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.

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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.

Harp Weekend, Rehearsals, and Socks, Oh My!

No, the space gypsies did not return me to my home planet – I’m still here, despite my long absence from my blog. I returned from an intense, inspiring and instructive four days at the Southeast Harp Weekend blown about by the edges of what was still Hurricane Sandy, and fell into three weeks of extra rehearsals and practice for the upcoming end-of-semester concerts.

The Harp Weekend ended up being totally perfect for where I am with my harp and what I want to learn. Not only were the instructors in my classes excellent players, they were also excellent teachers. I’m already using new ideas from Dee Sweeney’s Music From the Soul class when I play at the hospice unit, as well as Nadia Birkenstock’s approaches to learning a new piece of music. I’m experimenting with Kim Robertson’s Musical Sandwiches as segues between my arrangements of Christmas carols.

The outer bands of Hurricane Sandy arrived in Asheville on Sunday afternoon, bringing spitting rain and a temperature drop of 20 degrees within two hours. I drove home in wind gusts following a glowing column of rainbow light until the sun dropped behind the western mountains. We had two days of potent wind gusts at home but no serious rain, snow or damage.

I left Harp World and reentered normal time and space facing extra Consort rehearsals, harp ensemble repertoire still not up to tempo, and recorder ensemble repertoire not yet mastered. Three weeks later, the recorder ensemble repertoire is in pretty good shape – there are a couple of entrances that still throw me, but with two more rehearsals before our concert, I think I’ll be ok. The recorder pieces for Consort are in my fingers; it’s the harp piece that continues to prove that I cannot actually count to four.

The harp ensemble concert is next Monday, and my brain/eye/finger/two-hand coordination is maxed out several beats below our performance tempo. My friend and I have a secret pact to divide up the left and right hands for the two most challenging pieces, creating one whole harper between us. I’ll play a good bit of one-handed harp on the remaining tunes, with selected left-hand notes added in when there is no danger of my right hand crashing and burning.  Last year the prospect of one-handed harping created an engraved invitation for the Inner Critic to come calling. This year I remain grounded in gratitude to be playing what I can play, and that’s slammed the door in IC’s face.

Second Socks

Knitting socks is now my before-sleep decompression activity. My brain slowly winds down with the meditative repetition of looping one strand of yarn over another strand. I finished my second pair a couple of weeks ago, and started another sock that will be a Christmas present (so no pictures yet.) These socks are knit with self-striping yarn, so while they look complicated it was the yarn that did all the work.

I am looking forward to reducing my practice and rehearsal time so I can catch up on all the blogs I’ve not read, and all the comments I’ve not replied to. Alas, that probably won’t happen for another couple of weeks. And now I hear my harp and metronome calling, demanding that I get those descending passages of Angels We Have Heard On High lined up with the metronome’s 100 beats-per-minute clicking.

In case I don’t find my way back to the computer next week, I’d like to wish everyone a bountiful Thanksgiving Day. May we all enjoy sharing the gift of gratitude!

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.

Finding New Confidence In Playing For Others

I played harp today for the first time at a local hospital’s hospice unit. A year ago the thought of taking my harp out in public and playing music for an hour seemed as likely to happen as winning the lottery. And it was just two years ago that I despaired of ever knowing a tune well enough to sit down and play it.

It was the evaluator for the American Harp Society Audition and Evaluation (see Slay The Dragon for more about the A & E process) who suggested that I volunteer to play harp for hospice. He thought that playing in a setting where the focus was on sharing music, and not on me as a performer, would help reduce the performance anxiety that was all too evident when I played for him.

The universe evidently agreed with him. A few weeks later my friend who already played at the hospice unit invited me to a volunteer recruitment lunch. She told the staff who greeted us at the door that I played the harp, and suddenly the volunteer coordinator appeared, handing me a clipboard, pen and volunteer application and saying, “Why don’t you fill this out while you’re here?

Following an interview, a criminal background check, fingerprinting, reference checks, a drug test, a health screening, two TB tests, and viral titers determining that I had immunity to all the usual childhood diseases, I was approved as a hospice volunteer. (Young children, old people, and dogs have been left in my care without anything close to such an in-depth investigation.) Then I completed 12 hours of training about hospice philosophy and the hospital’s hospice program. Four months later I finally scheduled my first day to play.

The A & E evaluator was right. Hospice is the perfect place to share music with others without being stalked by fears about performing. The unit is small, only eight beds for now, and the staff are warm and welcoming. An alcove under a stained glass window at the end of a short hall provides a cozy place to play. There aren’t many people in the halls. Those who are, are on their way to somewhere else and don’t stop and watch me play. It was me and the harp and the music spending an hour together, and perhaps soothing people’s hearts in the process.

The nurses said that they could hear the harp throughout the unit, and that the music was beautiful. I didn’t see any patients or families, which in a strange way helped me focus just on the playing, and not on any perceived or imagined outcomes. I remembered to breathe, and to just “keep calm and carry on” when my fingers did something new and surprising. I remembered to listen to the sounds of the strings as I plucked. The hour passed quickly, and I didn’t even play all the tunes on today’s set list.

The volunteer coordinator asked me to come back and to play regularly. I committed to playing an hour each week, every Tuesday morning. I know that playing this often will help me develop ease and comfort with performing. And the tunes in my repertoire are definitely going to stay in my fingers. But as I was packing up today, that’s not what felt important. Instead, it was realizing once again that the harp is such a gift in my heart, in my life, and that passing the gift on feels right, feels like the best next step in my journey to place where Music lives.

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.

Intentions Meet SoulCollage in 2012

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions of the “loose 10 pounds” and “call your mother on Sunday” variety many years ago. But the start of a new year still inspires me to think about what is working in my life, and what attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, if changed, would help me enjoy the next trip around the sun even more. Last year, rather than writing New Year’s resolutions, I wrote intentions for how I wanted to live in 2011. It turned out to be such a useful experience I decided to do it again for 2012.

Some of my intentions, like “release what I no longer needs and what no longer serves me” are continued from last year. I got a good start on that one, but there’s more to do. My “be kind” and “see” intentions are two of my “Three Commandments.” (Ten are entirely too many.) My other 2012 intentions emerged while journaling about what was the best and worst of 2011 for me.

MY 2012 INTENTIONS

  • Create new adventures.
  • Approach life and everything in it as an adventure.
  • Be alive to and say yes to possibilities.
  • Be kind.
  • Cultivate joy.
  • Release what I no longer need and what no longer serves me.
  • Cherish this body.
  • Remember that time is a teacher.
  • Expect positive outcomes.
  • Develop ease and comfort with performing.
  • Laugh at myself and at life’s strangenesses.
  • Recognize love in all the ways it comes to me.
  • See.

A major challenge in living out my intentions is remembering them each and every day. Then I “just” have to find the courage and strength to do the work and make the daily decisions that will support my commitments to my body, mind, heart and spirit.

My SoulCollage Prayer Flag

My SoulCollage cards have helped me find hidden courage and gain clarity about so many situations. Who better than my Committee members and Council guides to help me remember and live according to my intentions? My SoulCollage box held at least one card that resonated with each of my 2012 intentions. Using ribbon, sticky wall hooks, and bulldog clips, I created a prayer flag of SoulCollage cards in my bedroom. They now greet me when I wake up in the morning, and they are the last things I see when I turn out my light at night.

Joyful Woman

Here’s the bigger version of two of my prayer flag cards that will be accompanying me this year as I live my intentions.

The woman in my “Joyful Woman” card finds joy and contentment in who she is, in what she has, and in what she does. She will remind me that joy is always available, and that I can find joy anywhere I choose to look for it.

Musician

 

 

 

My musician card is the perfect ally to help me develop ease and comfort with performing. She exudes the confidence I want to feel when I play my harp or my recorders for any audience, large or small.

Each of my intentions requires specific actions on my part in order to come to life in the coming year. To develop ease and comfort with performing, I know I have to set aside time and create situations where I can practice performing. I need to test out some pre-performance activities and rituals to find out what will desensitize the hair-trigger on my adrenal glands. I have to practice focusing on the sound of my music as I am playing, instead of listening to my distracting internal chatter. Every morning and evening, my musician card will remind me of the actions I need to take, as well as the ease, comfort and confidence that awaits me.

How do you note and honor the start of another year? Have you created resolutions, or goals, or intentions for 2012? I’d love to read them – and I hope you’ll share them or leave a link to them in a comment on this post.

Listening Deep

Today at the harp I’m doing easy single-finger and unplaced scales – a slow, delicious warm-up. With each plucked string my breathing deepens, my shoulder blades relax down my back, my spine lengthens and my heart lifts until I am sitting effortlessly erect, bathed in the vibration of a C major scale, in the harp bench equivalent of Lotus pose. I’m listening to the sound of each string grow fainter as it speeds from my harp strings across the room, through the window, past the garden and the owls’ cedar tree, across the road, the city, the state – traveling ever outward until it circles the earth with vibration. I’m reading Bridge of Waves: What Music is and How Listening to It Changes the World by W. A. Mathieu (Boston: Shambhala, 2010) and he’s totally changing my concepts of listening.

I follow the book’s suggestion and play the C major scale tones against a lower C drone. Mathieu tells me, “I’m saying (and I know it can’t be said) that there is a mandala of feeling for you to discover in the harmonies of a scale, and that its power is innately yours in your wiring and in your nature [p. 66.]” Eyes closed, listening to each sound as it drops away below audibility, feeling each scale tone’s vibration against the drone, the only feeling word I can speak is wonder. There is a kinesthetic response to each plucked string. Some tones resonate inside me, their internal echoing scribing the shape of my chest cavity. Other tones bounce off my sternum at oblique angles and then surround my head and shoulders in an audible aura of sound. The 7th scale tone shoots through me and careens around the room, bouncing off walls and ceiling before settling with the drone in an evaporating puddle of sound at the base of the harp.

My newly attentive ears wonder what sound might be born by sounding two C strings together. I pluck the two C’s below middle C, and wait. Soon the higher C strings resonate, adding their vibrations. The stave back of my harp feeds this vibration to my heart. Just before the sound fades away, I again pluck both C strings together, then alternate plucking the lower and the higher C, creating a wave of sound that dances between lower and higher registers. My fingers want to add an E, and then an A, to ride the top of this wave, and so a new rhythm of scale tones now lies atop what has become a bass ostinato of the two C strings.

I am improvising, according to any music textbook. But what I am really doing is waiting for the vibrating strings to speak their desire, their longing, for the next scale tone in this dance of sound and fingers. I am swimming in the sound ocean, rising and falling on this wave, no thinking, no choosing, just listening, and allowing my fingers to respond to the pull of this tide as it aches for the next tone.

The bass pattern slows of its own accord. The last of the scale tones drift into the atoms of the room, and there remains the last vibrations of the lowest C string becoming a whisper, becoming smoke, becoming an emptiness that shimmers silver in the aftermath.

Was this music from my core? Or was this sound erupting from the very core of music, responding to the invitation of my open and willing ears? Are these two places one and the same, two vibrating hearts, infinitely resonating one with the other? Call it improvisation, or call it a song from God – it doesn’t matter, once the listening begins.

Time Is A Teacher

I’ve been working steadily on all of my harp ensemble tunes for the last three weeks, devoting ten to twenty minutes of practice time on each tune each day. I’ve learned fingerings by working on one or two measures at a time. I’ve drilled transitions between sections. Today, the tempi that seemed entirely too fast and unattainable three weeks ago feel quite reasonable. I’m not yet getting every note, or every transition between sections, every time, but I’m not falling off the train entirely, and I’m getting back on board without falling behind the incessant click of the metronome or losing my place.

It’s easy for me to forget, when I start a new tune that is initially too fast and too hard for me to play, the impact of time and repeated practice.  Yes, the tune is way too fast and much too hard when I first try to play it at the assigned tempo. But the whole process of practice, of learning and drilling little chunks of the tune, slowly, then slightly bigger chunks, and slightly less slowly, works. Doing this for ten to twenty minutes everyday miraculously brings the tune within reach. Today I could even add some of the left hand accompaniments, when three weeks ago I was unsure if I would manage playing just the melody.

Time is not only a great healer. Time is a great teacher, as long as I show up, sit down, and do the work.