I feel illegitimate, yet oddly victorious.

I’ve just worked out how to play a really nasty, unpleasant part of a piece of music specifically meant to work out my fourth finger — when “working out my fourth finger” translates to “feel it popping out of joint while unable to play the piece, and wake up at 3am with my middle finger throbbing like an electrified kielbasa” — without using my fourth finger at all. I greatly value thumb slides and my ability to play 1-2-3 with no triplet rhythm whatsoever, along with my inhumanly long middle finger that allows me to make over-an-octave reaches between that and my thumb.

I know I’ll never be a real harpist this way, but if a real harpist is someone who wakes up in the middle of the night with throbbing hands, then I’ll be that cheating slob who jerry-rigs her away around things.

I mean, I know every musician hates their fourth finger, but I really do have a strong suspicion that between this, the inherent weakness of the thing on the piano, and my utter misery while using the Eb key on my flute, I do have something about that tendon that’s just not going to go away or be manageable in the typical fashion. (And yes, this makes me angry.)

Hmph.

This lessons business seems to be working. I’m really feeling more comfortable behind the harp, although part of studying an instrument (or anything really) in depth is that you will feel progressively less and less comfortable as time goes on. Still though, I’ll enjoy the feeling for as long as it lasts. 🙂

Things to keep in mind

Okay, so in the last post, I talked about the stuff I keep in mind while doing exercises. So why not list them?

  1. Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation. Always be aware of using your hands and arms in such a way as to make it easy to maintain suppleness. Experiment with this. Healthy, relaxed play is the single most important thing to keep in mind. This is the top of your focus.
  2. Keeping the long bones of the hand and the long bones of the forearm lined up.* Bend your wrists as little as possible. When your hands and your forearms are not lined up, you are playing with what Dorothy Taubman and generations of pianists call a “broken arm.” Do not do this.
  3. Make the hands “float.” The arm, as I speculated to my teacher, is like a selfie stick for the hand, moving it back and forth; her term for it is a crane which is superior since it denotes articulation. The hands, attached to the arm, should float in space.
  4. Keep a clear, vibrant 3-D image of your instrument in your head (of the strings/pedals/etc.) as you work. You almost need to have a proprioception sense about your instrument. Always maintain a 3-D picture of your instrument in your head as you play, and strive to remain aware of where you and your hands/feet are in relation to it.

Beyond that, in terms of results, what you want is evenness and beauty of sound. But those are Step 1. The stuff above is Step 0. If you don’t have those four things lined up, you aren’t going to have evenness and beauty of sound, or you won’t have it for long before you hurt yourself and have to stop playing.

* To be picky, these are the metacarpals and the radius and ulna. They should be fairly well lined up as much as you can manage; of course they can’t be perfectly lined up, but you should always aim for a straight, supple wrist. The tendons that control your fingers run over that joint, and you don’t want them having to slalom around on a wildly gyrating or kinked-over wrist to do so.

Left hand improvements

I’ve been working on a nice exercise that my teacher gave me for my left hand, and through forced relaxation and going out of my mind looking for just the right hand position, I think I’ve made some progress. I’m trying now to work a sense of lightness and “floating” into my left hand and maintaining the relaxation. I’m also working on moving this new awareness into my right hand as well.

There is a thread on the Harp Column forums (on which I lurk but do not participate) about harping as one ages that’s been intersecting with this in my thoughts. The question that was raised on the board is about how to cope with an aging body as a harpist … and I’m not sure that I agree with where the question comes from.

I’ve heard of so many injuries and hand surgeries that young harpists (20s/30s/40) have had that I’m wondering if the problem isn’t that harping as a middle-aged adult is the problem but rather the accumulation of low-level injuries to one’s hands as a young person.

A young person will learn to play harp and, if something hurts, they may think that they’ll just power through it because they have to, or they may think they’ll be okay — the way that young people all over the world seem to live on the principal of their bodies rather than on the interest. They do things perhaps unwisely because their youth will insulate them from consequences.

That only lasts so long, though. Eventually the rotator cuff, ganglion cyst, and tendonitis surgeries will start to crop up.

But when you are doing this as an adult, particularly a middle-aged or older adult, you are under no illusions that your body will magically save you. You are much more likely to pay extremely close attention to playing in a healthy way or thinking to oneself, “It hurts if I try to do it this way, so I’m not doing it that way. I need to find another way.”

This is similar to how I’m approaching the use of my left hand. I can’t communicate how much attention I’m paying to doing this in as low-tension a way as possible. (I already know I have a deeply buried ganglion cyst in my right wrist, so I’m hyper-aware of what’s going on with that hand.) I know that using my hand in a certain way makes my fourth finger joint feel like it’s popping out, so I will not do that. A youngster may do it anyway thinking they’ll get used to it, or that doing something uncomfortable makes them “hardcore” or something. At 51, I’m have to confidence to trust my judgment and know, “I need to find another way to approach that.”

So I’m not more likely to have injuries; my greater awareness of the possibility of injury is making me less likely to damage my hands. If I manage this correctly, I hope I’ll never have a harp-related injury.

There just seems to be a feeling — and this is the case in a lot of realms, not just music — that “if young people get hurt doing X, then of course older people who do X will get hurt even more!” In reality, I think there’s a strong chance that young people are getting hurt doing X because they are more heedless of the possibility of injury … and middle-aged to older people who do it may be smart enough to avoid injury in the first place.

After all, that pain-is-weakness-leaving-the-body-boo-rah nonsense is the stuff of kids. Adults know that pain is your body’s way of telling you to find another way to get it done.

Buying the Daphne

You know, when I first saw that little Daphne at the VA Harp Center website, I noticed it because of its relatively low cost, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that this was pretty much my one and only chance to own a pedal harp. It cost $6,950 total — structurally sound but well-used, with a dinged finish and only 40 strings.

It wasn’t until maybe a few weeks after I spotted it that I realized that I would never again find a pedal harp for under $7,000 and that I either bought this one, or I’d lose what was probably my only chance to own a pedal harp. I distinctly remember coming to that realization while I was lying in bed: “This is it: now or never. You get this one, or you don’t get one at all.” In that moment, I decided to buy it.

But even though it was a (relative) bargain, that is still a frightening amount of money to spend on any one object. And I’m semi-relieved and quite pleased that I’ve really taken to it and enjoy spending time with it. (There really is a lot of pleasure to be found in being right up against the sound.) It’s the most I’ve ever spent on a musical instrument, but it’s (nearly) the most certain I’ve been that buying it was a good idea.

Continuing my left hand work

Yes, it’s still hard, but it’s improving — slowly. Painfully slowly, and I’m trying to focus on making sure that the word “painful” remains a metaphor. I’m still settling on a good left hand position, and it will probably be a continuing process.

I’ve realized that my pinky position has a huge impact as well on how well my fourth finger can manage things, which should come as no surprise. It’s extremely hard to make my pinky not do things it shouldn’t, though. It’s much easier in my right hand, probably because of the hand position; I don’t have to reach across myself or the instrument to use my right hand, so it can stay more relaxed.

At any rate, relaxation is extremely important in both hands, but particularly my left. I should probably be sure to do more of my Inaudible Insomniac Practice Sessions at 2am focusing on the left hand exercises. Sitting at the harp while one is somewhat bleary and trying to be very quiet in the dead of night is a surprisingly good way to force relaxation.

In other news, I’ve semi-finished up a piece with a nice Alberti bass pattern, which has put one nice tool in my toolchest, and have begun a waltz with a typical bass/chord/chord thing in the left hand, which is a giant pain in the gluteal area on the harp. It’s much, much harder to manage precise, confident jumps in position on the harp than on the piano, at least for me thus far, and it’s also hard to repeat a chord in the bass without buzzing.

So anyway, things are progressing, and I’m enjoying myself. I think I’m like one of those dogs that needs to have a rawhide toy to gnaw on or else I’ll end up chewing the table legs to splinters and otherwise destroying the house.