Devotion

devotion:

a:  the act of devoting <devotion of time and energy>

b  :  the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal <her devotion to the cause> <filial devotion>

It’s another Tuesday afternoon, and I’m rolling my harp and gear down the hall at the Hospice unit. As I walk past an open door I can see a family in the room across from the nurse’s station. Curled on her side in the huge hospital bed is an impossibly old woman – tiny, wrinkled and weathered, wizened, and dying. Sitting at her bedside is an impossibly old man – not as wrinkled, but equally weathered. He rests his head on the bed beside his wife. He is looking into her eyes, and gently stroking her hand that lies atop the turned-down sheet. I can see his love in how he looks at her, in his delicate, soft touch. He loves her even as she leaves him, even as the life he knows with her comes to an end. I see devotion that grew and strengthened over the decades they spent together.

And so, I play for him today. I play hoping to ease the burdens of letting go, of saying goodbye. I play hoping to show that he is not alone as he walks the path of endings, that others knew and felt this pain, and told their stories of losses and leavings in these old tunes from Celtic lands. I play tunes for a breaking heart.

Towards the end of my hour on the unit, his granddaughters help him slowly shuffle down the hall to where I am playing. They find a chair and help him sit close to me. He listens so attentively, leaning towards me to hear the music. There’s a light in his eyes, a twinkle, and he smiles broadly when I finish. He looks deep into my eyes and says, “Thank you.” I look back as deeply. There are no words – the music said all that is needed.

This is why I play music, why I play the harp, why I devote my time to harp lessons, to practicing, to learning repertoire. This is why my love and my energy and my desire are all found at my harp bench. This is why I haul my harp and bench and music stand through the hospital parking deck and corridors and elevators on Tuesday afternoons. I play music for connection, and for transcendence. Today I receive both – gifts from Music, and from the ripened fruit of devotion.

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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.

 

 

Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.

 

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.

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.”

The Space Around Me

I started Alexander Technique lessons three months ago. A couple of nasty car wrecks left me with a long-term neck and back discomfort that now bothers me more and more when I am practicing. I’m hoping to become more aware of how I create tension when I am at the harp, and to learn how to not do that.

My second Alexander lesson ended with my teacher working with me at the harp. With my neck, shoulders and ribcage loose and expanded, my arms felt like they were floating, my fingers were strong and free, and the sound that burst forth when I plucked the strings was full, rich and glorious – and different from anything I’d heard come from my harp. That was all the convincing I needed that I was on the right track.

Tonight’s lesson was different. No harp, just gentle upward strokes on my neck and head, then me walking back and forth across the length of the room. As I walked, my teacher asked me to be aware of the empty space above my head. “Now feel the space in front of you and behind you as you walk, feel it move across the room with you,” she said. “All this space is here for you. Being aware of it gives you room in which to move, and gives you freedom to relax, to open, to expand.”

What a concept! Despite what I am sure adds up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of therapy, the idea that there is all this space around me, and that it is mine to move my body in, mine to use, mine to be in, still feels new, and breath-taking. Bourbon took up all the space in my childhood house. I grew up knowing there was no room for me, knowing that I needed to stay safely hidden away, taking up as little space as possible, hoping I would not be seen or heard when the nightly chaos began. I longed to be invisible. Staying silent, small, and unnoticed was as close to invisible as I could get. Much of my work with performance anxiety is about peeling away these layers of fear and substitute invisibility, and finding that I can be safe when I am seen and heard.

Tonight, walking across the room feeling the two feet of space above my head, I feel my neck and spine lengthen and relax. There’s no need to hold myself in. My shoulder blades slide down my back and my arms swing freely – there’s plenty of room around me. As each foot touches the floor it rolls easily from heel to toes. I feel as though I am gliding on smoothly oiled joints, instead of plodding across the room on my creaky oft-broken ankles and my cranky knees. My legs and hips are happy to hold me up and ask no help from my neck, which now only has to balance my head on its topmost vertebrae. Moving feels light, and spacious, and good.

Doing table work, my teacher gently reminds my hands of all the space that exists between the tendons and bones, and of all the movement that my fingers are capable of. After my lesson, again at my harp, my hands find the C-major chord and roll it perfectly without help from finger and thumb splints. My ring fingers stay rounded, instead of collapsing. How or why I don’t know, or don’t yet have words for. Perhaps fingers, too, find support and ease being enfolded in this new, expanded space around me? Each lesson leaves me “curiouser and curiouser.”

Tomorrow I shift to an entirely different space: the annual Southeastern Harp Weekend in Asheville, NC. The space around me will be filled with all things harp, and with people as silly-ga-ga about harps as I am, but will be quite deficient with wi-fi access. I’ll be back in Blogland with harp weekend stories next week.

August Milestones

My blog and I celebrated birthdays in August. Heart to Harp is three years old, and I’m, ahem, considerably older. The “Happy Anniversary” message from WordPress reminded me of the morning I registered my blog. I was working out my retirement notice and didn’t have a lot of actual work to do, so I used my free time to sign up with WordPress. When I saw Heart To Harp become real on my computer monitor, I was so overcome with anxiety over what I’d done that I had to flee to the Habitat coffee shop, where chocolate and caffeine helped me get over the vapors.

I remember telling myself, while gripping that tall mocha latte, that registering a blog didn’t mean that I actually had to write anything, or god forbid, post something for someone to read. It was another week before I published my first blog post. I didn’t have to worry about someone reading what I wrote – several weeks passed before I received my first WordPress email telling me that someone “liked” a post, and it took even longer to get a comment notice. It wasn’t until the following March that Heart To Harp had its first “follower.” By then the shock of committing to “write in public” had worn off. I was just surprised that someone would want to read everything I posted.

Three years, 276 posts, and over 100 followers later, later, I can’t imagine not blogging. Writing about my thoughts, disappointments, hopes, triumphs, and the giggly weirdness of life is part of who I am and what I do. Meeting and connecting with so many creative, interesting, talented people and enjoying their words and images is an unexpected bonus to being a blogger. I treasure these connections, and don’t want to live without them.

This August also marks one year of playing at the hospital hospice unit. In my very first August 2010 blog post, Where’s The Magic Fairy Dust? I doubted that I would ever be able to just sit down, pull my harp back onto my shoulder, and play a tune, let alone let someone listen to me play. Now, harping at the hospital, with staff and families and patients listening to me, is a normal part of my week, and I can play for over an hour without repeating any tunes.

Last August C.B. Wentworth introduced me to the knitting loom and the irrepressible notion that I must knit socks. I started my first pair of socks on August 21st. Last weekend I finally posted all my knitting projects on Ravelry. I’ve written about being knitting-obsessed, but I didn’t know how bad it really was. In 12 months I completed 13 projects. I knit five pairs of socks on the loom before I picked up knitting needles last October. Despite believing that I could never learn to really knit, I finished another pair of socks, four hats, two scarves, and one sweater, and I have another pair of socks and a lace shawl in progress.

Dr. Noa Kageyama, author of The Bulletproof Musician, writes in a post titled “How Can We Develop a More Courageous Mindset? (Plus the Secret of Life):

There is an interesting study which came out just last week that I think provides some interesting insight. It was called The End of History Illusion and described how 19,000 participants, ranging from age 18 to 68 consistently underestimated how much they would change over the next decade.

They were asked to evaluate how much they had changed over the last ten years – from their personality, to core values, and likes/dislikes. Then they were asked to predict how much they would change in the next decade ahead. Interestingly, no matter how young or old they were, even though they acknowledged how much they had changed in the previous ten years, they consistently underestimated how much they would change in the next ten years.

I suspect that we not only underestimate how much our personality, core values, and likes and dislikes will change, but how much we will change in the domain of expertise and skill development as well. . . .

Ten years ago music was not in my life. There was only a faint glimmer of a long ago dream to play the harp someday. Three years ago I couldn’t begin to fathom how much I would learn, or how much I would change, or how much connection and joy and excitement I would find through blogging, through playing my harp, and through an entirely new craft. I can’t begin to predict what the next three years, or ten years will bring, or how I will change and grow in the process. Life keeps opening up in new and completely unpredictable ways, and I keep being surprised and delighted. Each birthday marks the beginning of another year of adventures.

Yet this year’s birthday also brings a quiet sadness. With this birthday I am the same age my mother was when she died. By the time she was 61, she’d given up on life, trading any possibilities of surprise and delight for the vodka and bourbon bottles. That Thanksgiving the alcohol finally killed her.

I wonder at the essential difference between us: What made my mother see her life as over at 61? What makes me, at the very same age, see my life as an adventure? What makes me see each day of my life as an opportunity to see what happens next?

With this birthday, I’ve never been more grateful to be so unlike her.

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.

To The Sea, To The Beautiful Sea

I can’t resist the pull of the tides any longer. My harp and I head for the beach this morning. My mind’s ear already hears the keening gulls and the crashing of waves. There’s limited access to wi-fi where I’m going – maybe I’ll be able to tear myself from the water to drive over the bridge to the coffee shop with free wi- fi. Or maybe not. So I’ll share my adventures and catch up with yours when I am back in the wired world. Meanwhile, picture me here:

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Slowing Down To My Own Speed

I had the privilege of participating in a teaching call on mindfulness meditation and its potential to help musicians presented by Madeline Bruser, pianist, teacher and author of the book, The Art Of Practicing: A Guide To Making Music from the Heart, and of the e-zine Fearless Performing.

One of the things she said about the meditation practice is that “it slows you down to your own speed.”

I suspect my “own speed” is more suitable for life in a medieval monastery than in 21st century civilization. I don’t do “fast” easily or well. I don’t run. I don’t sprint. I walk. I don’t play jigs. I don’t play reels. I play slow airs. I suspect a serious deficiency of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Yet much of my music life is spent trying to do “fast” and “faster.” Trying to sight-read faster. Trying to move my fingers on my recorder faster. Trying to close and replace my fingers on the next harp strings faster. Trying to play faster. Trying to learn a tune faster. Trying to keep up with ensemble directors whose “moderate” tempos equate to racing a fire truck to a burning building for my 11th century sensibilities.

What brings me joy is slow, contemplative playing, playing that allows me to listen to the sound of each string as I release its tension, playing that bathes me in chordal harmony while I swim in the current of melody and feel the vibrations from the harp body enter my own. But in my practice sessions, I too often bypass joy in my hurry to master the fingerings of a tricky passage or get a piece up to performance tempo. I may end my practice time pleased that another small goal can be marked as “met,” or that I can cross off another measure I have to master for the piece I’m learning. But accomplishment does not equal joy.

I tried ten minutes of sitting practice before playing at the hospice unit yesterday. While sitting, focusing on my exhalations, my thoughts return to “planning” again and again. Yet there are small moments of space between the thoughts where there is just breathing, and my eyes enjoying the rare morning sunshine creating patterns of light on the reds and blues of the oriental rug at my feet. When the timer tells me ten minutes is over, the nagging hints of anxiety and the unsettled quivering in my stomach that still visit when I am preparing to play for others are gone.

My drive to the hospital is peaceful, and by the time I’ve unpacked my harp and bench I feel settled and ready to play. All the beds on the unit are filled. The nurses are working at warp speed, answering call bells, administering medications, checking vitals, answering families’ questions. On this morning, it’s not family members who stop to speak, it’s the nurses, who thank me for playing as they pass by on the way to patients’ rooms. And in this time and place, slow and peaceful music, music that echos the rhythmic beating of a peaceful heart, is fast enough.

I would like to be comfortable playing at faster tempos. I would like to have the option to play a wide range of tempos and be successful at them all. As I type that sentence, what comes to mind is something my first yoga teacher said over and over – that in yoga, for every pose, we start with gratitude from exactly where we are, no matter how far from the desired end result we may be, and allow the posture to emerge over time as we breathe and gradually release and strengthen into it.

I have hints from my first morning of sitting practice that “slowing down to my own speed” is the same thing. That if I can first live and be grounded in my own speed, and start with gratitude from exactly where I am today, I will allow all my desired end results, be it playing faster or sight-reading or learning repertoire to emerge over time. If each day I make time for joy, make time for wallowing in the magic of resonating wood and strings, accomplishment will emerge on its own.