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Hello and welcome to my website! Since this is a WordPress platform, the default page is my little blog here. Please do click on the tabs above to find out about my harp services and background. Thanks for visiting!

You know how you can be standing there minding your own business, and a harp suddenly comes out of nowhere and grabs you?  I didn’t, but I do now.

Once a upon a time (last week actually), I was assisting a harp-shopping student of mine by visiting harp shops* and playing as many harps as possible for her. The variety of sound quality in harps is unbelievable. Even two harps made at the same time with identical design can sound different, as you can see in this video. (Close your eyes when you listen; test your ears!) Harps are like snowflakes, no two alike.

As we began to narrow down the kind of harp my student liked best, I took note of an old pedal harp off to the side and sat down to play it out of curiosity. Oh. My. What a sound. Too bad my student was not seeking a harp like this. I took a short video to post on my Facebook page (scroll to July 13, 2016, recorded at Enchanted Harp) and moved on. Or tried to.

This is the part where I was abducted, blindfolded, and taken to a secret location to be tortured with gorgeous sounds until they finally broke me and I wrote a check… Okay, not quite. But I could not get the harp out of my mind. We took a second trip to that shop to test another harp a few days later, where further torture occurred. A third visit to the shop and I succumbed.

My new harp, the harp I didn’t need, the classically carved harp I never expected to own, the harp that wouldn’t take no for an answer, is a Lyon & Healy Style 17, built in 1952.

At age 64, she is an antique in the harp world. Unlike many other instruments, harps get better and better for about 100 years, and then they explode. Seriously, unless the harpist removes the strings or replaces major components of the harp a la George Washington’s Axe, the body of a harp cannot survive the 2,000 lbs of tension from the strings much longer than that. But having consulted a harp restoration company with photos and their checklist, it looks like I will remain captive for many years to come.

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Lyon & Healy Style 17, at The Enchanted Harp in Puyallup WA

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Hand carved in 1952

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Welcome to the fleet…

 

* We are so blessed to have a number of harp shops in the Puget Sound area: Dusty Strings, Austin Harp Arts, and The Enchanted Harp

B-I-N-G-O!

Hello and welcome to my website! Since this is a WordPress platform, the default page is my little blog here. Do click on the tabs above to find out about my harp services and background. Thanks for visiting!

 

I got 24 out of 25. The playing on a mountain top happened to someone else I know.

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Camera Shy

Hello and welcome to my website! Since this is a WordPress platform, the default page is my little blog here. Do click on the tabs above to find out about my harp services and background. Thanks for visiting! 

The thing is, I don’t have an inferiority complex or social awkwardness, or any of the usual excuses for being camera shy with regard to playing harp. I just get so distracted from music when a camera is around. Why?

It may be that my amateur-photographer mother insisted on full smiles and total cooperation from her four children as she snapped away on her Graflex.  We were polished, posed, and portrayed, her four little angels of photographic perfection.

There was little resistance. My brother stuck out his tongue in a couple of shots (mild enough to be adorable rather than mutinous), and in one glorious instance my oldest sister leaped in front of the camera just as my other sister and I were to be immortalized in our Halloween costumes. We were hobos. Oh, the irony.

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“Okay. Now lean in and pretend to whisper… Nooooo! Laura!!!!”

Then there is the pinky thing.  When I was 12, there was an accident involving my left hand, a gold fish bowl I was cleaning in the back yard, and a bit a concrete. Eight stitches and a monstrously bandaged month later, I was left with a pinky refugee, never to return normally to its sisters. It won’t fold flat, it won’t go where I want it to go, and (yes, I know that only I and a handful of other harpists would notice) it doesn’t do Good Hand Position at the harp, preferring instead to curl up as if I’m sipping tea at a bloody cotillion. Normally I don’t think of it much, but put a camera in front of me and The Voice of Dysfunction whispers in my ear, “cream or sugar?”

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So, for whatever reasons, I have never been comfortable playing music with a camera on me. But I am determined to overcome! I may never be able to smile perfectly (or even speak) while playing, but I will make more YouTube videos!

How? Snippets! For the past few weeks I have been recording small portions or shortened versions of songs on the harp as a sort of conditioning therapy. I am calling them “Saturday Snippets” because I have a weakness for cutesy alliteration. I have been posting them on my Facebook page rather than YouTube; I suppose it seems less exposed. After all, the snippets are not always my best work. And it’s just me, my harps and an iPhone. There are little mistakes, the cat starts meowing, my pinky goes out for tea… Nothing polished. Sorry, Mom.

But it’s a start. And I really think it’s helping.

Hello and welcome to my website! Since this is a WordPress platform, the default page is my little blog here. Do click on the tabs above to find out about my harp services and background. Thanks for visiting! 

I am sometimes asked, “Why do harpists charge more for a wedding than they do for background music if they are doing the same thing? Playing harp is playing harp, regardless of where you are, right?”

Well, first let me say thank you. If it seems like I’m playing the exact same way at your wedding as I would in my own living room, then I am doing my job well.

Still, although it seems like I am doing the same thing in each performance, the fact is that you are not getting the same thing in a wedding as in a background music situation. My extra hours of preparation and decades of experience make it possible for me to perform through stressful situations and still play well and keep my head.

First, there is the simple truth that it is generally harder to perform a skilled task when one is being watched. It’s true that one also gets somewhat of a boost from being watched: that adrenaline-spiked “magic of concert day” so to speak. But even that boost is dependent on the performer’s level of experience. A less experienced harpist or a student may not get a boost at all, but rather a case of shakes. Or even a fainting spell. (That actually happened to me in a high school play.)  It simply takes greater experience to deliver a solid performance under a spotlight.

Second, things can go wrong. Things do go wrong. A novice who is quite adept playing background music at your birthday party, may come apart completely if she is seated at the front of a church full of staring people, or if your bridesmaid’s silk flower bouquet catches fire during your ceremony (that has happened) or if the harpist suddenly cannot see what is going on because your videographer just planted himself in front of the harp during your processional (that happened more than once).  An experienced harpist will not come apart just because the situation does. But her fees will reflect the costs of Grace Under Pressure.

Think of it this way. One thing you are paying for is the raw skill of plucking harp strings to produce music.  Then add “points” for various aspects of performance that require more experience: pressure of being in the spotlight; pressure from the magnitude or importance of the event; nature of the audience (is it your book group or will the Governor be there?); and potential for glitches (weddings nearly always have them).

Myself, I have limits. I have played for a Governor, and a Mayor too. And my beloved harp teacher always told me I could do anything I set my sights on, bless her. But I have turned down some gigs because they seemed beyond my self confidence or abilities.

What I want to convey is that playing harp is not just playing harp.  All performance situations present some level of psychological challenge. We harpists have paid with our lives to meet those challenges. Literally our lives, because playing the harp well under pressure is never a side hobby.

Why do we charge more for a wedding than a cocktail hour? Because we are giving you not just our time at your event, but all the years that came before.

This post goes out to my sisters, my cousins, my daughter, and my female friends, and to the men who care about them.  And as often happens, this post has nothing to do with playing the harp. Or does it? Recently I found a new podcast that I like (The Model Health Show), but it has dumped a big ol’ paradigm shift on me. I have to catch up on episodes because the podcast has been around a while so I’ve been picking an episode here and there.  TMHS #003 (The Truth About Breast Cancer) and #021 (Dressed to Kill) have got my head spinning.

I already knew that the “cancer care” field is a multi-billion dollar industry that has no interest whatsoever in putting itself out of a job. I already knew that cancer prevention will never be given the grant dollars that the lucrative cancer drug and treatment ventures receive.  But oh, what I didn’t know! Enter the podcasts.  Here are just a few of the omg moments:

  • Only about 5% of cancers occur because of genetic causes.  95% are caused by environment and lifestyle. Having a genetic marker for cancer is not a death sentence.
  • Statistically speaking, “normal” treatments (surgery, chemo, radiation) decrease cancer survival rates.
  • Everyone has cancer cells in their bodies all the time. It is normal. Our biology has a system for getting rid of them. We either overload or sabotage the system, hence the disease.
  • The lymphatic system (crucial to cancer prevention) does not have a pump, like the circulatory system has the heart. It relies on the free flow of lymph (no constricting clothing) and the movement of the body to do its job.
  • Among bra-free women, breast cancer rates are about the same as they are in men. In other words, minuscule! (The Fred Hutchinson cancer’s study citing no connection between bras and cancer did not include any non-bra wearers in the study. Looks like a smoking/cancer study that doesn’t include non-smokers.)

Which brings me to… bras.  Most women in our culture wear a bra. We don’t want to “sag.” We don’t want to bounce and “have stuff show.”  We don’t want men staring at our torsos and forgetting we have heads.  We are not all charismatic, trend-setting Kate Hudson. We are not all brave.

Questions and choices dance a ring around me right now. Is this truly like the situation of corsets, which were terribly unhealthy for women but nevertheless worn for hundreds of years? Did the women who first said “no” to corsets feel afraid? Would ditching my bra make me feel like one of those human advertisements, a person in a pizza outfit jumping around on the corner, only my outfit would be a giant boob? And most vexing of all… having grown up in that 60s pre-women’s-lib era where men could slap women on the behind with impunity, having seen the most prurient side of men, having the suspicion that any image of a female breast will stop most men in their tracks and turn off their brains… what oh what do I advise my daughter to wear?

I hate reading/hearing anything about cancer because, like most people, it scares me. Both of my parents had cancer, and one died from it. We all know someone who has it, or who died from it, or who has had a “cancer scare.”  But I am fanatically proactive about my health, and I do not want to live in fear. Is this the choice then: fear of cancer or fear of body exposure? (For further exploration.)

Has it only been 5 months? 

   

           

In no particular order, here are some “ingredients for success” I have found useful for harp students.  What is “success” at the harp? It means having the music you want to play within your reach and making your musical dreams a reality.

1. Productive habits.  How you practice, when you practice, tuning all your strings every day, breaking new pieces into manageable sections… these are the sorts of small elements that will make a huge difference in your work. Your teacher will give you suggestions about practice methods; do not turn them down unless you have proof that a different method is superior for you.

2. Listening to a lot of music. The difference between you and a programmed, synthesized harp machine is musical expression.  Having a lot of music in your life enhances your ability to convey emotions, sound textures and colors through your playing, to conjure mental pictures for your listener, and even to simply have good pitch and rhythm.

3. Sight reading, aka knowing written rhythms and notes. Duh. No, not duh! Many students find themselves stuck with a limited repertoire or a stale learning style because they are not proficient sight readers.  Always keep in mind that sight reading is a continuum, not a destination.  Any progress you make in note and rhythm recognition will be very helpful and beneficial. Never compare yourself to others; just keep moving forward. Become adept at clapping difficult rhythms. (I recommend what we fondly call “the drummer dude book” for practice if you don’t have a lot of sheet music around.) For note reading practice, set a metronome at a slow beat, get out some sheet music, and — starting at the bottom-most note of each beat and moving vertically through all the notes that occur on that beat (including both bass and treble clefs) — name each note aloud on each beat of the metronome.

4. Balance in your life.  Work hard — because harp is a difficult instrument to play well — but when you go on vacation leave the harp at home. When harp has been physically strenuous, read a book. When harp has been mentally taxing, go for a walk. When you have been shut up practicing too long, call a friend. It is just as detrimental to overwork yourself as it is to slack off. I love using a practice log because students can clock the hours they need and then enjoy the rest of their day without feeling guilt and stress over imperfection.  Consistent practice is like regularly putting money in the bank. It adds up quickly.

5. Good physical technique. There are several methods for harp that use different hand positions. I will not even contemplate saying one is “best,” though there is only one technique I personally teach. (The one I know of course.) Whichever technique you are learning, commit yourself to it and work hard to master it.  Good technique makes you agile and ready to tackle hard music.  Focus completely on technique when you have exercises or etudes so that hand position will be automatic when you play your “real” music and your mind is busy with non-technique issues. Avoid “too cool for school” thinking; good hand position is the means to an end, and you do need it to advance.

6. Knowing what kind of music you really love. When you are learning harp, your teacher will give you pieces that teach specific skills and move you through a planned progression. But whenever there is a choice of music you should be very aware of what you want. We don’t have to specialize to the exclusion all other genres.  Rather we need to have a focal point, a calling.  Choose to do a few things well. With music, if you close some doors you can usually open them again later if you change your mind.

7. The best instrument you can afford.  I just cannot stress this enough: don’t buy a cheap harp. With harps, you get what you pay for. (And a more expensive harp will hold its resale value better if your circumstances change.)  Furthermore, identify the harp tone you like best. Harps differ enormously in tone, depending on so many factors. Listen to a lot of harps! Watch YouTube, attend harp concerts and AHS meetings, visit any harp stores you can, and if possible go to the mother of all harp retail venues: the expo of a major harp conference. Finally, if you must choose between two or more harps whose sound you’re sure you’d be happy with — I’m going to say it — buy the “pretty” one.  Seriously. This is going to be a great big object in your living space, and its beauty should fill your heart with joy.  If you currently own a harp but are unhappy with the tone, get a better one and sell the old harp. This isn’t the Great Depression. Stop feeling guilty, save up your money, and upgrade. In order to reach your goals, you must have a harp you love.  [Note: if you are buying a used harp with no warranty, ask your teacher or an experienced harp player to look at it with you.]

8. Support.  If you are under 20, positive input and involvement from a parent is crucial. For adult students, anyone living with you can be a help or a hindrance when practice time comes along. Work out any issues, and express your gratitude sincerely and frequently.

9. Audience. Wait! Don’t run away.  “Audience” just means you are playing your best — with no stop-and-do-overs — with the distraction of being heard and yes, judged, by a sentient being other than your cat. For the shy among us, audience can mean a recording or video of yourself, only for yourself.  Whether you choose to record yourself, invite the neighbors over, or book yourself at the local nursing home, having an audience will provide tremendous benefits. You will learn so much about your piece and yourself. You will have an opportunity to really express yourself musically.  And the practice leading up to your performance will have more meaning and motivation.

10. Variety. Although I believe in having an established practice routine, we need variety to prevent staleness. Think of ways to spice up your practice time. You could have one “sight-reading day” each week to look at new music, move the harp to different locations in your home, or play pieces in different octaves than usual.  Or, you could take a piece you know well and write out the chord progression so that you can improvise a musical bridge between repeats.  For ear training, try to play along with a favorite CD: either pick out the melody, or try to play the backup chords.

I hope you will find this list helpful. Even if you are only learning harp as a relaxing hobby and have no intention of sharing it outside your home, you will get so much more personal benefit from playing well.  Having harp in your life should be worth the time and expense, both of which are unavoidable — unless your harp is only serving to adorn your living room.  Dig deeper and find gold!