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Posts Tagged ‘Seattle’

 

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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The pedals at the base of a harp are for:

a) increasing volume

b) going faster

c) what pedals?

d) none of the above

Correct answer: d)

Harpists do not use their pinky fingers when plucking strings, but we make up for those two little body parts with two bigger ones: feet.  I think only an organist has more moving extremities than a harpist.  To play a pedal harp is full body experience.

There are seven pedals on the modern harp: three for the left foot and four for the right foot.  And they have names: D, C, B, E, F, G, and A (from left to right). Have you guessed what they are for yet?   (Hint: There are no “black and white keys” on harps, though we do use colored strings for a visual reference — reds are C, blacks are F.)

Each pedal controls a complex mechanism of 1,000 moving parts that goes into the bottom of the harp, up through the column…

… and inside the “neck,” where there is a system of “discs” on the outer surface.

As the pedals work the discs back and forth, each string can be shortened or lengthened.  And that is how we get sharps and flats on a harp!

So in addition to reading the notes on the page, the harpist will read pedaling instructions as well. These come in the form of diagrams for the pedal settings and instructions for pedal changes, usually written below the bass clef staff lines.

When tuning a harp, one disengages all the discs by putting the pedals into the highest of three positions, and tunes each note to its half-step-flat neighbor (E string to Eb, F string to E, etc.).  The pedals move each string’s pitch from flat to natural to sharp and back as needed. Each pedal is a master control for its strings: moving the B pedal will affect all the B strings, the C pedal all the Cs, etc.

One of the most marvelous results of the pedal system is the ability to play “enharmonic glissandos.” Only harps can do this!  The pedals are set in such a way as to remove the dissonant tones from a scale, and the harpist runs her fingers over strings (that’s the gliss in glissando – “to slide”).

Other instruments can gliss away to their hearts’ content, but not without the inclusion of unwanted notes.  Harpists can even make glissandos in different key signatures.  I love this video of my favorite pedal trick explained:  (viewed at 2:50 to 3:40)

The wonders of Double Action pedal mechanism evolved from a Single Action invention in 1810.  The Single Action pedal harp was invented about 100 years before that.  And that is why composers before the 18th century (such as J.S. Bach) did not compose for harp or include it in their orchestral ensembles. Harps were folk instruments, with poor chromatic range and crappy strings to boot.  (String making has come a long way too.) It would be like Debussy writing in a part for hurdy gurdy in Afternoon of a Faun.

(Note to hurdy gurdy lovers: although I cannot promise I wouldn’t run over a hurdy gurdy with my car if I saw one in the road, I have the highest respect for your freedom to enjoy whatever dreadful interesting sounds that make you happy.)

-Cynthia

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I have good news for the sun lovers among us. “Summer” is almost here!!!!!

Yeah, I know. The national forecast map looks like a ripe tomato.  We here in the Evergreen State admire your courage, Tomato People!  But for us, the red pen of weather mapping doesn’t really come out until a few days after the 4th of July.

It’s actually very pleasant. Stop laughing! (Excuse me. That guffaw was most of Seattle, all my neighbors out here in the ‘burbs, and the better part of Western Washington. Pay them no mind.) Yes, pleasant I say. We can sleep at night without the AC, we don’t have to water the garden much, and it is beautiful.

How beautiful is it? I have sworn to keep this blog G-rated, so my favorite adverb for conveying emphasis is off limits; just insert your own: it’s ——- beautiful!  Have a look through the pages of Everything Washington and you’ll get an idea.

I’m not really in a hurry to see the sun in full force. As I may have mentioned before, I like mild weather.  But I am happy for my friends and neighbors, to whom it means a lot.

And I am especially happy for the betrothed who are planning outdoor weddings this year. Congratulations, you are almost there! After months of preparations made on cold, wet days, you deserve all the warmth and sunshine you can get. Also, I don’t play so well with cold fingers!

Sunshine and vows on the MV Skansonia 

-Cynthia

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Back in my student days, I made a small but embarrassing mistake in a performance. At my next lesson my teacher, Lynne Palmer, listened patiently while I wept over my unworthiness to live, let alone play the harp.

“Do you know,” Palmer said very softly, leaning towards me, “how many really perfect performances I had?”  I blinked, speechless. “I can count them on one hand.” She held her hand in front of me.

ImageMy surprise at her modesty was increased by the thought of how many performances – brilliant performances – that hand must have played.  This incredible musician had studied with Carlos Salzedo; had played under the batons of Toscanini, Ormandy, and Stokowski; had won the very first Curtis Award in 1949 (against such competition as the young Leonard Bernstein).  I will never forget that moment, her humility, and the sense of acceptance and forgiveness.

Some people are really good at shaking off a bad moment. Others are good at holding on to the memory of imperfection and even cultivating it in their minds like an expert gardener until the thing is positively monumental.  I guess I am somewhere in the middle.

If you have ever planned, produced, or served in a large social event, you understand the unpredictability of human endeavors.  We do great things and we do our best, but stuff happens. A sense of humor is crucial.  To that end, I present Five Funny Things I Have Seen At Weddings and Events (in no particular order).

1. A bride had purchased beautiful artificial flowers, made of some kind of fabric, that her bridesmaids could take home and keep forever. The flowers were arranged on long bouquets, like a beauty pageant winner would carry.  One bridesmaid was standing too close in front of the lit candelabra that the church provided, and – poof! – her flowers burst into flames.  No bridesmaids were injured in the making of this scenario. A groomsman stomped out the fire and they all lived happily ever after, as far as I know.

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2. Many years ago I was booked to play for an evening cruise on Lake Union. I knew the location of the dock, but had not expected such a small ship. Before me lay a somewhat narrow wooden plank that connected the ship to the dock, suspended some 10 feet over the water. The stuff of nightmares. I parked my harp’s dolly and went to tell the hostess that I could not wheel it over. I just couldn’t risk it.  The guy she enlisted to carry the harp onto the ship was a workman from the neighboring ship who cursed, in French, under his breath the entire time. I apologized and thanked him, in my own rusty French.

3. I was hired to play for a Renaissance themed wedding in which everyone was dressed in 16th century garb. Including the dog, who came down the aisle just ahead of the bride. Dog of Honor?  I was just so glad that the dog didn’t do what dogs do (emphasis on that last word) when they get nervous.

4. This one didn’t actually happen to me personally. I just find it so funny.  An acquaintance was hired to play at the Convention Center for an event.  She was positioned at the top of an escalator and given a mermaid suit to wear. Keep in mind, in order to play a pedal harp, one needs both hands and feet, but this harpist’s feet were to be enclosed in her mermaid tail.  “Not a problem!” The only thing they wanted her to play was glissandi – that’s where you just run your finger up and down the strings, up and down, up and down…    For 45 minutes.

5. I was playing with a fiddler for a Scottish wedding and we launched into the processional requested by the bride, “Mairi’s Wedding.”  It’s a peppy tune for a processional – usually a more stately piece is chosen – but the bride was certain of her choice.  Or so we thought.  After playing through the short tune twice, the whole wedding party was out, except for the bride. We kept playing, and playing…  After what seemed like 5 minutes, my fiddle player actually walked out of the room and into the hall – while still playing! – to find the bride standing there looking confused. The poor lady thought we were going to play something else and was waiting for the music to change.

I have seen many mishaps over the years: dresses ripping, bee stings, outdoor decorations spoiled by wind, people so consumed by emotion that they could only sob and not say their vows.  “The best laid plans of mice and men…” And yet, the imperfect events are sometimes the most impressive.

When you listen to a music CD, the imperfections have been scrubbed out through multiple “takes” and countless technical tricks. But in a live performance, what you play is what you get. And yet, errors are rarely noticed by an audience. That is because the live experience is worth so much more than the sum of its parts.  The humanity and the art speak louder than the technical details. And so it is in life.  And so shall it be for you.

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www.cynthiakuni.com

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Some people call it “Junuary.”  Some people seem surprised every year… where is summer?!?  It doesn’t help much that we nearly always get a burst of warmth and sunshine in May.

I confess, I like the grey. And most of the time, I like seeing it spelled with an e. It’s not a big deal, but the e somehow transforms a bleak day to a more romantic version, as if we are talking about the coast of Scotland rather than rush hour in downtown Seattle.

The grey weather is certainly not good news for outdoor events, and it strikes terror in the heart of harpists, whose precious instruments must be kept dry.  But I do like the light, and the cool air. I have no plans to move south, and I vow to remember that when tempted to complain.

So here is the beginning of my blog. I’m afraid it is a pretty wimpy start. Downright grey in fact. Bear with me; “it’ll burn off.”

Cheers,

Cynthia

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