Hunkering Down With The Woodpile And The Harp Bench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And expressing ourselves through it is what’s important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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.

Observing A Master Class

I’m always ambivalent about going to harp things that are primarily for the pedal harp community. It’s not that I don’t feel welcome as a lever harper – it’s that these events are usually peopled by children and adolescents who began studying harp before they were weaned. An afternoon of the wonder-kids makes me begin to wonder how much I’d get for my harp on Craig’s List, as there seems to be little point in continuing to plink along learning harp in my slow plodding fashion. But on Friday my Buddhist guardian angel reminded me that being with the child-virtuosos is just another opportunity to practice “don’t compare – don’t judge mind,” so I headed to a local church to observe a harp master class given by Sivan Magen, the first Israeli to win first prize in the International Harp Contest in Israel.

The harp repertoire the kids played belongs in a concert hall instead of a church activity building. Yet despite hearing these advanced pieces, Sivan Magen’s feedback and instruction returned again and again to the fundamentals of harp technique. With every player he focused on posture and support, hand position and balance, string contact and preparation, placing and articulation, and closing fingers fully into the palm. He stressed understanding and following the composer’s instructions for tempo and dynamics as written in the score, as well as playing with strict adherence to the rhythm. And he repeatedly stressed the importance of listening – of training the ear to hear what the fingers play. He asked these young harpists to be aware of the clarity of each note, to feel the flow of the musical phrases and melodic lines, and to hear the interweaving of the different voices. He asked them to both notice the flow of chords in the score and to listen to the unfolding harmonies, and then discern the more important and less important notes, and play them as such. He repeatedly sang both the melodic and the bass lines to show how notes should be turned into phrases, how volume should rise and fall, how notes should be crisply articulated or smoothed into a legato line, and how tempo should be artfully adjusted to represent the composer’s intent.

Instead of being ready to go home and list my harp for sale, I was heartened and encouraged by Sivan’s feedback and instruction. It’s a pretty safe bet that I’ll not play Grandjany’s Fantasy on a Theme by Haydn, or David Watkins’ Fire Dance, or any of the other pieces I heard, given the number of birthdays I’ve already had and the number of birthdays I have left. But everything he said to the kids who played on Friday is just as important for the music that I can play today. Everything he taught about harp technique and musical understanding applies just as much to how I play the harp. And they are all things I can do now, in this lifetime.

And the best thing about what I heard on Friday? Not one bit of it was new to me. Everything Sivan talked about, my teacher focuses on in my lessons, and has since the first time I sat in her studio and plucked a harp string. Every week she notices if my back is supporting my arms and hands, or if my weaker shoulder is allowing my elbow to hug my side and pull my hand off the strings. Every week she notices if my thumbs are high enough to create a beautiful sound from the string, and if they are leaving room for fluid cross-unders and cross-overs. Every week she notices if my hands are balanced on the strings, and if my fingers are closing completely. And due to her insistence that I notice and correct any flaws in technique at my lessons, I’ve learned to notice these things when I play on my own.  I know that if I’m having trouble with getting to left-hand strings, the first thing to check is my left elbow. If my fingers get tangled as I try a passage, I’ve either let my thumbs get lazy or I’ve moved my hand too far forward on the strings. If I’m misplaying a transition, I know to pay attention to where my eyes are looking, and to remember that I need to see where I’m going, not where I’ve been. If I don’t like the sounds I’m making, I’d better check thumb height, finger articulation, and how completely I’m closing.

And every week my teacher listens, deeply listens to me play. No matter what it is, we focus on phrasing, dynamics, and creating a singing legato line. Whether it’s an exercise, a passage from a new piece I’m learning, or something from my repertoire list, she hears, and teaches me to hear the subtle differences in the solidity and fluidity of sound that result from deliberate placing, articulation and closing. There’s no mindless repetition allowed; instead she insists that I be mindful and conscious of my intent as I play. There is always the question “What am I trying to communicate at this moment?” to be reflected upon, and possible answers to be tested and expressed as I play a passage one more time.

It’s exciting to meet an internationally recognized harpist, to have the opportunity to observe his teaching, and to glean new insights and techniques from such a skilled musician. But I am grateful that I do not need to depend on imported expertise and wisdom. For every week my teacher helps me transform the notes on a page or the tune in my head into music created by my hands on harp strings. Every week she helps me find and play the music in my heart.

Help For Harping Hands

When hands and fingers were given out, I did not end up in the line for people who want to play the harp, the line where you were given long fingers and strong joints. My finger and thumb joints hyperextend and collapse. My fingers bend nearly backwards when I put pressure on something, like harp strings, with my fingertips. The year I started harp lessons I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the base of the thumb. Thumb joint pain is mostly held at bay with daily doses of glucosamine and MSM, but what minimal thumb strength I started with is mostly gone. And a car wreck some 30 years ago left me with nerve damage in my left arm. If I want my hands to sound their notes at the same time, I must start plucking my left fingers at least half a second before I move my right fingers.

My harp teacher, bless her, took all my finger foibles in stride. She devised multiple ways to help me develop finger strength and stability. I diligently drilled all the finger strengthening exercises in On Playing the Harp by Yolanda Kondonassis. I used the eraser end of a pencil to keep the joints on each finger from collapsing while I plucked. I drilled endless four finger chords, first with only finger four playing, then only finger four and three, then four, three and two . . . well, you get the picture.

The years of these finger exercises succeeded in developing joint strength and stability in my index and middle fingers. But after seven years of lessons and strengthening work, I still could not reliably play a four-finger chord and have all the notes sound even or be heard. Finger four would either twang its string as the finger collapsed, or make no sound at all, and thumb sounds were faint at best, and usually non-existent.

My teacher and I discussed my need for finger and thumb stability, as well as the availability of splints, many times. Every year we agreed that I would keep plugging away with the exercises – they’d worked for two of my four fingers, so maybe this would be the year the exercises would finally strengthen my ring fingers and thumbs. But when I started my lessons last spring with two pieces that required thumb slides and four-finger chords, she told me that I really was at the limit of my technique until I got my thumbs and ring fingers stabilized.

Telling me that I wasn’t going to get any better on the harp was the motivation I needed to embark on what proved to be a long and time-consuming process to get finger and thumb splints. I first had to see my primary MD to request an order for an evaluation with a hand therapist. I then saw an Occupational Therapist for the hand evaluation and for the first of many appointments to measure me for the splints.

The first finger splint I received was too big for my left ring finger but fit my right ring finger perfectly, so I only had one additional visit to be re-measured for the left finger splint. Getting a splint that worked for the thumb ended up being quite the challenge. I couldn’t get my thumb into the first splint, despite the measuring prototype fitting well. The second splint stopped hyperextension by preventing me from raising my thumb beyond a 45 degree angle. That wasn’t going to fly with my harp teacher!

At this point the OT took on getting me a thumb splint that worked on the harp as a personal challenge. She took multiple photos of my thumb and of my hands on my harp, e-mailed them to the Silver Ring Splint Company and discussed what I needed to play the harp with one of the splint fabricators. He suggested a modification to the original splint that would allow the necessary “thumbs up” hand position without allowing any hyperextension. The third splint fit my thumb perfectly and worked with the harp.  After all the trial-and-error on the splint for the left thumb, the right thumb splint fit with only one appointment to do the measurements.

Nine months after my initial appointment with my primary MD, both ring fingers and thumbs were finally decked out in their new splints.  Was it worth the copays for the doctor appointment and the hand evaluation, the multiple trips across town to the OT’s office, the out-of-pocket expense for the splints?

I wore all four splints for the very first time at this semester’s first harp lesson. Warming up, I played a rolled, four-finger, two-handed C-major chord. “That was a wonderful chord. Every note was even, and I can hear your thumb!” my teacher exclaimed. Yes, it was all definitely worth it!

Filling Up at the 2011 Southeastern Harp Weekend

Two weeks ago I was off to Asheville NC for the 2011 Southeastern Harp Weekend. Imagine being surrounded by 150 people who love what you love, who have the same challenges and triumphs of learning to play, and who totally understand why you must buy that gorgeous piece of music you just heard despite the stack of music still sitting at home in your practice room from last year.  Imagine a vendor hall filled with harps and harp makers from across the USA and Canada, all just thrilled that you want to sit down and try out one of their creations. Add in harp clinicians presenting workshops on beginning to advanced harp technique, sight-reading, jazz and pop harp, composition, harp care and string replacement, Welsh, Irish and Scottish harp music, early music and historical harp, liturgical harp, performance anxiety, and therapeutic harp, plus two nights of concerts by the presenters. Set all of this in a wooded retreat center under clear, crisp October skies, with oak, dogwood, sycamore, and maple leaves reaching their peak of fall color. That’s the Southeastern Harp Weekend.

I’ve always been excited about going to this conference. Each time I was sure that this would be the year that one of the presenters would share the secrets that would make learning to play the harp easier. Or else I would finally find out what was the critical skill I lacked, that once developed could allow me to make progress faster than my slow plodding pace.

But this year was different. This year I wasn’t looking for magic or miracles. This year I’ve learned that there are no secrets, there’s just sitting on the harp bench and doing the work, and that learning to play the harp takes as long as it takes, period. And I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with me, that I don’t lack any arcane ability or knowledge that everyone has but me.

This year, I left behind my suitcase of worry, judgement, frustration and doubt that usually accompanies me to harp workshops. Instead, I relaxed and enjoyed the conference atmosphere and energy. I met new harp friends and spent time with old harp friends from previous harp weekends. I heard wonderful music played by gifted harpists. And I came away from each workshop with at least one new little kernel of technique that I can work with now that I’m home, including a couple of new strategies to help my sight-reading, and new arm exercises to help my hands stay relaxed while playing.

I also have a new tuner I can see, a new one-pound music stand that doesn’t fall over from the weight of my music notebook, and new music that seems to be within my grasp now, instead of a year from now.  Alas, the beautiful Salvi pedal harp did not come home with me, despite its special conference price of $10,000. Even without the Salvi, as I drove home Sunday evening I was happy-tired, filled up with music and friends, with harps and laughter.

Next year’s Southeastern Harp Weekend is already scheduled: October 26-28, 2012 at the Lutheridge Conference Center in Asheville NC. And yes, it’s already on my calendar.

Harping A Year Later

A couple of months before starting this blog, I tumbled headfirst into a complete muddle about playing the harp. I’d just returned from a harp workshop with Marta Cook, an awe-inspiring Irish harper. Something about the workshop (perhaps that all too common experience of everyone seeming to play the tunes but me?) left me in total confusion about where I was going with the harp, if anywhere at all. I wasn’t going to be an “Irish” harper or a “celtic” harper, or any kind of harper at the rate it was taking me to learn how to play. I doubted that there was any point left in taking lessons, doing exercises, working on sight-reading, or any other harp skills, given it seemed that I would never be able to just sit down at the harp and play a tune.

I spent a lot of time mucking about in this mire. One of the results, after my teacher’s urging, was starting this blog. The other result was finally putting words to why I was still going to lessons, still practicing, still trying to teach my finger muscles how to move together to create beautiful sounds on my harp. All of these activities, activities that felt so fruitless, were so that someday, I could pull my harp onto my shoulder and play music I really love. And so that someday, I would be able to play in a way that expressed the beauty, soul, and emotion of the music along with my love of the harp, and so that I could make music with others.

A year later, to my delight and amazement, I am closer to these goals. A year later, I feel confident about being able to play the harp, and about being able to get better. I’m not despairing about whether I will ever be able to sit down and play a tune, any tune, because now I do. And so, I’ve been thinking about what happened to create such a change.

This year it took me weeks of working to remove a hiccup between the first and second measures of Danza de Luzma. But I did it. And in getting rid of this hiccup, I finally “got it” that if I just keep working on either a technical or an expressive glitch, I really can make it better. My fingers can and will learn to do what is required of them, if I keep my focus and do the work. I finally felt confident that I would learn to play, that I would be able to learn to play, by persistently working on one small step at a time.

This experience, with an added extra helping of grace, helped me give up thinking that there was something wrong with me, something missing that other harp students have, some critical lack that made me take so long to master a new technique, solve a problem with my playing, or learn a new piece. The experience of fixing this hiccup helped me give up bewailing and being frustrated by how long I take and how much I must work and practice to learn something new and get it solidly in my head and fingers. I finally got it (like a whack on the side of the head) that it takes what it takes. Period.

The confidence that I will learn a piece, that I will learn the skill I need to master, also allowed me to relax about how long it takes. Since I now know that I will “get it,” keeping at it and continuing to work on the same thing no longer feels futile, no longer leaves me desperate for secret harp tricks and magic fairy dust to make it happen. I know I will make it happen.

And, I finally did what my teacher and every other harp workshop presenter I’ve ever been to said to do: “Write down your repertoire list and play each piece on it every week.” I only started with four tunes that I could “sort-of” play. But I worked on those and got them presentable, and played them every week. I went back to tunes I worked on before and forgot, relearned them, and added them to my list. I did the same with every piece I worked on this year. By never letting a piece completely fall out of my fingers, I now have 15 tunes that I can sit down and play. Some will need a little extra polish if I’m going to drag them out for a gig. But for most of them, I can sit down at my harp and let them spill out of my fingers. . . .

Just like the young girl I wrote of in my very first post, the one who played The White Cockade, the girl who just sat down and played her harp.

Recording My Harp Practice: What I’ve Learned So Far

Having spent nine months selecting a new digital recorder, and now having the basic instructions for recording and play-back deciphered, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to turn on the recorder, sit down at my harp, and play.

The first thing I learned was that I’m much less nervous about playing for my new techno-friend than for a real, live person. Knowing I could completely delete a file and any mistakes I made was very comforting. So what if I totally flubbed that second entrance? Select File 01 -> Delete, and it’s as if it never happened! Oh, to have that capability at a real performance!

Some technical points were immediately evident when I hit “playback”. I repeatedly cut short the long notes at the ends of phrases, which then makes the following phrase sound rushed. And my tempo is not as steady as I imagine it to be – I heard the delays where I’m trying to find and land on the correct strings. No wonder playing in harp ensemble always feels too fast. I’m mushing and slowing the tempo when I practice. So it’s back to playing with the metronome, for sure.

But the real surprise was how beautiful the music sounded. What can be heard at the front of my harp is totally different from what I hear while I’m playing. Suddenly, I understood the complements I received when I played at my friend’s studio, and seven months later, I believed them. I could hear what my audience heard. The tunes I played really were beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful.

I know some of that beauty comes from the rich, resonant, velvety sound of my harp. But the beauty also comes from my arrangements of these lovely tunes, from how my fingers touch the strings, from my playing. It’s an amazing and sweet thing to hear and believe that I can play the harp beautifully, and play beautiful music.