Harp & Voice

Rethinking the Traditional Way

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you know that I recently returned from the Somerset Folk Harp Festival in Parsippany, NJ. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with some old harp friends and meet some new ones. It was also an opportunity to learn—a lot. And not just about playing the harp. One of my favorite lessons came from the amazingly talented and wonderfully warm, Cuban born, Paraguayan harpist, Alfredo Rolando Ortiz. A friend and I were taking one last stroll through the exhibit hall on Sunday, when we happened on Dr. Ortiz (he also has a medical degree) playing one of his many intricate (not to mention speedy) compositions in his relaxed, effortless style. When he finished, we complimented him, expressing our doubts that we could even approach his level of mastery. He waved this away and proceeded to give us technical instruction on how to play ascending passages with more comfort and ease. “It’s not the traditional way,” he told us.

Ortiz went on to tell us about his joy when he witnessed a classically trained pedal harpist (pedal harps are the big ones that play in orchestras) using his fingernails to play a complicated piece—in much the same way that Ortiz himself does. Again, this was a departure from “the traditional way”. Most pedal harpists would never dream of growing nails that extend beyond their fingertips, let alone use them to manipulate a harp. After this fantastic performance, Ortiz found himself among a group of pedal harpists who were raving about this man’s performance. But when Ortiz mentioned proudly that the performer had used his fingernails, they said that couldn’t be possible. When Ortiz assured them that it was, someone said, “You know, I knew there was something off about the performance, I just didn’t know what.”

How often do we do that? Put limits on our enjoyment of something based on our expectations? How often do we tell ourselves that the “traditional way”, the accepted way, is the best, and, perhaps, only way?

I’ve always tended to be a rule follower. There’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way. (The right way is usually more demanding, mind you.) You have to do A in order to get to B. No exceptions. I was already challenging these notions when a few days ago, I watched an interview of artist Julie Fei-Fan Balzer on Sue Wojtkowski’s website Irreversibly Moi. In it, she said “The rules are there to help you. If they’re hindering you, if they’re inhibiting your creativity, then you need to get rid of them.”

Sometimes you need to follow directions—sometimes that is the best way, but it’s important for me to remember that that’s not always true. Sometimes those directions, that “traditional way” is just getting in your way and preventing you from exhibiting your greatness.

Dr. Ortiz, his beautiful harp, and me!
Dr. Ortiz, his beautiful harp, and me!

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Harp & Voice

Tearing at My Harp Strings

If you are reading this on February 27, 2015 between the hours of 9:30 am and 3pm CST, I am, at this moment, being terrified by elementary school children.  A few weeks ago it seemed like a lovely idea to play lever harp (sometimes known as a Celtic or folk harp) at my nieces’ school.  And it is.  Sharing music is always a good idea, but even with 4 ½ years of study under my belt, I still have trouble making it through a simple song without incident, so this should be interesting.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with performing music.  I started singing very early and, for a time, it was always effortless and joyful.  But when I entered middle school, everything became muddy.  All of a sudden, music was scary.  There was so much riding on every note and, I suppose, whatever natural music skills I had were finally outstripped by the growing challenges in the music I was performing.  It got worse in high school, and, as time went on, I became more and more aware of my mistakes and shortcomings, and less and less cognizant of the innate joy of music.  Before long, music lessons seemed to become synonymous with inner (and sometimes outer) crying sessions.

Fast forward several years to my first harp class.  I sat with a rented, 28-string, Pakistani-made instrument in front of me, terrified to touch it. But when I did, just plucking a few tentative notes, I fell in love.  And now that I am lucky enough to have my own lovely 36-string Thormahlen Serenade, my warm feelings for the harp have only grown.

There is an intimacy that grows between harps and harpists—impossible for it not to.  We encircle our instruments in something of a full body hug.  They rest very near our hearts—and I sometimes wonder if my harp can hear my cardiac muscle flailing in panic as I attempt to maneuver a tricky phrase.  That’s another thing about harpists—some of us have a slight tendency to go in for anthropomorphism.  Many of us name our harps.  Mine is called Saoirse, pronounced ser-shuh and meaning freedom in Irish.  I wonder sometimes how she feels about having me be the one who plays her.  I wonder if she wishes she’d been picked by someone else—someone whose brain doesn’t take a vacation in the middle of pieces, someone who doesn’t purse her lips with every digital effort or cringe at every mistake.

On the day I bought her, it had come down to two harps, and I was leaning strongly toward the other one.  But then I sheepishly told the vender that, eventually, I wanted to be able to sing with my harp.  Oh, she said, an air of excitement in her tone, well, then let me play something while you sing.  So I stood there, nervously tripping through Row, Row, Row Your Boat and listening to how the vibrations of each harp melded with my voice.  The other harp’s sound was lovely, but did nothing to enhance my tone.  With Saoirse however, our voices seemed to find each other in the air—weaving together in an enchanting way.

She still sings to me—even if I’m not playing.  If I sing or speak anywhere near the soundbox, she resonates back a reassuring solidarity—so maybe she doesn’t mind being played by me after all.  But I think sometimes we both wish I could channel my little girl self, for whom music was like breathing—unforced, joyful, and nothing to be afraid of.

Maybe I can find a bit of that in the children I am playing for—the wonder and delight that music can so often provide—even with wrong notes and awkward pauses.  Maybe my time with Saoirse will someday lead me to that freedom.  I hope so.

Anyway, if you click on the pictures below, you can get a little taste of what the kids are hearing. The first is a jig called Shelagh O’Neal, written by James Boswell, arranged by my teacher Jeannie Kern Chenette, and found in her book Celtic Tunes Vol. 1.  The second is a traditional lament called Bean an Fhir Ruaidh (The Red Haired Man’s Wife).  It was arranged by Grainne Yeats and can be found in Sounding Harps Book 1, published by Cairde na Cruite (Friends of the Harp).

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