Visitation

Angels often appear in human form, disguised as people that we know. Last Monday angels appeared in the guise of my harp teacher and of my friend Mary Lou.

This autumn I am a time traveler, unanchored and unmoored to the present. Time is fluid, with rapids and backwaters that float me from now to then and long ago. Caught in an eddy I return to now, only to drift towards some future that awaits my arrival there.

But beauty lives only in the present moment, in this now, not in some drama acted out long ago or yet to come.

At last week’s harp ensemble rehearsal, Mary Lou played her arrangement of Pretty Saro, and my harp teacher sang the song’s mournful words. The time river ceased to run. I was pinned to the present, anchored in glorious harmonies of harp and voice, with no past or future to pull me into time’s deep waters. I was awash in grace, my heart eased by angels in human form. The only prayer I know to say is “Thank you.”

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Forty-Three Harps Play “Danny Boy” on St. Patrick’s Day

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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.

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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.

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.

Harp Ensemble + Gratitude = A Concert I Could Do Again

Last year, the day after the harp ensemble concert, I was so physically undone from the stress of performing that I doubted I would continue in the ensemble. I could not imagine choosing to endure another night of nausea, sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, chest tightness, and all the other symptoms of involuntary adrenaline overdose.

This morning I thought, “Hmm, our concert last night was fun. I could do that again.”

I don’t know that I played that much better in last night’s performance. There were long passages of air harp as I searched for a measure that everyone else was playing. When I played my solo, there was enough adrenaline coursing through my body to cause the last five measures of the first section to disappear from my brain, leaving not a trace of their prior existence on my cerebral cortex.

But no panic ensued. I managed to find my way back on board and end tunes at the same time as everybody else. In my solo, I kept the mangled arpeggio going all the way up the harp, ended on a note that would soon be heard in a chord at my “rescue spot,” breathed, and started the next section. Only my teacher and the people who’ve heard me practice Grandjany’s Barcarole recognized my moments of “spontaneous composing.” (Thanks go to Joanna Mell for the wonderful re-naming of improvising one’s way out of a musical crash-and-burn!)

The last eight weeks of grounding myself in gratitude for being able to play the harp, for having a harp to play, for being blessed with an incredible teacher and a community of friends to play with filled up all the places in me that last year were occupied by doubt, dread, and fear. It’s not that I didn’t have performance nerves – my chest was tight all afternoon in anticipation, and my hands were definitely shaking as I wondered where in the world that strange, unplanned arpeggio might end up. It’s that the performance nerves just didn’t matter. Gratitude posted a no vacancy sign and told fear and doubt that there was no room for them in my thoughts or in my heart. Gratitude informed the Inner Critic that no one was interested in his commentary. Gratitude reminded me to enjoy every note I was able to play, and to appreciate the love of the music and the harp that we shared with our audience and each other. And Gratitude whispered of the improbable miracle that a frame of wood, a bunch of string, and human hearts and hands can join together to create beauty, and said, “Rejoice!”

Harp Weekend, Rehearsals, and Socks, Oh My!

No, the space gypsies did not return me to my home planet – I’m still here, despite my long absence from my blog. I returned from an intense, inspiring and instructive four days at the Southeast Harp Weekend blown about by the edges of what was still Hurricane Sandy, and fell into three weeks of extra rehearsals and practice for the upcoming end-of-semester concerts.

The Harp Weekend ended up being totally perfect for where I am with my harp and what I want to learn. Not only were the instructors in my classes excellent players, they were also excellent teachers. I’m already using new ideas from Dee Sweeney’s Music From the Soul class when I play at the hospice unit, as well as Nadia Birkenstock’s approaches to learning a new piece of music. I’m experimenting with Kim Robertson’s Musical Sandwiches as segues between my arrangements of Christmas carols.

The outer bands of Hurricane Sandy arrived in Asheville on Sunday afternoon, bringing spitting rain and a temperature drop of 20 degrees within two hours. I drove home in wind gusts following a glowing column of rainbow light until the sun dropped behind the western mountains. We had two days of potent wind gusts at home but no serious rain, snow or damage.

I left Harp World and reentered normal time and space facing extra Consort rehearsals, harp ensemble repertoire still not up to tempo, and recorder ensemble repertoire not yet mastered. Three weeks later, the recorder ensemble repertoire is in pretty good shape – there are a couple of entrances that still throw me, but with two more rehearsals before our concert, I think I’ll be ok. The recorder pieces for Consort are in my fingers; it’s the harp piece that continues to prove that I cannot actually count to four.

The harp ensemble concert is next Monday, and my brain/eye/finger/two-hand coordination is maxed out several beats below our performance tempo. My friend and I have a secret pact to divide up the left and right hands for the two most challenging pieces, creating one whole harper between us. I’ll play a good bit of one-handed harp on the remaining tunes, with selected left-hand notes added in when there is no danger of my right hand crashing and burning.  Last year the prospect of one-handed harping created an engraved invitation for the Inner Critic to come calling. This year I remain grounded in gratitude to be playing what I can play, and that’s slammed the door in IC’s face.

Second Socks

Knitting socks is now my before-sleep decompression activity. My brain slowly winds down with the meditative repetition of looping one strand of yarn over another strand. I finished my second pair a couple of weeks ago, and started another sock that will be a Christmas present (so no pictures yet.) These socks are knit with self-striping yarn, so while they look complicated it was the yarn that did all the work.

I am looking forward to reducing my practice and rehearsal time so I can catch up on all the blogs I’ve not read, and all the comments I’ve not replied to. Alas, that probably won’t happen for another couple of weeks. And now I hear my harp and metronome calling, demanding that I get those descending passages of Angels We Have Heard On High lined up with the metronome’s 100 beats-per-minute clicking.

In case I don’t find my way back to the computer next week, I’d like to wish everyone a bountiful Thanksgiving Day. May we all enjoy sharing the gift of gratitude!

Enjoying This Year’s Harp Ensemble, Thanks to Gifts Of Time And Gratitude

I figured out that 2012 is my sixth year of playing in the community college harp ensemble. This year there are two new people, and they’ve played the harp less time than me. It’s quite a strange experience, this being able to play exercises and parts of the tunes that others are finding difficult. It’s usually me sitting there befuddled and clueless about what my fingers are supposed to do. Not that I don’t still have my own clueless and befuddled moments. I still can’t sight-read new music, I still have to white-out the many pesky notes that I am not going to play, and I still struggle to play at anything approaching a performance tempo. But this year, I am playing more of the right notes at the right time. And I am definitely enjoying myself more.

Last year the harp ensemble became the Inner Critic’s Olympic venue for beating me up and taking me down. This year, I am determined that harp ensemble is not going to be spoiled by the Inner Critic. I will play what I can, enjoy what I can play, and be grateful for being able to play the harp at all.

In last year’s post, Time Is A Teacher, I reminded myself that by steadily working on tunes throughout the eight weeks of the ensemble class, I can learn them and play a passable version of them by the time we do our concert. This year, instead of wasting precious time and energy bewailing how the music is too hard, I’ve worked on them measure-by-measure, day-by-day. One month later, the tunes are in my fingers and I can play them slowly. Now the metronome and I are partnering to steadily increase my playing speed. And last night in class I played Angels We Have Heard on High at our performance tempo. Amazing!

What is helping me most of all is being grateful for having a harp, for having a life that allows me to learn to play it, and for being enfolded in a community of musicians who share this same, crazy harp dream. When I remember how unlikely and remarkable it is that I am playing the harp at all, how many notes I play and how many mistakes I make become irrelevant. So many people do not dare to dream, so many people have lives that grant them no opportunity to follow their hearts’ desires.

Thursday I’m off to Asheville, NC to attend the Southeastern Harp Weekend. I’m looking forward to a weekend spent totally immersed in harp world. I’ll come up for air and return to the blogosphere next week.

Performance Anxiety Meets My Three Non-Negotiable Decisions

I inherited my father’s gift for procrastination. In his mind, anything worth doing was worth putting off while he thought about all the reasons he didn’t want to do it, or didn’t have to do it, or what he wouldn’t like about doing it, or why he didn’t have to do it now.

To counteract my procrastination gene, I have to make decisions about what I am going to do that are totally non-negotiable. Those decisions are made, once and for all. I don’t need to waste time thinking about them. I don’t need to whine about not wanting to do them. I don’t need to debate whether or not I’m going to do them. The non-negotiable decisions are not open for further discussion – even if the discussion is entirely with myself, inside my own head.

The first non-negotiable decision is that I will walk my dog today. Whether it is raining or a beautiful sunny day, whether the temperature is a heavenly 70 degrees, a torrid 95, or a winter morning in the 20’s, I walk the dog. Despite snowstorms, heat waves and ozone alerts I walk the dog. Five minutes into the walk, I’m enjoying bird song, or the colors in the sky and trees, or the play of light and shadow on the sidewalk. I’m enjoying the pleasures of moving my body and feeling the pavement under my feet, and of seeing Charley relish our morning adventure.

I do give myself a pass on walking for lightning, for any form of ice falling from the sky, and for fever in either canine or human being. Being struck by lightning or hail stones, or falling on a street made slick by sleet or freezing rain is not required. Neither is crawling out of my sickbed when I am being colonized by the latest virus going around, or making Charley hit the streets if she is unwell.

The second non-negotiable decision is that I will practice harp today. I do not have to decide each morning if I am going to practice. The decision to show up on the harp bench and do the work is already made, whether I want to or feel like it, or not. Most mornings, after five minutes of warming up, I can’t imagine or remember why I thought I didn’t want to practice today. My reluctance drifts away with the sounds of the harp strings. My thoughts engage with the challenges of the tunes I’m learning, and I forget all the reasons why I didn’t want to practice.

If I am sick and unable to work, or if something is really hurting, I do take the day off to rest and recover. I’m not into making myself sicker or creating overuse injuries. But those days are rare.

Sometime between my dreadful first Audition and Evaluation performance in January and the second A&E performance a month later, I made a third non-negotiable decision: I am a musician, and I play music for others to listen to. I am going to perform.

With this decision made, it doesn’t matter if my hands shake or don’t shake. It doesn’t matter if I like how I feel performing or not. It doesn’t matter if I want to perform or not. I will do it. While the performance will be much more pleasant for me and for my audience if my hands can stay on the harp strings while I play, and if my demeanor exudes confidence and delight instead of dread, I will perform, either way.

I recognize that until I made this decision, I was not fully committed to slaying the performance anxiety dragon. After the harp ensemble concert last November, my first thoughts were, “I cannot stand how terrible I feel when I play in a concert. I cannot stand my racing heart, my nausea, my shaking hands, and my fear of being judged by all the people looking at me. I will quit the harp ensemble if this doesn’t get any better.”

On that Monday night, I forgot that my commitment to performing had to come first. I forgot this truth so eloquently written by Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

Concerning acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred.

Last week I played in the end-of-the-semester Early Music Consort concert. Yesterday I played in the Introduction to Early Music Performance class concert. All sorts of things occurred that made me, for the first time, enjoy the process of playing in a concert. More about that in my next post.

Harp Ensemble Concert – I Did It!

As someone in Ireland might say, I’m “not displeased” about how I played my solo last night. My adrenal glands did not have enough juice left to cause uncontrollable shaking. There were some phrases in my left-hand accompaniment that completely slipped away, but I “improvised” my way through the blank space without anyone seeming to know that I was making it up as I played, hoping to find my way back to something that was really in the tune.  All the time I spent practicing “escape routes” to places in the tune where I could regroup kept me from having a complete brain/hand freeze-up.

My friend who listened to me play at my lesson and again last night said she could tell that I was remembering to breathe, and that as a result my playing sounded lovely. And my teacher thought I sounded good. So I’m running with their feedback and calling the evening a success, even with the “interesting” moments.

The sweetest part of the evening was feeling wrapped and protected by a warm cocoon of caring and positive energy. It’s a rare gift, this feeling so loved and cared for, this having so many people rooting for me. Dear friends sent emails assuring me of a positive performance. Both my partner and my best friend came to the concert to cheer me on, despite having already been subjected to numerous practice performances of my solo. And my fellow harp ensemble members, who’ve watched me progress from index finger playing of the simplest harp parts, and who’ve witnessed my confrontations with the performance anxiety demons, enfolded me in their caring and celebrated my success.  They are the people who, having faced these same challenges, know and cherish the joy when, in the midst of worries and fears, the music happens.

Tonight’s The Night – Harp Ensemble Concert

In three hours I’ll be sitting with my ensemble harp-mates, waiting for our teacher to count off the tempo and introductory measures for our first piece, Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head. With a large infusion of grace, and a minimal infusion of adrenaline, we will not begin the piece like the run of the Spanish bulls, but instead will take it at the sweet, lyrical pace we’ve practiced.

We’ll play a second Christmas carol, and then I’ll play my solo, my own arrangement of The Grenadier and the Lady. This tune is way too hard for me, and I can only blame myself for that. I’m the one who wrote the arrangement, which contains in one three-minute piece absolutely everything my left hand ever needed to learn how to do. I’ve spent the last three months learning to play it.

My performance nerves are in high gear today. I had a lesson scheduled this afternoon, so I got to run my solo again. And again. And again, with my teacher repeating “Slow down” about every third measure. I couldn’t find the brakes the first two times I played it. The adrenaline surge kept propelling me towards a crash-and-burn tempo out of my control, which required creative improvised passages to get to the last chords.

But with any luck, or another helping of grace, the worst of my playing today was in the privacy of my teacher’s studio. And by the end of my lesson, I played the piece well. I silently counted out a glacially slow introduction. But with starting slow, I not only got to the end of the piece, my teacher said that it sang as I played it.

This afternoon, I’m tired and drained. Hopefully that means that at my lesson, my hair-trigger adrenal glands gave me the last roller coaster ride of the day. Though I’m reminding myself that world peace does not depend on how I play my harp tonight, I would like to play my solo and all the concert pieces as beautifully as I play them when I’m alone in my practice room. I want my ladle from the Lake of Music to be full of water for tonight’s audience. I want to make music.