The Sight-Reading Saga: Part Two – A Small Triumph

Sometime and somewhere in the last six months, I read that musicians who are not very good at sight-reading tend to memorize their music. They do not follow the music with their eyes as they practice or play. That’s true for me. Once I learn the notes and fingerings, I rarely distract myself by looking at the black dots. As a result, I often have hiccups in playing caused by my memory glitches rather than by my fingers getting caught in technical foul-ups.

I’m working on a piece that’s not too difficult – lots of repeating ascending triads in root position, with a final section of descending arpeggios. But my right hand has to quickly land  in one of four positions after playing the last high note. In the last section of the piece, my left hand has to land on three different spots while the right hand descends. Memorizing and then remembering where to land kept tripping me up, so I when I practiced yesterday, I experimented with actually using the music while I played the piece.

I found that I had to slow way down to play while looking at the music. But when I played slowly enough to really see and comprehend the notes on my music stand, I was much more relaxed and at ease. I didn’t know how much stress I experienced with trying to play a not-quite-yet-memorized piece until there wasn’t any tension associated with remembering what came next. I could just look at the music and see what the next notes were supposed to be.

My hands already know how to do these repeated arpeggios, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time looking at either my fingers or the strings. My eyes were free to look ahead in the music, were free to recognize where my hands needed to land.

Although I was playing the piece much more slowly than usual, for the first time I felt an easy coordination between eyes, ears, fingers and brain. I could use what I was seeing, what I was hearing, and what I was remembering about the structure of the piece in order to play it. For the first time, I was able to glance back and forth between the music and the strings without my eyes getting lost and then seeing neither. I ended up playing significantly fewer unintended notes.

Trying to sight-read usually makes me panic: everything is happening too fast, everything feels out of control, I can’t find my place in the music or on the strings, my eyes quit seeing or understanding anything and everything in front of them, my hands become immobilized. I’ve not felt everything working together like this, not felt eyes, ears, and fingers coordinated like this, ever before. This ease of playing while reading my music was exciting and gratifying – doubly so as I’ve doubted that sight-reading and sight-playing would ever click for me. But now there is this moment of the process actually working, and with that, a small glimmer of hope.

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I Didn’t Go to a Harp Workshop

Last Sunday there was a free harp workshop at a local Highland Games event, and I didn’t go. That’s a first for me. I’ve always felt compelled to go to anything harp-ish I could get myself to, always felt that if I didn’t go, I’d miss some trick that would make this process of learning to play the harp easier, always hoped that the next workshop would be the one where the esoteric secrets of harp playing and performing, the secrets known only by harp workshop presenters, would at last be revealed.

But as I prepared to stuff my harp into its case and load it into my car, and then schlep the harp across a rutted pasture from my car to the workshop tent, I realized that I just didn’t need to do all that. Because I get it now, in my bones: There aren’t any secrets, there aren’t any tricks.

There’s just sitting on the harp bench, doing the work, for however long it takes to coordinate eyes, hands, brain and heart. And then doing it again the next day, and the one after that, and for the weeks and months and years it may take for my thumbs to stay up and my fingers to close because muscles and tendons and the brain that controls them can no longer do anything else. There’s just the one-day-after-another of allowing my hands, that last week played a passage in Danza de Luzma no faster than 66 beats to the quarter note, to play the same passage successfully each time I increase the metronome setting by one beat per minute. There’s just the everyday-ness of my heart hearing the strings I pluck so that notes may be transformed into music.

Last Sunday, I knew what turnarounds in Nocturne still needed to be smoother, knew what octave reach in Danza still was iffy. Neither problem was as novel or as interesting as a workshop at the Highland Games could be. But that was the work in front of me – without secrets, without tricks, and without shortcuts – and that was the work I did.

My Harp Practice Experiment Is a Success!

Back in January, I posted that I was experimenting with changing my harp practice. I decided to work intensely on only one small section of a piece at each practice, and really focus on getting that one section totally in my fingers and absolutely beautiful during that practice session. The experiment was a success!

My teacher played Marcel Grandjany’s Nocturne during my last lesson before the semester break. I worked on the notes and fingering during the break. I spent parts of only three lessons working with my teacher on the technical/musical aspects of the piece. At last week’s lesson, my teacher said that Grandjany’s Nocturne was just about performance ready, and that I should play it at our harp ensemble class on February 28th! This is a record for my learning and performing a piece. I worked on Grandjany’s Reverie off and on for three years, for gosh sakes, before I performed it. I’m convinced that it’s the way I’ve practiced that made the difference in how quickly I learned Nocturne.

Here’s what worked: I divided Nocturne into very small bits, no more than one or two measures long. At each practice I worked on one small bit. As I mastered these small chunks, I joined them into slightly longer sections to work on. Then each practice I worked on one longer section. Finally I was playing whole musical phrases.

I labeled each phrase with a letter, A – J, and I focused on one phrase at each practice.  Also, I didn’t work on phrases in sequence – I might work on “I” at one practice, “C” the next, and “F” the practice after that. Now I have multiple “starting places” where I can regroup if my fingers and memory get into a tangle.

Once I was playing the phrases cleanly, I started linking them together. Again, I worked on only one new longer sequence at each practice. Soon I was playing half pages, then whole pages, then both pages. Then I noted what places consistently were a problem and needed repairs, and worked on one repair at a time.

This piece forces you to work on multiple technical skills, including rhythm, tempo, dynamics, turnarounds, placing one finger at a time, and playing legato. It also has recurring transitions between measures and repeating note patterns. So I chose one technique or one repeating pattern to work on during some practice sessions.

None of this practice structure was my idea – everything I’ve read about practicing advises working in small chunks and building bigger chunks to practice. I’d been doing that, but it still took me way too much time and practice to learn a piece. What seems to have made the difference is working on only one thing at each practice. Each bit of fingering I worked on seemed to stick in my brain and in my fingers and still be there at my next practice, so I didn’t have to learn the same notes and fingering over and over again. My fingers and brain seemed to remember how to implement whatever solutions to technical issues I’d worked on at my previous practice, so that I wasn’t starting all over again trying to get a turn-around smoothed out or a thumb note more legato.

The most challenging thing about this experiment was holding myself to working on only one thing at each practice. I’d finally get a phrase sounding really good, so I’d want to start working on another one. I had to keep reminding myself that my brain and fingers needed time to consolidate what I’d worked on and learned.  More than once I had to tell myself to just take take the music off the stand NOW, and stop.

I’m trying the same strategy on the second piece I’m learning, Alfredo Orlando Ortiz’s Danza de Luzma, the easy version. This week I’m working on getting rid of the hiccup between the first and second measure that appeared when I upped the tempo. It’s getting better but it’s not fixed yet. So, I’ll be back at my harp bench, working on only measure one and two, tomorrow.

Zen Harp – #2

A couple of days ago, I had the most relaxing and enjoyable harp practice I’ve had in some time. The old pieces seemed to flow out of my fingers without effort on my part. The chunks of the new pieces I’d set out to learn that day got into my fingers quickly, and by the 20th repetition actually sounded like music, not disconnected notes.

That morning, I’d joined a friend to play recorder duets of Christmas carols in the lobby of a local hospital. The carol arrangements were beautiful, we sounded lovely, peoples’ faces lit up as they turned the corner and saw and heard us playing, and I had a wonderful time making music with my friend.

After the gig, I visited another friend. We shared an hour of heartfelt conversation and laughter, and I left feeling relaxed and filled up with warmth and connection. Then I went home and had my wonderful practice session.

Today I realize that I cannot suddenly expect to have ease and fluidity at the harp if I am neither creating and experiencing ease and fluidity in the rest of my life, nor creating ease and fluidity within myself. Ease and fluidity at the harp won’t appear out of nowhere. All the technical harp skills can help the playing be more fluid, but the player has to know and be in touch with that internal state where ease and fluidity and suppleness exists.

Making music with one friend and conversing with another blessed me with a day of beauty, connection, and quiet joy. All of which translated into the ease and fluidity at my harp that most days I can only long for, and for which I am so very grateful today.

Bringing Home the Southeastern Harp Weekend

I’ve been back from Asheville and the Southeastern Harp Weekend for a week. And I’m still thinking about and wondering about what, besides more new music than I’ll ever be able to play, and too many new CDs, came home from the Harp Weekend with me.

My friends ask me if I was inspired by the harpists at the conference. It’s hard for them to understand that these musicians are so totally beyond me that I can’t be inspired. Awe-struck, yes. But we do not inhabit the same musical universe. There are not enough years left in my life to aspire to their facility with the harp.

Instead, it’s so easy for me to come home discouraged about ever really being able to play the harp, having experienced a weekend full of opportunities to discover that there is YET AGAIN even more that I can’t seem to do on the harp, that there is YET AGAIN some new technique that ties my fingers into knots, even though everyone else in the workshop seems to be accomplishing it with ease.

But this time, driving home on a blissfully empty interstate under a clear October sky, I was able to leave the judging voice that proclaims “You should be able to do (fill in the blank) by now,” on the side of the road.  And I realized that what attending the harp weekend, and what attending other workshops does, is expand my vocabulary of ideas about music and about playing the harp. Having grown up without music lessons or music classes, it’s my opportunity to discover more about what music is and how to make it.

So I’ve been remembering the workshops I attended and looking at my handouts and notes, combing them for the ideas about harp and music that came home with me. I attended workshops with Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, a South American harpist, Marta Cook, an Irish harpist, and Maeve Gilchrist, a Scottish harpist. And despite their different cultural backgrounds, training, and approaches to the harp, they presented so many common themes and ideas about playing the harp.

Alfredo Ortiz was my introduction to the incredibly rich world of the harp in South America. Had I not seen and heard him play, I would not have believed that the harp could be used to make such amazing sounds. And the rhythms! He brought a whole new world of Latin rhythms into every workshop he taught, along with the direction that the secret to playing this music is to learn and practice the rhythm patterns he demonstrated until they are automatic.

Then here comes Maeve Gilchrist with her bass ostinato rhythm exercises, where she creates a left-hand rhythm pattern, plays it until it is automatic, and then lays different right-hand patterns/rhythms on top of her steady left-hand. Trying her rhythm exercises, I can feel my brain screeching as my right hand tries to play a contrasting rhythm against my not-yet-steady left hand ostinato. I can only hope that there are new neural pathways being constructed that will allow my hands the more spontaneous independent motion I need to be able to play any of the South American tunes I fell in love with.

Alfredo Ortiz’s instruction in his Preventing Injury workshop to soften the finger that just plucked before the next finger plays, is echoed by Marta Cook in her Core Fluidity steps of pluck – release – wait before replacing a finger or plucking another string. Alfredo and Marta repeat each other almost exactly in their instructions to turn your harp to angle it across your body instead of scrunching your body around the side of your harp; both stress that you must adjust your harp to fit your body, and not your body to fit your harp. Then Marta, using music bench boxes, stacks of books, cushions and extra chairs showed each of her Core Fluidity students exactly how to make her harp fit her body, and how much having the correct placement of the harp affects out ability to play.

Marta’s discussions and demonstrations of choices for arranging tunes, of selecting notes to emphasize, of the musical inspiration that can happen with phrasing, in her Simple Is Beautiful workshop were demonstrated again on Monday by Maeve as she shared her processes and decisions for arranging The Sleeping Tune, which she taught in her workshop.

The other commonality I experienced with all three clinicians is harder to explain. It has to do with their use of time, and their ability to create spaciousness and ease in their music. No matter how lively the tune, no matter how quick the tempo or how many notes are squeezed into each measure, there is never a sense of them rushing, of them hurrying to get a hand to the next chord position or to flip the next lever, of them arriving breathless at the next note. They seem to be saying “There’s plenty of time to get to that next note. We’ll just breathe and enjoy THIS sound for a moment,” even in the middle of a lightning fast Irish jig or a Paraguayan guarania.

Marta talked about this space, this moment of silence, in her Core Fluidity steps. Every pluck and release was followed by “wait.” And it was, as she promised, the hardest step, the greatest challenge to sit fully in that moment of waiting, not anticipating and not planning what would come next. In that one moment of waiting, she said, lies all the possibilities for the next moment, for the next thing you do at the harp. And each note played must be given this moment of possibility from which the next note, the next phrase, the next breath can be birthed. In that moment of waiting, infinite co-occuring possibilities exist for the music and the musician.

And so, today I experiment with creating this sense of breath, of space, of silence between notes. I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t know how to do this, don’t know how to create the moment of “Wait” that Marta says can and must exist after every pluck and release while the tune demands that the right notes be played and the right tempo and rhythm be maintained.

Then I remember my yoga teacher from long ago saying about difficult poses, “Just notice. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice. Notice, breathe, and allow.”

With this decision to “just notice” I start to play Vem Kan Segla, a Swedish tune that has been in my heart since learning it this summer. And for a few miraculous minutes, the tune is playing itself, using my fingers. My left hand holds a space for the melody with a gentle rocking like the rise and fall of ocean waves. The phrases seem to create themselves, the fourth-finger stretch down to A below middle C is effortless, my breathing matches the rise and fall of the short melody. One variation segues seamlessly into the next, and the last ending chord expresses all of the tune’s sadness and longing.

It’s a moment of grace, of unearned blessing, to play this tune like this; to feel spacious and timeless and at ease; to be able to allow the music to happen without getting in the way.

And I still don’t know how to do this, don’t know what I did that allowed the tune to spring forth from my fingers, don’t know what brought me this gift of grace on this particular November morning. But this new idea, this idea of waiting, and of allowing unlimited, unimagined possibilities with each moment of music, with each moment of life, is truly the treasure that came home with me.

There Might Be a Musician in Here

I am on a break, a brief summer vacation, from my weekly harp lessons. So, while I am still working on my sight-reading and on placing first inversion triads and on the arpeggiated chords in Grandjany’s Reverie, I’m giving myself unstructured and unplanned time at my harp, to just “mess around with sound.”

Out of this messing about, there seems to be something new happening in my head about playing the harp. I’m looking at Christmas tunes, and folk songs in lead sheet format, and I hear myself saying, “I can play that.” I’m trying out left hand accompaniments and patterns, drones and broken fifths and octaves and 1/5/8’s, while my right hand plays these melodies. I’m experimenting with what I like the sound of and what my left hand is able to do, and seeing where the two meet. I’m surprising myself. My left hand can manage lots of these patterns, and there’s lots of things I can do with these tunes, that I end up liking.

It strikes me that finally, at last, I am playing, in the true sense of a child playing. I’m playing with playing the harp, I’m playing with making music. There’s no goal to reach, no skill to master, no new notch to add to my repertoire belt as I do this. I just play.

And out of play, there is some embryonic internal shift occurring that says “I can play the harp.” There’s some part of me that is not worried about perfection or making mistakes or playing tunes ”right,” as they are written on a page. This internal musician, as I’m coming to think of this new part of me, is enjoying just sitting down and playing, just playing with playing. And as this process continues, I am also enjoying an unfamiliar and still tentative feeling of confidence about playing the harp.

With this baby nudge of confidence tugging at my elbow, I find that I am letting go of something I was totally unaware of: I’m loosening the grip of some unknown sense of apology I’ve carried about wanting to, daring to learn to play the harp. I’m letting go of an internal feeling of un-rightness, that if given words, would say “Oh, I’m so sorry, I know I shouldn’t be sitting at this beautiful instrument. I know I shouldn’t be trying to play. Oh, I know, how dare I? What was I thinking? Just let me slink back to my corner where I can be quiet and invisible.”

Where and when I grew up, wanting to play the harp would be described as, “she’s goin’ beyond her rearin’.” There were rules and codes for what you could do, and what you’d best not do, because it was beyond what your family did or imagined doing. It was beyond what people of your background or social class or religion or race or the side of town you lived on thought of doing. I’m not talking about some backwoods, poverty-stricken hard-by-the-tracks upbringing. My family was firmly planted in the middle class, though they did have to work to hold on to that status a few times. And this social stratification was not all bad – my mother’s dreams that I should be a debutant and be introduced to society were effectively crushed before I had to actively rebel against them. But there were so many unspoken possibilities that did not belong to me, and playing the harp would certainly have been on that list.

I remember encountering these same feelings when I enrolled in a Ph.D. program. That was something that no one in my family had attempted or even thought of doing. I remember how untethered and unrooted I felt, how it seemed that I was floating alone in some strange, never described to me, never imagined world. This unconscious apology for wanting to play the harp is similar, but more subtle, and so cleverly hidden behind the physical and mental challenges of learning to play this instrument. But at last I am becoming aware that these unconscious and automatically assumed limits have affected my courage and my confidence about being a musician, about playing the harp.

So I am announcing and welcoming this shift, this birthing of “I’m not apologizing, I play the harp,” because THAT IS WHAT I DO!  And I claim playing, claim having fun making music and beautiful sounds, because that, too, is what I do.

Practice Lessons

A recent quote from my teacher: “No matter what you want to do or plan to do with the harp, you will never be hurt by working on technique.”

I discovered this harp technique fact some months ago:  There is no fingering problem or technique problem that cannot be helped by lifting up my elbows. While the problem may not be entirely fixed, lessening gravity’s pull on my hands sets up the opportunity for the fix to emerge.

Last week I discovered that if I slide my right thumb up the string just a tiny 1/8th of an inch more, the arpeggios in Grandjany’s Reverie have a beautiful, clear ending. My right hand can feel the subtle difference in control, and my ears can hear the not-at-all-subtle difference in the ringing of that final note. I can play my thumb with enough pressure for the string to be heard, without concern that it will sound raw and garish.

And this morning, working on arpeggiated chords (one of my ongoing harp technique projects,) I am feeling and hearing how much richer these chords sound when my shoulder blades are down my back and supporting my arms, and when my hands are centered on the strings, which for me means my hands are more towards the column than what they typically want to do on their own. When my hands are centered, my left hand fingers, particularly my wimpy fingers #3 and 4, have the strength and power they need to start the chord with a full, rich tone.  But if my left elbow is glued to my side, where it likes to hang out, and I don’t have air under my armpit, I can’t get my hand centered on the strings. Then I have significantly less strength and control, and my chords sound whispy and uneven.

When I’m arpeggiating a left-hand three-note chord, the next most helpful thing is having my palm open and relaxed with finger #4 next to finger #3 instead of dangling limply in the air. That tiny bit of gravity pulling on finger #4 as it hangs takes strength away from finger #3. When I hold # 4 relaxed and next to #3, I have more power and better tone.

None of these discoveries are new. Elbows slightly raised and thumbs up are harp technique basics, part of my pre-flight checklist to run through while I prepare to pluck the first notes of an exercise or a piece.  At my lesson, my teacher vigilantly watches for my left elbow’s lazy slide back to my side, and for my thumbs’ unwillingness to place high on the strings. But making these things happen every day, on my own, in every piece, whenever I touch my harp, requires my own self-directed discovery of how to make beautiful sounds.

If I sit and wait to “be taught” I will never be able to claim my own sound, because I will never make it. It will always be my teacher’s sound, not mine.

It’s when I give myself the practice time to experiment with the techniques my teacher shows me, and when I take the practice time to find the ways I can elicit the same full, rich sound at my harp that my teacher helped me create at my lesson, that I can create and claim the beautiful sound my harp makes as mine.