A Piece I Knew

 "Probably for every man there is at least one city that sooner or later turns into a girl. How well or how badly the man actually knew the girl doesn't necessarily affect the transformation. She was there, and she was the whole city, and that's that."

I recently read this in a beautiful short story called "A Girl I Knew" by J.D. Salinger.  I love the way it describes how people can be such a strong influence in your experience of something. 

I was telling a friend that I wanted to start learning the Faure Impromtu.  She immediately recalled in great detail "Oh I remember when I played that piece!  It was for an Easter service.  My daughter was little and found the stuffed bunny she was supposed to get the night before.  My husband had the children in the balcony during the service and my daughter cried out 'Look there's Mommy!' and carried that stuffed bunny all over the church."  That was a 40-year-old memory for her.

As much of a solo instrument as the harp is, there are always other people involved in music.  A person I study with, a group I perform with, an audience that hears me play - people I connect with on some level and associate with that music.  

So much heart and soul goes into the music that those people become the entire piece. When I hear it again years later, it's not just the music I'm hearing. I'm instantly taken back to the time I played it, the place where I rehearsed it, the people I played it with, the audience that supported me.

They become the memories that the music recalls. 

They were there, and they were the whole piece, and that's that. 

Concert Black

"I have nothing to wear." This is a common fear during concert season when my favorite black dress is at the dry cleaners. 

What are women supposed wear on stage?   It's not as easy as tux or no tux. 

There are all these rules. Tea length skirt or longer, nothing sleeveless, minimum 3/4 sleeves. (Heaven forbid we wear something that does not constrict us in playing our instrument.)

The harp adds more challenges - shoes we can pedal in (see previous Pedal Cam blog post), skirts that are so long or pants that are so flowy that they get caught in the pedals, sleeves so long that they muffle harmonics.  And my added personal rule - nothing dowdy. 

Finding a comfortable garment that meets all of those rules at the same time while remaining sophisticated is almost impossible.  My favorite concert black dress that checks all the boxes I've had for about 14 years. I have yet to find a replacement I like as much to retire it to the back of the closet. 

So I get it.  I get why I see women on stage in black jeans and a black t-shirt.  I will not judge you for that. 

But let's face it - women's clothing has never in history been designed for comfort.  And while I don't judge you for wearing a t-shirt on stage, I just can't seem to join you.  For me, no matter how big or small the performance, the stage is my medium.  

All the hours in the practice room culminate in a performance that is seen and heard by you.  The performance is the painting, and whether I like it or not, I am the frame.  I may not be Monet, but performing is my art and I will only frame it in the best.

TACET- How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

I love playing in large ensembles. 

Sometimes, I really miss the violin.  I miss the camaraderie that comes with a big section; the sound of my violin against my ear with the rest of the section filling in the volume.  A similar feeling as when you're singing with the radio in the car and you have your favorite singer backing you up.  Nothing beats it.

Not every harpist likes the orchestra. It's not like the violin- where you have a part in every piece, and play almost constantly.  There just aren't as many parts written for harp, because the modern harp wasn't invented until recently (comparatively). So you lug your heavy furniture to rehearsal and wait around for the piece you play on. Then when your piece does come up, many harp parts are at least 60% counting rests, sometimes more. TACET is a word in your everyday vocabulary. It is not always easy to love.

But I love it. When I played violin, I was a piece that made up a larger whole of the violin section; which is a perspective I truly value, but the harp is a completely different orchestral experience. 

Counting rests by just watching the bouncing baton in front of you and expecting to make your entrance is almost impossible. It forces you to be aware of what everyone else is doing. Being on stage surrounded by other instruments allows you to become intimate with more than just your part, but with everyone's part.  You're allowed to hear every aspect, every color, every texture of the music surrounding you.

That's why I love it - I find that the tacets teach me to be more aware of the music as an entirety. I'm completely immersed in another world around me, and I happen to have a part in describing what it looks like.

Pedal Cam

For those who are not familiar with the pedals on a harp, I thought it would be fun to set up a Pedal Cam so you could see!

It's our job to make sure you don't know they're down there, so if this is the first you're hearing about it, it's ok!  I'm doing my job. We are supposed to be like a duck- calm and floating from above, but pedaling quickly and silently under the water's surface. 

The pedals allow us to change the pitch of certain strings. There are seven of them - one for each note in the scale - D, C, B, E, F, G, and A. Each pedal has three positions - flat, natural, and sharp. If the C pedal is in the natural position, all of the C's on the harp are natural. If I change the C pedal to sharp, all the C's become sharp.

So, unpleasant key signatures are not difficult- D flat major is no problem. But accidentals are when things become unpleasant for us. Any time the music deviates from the established key signature, we have to change pedals. The harp is a 4-limbed instrument. 

That's the basic gist. Without further ado, here is a visual into our world below the water's surface of The Measure With Seven Pedal Changes!  This was not meant for sound quality, so please disregard the tone.


The Jungle

I love to read. I read just about everything - classics, historical fiction, sci-fi, memoirs, young adult, mystery - I read it all. I love the places I could otherwise never go and the people I could otherwise never meet in a book.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is one book that I never finished. To be honest with you, I've only read the first couple of chapters. I know the gist of the rest of the book is rather depressing, and I'm not sure I'm ready to alter the beautiful image the beginning paints of the characters. 

Sinclair opens the first chapter describing a very dismal meat packing district in turn of the century Chicago that he refers to as "back of the yards". The remainder is spent setting the happy and hopeful atmosphere of a wedding.

Each character is given special attention as we get to know their background, struggles, and strengths. A page about the bride, another for the groom, a paragraph here and there for the other characters.  But of all the people Sinclair describes, he spends the most time on the musicians. 

His eloquent  description of the musicians is something that stayed with me, and is a paragraph I can always find when I pick up a copy of this book -

 "The musicians—how shall one begin to describe them? All this time they have been there, playing in a mad frenzy—all of this scene must be read, or said, or sung, to music. It is the music which makes it what it is; it is the music which changes the place from the rear room of a saloon in back of the yards to a fairy place, a wonderland, a little corner of the high mansions of the sky."

"...it is out of this material that they have to build their lives, with it that they have to utter their souls. And this is their utterance; merry and boisterous, or mournful and wailing, or passionate and rebellious, this music is their music, music of home. It stretches out its arms to them, they have only to give themselves up."

At some point in his life, a musician made such an impact on Upton Sinclair to put these words in his mind. I know this is not the message Sinclair was trying to send when he wrote this book, but it's my message that I take from it. -- I can only hope that by sharing my little corner of the high mansions of the sky and speaking my utterance, I will one day make such an impact. 

Have you ever been in love?

 "Have you ever been in love?"

That's what my 92 year old harp mentor asked me one day. She was listening to me play the third movement of the Hindemith sonata. I had just started it, so I was muddling through the notes and getting my feet tangled up in seven pedals changes in one measure.

"This is the part of playing harp that I can't teach you. These life experiences are what we draw from when we play. This is the fun part! This movement is beautiful!  Memorize the notes and the pedals so you don't have to think about it. Then we can really start to work."

So I worked.  I worked all week on eight measures.  That's it- those eight measures were my world.  One day was two measures, eight chords.  I played those two measures/eight chords for an hour.  (I'm always a little worried my neighbors get sick of my practicing.)  The next day was one measure - the terrible Measure With Seven Pedal Changes.  I think the Measure With Seven Pedal Changes may have actually been two days.  I eventually got through the first eight measures of this movement, and didn't need the music in front of me anymore.  

And then what happened?  I started hearing things.  I heard the melodic line in my right hand was repeated later my left, like a shadow.  I heard the beauty in the dissonance.  I heard the beginnings of reverence that Paul Hindemith was trying to instill, by putting the thoughtful movement at the end of the piece, rather than in the middle.  

It was becoming a part of me.  It was morphing from the notes on a page to a place- that place I go when I play.  That place where I draw from those life experiences.

The next time I saw my mentor, I played this again.  She sat back in her chair while I played, instead of sitting forward looking at the music stand like she normally does.  

When I finished, she said "Now you hear it.  Let's keep going."

In the words of

There are people in this world who were given the gift of crafting words. I am not one of them. Just like everything else in life, words take practice! (at least for me)

So I will use this space for that practice, and for sharing other tidbits that I find interesting and think you might too.

But sometimes someone says something that I just can't say better myself.  In which case, I will let others do the talking for me.

I recently came across a quote by E.T.A. Hoffman where he so eloquently described why I am a musician -

"Music discloses to man... a world in which he leaves behind him all definite feelings to surrender himself to an inexpressible longing."

In other words, music is my happy place.