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.

 

 

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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.

The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am and Where I Want To Be

I really thought I was making progress on sight-reading. I can use music notation to learn a tune that I didn’t hear first, which I never thought would be possible. Even though I have to work through it measure by measure, with a lot of patience and a lot of slow practice, I can learn to play it. In the early music ensembles I can keep up with what and where I am supposed to be playing even when my fingers aren’t grabbing the notes on the recorder. Now that I am not panicking every time I miss a note, my eyes can move forward and I can get back in and play without getting totally lost. And over the holidays I discovered that I could slowly sight-read and sight-play most of one of my Celtic tune books, as well as sight-play some of the simple Christmas carol arrangements published in The Folk Harp Journal.

So, I really thought I was getting somewhere with the reading. And I thought that I would be ready for this spring’s “boot camp” harp ensemble class, even knowing that most of the class would be spent sight-reading.

Last Monday’s class proved otherwise. Our teacher excerpted several measures from classical harp pieces, changed the time signatures, and created fingering exercises which we were to sight-read and play. There was nothing that sounded familiar, nor any tonal patterns that my ears could grab hold of to help my eyes make sense of the notes. With my auditory system useless, my visual processing system failed. I could not see any recognizable patterns of notes that could tell me where on the strings my fingers should be. There I was, playing my own discordant solos as other class members plucked their way through the exercises in melodious unison.

During a break in playing I tried writing in note names and drawing circles around familiar note patterns, but even with notes, triads and scales identified, the tempo was too fast for me to shift from one little bit of what I could understand and play, to the next little bit. The notes once again were incomprehensible spots on a piece of paper. The sight-reading door in my brain that I thought was finally propped open a bit, slammed shut.

Being with others who sight-read easily is like being with people at an ice cream parlor who know how to whip up fabulous hot fudge sundaes and banana splits and parfaits. They walk inside with confidence, grab their scoops, and fill their bowls with delicious creations that I am never going to taste. After the holidays, I was excited that I could tiptoe into the ice cream parlor and dish myself up a scoop of vanilla. But now I am back on the sidewalk, nose pressed against the window looking in, with all that is inside inaccessible once again.

Five days later, that door in my brain is still shut tight. I’m working on new pieces for a harp chapter concert a month from now. I asked for the easy-peasy harp parts, the ones that the beginning students will play, since I’ll have to use the music to perform them. There’s just no time for my usual strategy: learn how to play and then memorize the tunes, so I don’t need the stinkin’ music.

Today the sight of the black concert notebook on my music stand makes me cry. Tension spreads down my arms and into my hands as I open it. The chords of the Pachelbel Canon might as well be bowling balls stacked on top of each other, for all the sense I can make of them. I feel my brain shut down, feel the “road closed” sign for the route from my eyes to my visual cortex start flashing. There’s no point in working on this music today. I wonder if there will be any point in working on it tomorrow. My only hope for the concert may be to hide behind a row of pedal harps, where my one-handed playing of the simple, repetitive bass melody can’t be seen.

I still struggle so to feel anything resembling confidence about playing the harp. I’ve no natural agility or coordination that allows my hands to dance upon the harp strings. Every finger motion is won with hours of drills and exercises to program the move into my muscles. Every movement of my right and left hand is choreographed and practiced so that the music flows between them. Every note I see and comprehend requires a circuitous route from eye to brain and internal naming, and then to my hand and my finger on the correct harp string.

It’s hard to remember and hard to believe that not being able to sight-read doesn’t mean that I am not able to play the harp, doesn’t mean that I am not able to create music. It’s hard to remember and hard to believe, living in a world that expects music to be something written and read, that music is sound and vibration, beauty and feeling, not notation, not black dots splattered on a ladder on a piece of paper.

It’s hard to remember that my ear and my heart love melody, that I learn a tune easily, that once I hear it, I remember it well. And it is hard to remember, in this midst of this latest failure, that there is a place for how I learn and how I play, even if no one is dishing up ice cream there.

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.

Slay The Dragon

I’ve been dancing with performance anxiety for a while now, particularly when I’m playing harp in a concert situation. The pounding heart, clenched stomach, shaking hands and tight chest I endured at the last harp ensemble concert was so painful that I seriously considered giving up playing with the group in order to avoid any future concerts.

But when I started writing my intentions for this year, the words “develop ease and comfort with performing” flowed out of my pen. My wiser self was not going to give up so easily. And as I considered what I would work on in this semester’s harp lessons, “practice performing” ended up on my harp goals list.

I’d not discussed any of this with my teacher. Little matter – she began my first lesson this semester saying, “I think you should do the Harp Society Audition and Evaluation this year.” The Audition and Evaluation happens every spring, yet my teacher never suggested that I participate in all the years I’ve been taking lessons. Apparently writing “practice performing” in my harp goals activated her hidden psychic powers. What could I do but agree to go through with exactly what I had asked for with my intentions and my harp goals.

The Audition and Evaluation is a national activity of the American Harp Society, sponsored here by our local chapter of the AHS. A student plays two pieces for an evaluator and a small audience of students and their parents, and receives feedback from the evaluator. The student then has a month to work on the two pieces, and ready a third piece for performance. Four weeks later the student plays again, having hopefully improved the performance of the pieces.

My initial performance did not go well. “Quaking like an aspen leaf” would be the best description of my attempt to play Susann McDonald’s Little Prelude and Marcel Grandjany’s Reverie. I made it to the end of both pieces, after stopping in the middle of my first piece to breathe. The evaluator was kind. I told him that I was doing the A&E to work on performance anxiety, and he assured me that playing that day was exactly what I needed to do. I’m not sure when my hands became calm enough to land on and truly pluck the harp strings, but he wrote on my evaluation sheet, “You play beautifully.”

I worked intensely this past month to make playing beautifully become a reality at my second performance. I played the A&E tunes in my lessons. My teacher coached me to feel the strings under my fingers and listen to the sound of my harp instead of being distracted by the monkey-mind chatter in my head. I practiced performing the tunes before each week’s group harp technique class. I played Scottish tunes for a summer music camp scholarship audition, just to have another performance practice opportunity. I practiced progressive relaxation, the Sarnoff Squeeze, and yoga postures and breathing to lessen the effects of my over-supply of adrenalin. I worked with a therapist using EMDR to desensitize me to performance situations past and present.

At one of my last lessons, my teacher told me to play my tunes as though I was going to slay the dragon – to not worry about over-playing or sounding beautiful, but to dig in and play with gusto, without care for how musical I sounded. And when I was finished, she said it was wonderful, that I’d engaged her with these tunes that she’s heard a thousand times, that they were musical without me trying to “make” them musical. The music was inside my playing without my trying to put it there. Freeing myself to play the tunes, slaying the dragon, let the music emerge.

Yesterday was day two of the Audition and Evaluation. I sat at my harp, feeling the warmth of my hands, and took a deep breath. As I lifted my hands to the harp I thought, “Slay the dragon!” and began to play.

I knew I would only freak myself out if I defined success as playing without shaking. Whether I shake or not is still beyond my ability to control. Instead, I decided that if I showed up, played all the way through my pieces without taking my hands off the harp, stayed present with the sound and music instead of going into hyper-alert sensory overload, and controlled any shaking enough to be able to still play, I’d call the morning a success.

And it was.

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!