I had my first harp lesson on the evening of September 28, 2004. My harp lesson on September 29, 2014 was the tenth anniversary of first sitting in my teacher’s studio and putting my fingers on harp strings.
When I told my teacher that I was celebrating the tenth anniversary of beginning harp lessons with her, she said, “That is so cool! Not everyone can look at the last ten years of their life and say they’ve learned how to do something completely from scratch. You have a lot to show for what you’ve been doing with your life for the last ten years.”
And so I do. The harp is no longer a “someday” dream. it is my real, live life, every day.
A few months after starting lessons I wrote in my journal, “Becoming a musician is turning me inside out.” And so it has. The person I am today was formed and forged on the harp bench. Staring down childhood demons, laying aside the cloak of invisibility that protected me, and having the courage and confidence to take myself out into the world to be seen and heard are all gifts from my harp strings.
I’ve always liked a structured path, with the milestones to be reached clearly defined, and then noted and checked off the master list as they are achieved. When I started my blog four years ago, I despaired of ever having any sense of direction about learning to play, or of having any sense of myself as a harper. But the harp taught me to trust emergence, to trust that what I need to learn next and do next will reveal itself with quiet and attentive waiting, much like seeds nestled in the dark earth await the right season to send out their first green shoots.
The harp is no longer about being good enough or worthy enough or skilled enough to play. For the first time since beginning the harp years, I know I really can play. The harp is not a challenge external to me that I must master, with a required set of skills that I must be able to perform. Instead, the harp is a part of me. It is where I have my place, where I feel completely alive. It is, as Ruth Ann once told me, “where my passion has found her voice.” It is where I both see for myself, and express to the outer world, who I am, and who and what I love. It is where I am home.
My blog and I celebrated birthdays in August. Heart to Harp is three years old, and I’m, ahem, considerably older. The “Happy Anniversary” message from WordPress reminded me of the morning I registered my blog. I was working out my retirement notice and didn’t have a lot of actual work to do, so I used my free time to sign up with WordPress. When I saw Heart To Harp become real on my computer monitor, I was so overcome with anxiety over what I’d done that I had to flee to the Habitat coffee shop, where chocolate and caffeine helped me get over the vapors.
I remember telling myself, while gripping that tall mocha latte, that registering a blog didn’t mean that I actually had to write anything, or god forbid, post something for someone to read. It was another week before I published my first blog post. I didn’t have to worry about someone reading what I wrote – several weeks passed before I received my first WordPress email telling me that someone “liked” a post, and it took even longer to get a comment notice. It wasn’t until the following March that Heart To Harp had its first “follower.” By then the shock of committing to “write in public” had worn off. I was just surprised that someone would want to read everything I posted.
Three years, 276 posts, and over 100 followers later, later, I can’t imagine not blogging. Writing about my thoughts, disappointments, hopes, triumphs, and the giggly weirdness of life is part of who I am and what I do. Meeting and connecting with so many creative, interesting, talented people and enjoying their words and images is an unexpected bonus to being a blogger. I treasure these connections, and don’t want to live without them.
This August also marks one year of playing at the hospital hospice unit. In my very first August 2010 blog post, Where’s The Magic Fairy Dust?I doubted that I would ever be able to just sit down, pull my harp back onto my shoulder, and play a tune, let alone let someone listen to me play. Now, harping at the hospital, with staff and families and patients listening to me, is a normal part of my week, and I can play for over an hour without repeating any tunes.
Last August C.B. Wentworth introduced me to the knitting loom and the irrepressible notion that I must knit socks. I started my first pair of socks on August 21st. Last weekend I finally posted all my knitting projects on Ravelry. I’ve written about being knitting-obsessed, but I didn’t know how bad it really was. In 12 months I completed 13 projects. I knit five pairs of socks on the loom before I picked up knitting needles last October. Despite believing that I could never learn to really knit, I finished another pair of socks, four hats, two scarves, and one sweater, and I have another pair of socks and a lace shawl in progress.
There is an interesting study which came out just last week that I think provides some interesting insight. It was called The End of History Illusion and described how 19,000 participants, ranging from age 18 to 68 consistently underestimated how much they would change over the next decade.
They were asked to evaluate how much they had changed over the last ten years – from their personality, to core values, and likes/dislikes. Then they were asked to predict how much they would change in the next decade ahead. Interestingly, no matter how young or old they were, even though they acknowledged how much they had changed in the previous ten years, they consistently underestimated how much they would change in the next ten years.
I suspect that we not only underestimate how much our personality, core values, and likes and dislikes will change, but how much we will change in the domain of expertise and skill development as well. . . .
Ten years ago music was not in my life. There was only a faint glimmer of a long ago dream to play the harp someday. Three years ago I couldn’t begin to fathom how much I would learn, or how much I would change, or how much connection and joy and excitement I would find through blogging, through playing my harp, and through an entirely new craft. I can’t begin to predict what the next three years, or ten years will bring, or how I will change and grow in the process. Life keeps opening up in new and completely unpredictable ways, and I keep being surprised and delighted. Each birthday marks the beginning of another year of adventures.
Yet this year’s birthday also brings a quiet sadness. With this birthday I am the same age my mother was when she died. By the time she was 61, she’d given up on life, trading any possibilities of surprise and delight for the vodka and bourbon bottles. That Thanksgiving the alcohol finally killed her.
I wonder at the essential difference between us: What made my mother see her life as over at 61? What makes me, at the very same age, see my life as an adventure? What makes me see each day of my life as an opportunity to see what happens next?
With this birthday, I’ve never been more grateful to be so unlike her.
The Hospice music ministry volunteer coordinator called at the end of March and asked if I would play my harp for their annual Service of Remembrance in early May. Play solo harp, that is. For the entire ceremony. By myself. I could distinctly hear the ghost of Nancy Reagan whispering in my ear, saying “Just say no.” But thanks to my Three Non-negotiable Decisions, what I heard myself say was “Of course. I’d love to. It would be a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.”
She asked me to play 20 minutes before the service started, approximately 20 minutes while people walked from their chairs to place a white rose in a wreath in memory of their loved ones, and another 15 to 20 minutes while people left the hospital’s labyrinth courtyard where the service would be held.
Thanks to the past months of playing at the hospital hospice unit, I had more than enough repertoire to play for an hour. I selected a medley of Celtic tunes for gathering music. I’d been working on a long piece with a soothing melody in the middle section. My teacher helped me figure out how to introduce and then loop that section so I could play it multiple times during the wreath ceremony. I wrote a bridge to another soothing tune that I could play until the last flower was placed. I selected four of the contemporary tunes I play on the unit for the closing music.
Driving to the hospital on the morning of the service, I prayed for calm, and quiet and steady hands. I arrived early enough to sit in my car and meditate for 20 minutes. Following my breath, I found a place of alert and steady awareness, of easy breathing and quiet mind. I had plenty of time to load my harp and bench on my cart and walk slowly through the hospital corridors to the courtyard. I had plenty of time to set up and tune my harp, and to try the beginnings of several tunes, which warmed up my fingers and let me preview how the harp would sound in the brick-walled space. Hospice staff rehearsed the order of the ceremony, so I was clear on my cues to start and stop playing. The low gray clouds spitting rain finally lifted, and pale sunshine tried to warm my fingers. I peeled off my fingerless gloves and began to play.
On this morning I was blessed with an absence of fear. I was blessed with the focus of being of service to those who wished to remember their loved ones and ease their aching hearts. I was blessed with gratitude to be able to offer Music as a balm for healing. I was blessed with grace to play more smoothly and comfortably than I ever have before.
I had a few fumble-fingered moments, but on this morning I played through them without panic. A couple of weeks before the remembrance service I participated in Madeline Bruser’s second teaching call. That night’s exercise was to play a phrase extremely slowly, and let the sound enter my body without rushing to the next note – instead, to just let the next note emerge from the sound I was already feeling. The carryover from that exercise on this morning was trusting that the next note was on its way, was streaming towards me, was already present. I didn’t have to panic about finding it. I just had to pluck the string.
It really was a pleasure, and an honor, to play for the remembrance service. People stopped on their way out of the courtyard to thank me for playing, to say that the music was perfect for the ceremony. The hospice administrative staff offered enthusiastic thank you’s. But it was my friend and fellow hospice harp volunteer Dani who recognized what I had accomplished, saying “Today is a real milestone for you. You looked and sounded confident, and the music was beautiful. You would not have done this a year ago.”
Dani and I play together in the harp ensemble. She’s witnessed the fear freezing me, or making my hands shake so violently that I could not keep my fingers on my harp strings. She’s been recruited to be an “audience” at my lessons as I practiced breathing and moving forward playing a piece while my adrenal glands hijacked my hands and my memory.
During the worst of the performance anxiety, when I could not even play at my lessons without shaking from massive adrenaline overdoses, I told my teacher that I would not be doing this work, would not be persisting in staring down the terror, were it not for my completely unreasonable assurance that someday I would say, “Oh yes, I used to be bothered by performance anxiety, but not anymore.”
On this morning I took a leap into the reality where that is so, into the reality where I am fearless on the harp bench. Playing my harp without fear – it’s a blessing long sought, and an accomplishment dearly earned.
My local chapter of the American Harp Society presented a concert this past Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day. We had forty-three harpists of all ages and forty-three harps of all sizes playing a very eclectic program of pieces, including Londonderry Air, better known as the melody of Danny Boy. I doubt that you could have heard that anywhere else in the country.
I’ve not played with the harp chapter for a few years, and I’d not remembered the more challenging aspects of playing in so large an ensemble when I decided to play in this concert. My celtic harp is in the center back of the photo, lost in a sea of pedal harps. Seeing the conductor when sitting behind so many taller harps requires contortions of harp and harpist. Staying on the beat when there is so much sound echoing from the walls and ceiling requires trusting my eyes that are glued to the conductor’s baton, and not my ears. And just walking through the harp forest without crashing someone’s music stand into their $20,000 instrument requires more grace and coordination than I usually have at my disposal.
But despite the challenges, that many harps playing together sounds wonderful. And with forty-two other harps, I could relax, play, and enjoy the process, knowing there was no way that any of my missing notes would be noticed.
The most delightful aspect of the performance for me was seeing my friends in the audience and afterwards hearing how much they enjoyed the music. Just their coming to support me and hear me play made me feel very special. But after the concert, Darci said that her mother always gave her flowers after her ‘cello recitals, and she gave me this beautiful bouquet of roses. And Susie gave me a ‘feather for my cap” which now adorns the glass vase she brought me from Bermuda that sits on the small altar in my practice room, both reminders of her caring.
Playing in this concert reminded me that the more I focus on performance as an opportunity to share a gift of music, the less I am plagued with performance anxiety. And my friends’ delight in the concert reminded me that the more I experience an audience’s enjoyment, the easier it is for me to truly believe that sharing music really is offering a gift, and the easier it is for me to be grateful for, instead of frightened by the opportunity to perform.
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.
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.
I finished knitting my first pair of socks last week. They are soft and warm and funky and I’m thrilled with how they turned out. I especially like the different colored toes.
I’m also surprised by how much I enjoyed making them, by how much I enjoyed learning to knit on the sock loom and working with yarn to make something hand-crafted and useful. My burst of excitement that started with reading C.B. Wentworth’s blog entry about knitting socks continues. Minutes after I worked in all the loose yarn ends on this pair of socks, I cast on stitches for the next pair.
The second pair of socks will be much easier. This time I understand how the sock loom works, and I know how to do the stitches. Plus, I’m using a plain knit-stitch and self-striping yarn, so after the first bit of ribbing, there won’t be any pattern stitches to count and remember. I suspect most people would start with a plain, easy sock for their first one. Not me. I seem to thrive on starting with a complex version and then once I know I can do it, relax into doing something easier.
I’m delighted with sock knitting showing up in my life. I never expected to be able to knit anything, let alone socks, or to so enjoy this way of creating. I didn’t expect that a sock loom would lead to new friends, to Wednesday evenings sharing wine with other knitting women in a yarn store, surrounded by laughter, luxurious colors and textures of yarn, and vibrant creativity.
This kind of surprise, the surprise of finding something that totally engages me completely out-of-the-blue, is a delight. Much of what I love to do, like traveling, weaving, playing the harp, and playing the recorder were long-held dreams that I was finally able to fulfill. Knitting socks is a total surprise. So was playing African drums. I hadn’t heard African drums played, hadn’t thought about playing drums, and didn’t know anything about them until accidentally finding myself at a drum circle. After five minutes of immersion in those deep, ancient rhythms, my heart said “I must do this for the rest of my life.” It was drumming that led me back to music, drumming that gave me courage to begin the harp. And it was my hands getting sore and having to stop drumming that opened up time and space and courage to join the recorder ensemble.
My delight with SoulCollage® is another accidental surprise. A friend invited me to her birthday party at Catherine Anderson’s studio. I made two SoulCollage® cards that March evening, and four years later, I am still making them, and still welcoming the teaching and the wisdom that the cards carry.
This month I am back in Catherine’s studio, taking her class Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary, based on Angeles Arrien’s book The Four-Fold Way. Last week we studied and created SoulCollage® cards inspired by the Teacher archetype. The way of the Teacher is to trust and to be open to outcome instead of being attached to outcome. My list of outcomes to which I stay firmly attached seems endless. Recurring items include being able to play my ensemble repertoires, being able to sight-read, and being able to perform with confidence and without shaking.
An aspect of the Teacher archetype is the Trickster, also known as The Fool, The Clown, The Court Jester, Hermes, Krishna, and Coyote across the world’s cultures. Catherine describes the Trickster archetype as:
“. . . a Teacher who shocks people into seeing their attachments and habitual patterns. Tricksters typically present surprises and the unexpected as a way of waking people out of their routines. Individuals who have difficulty with surprises or the unexpected have attachments, fixed perspectives, and a strong need for control. When we are attached, we often become controlling and rigid. The Trickster archetypes teaches us about detachment.”
Trickster energy ran rampant as I leafed through stacks of images for my SoulCollage® cards. Perhaps it was my desired outcomes connected to playing the music that lingers just beyond my competence that drew him to me. Three cards emerged, all with images and wisdom direct from the Trickster’s realm (click on a thumbnail to see the larger image):
The Happy Fool turns his back on the journey and lives in today. He holds a healthy disrespect for propriety and convention, and is unapologetic about disturbing the illusion of order. He tells me to live instead of think and plan, for he guarantees and promises that my well-thought-out plans will go awry.
No Sense stays balanced despite the lack of solid ground, and keeps pedaling forward into whatever happens next. She tells me to stop trying to make sense of things, that life is not reason-able, that I will never know or understand why things happen in this chaotic, unpredictable unfolding of being alive. She tells me, “You are not here to think and understand. You are here to live and experience.”
No Control valiantly steers his raft in the river of cosmic unfolding. He is a skilled oarsman and reads the rapids well. With help from his unseen companions, he keeps the raft upright. But he knows the limits of his efforts, knows that he will not bend the channel of the river to satisfy his desires. His survival depends on reading the currents and riding the waves, and on finding patches of quiet water where he can rest and gather strength. He tells me that I can’t fight cosmic currents, that I must ride the energy of life’s rushing waves, and steer as skillfully and ably as I can.
I need these messages and these messengers, need them more than I need the structure and routines that pretend to order my life. I need to look beyond the outcomes I grasp at, beyond the end points I think I must reach. I need to allow what is ready to germinate and grow head for the light. I need to leave room for the unexpected, need to be as open to the unthought, unplanned surprise of what emerges next with music, or with life, as I was with the sudden appearance of the irrepressible notion that I must knit socks.
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.
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.