemble human beings. I could only hope that someday my real parents would find me and take me home.

I’m still here. And I figured out that Earth is not such a bad planet, once you get used to its inhabitants. When I became old enough to leave the small, backwards, right-wing conservative textile town I grew up in, I found other people who became members of my earth-bound tribe, and I began to find the places on this planet where I could belong.

But those old feelings of not belonging or having a place will still pop up unexpectedly, surprising me with their sudden painful intensity. I recognize them for what they are – ghosts of the past trying to haunt my present, ghosts that carry sadness and longing from places and times long gone – but these ghosts can still chill my heart, and leave me scrambling to find the place I belong in the present.

A morning of sleeping late at the beach called forth their latest apparition. I usually wake early to see the day come to life over the ocean, but this morning I was the last to rise. My six friends were sitting around the breakfast table, at the six places they set, in the six chairs that fit around the glass tabletop. Someone fixed pancakes for breakfast, and now there were only crumbs left in sticky puddles of syrup. They were drinking coffee, and the coffee pot was empty. No room at the table, no food, no coffee – quite enough to trigger old feelings and new, hot tears that I tried to blink away before anyone could see them.

Back in the real world, I knew that no one was trying to tell me I don’t belong. My friends made room at the table, and cooked fresh pancakes, and showed me the workings of the individual-cup coffee maker they were using because not one of us seven caffeine-dependent adults remembered to bring coffee filters. Still, the ghosts had once again chilled my heart, and I needed to find warmth.

After breakfast I pulled my harp over to the wide ocean-front window, and set up my harp bench and music stand so I could see the white-caps being pushed to shore by tropical storm Alberto. I sat on the bench, pulled the harp back to my shoulder and my heart, and in that daily ritual, I was where I belonged, where I am supposed to be, where I always have a place.

And on this morning I knew that it’s not just when I am at my harp lesson working with my teacher, it’s not just when I am making music with others in the recorder and early music ensembles, that I have a place. Music is the place I belong, wherever I am.

I allowed an easy practice, just letting tunes flow out my fingers, and I listened to the sounds of the harp join the sounds of breaking waves and raucous gulls. On this heart-chilled morning, Music wrapped me up and gave me the welcome into the day that my tears longed for, and turned my sadness into grace. My heart warmed with peace and gratitude for being blessed with harp and Music, and for knowing that I am not alone, and not without a place, with Music as my companion.

Community And Connection Vanquishes Performance Anxiety

There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
And BEING the noise.
Rumi, The Big Red Book, trans. Coleman Barks


The end of the semester at the community college means almost daily concerts and recitals. The opera company kicks off a week-long festival of music, art and literature with three performances of music by Gershwin and Bernstein. Students who study voice, composition, piano and guitar give recitals. There are three days of jazz concerts, and a lovely evening of Baroque music performed by the college’s Baroque Ensemble.  This year, music alumni performed at the annual concert honoring the founder of the Music Department. I played in the Early Music Consort concert in mid-April, in the middle of the Arts festival week. And the Recorder Ensemble finished out the semester’s performances with our concert last Tuesday.

The students giving recitals, the classes and ensembles giving concerts, and the students and instructors in the many audiences all seemed to come together to love and honor Music in her many forms, all seemed to gather Music up to share with audiences and with each other. The music department felt like a community joined together to celebrate Music’s existence and presence in our lives.

Being in the midst of this community of music-making somehow soothed my adrenal glands’ hair-trigger responses to performing. I felt a part of this giant celebration of Music. I didn’t frighten and distract myself with worries about whether I would play well, whether I’d make it through a tricky passage, whether I would totally mess up a piece. Missing a note would not separate me from this wave of creative energy, from this union of hearts and minds, spirits and bodies coming together to make Music, to create connection and share joy.

Both the Early Music Consort and the Recorder Ensemble concerts went pretty well. I missed some entrances and cutoffs, and played a confident one note solo when I started a piece a measure before everyone else. I embellished some of the melodies with new, creative dissonances. None of my mistakes proved fatal to me or to any of the pieces we played. Nor did I hear any groans from long-dead composers turning in their graves.

For the first time, I enjoyed the process of playing in a concert. Instead of feeling on trial and judged, I felt a part of the community that was creating and celebrating Music. I felt a part of giving the gift of these tunes and our playing to the audience and to each other. For the first time, the shaking felt like excitement, not fear, and the playing felt like joy.