Nice so far

So things are going nicely with my teacher. I’m pretty pleased — she’s doing exactly what I wanted, which is giving me exercises and short pieces to work on to correct defects and lacks in my technique. She’s great at picking things that will stretch my ability just a bit, so that I’m not struggling too much … but just enough. And each exercise has a definite success point where I know that I’m doing it properly.

I know it won’t stay this way as time goes on; eventually, I will start to get into greyer areas technique-wise. But for now, it’s very nice, and I’m being pleasantly surprised by my ability to learn these strange things that I didn’t think I’d be able to do.

I have had to make some changes to the short piece that she asked me to learn — the beginning of a piece called “Song of the Heart.” There’s one C that I must turn into an A or else my head will melt, and there is another part where I need to bump a C down to a G because it just sounds much better to me. None of these changes are technique-related; each would be easier to play as they are. But … I’m sorry, my ear keeps expecting an A there and hiccuping when there isn’t one, and that G sounds better walking down to the F than the C in the left hand.

I’m one of those, apparently.

“Flow” and the fun of working

Just read an article about the … well, the bullshit of “flow”. I’ve always had a nit to pick with the way that deliberate practice is characterized as not much fun, hard work, much less fun certainly than turning your brain off and going with it.

For me, “turning the brain off and going with it” feels like Chinese water torture. I never felt quite like a human when people observed that deliberate practice was hard, sweaty work and hence “not fun.” Even if everyone else likes nothing more than to stop thinking, that drives me up the wall.

I remember being told to practice when I was a kid, at the piano. At that age, and according to the adults around me, “practice” meant to do something over and over and over a million times while you turned your brain off, and it would just get better by magic.

I couldn’t do it. It was awful to sit there and be mindless, so I rarely to never practiced without getting frustrated as all hell, to the point of breaking piano keys, which I’m a bit hesitant to admit to.

It wasn’t until I learned — as an adult in my 40s — about deliberate practice, slow practice, and Leopold Mozart’s trick with the dried peas, that practice became fun.

Yes, you read that right. Deliberate practice, contrary to the common wisdom, was fun. Suddenly, I enjoyed it and could easily lose myself in doing something over and over the requisite number of times until I got it.

Deliberate practice wasn’t unpleasant. Deliberate practice, for the first time in my life, made practicing fun.

So maybe I’m just not set up for “flow,” whatever it is. I’m sorry, but if my brain isn’t engaged, I’m bored out of my mind.

I also have a very, very hard time focusing under someone else’s gaze. I can focus by myself just fine, but when other people are watching me, I feel like a seal being stalked by sharks. Between my love of nitpicking and detestation of being watched, I suppose it is no accident that my favorite way to be a musician is to accumulate technique and then arrange and compose. 🙂

Suckage.

You know, the problem is that when you get a bit better, you paradoxically start to suck for a while. When you get a handle on something new, for a while it undermines everything else because you have to start integrating the new knowledge into the existing structure that you’ve already developed.

Also, I’m an idiot because I totally forgot that I already said this on July 10.

Okay, so.

It’s the Friou exercises, full scales in both hands (4-fingered in the right, 3-fingered in the left), arpeggiated and rolled chords, and slow four-fingered trills. Them’s the basics, skill-wise.

How to do a four-fingered turnaround

(And not collapse the distal knuckle of your middle finger.)

Three things:

  1. Your left hand knuckles will need to be slightly more horizontal and your right hand knuckles slightly more vertical.  Not much, but a titch.
  2. Keep the long bones of your hand aligned with the long bones of your arm.  This will allow the tendons to function without impediment.  Breaking that line is fatal (on both harp and piano).  Given #1, this is why you need to keep your elbows up.
  3. When you reach out with the ring finger, keep it curved or else the middle finger knuckle will lose every ounce of firmness and collapse.  Those two fingers share a tendon; they either curve together or they collapse together.  To keep the middle finger curved and firm at the knuckle, the ring finger must be curved as well.

All of these things work together.  A year after getting my harp, I can do four-fingered turnarounds (although not quickly) without pain or difficulty.  These three points made it possible, and they took me a year of stubborn analysis to work out.

Wow.

Okay, so I’m doing octave turnarounds in both hands. I’m amazed. I’m really starting to feel both like a real harpist, and also starting to get a little intimidated by the magnitude of what I’m doing. The first level of fog has cleared, and I’m seeing maybe a few hundred yards ahead now instead of a couple feet. Oy. Wow.

Octave four-fingered turnarounds in the left hand

They aren’t great yet, but they exist. I’ve noticed that I can keep from losing tone in the distal knuckle on the third finger if I also make sure not to reach very far out with the fourth. The fourth also has to be curved and facing somewhat downward in order for me to maintain tone in the third finger distal knuckle. If I don’t do that, that knuckle collapses.

I’ve also noted that I can’t hold my hands symmetrically, in direct defiance of what has seemed to me to be Harp Wisdom. The way the harp is held on one shoulder requires that the hands be asymmetrical, with the right hand knuckles slightly more vertical, and the left hand knuckles slightly more horizontal.

This reminds me a bit of an interview I saw on YouTube by French horn player Sarah Willis of her colleague Fergus McWilliam, where he talks about a book he wrote called an “anti-horn-method method.” In the book, he describes how he learned to play French horn, and over time slowly realized that what the received wisdom dictated was not what he (or anyone else) actually did.

I think this business about holding “the hands” this way or that on the harp is similar. In reality, you hold the two hands differently due to the asymmetrical way the instrument is held — not down the centerline of the body, but off-center and on one shoulder preferentially.

Anyhow, it’s working out a bit better. I’m glad now (to be honest) that I’m learning as an adult because I think this is the sort of annoying little detail than an adult can reason their way to, but that a little kid will just believe when a teacher says it. I have to confess that I’m also (at least at this early stage) glad that I don’t have a teacher, because I feel like I can reach these realizations without having anyone else in front of me saying, “No, no, no, do it this way,” while I’m looking at their hands and thinking to myself, “But you aren’t actually doing it that way.”

That and, well … it’s more fun to figure things out on your own. 🙂

I also think there’s sometimes a bit of logic in aiming for a non-reachable “ideal” of some sort rather than for the reality. There are more than a few instances in music (and probably other things) where you can sort of “aim through the target” and do better than if you aim exactly where you are supposed to be. Aim for (the factually accurate) asymmetrical hands, and you’ll probably end up messing it up. Aim for (factually inaccurate) symmetrical hands, and just because of the physiology of the device, you’ll probably end up tilting them just enough off-true to make it work. Viola was also like that, in that I had to sort of mentally imagine something that wasn’t really what I ended up doing, as a means of “aiming through the target.”

Aim for perfect, and you’ll hit good. Aim for good, and you’ll hit mediocre.