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Archive for the ‘Performance experiences’ Category

 

I got 24 out of 25. The playing on a mountain top happened to someone else I know.

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The thing is, I don’t have an inferiority complex or social awkwardness, or any of the usual excuses for being camera shy with regard to playing harp. I just get so distracted from music when a camera is around. Why?

It may be that my amateur-photographer mother insisted on full smiles and total cooperation from her four children as she snapped away on her Graflex.  We were polished, posed, and portrayed, her four little angels of photographic perfection.

There was little resistance. My brother stuck out his tongue in a couple of shots (mild enough to be adorable rather than mutinous), and in one glorious instance my oldest sister leaped in front of the camera just as my other sister and I were to be immortalized in our Halloween costumes. We were hobos. Oh, the irony.

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“Okay. Now lean in and pretend to whisper… Nooooo! Laura!!!!”

Then there is the pinky thing.  When I was 12, there was an accident involving my left hand, a gold fish bowl I was cleaning in the back yard, and a bit a concrete. Eight stitches and a monstrously bandaged month later, I was left with a pinky refugee, never to return normally to its sisters. It won’t fold flat, it won’t go where I want it to go, and (yes, I know that only I and a handful of other harpists would notice) it doesn’t do Good Hand Position at the harp, preferring instead to curl up as if I’m sipping tea at a bloody cotillion. Normally I don’t think of it much, but put a camera in front of me and The Voice of Dysfunction whispers in my ear, “cream or sugar?”

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So, for whatever reasons, I have never been comfortable playing music with a camera on me. But I am determined to overcome! I may never be able to smile perfectly (or even speak) while playing, but I will make more YouTube videos!

How? Snippets! For the past few weeks I have been recording small portions or shortened versions of songs on the harp as a sort of conditioning therapy. I am calling them “Saturday Snippets” because I have a weakness for cutesy alliteration. I have been posting them on my Facebook page rather than YouTube; I suppose it seems less exposed. After all, the snippets are not always my best work. And it’s just me, my harps and an iPhone. There are little mistakes, the cat starts meowing, my pinky goes out for tea… Nothing polished. Sorry, Mom.

But it’s a start. And I really think it’s helping.

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I am sometimes asked, “Why do harpists charge more for a wedding than they do for background music if they are doing the same thing? Playing harp is playing harp, regardless of where you are, right?”

Well, first let me say thank you. If it seems like I’m playing the exact same way at your wedding as I would in my own living room, then I am doing my job well.

Still, although it seems like I am doing the same thing in each performance, the fact is that you are not getting the same thing in a wedding as in a background music situation. My extra hours of preparation and decades of experience make it possible for me to perform through stressful situations and still play well and keep my head.

First, there is the simple truth that it is generally harder to perform a skilled task when one is being watched. It’s true that one also gets somewhat of a boost from being watched: that adrenaline-spiked “magic of concert day” so to speak. But even that boost is dependent on the performer’s level of experience. A less experienced harpist or a student may not get a boost at all, but rather a case of shakes. Or even a fainting spell. (That actually happened to me in a high school play.)  It simply takes greater experience to deliver a solid performance under a spotlight.

Second, things can go wrong. Things do go wrong. A novice who is quite adept playing background music at your birthday party, may come apart completely if she is seated at the front of a church full of staring people, or if your bridesmaid’s silk flower bouquet catches fire during your ceremony (that has happened) or if the harpist suddenly cannot see what is going on because your videographer just planted himself in front of the harp during your processional (that happened more than once).  An experienced harpist will not come apart just because the situation does. But her fees will reflect the costs of Grace Under Pressure.

Think of it this way. One thing you are paying for is the raw skill of plucking harp strings to produce music.  Then add “points” for various aspects of performance that require more experience: pressure of being in the spotlight; pressure from the magnitude or importance of the event; nature of the audience (is it your book group or will the Governor be there?); and potential for glitches (weddings nearly always have them).

Myself, I have limits. I have played for a Governor, and a Mayor too. And my beloved harp teacher always told me I could do anything I set my sights on, bless her. But I have turned down a few opportunties because they seemed beyond my self confidence or abilities.

What I want to convey is that playing harp is not just playing harp.  All performance situations present some level of psychological challenge. We harpists have paid with our lives to meet those challenges. Literally our lives, because playing the harp well under pressure is never a side hobby.

Why do we charge more for a wedding than a cocktail hour? Because we are giving you not just our time at your event, but all the years that came before.

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In no particular order, here are some “ingredients for success” I have found useful for harp students.  What is “success” at the harp? It means having the music you want to play within your reach and making your musical dreams a reality.

1. Productive habits.  How you practice, when you practice, tuning all your strings every day, breaking new pieces into manageable sections… these are the sorts of small elements that will make a huge difference in your work. Your teacher will give you suggestions about practice methods; do not turn them down unless you have proof that a different method is superior for you.

2. Listening to a lot of music. The difference between you and a programmed, synthesized harp machine is musical expression.  Having a lot of music in your life enhances your ability to convey emotions, sound textures and colors through your playing, to conjure mental pictures for your listener, and even to simply have good pitch and rhythm.

3. Sight reading, aka knowing written rhythms and notes. Duh. No, not duh! Many students find themselves stuck with a limited repertoire or a stale learning style because they are not proficient sight readers.  Always keep in mind that sight reading is a continuum, not a destination.  Any progress you make in note and rhythm recognition will be very helpful and beneficial. Never compare yourself to others; just keep moving forward. Become adept at clapping difficult rhythms. (I recommend what we fondly call “the drummer dude book” for practice if you don’t have a lot of sheet music around.) For note reading practice, set a metronome at a slow beat, get out some sheet music, and — starting at the bottom-most note of each beat and moving vertically through all the notes that occur on that beat (including both bass and treble clefs) — name each note aloud on each beat of the metronome.

4. Balance in your life.  Work hard — because harp is a difficult instrument to play well — but when you go on vacation leave the harp at home. When harp has been physically strenuous, read a book. When harp has been mentally taxing, go for a walk. When you have been shut up practicing too long, call a friend. It is just as detrimental to overwork yourself as it is to slack off. I love using a practice log because students can clock the hours they need and then enjoy the rest of their day without feeling guilt and stress over imperfection.  Consistent practice is like regularly putting money in the bank. It adds up quickly.

5. Good physical technique. There are several methods for harp that use different hand positions. I will not even contemplate saying one is “best,” though there is only one technique I personally teach. (The one I know of course.) Whichever technique you are learning, commit yourself to it and work hard to master it.  Good technique makes you agile and ready to tackle hard music.  Focus completely on technique when you have exercises or etudes so that hand position will be automatic when you play your “real” music and your mind is busy with non-technique issues. Avoid “too cool for school” thinking; good hand position is the means to an end, and you do need it to advance.

6. Knowing what kind of music you really love. When you are learning harp, your teacher will give you pieces that teach specific skills and move you through a planned progression. But whenever there is a choice of music you should be very aware of what you want. We don’t have to specialize to the exclusion all other genres.  Rather we need to have a focal point, a calling.  Choose to do a few things well. With music, if you close some doors you can usually open them again later if you change your mind.

7. The best instrument you can afford.  I just cannot stress this enough: don’t buy a cheap harp. With harps, you get what you pay for. (And a more expensive harp will hold its resale value better if your circumstances change.)  Furthermore, identify the harp tone you like best. Harps differ enormously in tone, depending on so many factors. Listen to a lot of harps! Watch YouTube, attend harp concerts and AHS meetings, visit any harp stores you can, and if possible go to the mother of all harp retail venues: the expo of a major harp conference. Finally, if you must choose between two or more harps whose sound you’re sure you’d be happy with — I’m going to say it — buy the “pretty” one.  Seriously. This is going to be a great big object in your living space, and its beauty should fill your heart with joy.  If you currently own a harp but are unhappy with the tone, get a better one and sell the old harp. This isn’t the Great Depression. Stop feeling guilty, save up your money, and upgrade. In order to reach your goals, you must have a harp you love.  [Note: if you are buying a used harp with no warranty, ask your teacher or an experienced harp player to look at it with you.]

8. Support.  If you are under 20, positive input and involvement from a parent is crucial. For adult students, anyone living with you can be a help or a hindrance when practice time comes along. Work out any issues, and express your gratitude sincerely and frequently.

9. Audience. Wait! Don’t run away.  “Audience” just means you are playing your best — with no stop-and-do-overs — with the distraction of being heard and yes, judged, by a sentient being other than your cat. For the shy among us, audience can mean a recording or video of yourself, only for yourself.  Whether you choose to record yourself, invite the neighbors over, or book yourself at the local nursing home, having an audience will provide tremendous benefits. You will learn so much about your piece and yourself. You will have an opportunity to really express yourself musically.  And the practice leading up to your performance will have more meaning and motivation.

10. Variety. Although I believe in having an established practice routine, we need variety to prevent staleness. Think of ways to spice up your practice time. You could have one “sight-reading day” each week to look at new music, move the harp to different locations in your home, or play pieces in different octaves than usual.  Or, you could take a piece you know well and write out the chord progression so that you can improvise a musical bridge between repeats.  For ear training, try to play along with a favorite CD: either pick out the melody, or try to play the backup chords.

I hope you will find this list helpful. Even if you are only learning harp as a relaxing hobby and have no intention of sharing it outside your home, you will get so much more personal benefit from playing well.  Having harp in your life should be worth the time and expense, both of which are unavoidable — unless your harp is only serving to adorn your living room.  Dig deeper and find gold!

 

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“The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.”        

-Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Technically, I am not “supposed to” enjoy the spotlight. I am an introvert.

I used to  berate myself for not being a more glittery and gregarious performer…

Deborah Henson-Conant rocking out as only she can do.

…but all attempts to emulate such a creature were disastrous.  I eventually learned (and am still learning) to be a performer on my own terms, and to love the process of sharing music — which I have always felt driven to do.

I recently compiled a list of performance tips for a harp student of mine who was going to play publicly for the first time.  It started as a very practical list, which you will see below. But even after the lesson was long over, the list of advice kept growing in my mind and becoming increasingly philosophical (as you will also see below).

These tips, advice, and musings that I have collected might be helpful to other students and new performers.  Especially those who have similar temperaments to mine. In other words. Introverts.

It’s not that extroverts are unwelcome here! But I have doubts as to how much value they will find. Extroverts are naturally focused outward, on the world around them, and are likely to feel like their interaction with an audience is natural, easy, and even vital. They might not have much use for advice about connecting the inner life of a quiet mind to performing music publicly.

Still, even extroverts can have issues with public performance. As Susan Cain points out in the aforementioned book Quiet, social anxiety can certainly strike extroverts (e.g.- Barbara Streisand, paralyzed by stage fright). And conversely introverts can be very comfortable in social situations, as I am.

If you are a musician who feels brilliant while playing in your own kitchen, but inept and stiff when confronted by an audience, I hope you will benefit from some of my thoughts.  If you have ever sat down to play your harp for others and felt so disoriented by your audience that you looked at your own instrument and thought, “what the hell is this?” — perhaps my point of view will give you a few insights.

love to play my harp for people. But I do not love to “perform” in the classic sense of “ta da!  here I am! Me me me…” I spent a long time earlier in my life wishing that was me.  I know I am not alone in this. But let’s stop asking Santa for a unicorn and see what else he might have in his bag…

First, some practical advice for harp students and new performers:

1. Detach Experience from Place.

The physical area in which you practice is linked psychologically with the music you have learned in that spot. So a week or a few days before your performance, start moving the harp around to other rooms, other lighting, etc.  Move repeatedly and practice in those different spots. For the sake of self-confidence, move the harp back to your normal spot during your last practice before the performance.

2. Dress rehearsal.

Play for other people before playing for the “target audience.”  Enlist neighbors, close friends, the UPS driver — anyone you can get — to listen to you play a little. If you can do a “test performance” at a nursing home or for a group of friends, do it!   If you really cannot manage that, record yourself.  Hearing yourself on tape or on video will teach you all kinds of things about your weak spots.  And the act of recording will provide a kind of performance pressure that you can use to desensitize yourself.

3. Over prepare.

As a new performer, whatever you intend to present publicly has to be beyond ready.  Introverts especially must over-prepare their music, because we are not wired for external distraction during performance.  Our brains are actually, physically different from those of extroverts. (Read Introvert Advantage for more on this.) Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones, and can “wing it” with pieces that are not rock solid.  But most new performers should not depend on adrenaline or luck to pull them through a weak section.   Do not be like the Dilbert cartoon that shows his Project Timeline with a big sign in the middle reading “Insert miracle here.”

4. “Play like you practice, practice like you play.” – Sports maxim.

If it is an outdoor performance, practice a bit outdoors. A nighttime event, practice at night. Candlelit Christmas Eve service, turn off the lights, get a good stand light, and light some candles. A background music event, turn on the TV and the radio to simulate distraction.  Ask a friend to distract you with an ill-timed question, by pretending to talk about you within earshot, or by singing along.  Practice blocking it all out.

5. Performance day – practical tips.

  • No miniskirts. “Miniskirt” for a harpist is defined as anything above the middle of your shin. Seriously. Either go long or go with pants. You do not want to provide entertainment unrelated to the music, and this is no time to ride side-saddle.
  • Nails short (unless you play wire-strung) and clean.  No nail polish unless you are used to seeing it there when you practice. No jewelry unless you’ve practiced successfully in it.
  • Know the floor you’ll be seeing behind your strings. If it will be white, beige, or color-patterned, or if you are not sure, bring a black cloth to lay down so you can see your strings.
  • Bring a zip lock baggie with a damp (not soaking!) wash cloth to clean your hands between pieces. You may need a dry one too, but something about hand sweat is very sticky when plucking strings, even after drying. It’s nice to have a way to clean your hands during longer sets.
  • Before playing, wash and/or soak your hands in very warm (not hot) water if you can. Many public bathrooms do not provide warm water, so consider bringing some in a thermos. Hands immersed in warm water will respond much like they do to a physical warm up on the harp: capillaries open up, finger feel nimble, skin is softer – producing better tone.
  • If you have to wait on or near a stage (in other words, out where people can see you), use the waiting time to open and close the fingers flat to the palm, slowly and deliberately, to keep them limber.
  • Micropore paper tape: use a small piece to hold rings in place if you have floppy rings. It can also be used to cover small cuts or hang nails if they are not on the string contact spot.

The Mind on Stage

We are artists, but we cannot go look at our paintings on the eve of the gallery opening to reassure ourselves that, indeed, we really do have a lovely body of work.  We see only our own hands, and they are empty. We know our brain is full of music, but the doubts and fears can block our view.  Let us look at some ways to cope with the mental aspects of performing.

In some situations (such as background music performance), you can begin with some improvisation in the key of your first piece as an introduction to the piece. Improvisation helps the mind feel control and a sense of ownership. As a new performer, improvisation can help you avoid feeling like you are walking on stage to take a test, or face an enemy, or fall into deep water. But always practice improvising at home. It sounds like a contradiction: do something completely new, but practice it first. The point is to feel comfortable just “doodling around” on your harp so you can do it in performance.

It is crucial that you practice covering “mistakes” during your regular practice!  If you play a wrong note, or forget to move a pedal or lever, or you just realize you went to the “B” part too soon — it is a normal part of playing live music. We are so accustomed to the perfection of recorded music. But many “takes” and much patching takes place in the studio to clean up every track. The late Lynne Palmer, an extraordinary musician with a career spanning many decades, told me she could count the number of truly perfect performances in her life on one hand. That means she played hundred of times with flaws. And you will too.

How do we live with flaws? By dedicating a certain amount of practice to “covering.” If you always stop and fix mistakes in practice, you will never learn to cover. Use some of your practice every day to consciously, deliberately, continue playing past mistakes, and see what your amazing brain can come up with to get you back on track. 

When you make a mistake, preserve the ongoing rhythm of the piece – do not pause.  Keep playing something! Practice this. It really does come more naturally on stage if you have been doing it at home. Be very aware of your key signature and preserve that tonality.  Identify “repair points” in the music, where you can go if there is a total “train wreck” and you need to just time-warp to another spot.

When I was in a high school play, I had to stand on a ladder back stage and open a window in an artificial wall, facing the audience, and deliver a single line. In true introvert fashion, I opened my window, saw the audience, and went completely blank. Someone taped the play, in which I saw my head flop forward – chin to chest (was I fainting?), then jerk up as I delivered a different line from later in the script. My eyes at that moment looked insane. I have no memory of how I got out of that. I have no memory of thinking or problem solving. That is not how the brain works when it is rescuing you! The answer comes from a place that speaks no words and has no logic. No one wants an experience like this – for years I cringed at the recollection – but if you have such an experience, believe in your brain and trust that it will bail you out somehow.

Let us leave thoughts of train wrecks and fainting and now discuss what will happen, and that which we go forth to do…

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  -Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems.

Your music is art-in-the-moment. Why are you there, if not to spend a part of your wild and precious life sharing music? “Well, it seemed like a good idea back in March to play at my sister’s wedding, but now…”  Perhaps you need to reach back and recreate that mindset, that the wedding is in four months, not four minutes.  If you can, this bit of mental gymnastics might calm you considerably.

But as an introvert, I believe the wild and precious moment is also an intimate one. As much as I need my audience to give life to my playing, pulling that harp back onto my shoulder is like putting a call on hold.  They no longer matter, temporarily.

I realize this is not standard protocol, and certainly not how an extrovert would handle an audience.  Advice from that quarter might ask you to view your audience as friends, or as naked — or any number of mental tricks to minimize their distraction. For me, I know after years of experimenting that I must view them not at all. Not once I begin playing.

The second I start thinking about my audience, or how I look to them (“smile!”) — the second my attention strays from the music, I will fall. Skip a beat, miss a note, do something that requires me to dig out my “covering” skills.  So why not just get inside your music and stay there?

“It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” -Sir Winston Churchill

Resist the urge to think of the next section, or the next song, or even what notes are coming up in a few seconds (unless and only unless that’s how you always practiced it, with the mental experience of looking ahead). Your brain is going to experience the music sequentially, and all your fabulous muscle memory goes straight out the window if you engage in frontal lobe debates over whether the next measure begins on D or D#. Don’t do it! If you have doubts about an upcoming note, follow the music in your head and let your fingers take you there. Think about bowls of fruit or horses in a meadow if you must, but do not question “while the ball is in play.”

Never say “sorry” if you make a mistake. That takes your head out of the music and into the eyes of your audience. I guess if you feel sorry you can apologize mentally to the music itself – anything to stay focused on the music.  For all you know, people may not have even heard the flaw, and if they did it was not the Gong of Judgement that you experienced in your own ears.

To get inside your music, let your imagination conjure up places, images, and feelings as you play. Reach for, express, and be conscious of every color in the music, its dynamics, rhythms, imagery and tones. Do this in practice every day so that performance is not different, only richer.

This has been quite a difficult post to write. I feel a responsibility to convey all that I’ve learned about performing, which is impossible.  If you have further insights, please leave a comment.  And if you want to read my ongoing analysis of how an introvert performs music, I will be creating a new category for blogging about this in the future: “Performance experiences.”

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First, can we all agree that the dude who plays the piano sometimes at Nordstrom is not human? Actually, I haven’t seen him for a while; either he returned to his own planet, or the recession has mandated a cut in Nordstrom’s Alien Pianist budget.  Or maybe I just don’t shop as much as I used to.

But you could tell he was not human because he used to look like playing the piano was no more taxing to his mental abilities than brushing his hair. Looking almost bored, he seemed to long for a little chat – with anyone at all, on any subject, and without any break in the music.  “Hey. How you doin’ today? Thank you, thank you very much…”

I am not that kind of harpist. Ok, maybe calling the Nordstrom guy an alien was a bit harsh, but you cannot exactly blame me for being sensitive about this.  I have tried and tried to connect the brain wires that control talking while I’m playing the harp. My results are always the same: both harp playing and coherent speech dissolve in a puddle of mush.

I used to attempt an exercise where you just say your name while playing music, and then build up from there.  I never progressed beyond good intentions. The music always fell apart immediately, and what came out of my mouth was something like, “sssnnoonthp kmrrfauiill…”

I don’t mean to dwell on it and bring everybody down. Actually, I’ve accepted this as my own charming mental defect and can even laugh about it when it is not actually happening.   But what am I supposed to do when the friendly, well-meaning listener approaches me mid-tune and, mistaking me for a Nordstrom Alien Pianist, exclaims, “That is so lovely! So, how long have you been playing?”

There isn’t much I can do, beyond smiling and trying to nod a bit. Whether it is the kind and friendly listener, or the host’s inebriate uncle who wants to sing along with “Embraceable You,” I mostly have to just ignore people.  It seems rude, but I figure it is preferable to hanging a sign on the harp that says, “Verbal Interaction With Harpist May Give Her Seizures.”

By contrast, if I take out my knitting in public, people seem to think I cannot possibly talk to them at the same time. They start to speak, I look up, and they say, “Oh, sorry. You’re busy…”  No! Try me! I can cross a cable, do a centered-double-decrease, and keep cranking out this sock, all while telling you about the guy who insisted on singing along with “Embraceable You” last night. I can talk to you.  It’s not like I’m trying to play a harp.

In a doctor’s waiting room one day, some ladies apparently didn’t even believe I could knit and hear at the same time.  Less than ten feet away I heard them speaking at normal volume: “Is she knitting? I think she’s knitting. What is it? …I don’t know.”  So I looked up and smiled, expecting to hear, “Oh, we were just wondering what you were knitting there…”  But they just looked away.  As if to say, “We’d better stop before she hears us.”

Review:

1. I am so very sorry, but I cannot talk to you while I’m playing this harp.   (Let’s not start anything that could lead to a 9-1-1 call.)

2. I would love to tell you what I’m knitting, and I can definitely hear you and hold these needles at the same time.  I’m gifted that way.

3. Nordstrom should stop hiring extraterrestrials and give us earthlings, flawed as we are, a chance.

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