I feel illegitimate, yet oddly victorious.

I’ve just worked out how to play a really challenging 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.)

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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.

Agh.

Not the best of months, but I harp on when I have the time. Still working on finishing up the first piece that my teacher gave me; I really want to just get the thing nailed down and done. And am working on another exercise, this time for the left hand.

I’m discovering that the left hand is really ugly when descending. Ascending is nothing, and I can get my fingers to cooperate just fine. When I go downward, my hand is really unhappy, especially my fourth finger, the knuckles of which feel like the pop out of joint when I do so. It feels like when you step up a staircase and feel your knee about to give way on you; there’s just no negotiating with it.

I’m also not sure how much negotiating I want to do. It seems that a lot of harpists — most of them actually, my teacher included — have had multiple surgeries on their hands. I’m not at all sure I want to make my hands do things that seem guaranteed to result in nerve damage and RSI. I’m still so used to playing a very body-friendly instrument (piano) for a long time, and the notion of an instrument that is played heedlessly of how much damage it does to the body is alien to me. Some damage is due to the instrument being played incorrectly/unergonomically (viola), strenuously using a body part that’s not built for that kind of abuse (brass), and being pushed so far technically that the body part in question is forced beyond what it should be doing (voice, harp).

I mean, should anyone be doing with their fourth fingers what my hand is complaining about being expected to do, if everyone who tries has to get their hands cut up and sewn back together multiple times? I really think I’d rather just … not use my hand that way.

I also confess to wondering how much of this injury is created by the fact that most harp technique pedagogues are men, with their characteristically long fourth fingers, and most harpists are women — who are injuring themselves by attempting to apply these techniques to hands with predictably different relative finger lengths. And I don’t mean smaller hands; I have hands about the size of a typical man’s hand. I mean shorter fourth fingers and longer index fingers. Most men are the other way around — short index fingers and longer fourth fingers. And that difference influences harp technique radically. I really wonder how much of this damage is being created by getting taught to play the harp in ways that assume our hands are not our hands.

More weirdness

I honestly think I’m going to have to swear off of [4 3] and playing 3 permanently. It’s just not working, at least not now and possibly not ever. It’s the only time I’ve had to make a movement with my hand at an instrument and had such a powerful conviction that this will simply not be possible.

As a result, I’ve gone back to my old thumb-first bracketing. It will be slower than 180bpm sixteenth notes, but so be it. It seems that my choices are either:

  1. Play the broken brackets, which will make me slower,
  2. Force myself to play the correct brackets, which will make me wake up at 2am with throbbing hands no matter how much I “relax,” or
  3. Allow myself to break the brackets below about middle F and whenever the gap between 4 and 3 is larger than a third, which is just too damned confusing.

From now on, brackets are broken when I’m expected to place [4 3] and play 3, period. Uninjured hands and consistency matters more than following rules that change depending on where my hand is and which will hurt me, I think. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

For now, I place [3 2] at the same time when possible and [4 1] at the same time when possible, especially [1] — and balance/position my hand around [3 2].

Weirdness

So I couldn’t sleep last night, got up at 12am, and proceeded to do a bit of very, very quiet work. I think it was the “very, very quiet” part that changed things, and somehow I managed to do a [4 3] and play 3 … tentatively and quietly only, but it’s more than I could do before. I’m a bit in shock. I’ve been unable to do this for two and a half years, and now with one good chunk of exercises I’ve made small but existing progress. I’m not even sure what it is I’m doing differently.

I’m really taken aback by this, but in a pleasant way. I still can’t manage it with a fourth between 4 and 3, but adjacent strings is a breeze now, and the third is at least manageable as long as my hand’s not too far down the harp. I’ve changed the conditioning exercises that Candace assigned to exclude [C||F|A|C] because I can only manage that one by bracketing the unorthodox way, and I don’t want to develop the habit of doing that until/unless I know that I have no other choice.

Of course, it feels like that’s the only way I can do it, but I swore up and down that it was the only way I could manage [C|E|G||C] as well, and that edifice has begun to show cracks.

So I’ll stick with the [C|E|G||C] flavor for now, and just gently see if I can’t move myself in the direction of [C||F|A|C] with patience and lazy, quiet 12am exercise sessions.

It really did help to do it at night, when I felt that I had to be quiet and loose.

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.

Four fingers in the left hand, set closely

Four-fingered stuff in my left hand is fine, as long as it’s all widely spaced. The minute everything closes up though, as in scales, my ring finger doesn’t like things much and feels as if it’s popping out of joint a bit.

I’ve been noodling with ways to do this and make it feel less iffy, and I’m happy that I can almost do a decent if extremely slow four-fingered scale.

Still pleased about the progress on this, but I need to keep going with it. It’s fun to be at this level where I’m learning basic things, and still able to apply them to whole pieces.