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.


Growing Slowly

My friend Catherine Anderson gave me a card with one of her beautiful photographs, this one of outward spreading ripples in a pond brimming with tree reflections, and with this Chinese proverb:

Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid of standing still.

This message is what my heart needs to hear. So much of the time, my growth is so slow that I feel like I AM standing still with developing any skill at playing the harp. And it’s when I believe I am standing still that I am most likely to want to abandon the whole enterprise, to throw in the towel, to conclude that I’m wasting my teacher’s time, and to declare and believe that I won’t ever really be able to play the harp.

But when I can be as still and as receptive as the pond in Catherine’s photograph, in that moment before the pebble first kisses the surface of the water, I can see and claim my slow growing towards being a musician who plays the harp.

There are things I can do today that were totally beyond me at the end of the 2009 Fall semester. My left hand is comfortable playing a 1-5-8 accompaniment pattern, and is learning to manage the reach for a 1-5-10 chord. For the first time, I played all the harp ensemble pieces using both hands. I am learning new tunes much faster than I used to – I can get uncomplicated pieces into my fingers within a couple of weeks, instead of taking a couple of months. My eyes and hands can now recognize and land on many of the repeating patterns in traditional tunes, instead of having to learn each pattern in each measure as a separate task.

I am practicing more deliberately and effectively, which is also helping me learn tunes more quickly. And while practicing, I am finding more moments where I like how I played, where I feel like I am creating music instead of another drill of a tricky phrase.

While my sight-reading skills are still comparable to the first-grader reading “Run Spot! Run!” I can for the first time slowly read really, really simple tunes and get both hands to move and play the correct notes at the right times. Enough new neural pathways seem to have developed to overcome the paralysis that sets in and allows only one hand to move when my brain is trying to comprehend information on two staves at the same time. While this would not be a big deal for those musicians who apparently emerged from the womb able to sight-read, it’s a major accomplishment for me, and one that seemed totally impossible a year ago.

And this fall I stared down the performance demons that have tried to derail me as I’ve played for other people. I played my solo at the harp ensemble recital with both expressiveness and gracefulness. Last weekend I played for Catherine’s studio open house, and yesterday I played for a Christmas party at an assisted living facility. Despite my painful and embarrassing performance experiences this semester, I am still playing. I did not retreat back to my basement practice room to play with only cat and dog as audience. Like the movie cowboy breaking a wild horse, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and hoisted myself back onto my harp bench.

And to my great surprise, both at Catherine’s studio, and at yesterday’s Christmas party, I enjoyed playing. Without the usual shaking hands and racing heartbeat, I enjoyed how I felt as I played, enjoyed the feel of the harp strings under my fingers, enjoyed the vibrations of the harp in my chest. But most of all, I enjoyed having tunes I love spill out of my fingers and my harp into the room and people around me; I enjoyed being a part of what made the afternoon a joyful experience for others.

Today I am able to accept that I grow as I grow – yet another version of “It is what it is.” There’s no posted minimum speed limit, nor any timetable stating when I must arrive at a certain destination. Today I know I am not standing still, and today I am not afraid.