Sometimes a piece reaches that in-between stage where it can truthfully claim almost all the right notes, correct timing, and a decent set of dynamics. And there the piece languishes, like a canoe with one end stuck on a sandbank, unsatisfying in every way, but just good enough that it still floats. When a piece reaches this stage it is difficult to know what to practice. Playing it through beginning to end helps with flow and phrasing, but doesn’t improve the harpist’s sense of security. The tricky passages still rush forward too fast and leave a lingering sense of doubt: “did that sound as unsteady as it felt?” The answer is probably “It depends on how well your listeners know the harp.” The harpists can most likely tell the difference. Non-harpists will blissfully enjoy your playing with no thought to your emotional state while playing it.
What to do with these grounded canoe pieces? Take them apart and practice the bits separately until they are so ingrained that you don’t panic when your right hand is supposed to jump up to – well, you don’t remember how far – and you don’t have time to check because your eyes need to locate that next left hand chord. It’s a common harpist dilemma. Our lives would be so much easier if we all had an extra set of eyes and the mental capacity to utilize them.
Yo-yo Ma uses the term “engineering” when talking about the technical aspects of making music. I love this term because it connotes the
You don’t have to think “My left hand needs to move up two strings, my eyes need to shift slightly to the left and my right hand needs to expand to a reach a large interval, remembering to place the second finger one string lower than where naturally wants to land.” No. You practice that set of movements ahead of time so that in the moment you can focus on the emotions – so you can still get chills from your own music or move yourself to tears. Because you’ve trained your second finger to land where it ought.
If you are playing toward the front edge of your ability there will always be pieces that consume all your thoughts with technical demands. Even after they are learned they may be demanding, draining. Maybe it will take ten years before the transcendental moments arrive during that piece. Ten years of living with that piece and ten years of becoming a better, more comfortable harpist. You know this muscle memory thing? It’s more like road construction. When practicing you are building roads between your muscles and your mind. The better the road, the faster the information flows.
Savor the small victories and don’t give up before you experience them. Recently I played Dan Forest’s “Requiem for the Living” with the Dakota Valley Symphony. In the 5th movement the harp plays discordant non-chordal patterns of 8th notes in both hands. I felt so frustrated by these 4 measures, until I realized I had only tried (and failed) to play them a few times. I made myself play the section ten times slowly, focusing on placing the notes correctly and then immediately moving my eyes to the next part. At the end of ten repetitions I could play it at a slow tempo with all the correct notes and, perhaps most importantly, without a sense of panic. By taking it slowly and learning the patterns at a manageable tempo I attained control and fluidity of motion. When playing it initially I had allowed myself to become frustrated before even giving myself a fair shot at success.
The key to enjoying learning music is to relish the slow painstaking process of training your body to make the music you want to make. If you practice right, you can knock out difficult passages like you’re playing whack-a-mole (though, like whack-a-mole, if you don’t repeat the passages every so often the difficulties will pop right back up).
Be willing to spend ten minutes on one measure. More advanced players will encounter measures that take far longer than ten minutes to master. Be willing to take apart a chord and strengthen separate fingers with accents or odd rhythms so that the chord sounds rich and even every time. Build that road and keep it in good repair, and you won’t have to worry about whether the chord will sound good or not. Practice breathing while you play; practice stopping and relaxing. Enjoy the sounds coming out of your harp even when you are not playing an entire piece from start to finish. Reset your technique every time you stop. Don’t get so swept up in the music -yet- that you abandon the hand position that allows for a relaxed and free sound.
If all your satisfaction in a piece depends upon playing it perfectly, you will end up disappointed: both because humans make mistakes and because it takes a lot of practice to play a piece beautifully. Find ways to enjoy the practice, and enjoy your playing even when you aren’t playing everything perfectly.
If you enjoyed the blog post, you might enjoy Attempts at a Sustainable Schedule.
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from St. Paul, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in various concerts, recitals, and collaborations with other musicians. Sign up for her e-mail newsletter to receive announcements and notifications of upcoming performances.
Canoe Photo credit: Foter.com