First lesson

And she’s very sweet and experienced, so I like her a great deal. She’s also willing to do biweekly lessons, which helps a great deal. She did say that she prefers weekly ones for kids, but that she recognizes that adults have jobs and things, so that biweekly lessons are really the only way to manage it with us. With me, since I have to lose every other weekend by going down to see my mom or bringing her up to my apartment, weekly lessons would be a giant waste of money and a worse waste of time.

Her harp is however about twice the size of my little Daphne, and I despair of ever actually showing her what I can do since transitioning between the two will always leave me fumbling and flat-footed. The thing is a monster.

She gave me a few exercises to do, some of which are okay in my left hand and absolutely unmanageable in my right without breaking strings or tendons. I am realizing that I cannot put 3 and 4 on strings in my right hand (further than on adjacent strings), and play 3. It can’t be done; the only solution is to bracket in different ways since [4 3] won’t happen for me. Using one of the pseudo-Salzedo conditioning exercises she assigned me in the Kondonassis book, I’m going to have to bracket over the next note to be played by placing the thumb one note ahead of when I should, so that I can still be anchored on the harp with it and not have to place [4 3] and play 3. I can’t express how demoralizing and actually painful it is to attempt to do that.*

However, she did talk about some students she had — and herself as well — who had to modify things to fit their hands, whose fourth finger tendons were very short, whose hands were very small, or who had extremely long third fingers (as I do), and who had to just change things up, so I feel justified in doing so even if it means that Salzedo’s brackets are out the window.

She also talked to me about the number of harpists who have had nerve damage and surgery on their hands, a membership which I hope never to join. If not bracketing [4 3] and playing 3 will keep me out of that club, so much the better.

I remember watching a tiny bit of “Gattaca” that was playing when I was over someone’s house/apartment/something, and seeing a scene that was supposed to illustrate how deeply into the society the idea of genetic optimization had soaked, featuring a twelve-fingered pianist.

You know what? You ask any musician what they want, and it’s not more fingers. Just give me a g/d independent tendon on my fourth finger, and I’ll give you a kidney.

* Did that, and it worked. From now on, I break all [4 3] brackets with the greatest cheerfulness.

Getting a teacher

So I’ve opted to look into getting a proper teacher. Moving from the Ravenna 34 to the Daphne 40 really hit home that I didn’t play “the harp” so much as just my own particular harp. I contacted a very nice woman named Anne Sullivan who sounded me out a bit and then forwarded me to an ex-student of hers named Candace Lark, which is a wonderful name for a musician. I’ll be meeting with her on April 27th at 7pm so that we can sit and talk a bit and see if my goal/learning style and her teaching style mesh well. I’ve realized that my best way of learning is just to watch the other person’s hands; I can listen and read fine, but I really do need to just see it done, partly to convince myself that it can be done and partly to see how.

This is what used to drive me bats when my old viola teacher would bring his violin to lessons with me. Dude, watching you demonstrate something on what amounts to a Barbie Viola doesn’t help me figure out how to do it without turning myself into knots.

This is also part of why I opted for a female teacher. I know that men’s and women’s relative finger lengths are very different, and I’ve already got a boatload of pianist insecurities about the size of my fourth (and fifth) fingers. I need to see someone with similar relative finger lengths actually doing something in order to convince myself that I can do it.

Wow, I can actually play scales.

Two-octave ascending and descending. I need to go slow, and do the hands separately before putting them together, but I can do it — hands-together. I never thought I would be able to do that and hence be a “real” harpist.

And the difference it makes to playing even short pieces is amazing. I always knew that scales mattered a lot on every instrument, but this is the first time I’ve seen it illustrated so bluntly at a time when I was enough of an adult to really appreciate it. “Vaga luna” went from slow and very clumsy feeling to a lot faster and looser just from doing the scales. And now that I don’t have to work so hard to focus on my hands, I can focus on the pedal change, and that’s improved.

I’m still a half-inch off the ground, but I feel like I might be a harpist someday. And I can’t believe I finally found a comfortable way to hold my left hand. I still have to remember to relax and keep my right elbow up, and wrap my thumbs as much as I can, but I can do it. Amazing.

Continuing with scales

So I’m continuing to do work on the right hand scales, and have realized that they help a lot with rolling chords and dynamics as well, since I’m holding my hand properly now.

I’ve also begun trying to find the best way to manage scales in the left hand. The cross-under is still unpleasant; I don’t find my hand to feel stable when I use my thumb after the cross-under. I’ll continue to work on it, but I sense some progress, so that’s nice.

Now, I need to start practicing the pieces I arranged on the lever harp with this new hand position/technique in place, so that I stop playing scales correctly and then reverting to crappy technique on these pieces.

And next week, I have a Skype meeting with Anne Sullivan to see how we feel with one another, and what she might be able to do to get some decent technique into me (scales, etudes, etc. are what I’m hoping for).

Maybe I can try that Bochsa etude that I like so much, the one in G minor …

Scale breakthrough

Okay, so I’ve had what appears to be a minor breakthrough in ascending scales, thanks to compulsively staring at the hands of a harp teacher named Anne Sullivan on YouTube while she did a little video on scales. I noticed that she didn’t cross under with all three fingers after playing the thumb, and that she did not hold her hand in the “fingers pointing downward” style that Josh Layne uses — which works for him, but his relative finger lengths are male. (Shorter index finger than ring finger. For most women, including me, it’s the other way around, and that technique won’t work. I think this is why so many women harpists always say that they use a “modified” Grandjany or a “modified” Salzedo technique. Our hands have more juice in the index finger than the ring, which is the other way around from most men.)

At any rate, I’m feeling a lot better in ascending scales, which I couldn’t do to save my life before. Now, it’s just a matter of practicing, because while I may have had a breakthrough, it’s still very fragile and easily crumbled since … well, I only had it last night. It’s going to take a while before it hardens into place enough that I can stop thinking about every single detail every time I do it. (How far ahead to push my index finger out of the way, to curl my thumb over the first joint, to keep my elbow up, to relax, etc. etc. etc.)