Harp Lesson Take-Aways: 3/7/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Final Harp Class – Climbing Back On The Horse That Threw Me

Last night was the fourth and final session of the spring harp ensemble “boot camp” class. After my oh-so-difficult first and second classes I did not go to the third one, and had no intention of returning at all.  But a friend in the class and my teacher encouraged me to come to class last night, and I am glad I did.

The bargain I made with the part of me that would have rather prepared for a colonoscopy than go to class, was that it would be perfectly ok to sit with my hands in my lap without playing a note for the whole 90 minutes. Through some combination of a slower pace of the exercises and sight-reading, some time spent playing a familiar warm-up tune that I know by heart, and at least a partial restoration of confidence, I enjoyed the class. With no self-induced pressure or judgements allowed, I was able to do what I could and not worry about the rest. Equanimity blessed me with its presence.

I should write something profound about all the lessons this experience provided, that includes wise words about my patterns of self-induced pressure and the resulting panic and loss of heart. For today, though, I’m satisfied that I took the risk to just show up, and allowed a different ending to the spring harp class to manifest.

The Transformative Power Of Snow And Friendship

Waking To Sunday Morning Snow
Sunday Morning Snow

“A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” – Author unknown

I thought we were done with winter. Daffodils began blooming in January. The star magnolias and tulip magnolias burst their buds this week and are in full flower. Migratory robins are dining daily on the worms that rain drives to the surface in my soggy back yard, and chickadees are already gathering sticks for their nests. Friday I walked the neighborhood in shirt sleeves, under long-awaited crystal blue skies.

Yesterday I awoke to snow showers, to saucer-sized flakes drifting past my upstairs window. Snow soon turned to another day of the gray, drizzly rain that is the hallmark of this winter, and I thought we were done with the excitement and beauty that snow promises in the South.

About five in the afternoon Charley ran downstairs to where I was practicing recorder. She rarely takes the stairs on her own, but the first flashes of lightning and rolling booms of thunder explained why she sought me out. She hates storms, and usually predicts their arrival several minutes before I am aware of a change in the weather.

With another explosion of lightning and thunder, snow poured out of the sky. An hour later an inch clung to the fence posts and daffodils. By the end of the storm there was almost three inches covering the ground and outlining each tree branch.

This morning I awoke to a crystalline wonderland. The morning sun lit the top branches of the crape myrtle and cedar, making them sparkle with fairy dust. My back yard was transformed from mud and mire to a white canvas that captured the beauty of the snowy night.

The mud and mire of my heart’s distress is also transformed by the comments and emails I received in response to my post The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am And Where I Want To Be. You helped me regain both perspective and faith that sight-reading skills do not make one a musician, and that I am a musician whether I ever sight-read another note. You helped me remember what I have accomplished with the harp, and helped me refocus on what I can do instead of seeing only what is still beyond where I am today. You assured me that I will find my way back to the joy that is Music. You held onto the song in my heart when I could not hear it, and sang it back to me when I needed it most. Thank you for your caring, your kindness and your support, and for being my companions on this journey.


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.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home


This handmade cherry and walnut Windsor chair is my harp bench. The chair was designed for a cellist but works perfectly for playing the harp. It was custom made to fit my leg and back lengths by “Michael the Chairmaker” in eastern North Carolina.

Sitting on this chair, with my harp pulled back on my shoulder, is where I feel the most at home.

Entropy, Form, and Music

I am contemplating entropy, that ongoing rush to a less ordered state, and the resulting decline and dissolution of form to component elements and molecules. I live surrounded by beautiful things: paintings, photographs, pottery, glass, all gradually decaying from the pristine condition that existed at the completion of their making. The bowl is already broken.

All the things I make, and all the things I’ve made will wear away. Ink will fade. Paper will crumble to dust. Pigments will discolor. Glue will release its grasp. Yarn will wear thin or be eaten by wool-loving moths. The vegetable garden will go to chickweed and wire grass (it’s well on its way) and the “perennial” flowers will either live out their expected life spans and die, or be choked out by their more Darwinian companions.

Of everything I make, it is Music – most ephemeral, least corporeal – that escapes entropy’s clutches. The strings’ vibrations radiate outwards from my harp and create ripples that lap the shores at the edge of the universe. Creation’s particles surf the sound waves to infinity.

Is it some wonderful irony, or is it a reflection of the true nature of reality, that Music, existing as idea and memory and vibration, without form or shape or weight or mass, lives forever?

Cold War Musings

20130123-130000.jpg I’ve been fighting a nasty cold since Saturday. It’s the kind of cold that little kids get, wet and croupy, the kind of cold that inspires parents to break out the vaporizer and the mentholated chest rub. In this adult version, the weapons on my side include several boxes of extra soft tissues, Mucinex, the Chinese herb Yin Chiao, homeopathic ColdCalm, and a witches brew of ginger, chamomile and echinacea tea. On the cold’s side are tens of thousands of years of co-evolution with homo sapiens that maximizes the rhinovirus’ capacity to use my lungs and sinuses to reproduce. Guess who is coming out ahead.

Unlike the virus donor who left this particular gift on some surface for me to find, I stayed home this week. I reneged on attending my harp lesson, my yoga class, playing at Hospice and both ensemble classes. Canceling so many activities brought me face-to-face with my overdeveloped sense of responsibility to show up when and where I said I would. In this over-responsible world view, I am letting people down if I don’t show up. I am disrupting my harp teacher’s schedule, disrespecting my yoga teacher, not fulfilling my commitment as a Hospice volunteer, and not pulling my weight with the ensembles. In this world view, it is likely that the earth’s rotation will grind to a halt if I stay home.

I retired over two years ago. I know that in my current life, there are no real, tangible consequences for not showing up. There’s no meetings with disgruntled bosses or bad performance reviews because I am absent. My time is mine to claim, mine to use.

This week, as I made calls and sent e-mails telling people I was sick and staying home, I felt that sense of freedom for the first time. I don’t HAVE to do any of the things that fill my week. I do them because I want to. All of my activities are choices, all are things I do because I enjoy them, because they make my life rich and full. My harp lesson, my yoga class, all my activities are important to me, but not as important as ridding myself of this viral invasion. And I know that the most significant thing I can do to get well is to rest, is to reduce the drain on my energy reserves as much as possible so that my body can vanquish the virus. So home is the place to be, and the place to stay.

On a completely different note, sometime during the past week, one more reader signed up to receive e-mails when I publish a blog post. I passed a milestone I never anticipated – there are now 100 subscribers to Heart To Harp. I still remember telling my harp teacher that no one would be interested in anything I wrote about learning to play the harp. She said I was wrong, and you proved her right. Thank you! Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, thanks for subscribing, and thanks for being part of the journey.

What Would You Do If I Knit Out Of Tune?

Would you screech, put down your knitting needles, and not knit another stitch?  If I knit instead of purled, would you roll your eyes at me? If I miscounted and knit an extra stitch, would you huff under your breath? If I didn’t read the stitch pattern correctly, would you care?

NO, I didn’t think so. Neither do my knitting friends, which is why my Wednesday evening knitting group is the perfect balance for my Wednesday morning ensemble. There is no judgement, no measuring up to how another woman knits. Every new and every ongoing project is oohed-and-ahhed over. Stepping out to try something new – a new technique, or a new pattern – is cheered on. We mutually groan about having to “tink” (knit spelled backwards) and laugh at our mistakes. And the experienced knitters help us newbies figure out whatever new thing we are trying to do, or whatever old thing we have thoroughly screwed up.

The Early Music Consort met yesterday for the first time this semester. It was not an auspicious beginning. My recorder was cold, my fingers were stiff, my ears had not played with another recorder player since the beginning of December, and we were sight-reading new music. So I didn’t blow a high “G” in tune, I played B-flat instead of B-natural, I didn’t count correctly and got ahead of everyone, and my fingers and eyes did not work fast enough to get to a lot of the notes on music I’d not seen before. This was all too much for the normally calm recorder player sitting next to me, who screeched about my tuning, put down her recorder, and stopped playing.

It’s easy for me to become upset and panicked over how badly I am playing when someone is reacting to what I am not doing correctly. But through some measure of grace, I kept calm and carried on. I breathed slowly. My tuning improved and my fingers loosened up. I remembered what my recorder teacher said the previous night about sight-reading: skip the notes you are not going to play and direct your attention to the notes that you are going to play. And the recorder player on my other side pointed out that I could play one of the impossible tunes at the written pitch, so my fingers got all the notes the second time we played it.

This moment of grace, where I could detach both from another’s reaction and from my own too easily triggered panic, crystallized my goal for this semester. I could work on any number of musical skills that need improvement. But what I need most in my playing and in my life is equanimity.

equa·nim·i·ty  – noun \ˌē-kwə-ˈni-mə-tē, ˌe-kwə-\1: steadiness of mind especially under stress <nothing could disturb his equanimity> 2: right disposition : balance <physical equanimity> (Miriam-Webster online dictionary)

My knitting friends make equanimity easy to find and practice. Sitting around the table sipping wine and eating chocolate while we knit and laugh, or laugh and knit, it’s easy to feel calm, to be steady, to have both right disposition and balance. Yarn won’t hurt you.

And neither will an out-of-tune note, a misplaced fingering, a miscounted measure, or a disgruntled fellow recorder player.