Different hands

I was thinking this weekend about how much variation there is in classical piano literature, and how little there seems to be in classical harp literature. One of the nice things about the piano is that there seem to be good-sized virtuoso ecosystems for anyone no matter their hand size. Smallish hands do better with Baroque or maybe a little Mozart; I had a roommate in graduate school once who had very small hands and played a lot of Debussy as a result. (Seriously, her fingertips came up to my distal knuckles.) Larger hands have more Romantic stuff to play, and it’s the same with nimble versus heavy hands. And in each case, there is enough literature there for someone to work within their hands’ happy place and spend years performing to their best. The piano (the keyboard in general) has been around for centuries though, and has had time to develop that sort of literature.

The harp, though? It’s only around 150 years old in its current form, probably even younger when you consider the present size and tension of the thing and not just the invention of the double-action pedal mechanism. And there only a bare few pedagogues, all of whom still exert a massive influence on the instrument. So it’s really got a severely limited literature.

One of the neat things about the piano is that you can tell what sort of hands a composer had based on how their music feels. I can tell when I play Joplin or Grieg that their hands were very similar to mine; Grieg especially sits right in the “comfortable shoes” spot: lyrical, a bit “heavy,” and big chord reaches, more challenging in a size-related way than in close footwork. I’m sure that Chopin had longer pinkies than I but he’s around there as well.* His music also seems to require a nimbler hand than Grieg and Joplin as well, more “fancy fingerwork.” And I can tell when I play them. We can all tell what sort of hands a composer had based on his music.

There just isn’t that sort of mature variation in the harp literature at this point. All of the music seems to be written for one kind of hand; there just isn’t that richness of multiple varied ecosystems yet. It’s partly nice because so much of it is an unplowed field, and frontier instruments are always fun. But it’s also frustrating because there’s really only one way to be a “classical harpist” currently.

Unlike the piano, it’s not hand size on the harp that’s the big thing but relative finger length and probably how “tightly” the hand is strung. With my reversed 2D:4D ratio and loosely strung hands, I’m looking for harp literature that doesn’t exist. I’m so glad that my teacher is open to my creating it.

I get a kick out of imagining the possibility of a harpist someday in the future with long hands, loose tendons, and short fourth fingers sitting down to my music and going, “This feels comfy for me!” while someone else who is more tightly strung, more moderately sized, and with a more reasonable 2D:4D ratio is thinking, “What in GOD’S NAME kind of left hand did this woman have?!”

* I have to admit I dislike playing Chopin on the piano, though. I’m looking forward to messing with his music on the harp, but it doesn’t do much for me on the piano.



I just realized.

I can print out a copy of it for my teacher and … ask her to write my dynamics if she’s up for it. I have never had an easy time notating my dynamics. It’s like notating pedaling on my piano pieces. I don’t know, just pedal so it sounds good. Why do I need to write it in?

Dynamics are the same thing. “How should I play it?” I don’t know. Play it soft where it should be soft and loud where it should be loud. Just figure it out.

But if I’m going to be publishing this stuff someday, well … people expect dynamics in sheet music they paid for.

Partway through

The stripped-down A theme. It’s challenging in ways I hadn’t anticipated but should be manageable.

Also, I just realized that my next lesson is due to take place on Thanksgiving. 🙂 I should write to my teacher and suggest we do it a week later.


Very nice lesson last night — my teacher likes my arrangements, so I feel very happy since she plays music by real composers. (I almost typed “composters.” I guess some could be called that.)

She encouraged me to prepare a few pieces for a spring recital, which I’m mildly unnerved about but not enough to not do it. It’s easier to play dots for other people when they’re your dots.

The only sticky bit — and my teacher has offered to help me with this — is that I’d have to transport my own harp there since it would go very badly if I practiced on my little Daphne 40 and then tried to play on a full-sized harp for the first time with no preparation.

For the next two weeks, I’ve got to arranged the stripped-down A theme, get that whole piece under my hands, and also get “Zdes’ Khorosho” done, probably with a little bit of tweaking to move it from lever to pedal harp.

At this rate, hopefully I’ll be good enough at some point to play the music that this damned blog is actually known for! Folk music is very fast and metronomic … and because of that, very very very hard.

So pleased with the B theme so far

It’s really worked out, and the typical boring way that I always does: I sit around and hear the music in my head the way it really is with the Baroque orchestra and singer, and then feel how my hands want to move in order to underline the things I think need to be underlined. There’s some pedalwork, but it’s not that bad really — mostly notches and a few flutters, but really it’s nothing that presents a real challenge. There’s only one sticky flutter in it on the F that, if I prepare for it ahead of time and just stick to the program, isn’t that bad.

The next thing I need to do is to just make sure that the tricked-out A theme is well under my hands, and that I’ve got the B theme down well enough to play it for my teacher and ask her opinion on it. (There’s one spot where I think it may be a bit thin.) Then, I need to do the stripped-down A theme, and that will be the whole piece.

I also need to really sit down and think through how I’m sitting at my teacher’s harp since it’s so much larger than mine. If I sit where the pedals feel comfortable, I’m way too close to the body of the harp and the strings are nowhere near where I’m used to the being. If I sit where the strings feel right, the pedals feel like they are a mile away. I need to just force myself to stop moving so close to the harp — keeping the strings where they need to be is more important than not reaching for the pedals. (My teacher is 4’11” on a good day; I have no clue how she manages it.)

Between that and figuring out where the harmonics are on the longer strings, I really need to just sit and orient myself, and make a strict point of doing that every single time I go to my teacher’s house. I need to just earmark the first five to ten minutes to arpeggios and just noodling around on pieces to make sure that I’m feeling somewhat more comfortable.

Così fan tutte

I’m starting to realize that everyone’s third finger collapses when they place 4, but most people are tightly enough strung that it just doesn’t collapse much.

My hands, along with every other joint in my body, are so loosely strung that the collapse is profound and a game-stopper. Everyone else isn’t “doing something” that I’m not. They’re all collapsing their knuckles, too — they’re just strung more tightly, through no fault nor credit of their own.

I’m not worrying about this anymore. I can’t place 3-4 and play 3 for the same reason that I can bend my arms up and around behind my back and touch the back of my head, and why when I was young, I could do that ballet move of lying on your stomach, reaching up and around with your toes, and tucking them under your eyebrows. With no effort, I hasten to add. It was not something I trained to do. It was simply something I did.

For me to think that I should be able to not collapse my third finger when placing 3-4 and playing 3 because others can is identical to me telling someone else that they could touch the back of their head with both hands behind their back if they really tried hard enough because I can … which I would never say because I know they never could. They just aren’t built like that. And if they tried to force it no matter how gently and gradually, they’d damage themselves.

No more angsting over this.