2016 brought many opportunities for me.
Challenges and fears accompanied every one of them.
Of course there are always challenges that show up unaccompanied (by opportunity or anything else) as well. Whether I’m reading news from the wide world, learning about my friends’ lives, or simply watching silly videos, my Facebook newsfeed operates like a strong wind, either pushing my mood to change or mandating an effort to stay anchored. How can I be filled with compassion but stay sanguine? How much do I live my life and how much do I engage with other people’s lives? These are not new questions for me or for the world, but certainly questions I consider often.
Most of the time I share about my musical successes on social media but today I thought I would reflect back over the year 2016 in terms of musical challenges.
Is this for real?
I released my first book of sheet music with Mel Bay Publishing. When I first received their letter of interest, I shrieked aloud with joy and disturbed my sister in the middle of a really good book to share the news. But quick on the heels of this excitement arrived the fear that the deal wouldn’t really go through. Anxiety kept poking its head up throughout the whole editing process, telling me that I’d never see it in print, that my work was for nothing. Because “Light So Brilliant: Christmas Carols and Tunes for Solo Harp” was (is) a Christmas book, we targeted October for its release, which gave me just over a month to prepare and proof almost forty-eight pages of complex music. I’m not complaining, but the process of preparing a book for publication is painful.
My wrists developed shooting pains from all the time I was spending on my computer, engraving and formatting the music. My back started aching because I couldn’t stand to sit in a desk for more than an hour at a time. Yes I started out with perfect posture at my desk, but when that lapsed I sat on the floor, on the couch, at my desk, kneeling on the floor, sitting on a small stool with my computer on a chair, curled up in bed with pillows, outside on the grass, standing with my computer on the high back of the desk. I worked through headaches and scarfed down meals while proofing pdfs. It was totally epic.
I debated with myself: is this verse easier to read in bass clef or treble clef? Is this measure easier to read in ledger lines or accompanied by an 8va sign? How much is too much when it comes to ink on a single page? Should I stay true to my own preference for no page turns even if it means tighter spacing, or should I bow to the conjectured preferences of those who might buy the book? “Be true to yourself!” our culture says. But really the goal is to create a book useful and enjoyable for other harpists. Myself, yes, but mostly other harpists. I ended up compromising in several cases – adding one page turn, but never two! The pages are probably still a bit too black for some, but I think that harpists who don’t let it scare them will find arrangements that delight and challenge them. I’m proud of my book.
“Wow, that’s fast!”
I played the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Berlioz for the first time. When I received the invitation to play 2nd harp with the La Crosse Symphony, I wondered, “Am I good enough to play the ‘Symphonie Fantastique’? I’ve heard it’s fast.” But I tried to remember the lesson I learned in college from the Hindemith harp sonata: everything is difficult at first. And some things take more practice than others. But if you have the skills and you put in the time, you can make it work. So I said yes, and started putting in the time. “Whew. Gotta practice some more,” I thought as I pushed the metronome up to final tempo. Ultimately I made it. (The above clip is not at final tempo yet.)
The other challenge involved with playing for the La Crosse Symphony was that it was, well, in La Crosse. And while I have a flexible schedule, I can’t simply cancel all my lessons at the last minute. So I drove back and forth, spending a night in the Cities, and then a few in La Crosse, and then back in the Cities: I felt homeless for a week. Many people in the world actually have no homes, so I almost shouldn’t make the comparison, but truly, as much as ever in my life, I felt like I was without a ‘base’ of operations. I didn’t like it. But I loved playing with the La Crosse Symphony, and was pleased to add the “Symphonie Fantastique” to my repertoire list.
When will I be able to sleep again?
I joined the Ravenscroft Musicke Guild and recorded “Fairborne,” our fantastic first album of fearfully fine Renaissance pieces. This too was a joy and a challenge. Scheduling created the biggest obstacle: one of the major downfalls of being a professional musician is that your schedule is pretty much the opposite of everyone else with a “normal” job.
Tuesday mornings? Great!
Evenings and weekends? Not so much.
When it looks like Saturday morning is the best day to finish up recording but it’s also the only 4-hour stretch of daytime I might have had completely to myself in the preceding 2 weeks…let’s just say that while recording a group album is oodles more fun that recording a solo album, scheduling a solo album is vastly preferable.
I think I’m broken.
I wrote my first article for a major harp magazine. Wow. So exciting (intimidating) to be invited by the Harp Column to send in an article. I had a few ideas but the knowledge that real, paying people would read my article in print curbed my free flow of words. I had to spend extra time just getting the concepts out on paper and then going back and crafting an interesting, cohesive, and relevant narrative. And then I had to weed out passive sentences. And then restructure any and all sentences blighted with “is” or “are” as the main verbs. I’m sure I missed some.
You want me to what?
Kristina Finch from the Harp Column interviewed me for a podcast – my very first! The biggest challenge here was a case of nerves ahead of time. I had listened to some previous Harp Column podcasts and everyone sounded so articulate, concise and intelligent; I could never compare. Thankfully Kristina escorted me through the process and made the actual chat quite fun! (Thanks also for editing me to sound more articulate, concise and intelligent than I actually am.)
I created (with help from my amazing videographers,photographers and editor) my first music video. What a ride. Some challenges: fingers freezing. Slipping on ice-covered but gorgeous white rocks at the waterfalls. Fingers freezing some more. Playing along with an improvised recording, while trying to match ornamentation and timing. Not having memorized the piece ahead of time (which was a major snaffoo on my part.) Trying to avoid looking at the drone! All the snow melting, but temperatures staying frigid. More fingers freezing. Friends freezing too. (It’s a good friend that will freeze on one’s behalf.)
Does this list remind anyone else of the elf king’s conversation with Thorin?:
“Why did you and your folk three times try to attack my people at their merrymaking?” asked the king.
“We didn’t attack them,” answered Thorin; “we came to beg, because we were starving.”
“Where are your friends now, and what are they doing?”
“I don’t know, but I expect starving in the forest.”
“What were you doing in the forest?”
“Looking for food and drink, because we were starving.”
You can find the video here. (No starving involved, just freezing.)
Aren’t you a little short to be a storm trooper?
Within the MN Chapter of the American Harp Society I moved from being Secretary to President. It would be fun to complain of endless press conferences, constant scrutiny, and meetings with foreign dignitaries, but though harpists are rare and special creatures, we don’t actually attract too much international attention. Ever since I was a girl I wanted to be president. At the time I was thinking president of the United States, but more recently I’ve discovered that I’m happy sticking with the local races. I’m still growing into my role as president; I’m a bit young, don’t have too much experience. (Thank goodness I’ve got help!)
Anxiety, aches and pains, headaches, feelings of homelessness, nervousness, writer’s block, and frozen fingers shaped my year 2016, but so did shrieks of joy, hours of epically satisfying editing toil, new friends and colleagues, stretches of extra-intense harp practice, an excellent music video and an earlier-than-anticipated presidency.
If you enjoyed this article you might like What Does A Freelance Harpist Do All Day?
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in concerts, recitals, and collaborations. Consider signing up for her e-mail newsletter to be notified directly of upcoming performances and important announcements.