Harp Lesson Take-Aways: 3/7/2017

Every week, after my harp lesson, I pull out my practice planner and write down what I want to make sure that I remember from my lesson, what workshop facilitators and teachers call “take-aways.” This week’s lesson went deep. My teacher and I discussed a post from The Bulletproof Musician, about musicians being on the same path, and passing the same milestones. Some are just further down the path than others.

My teacher talked about the challenges of working on new music while knowing harpists who might sit down and play the same new pieces in half the time. I talked about my challenge with still having to program every bit of playing choreography into my fingers, slowly repeating each movement until left and right hand can dance together on the strings. I long for spontaneity, for being able to combine accompaniment patterns without first writing them out and programming them into my fingers.

Yet the real challenges are being kind to ourselves, and accepting and welcoming being exactly where we are, and recognizing and celebrating what we have accomplished so far. And from that kind and welcoming place, sitting down on the harp bench and doing the work, whatever that work is right now, today.

For me, the work is to become automatic with more left hand patterns, and to be quicker to knit these new patterns together with a melody line. My teacher assures me that as new patterns and hand shapes become imbedded in my musical vocabulary, the more I will be able to draw on them to express what I am trying to say with my music. Spontaneity will emerge naturally as my vocabulary of patterns deepens, as I carefully teach each finger how to play with these new accompaniment ideas.

I pulled a notebook off my bookshelf yesterday, the one labeled “Left Hand Patterns and Accompaniments.” I remembered that when I first started this notebook, playing a 1-5-8 left-hand pattern was still hard for me to do. I remembered that when I started harp lessons I could not play that pattern at all. For years, every time I found anything about playing the left hand, I put it in this notebook. It’s been waiting for me, waiting for the day when my brain and my hands could understand these new and different ways of moving.

Reading through these handouts, I found out that my left hand can play all of them. My fingers can find the right strings and pluck the correct rhythms of all these complex left-hand patterns. What ever magic happens to create new capabilities of muscle control was at work behind the scenes, without fanfare or my noticing. Now my challenge is to pick the left-hand patterns that offer me the widest range of useful possibilities, and begin to match new left-hand patterns to right-hand melodies and improvisations. I reached another way-marker on the path, without even realizing that I was traveling forward.

My lesson: Whenever I am sitting on the harp bench, present and aware of my practicing, mindful of my work, I am progressing. I am traveling forward on this path of being a musician. I am learning, I am forming new neural connections, I am expanding my possibilities. The magic is at work, making me a more skilled and confident musician, whether or not I notice it happening. What looks like being stuck, or at a plateau, or making no progress at all, is in reality a mysterious and secret consolidation of intent and experience; a process that keeps its own private timetable of completions, of announcing that I’ve taken another step forward on the path.

My harp mantra, the one I routinely forget, is “It takes what it takes.” However much time and repetition it takes to secure a new point of mastery will not be determined by my desires and demands for quicker learning and quicker results. I can’t demand a seed to sprout sooner, to grow faster, because I want to eat a juicy , red garden tomato next week. It takes what it takes to grow a tomato. And it takes what it takes to grow a musician.

My job is to sit down on the harp bench with the harp and do the work. To keep the weeds of expectations and comparisons out of my musical garden. To stop whining about what I can’t do, and what I think I should be able to do, and play. And then, just for a moment, appreciate how far I’ve traveled from when I first pulled a harp to my heart and for the very first time, plucked a string.


Ten Years Of Harp

DSC00786I 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.



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 HipHarp.com.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

The Simple Pleasures Of Warming Up

I started harp practice today with a leisurely warm-up. I began by playing a one octave scale with each finger, alternating left-right, left-right, up and down the strings of my harp. First the index fingers, then middle fingers, then ring fingers, and finally thumbs took their turns plucking a C-Major scale.

I love the feeling of my fingers loosening up as each finger plays. I love hearing the pure tones of each string as it is plucked, love hearing how each tone becomes richer and fuller as my fingers remember how to close into my palm. I love how while my middle fingers are playing their scale, my shoulders relax and my heart lifts, my back lengthens and my head effortlessly centers itself on the top of my spine. I love how my breathing deepens and slows, attuned to the slow tempo of my plucking. By the time my thumbs are playing, my ears are awake and hearing my thumbs make sure contact with the strings at just the spot that makes them sing.

As I shift to playing unplaced four-finger scales, I feel my back supporting my arms, and how effortless it is to place my fingers on the strings as a result. When I start playing placed scales, my hands find their way, and I wonder at knowing the territory that is my harp. Hands no longer require conscious direction, only conscious attention.

In under ten minutes, I’m fully present, alert and comfortable, soothed by the transition to Music’s time and space, and ready to work.

I often think that I don’t have time for a warm-up. I’ll move straight into very slow playing of repertoire instead. It’s not the same. Starting with repertoire requires that I be present to the tune before I have settled on the harp bench, before I have become present to the harp, to my body, and to Music’s whispers in my heart.

Warming up –  too important, and much too lovely to deprive myself of this simple pleasure.

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.

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.

Do Music First

My friend Beth and I were driving home from the farmers’ market last Saturday, and talking about our plans for the rest of the day. Her plans involved beating back the forces of chaos and entropy and finding the horizontal surfaces in her house. She even talked about washing woodwork. Then, she said, she thought she’d play some mandolin and work on the songs she’s learning.

Without even stopping to take a breath I blurted out, “Do music first!”

For both of us growing up, whatever work there was to be done had to be completed before we could do anything that smacked of “fun.” For me, homework had to be done before I could go outside and play. Dinner dishes had to be washed, dried and put away before I could escape to my room to read or play my guitar. On Saturdays, the house had to be vacuumed and the grass mowed before I could do anything with my friends.

This “work first, fun later” pattern was all too easy to carry along to adult life. The list of chores and responsibilities grew ever longer, leaving smaller and smaller windows of time where fun might squeeze in. And so it was also all too easy to put off harp practice (fun) until after all the work was done, and then find myself too tired and without enough time and imagination left to make harp practice worthwhile.

It was time for a revolution, for considering that the earth would not stop turning on its axis if I did something I liked, if I dared to “have fun” before I did my chores. I bravely devised a new “I’m-an adult-and-can-do-what-I-want” philosophy: Do Music First. Before the dishes, before the laundry, before the dusting, before the gardening, before scooping the cat litter, before running errands, before the cooking and the shopping – before all the tasks and responsibilities of being an adult, do music first. Play my harp, and do what I love and what is the most important to me, first.

The world did not end.  The health inspectors don’t knock on my door because the breakfast dishes aren’t done until after harp practice. There is still food on the grocery store shelves when I shop in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning.  The weeds don’t walk off and hide – they’re all still there waiting for me when I get to the garden. Life doesn’t seem to mind a bit if I have fun first and work later.

And so I encourage you, and challenge you, to start your days doing what you love, doing what is most important to you. Whatever it is, whatever makes your heart sing and your soul glad, do it first.