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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