The best way to use a metronome

Okay, so I’ve gone over before how classical musicians constantly put the click on the wrong beat (the downbeat instead of the upbeat, which is where most popular music puts it).

Another thing we do is always put the click on the same beat. I discovered this error when I was practicing the evergreen four-fingered descending arpeggios on my harp. I would be playing thus:

Right hand: 1, 2, 3, 4
Left hand: 1, 2, 3, 4

and putting the click on the 1 every time: click-2-3-4, click-2-3-4. It’s sluggish and feels like I’m mired in molasses.

What I started doing instead was moving the click around:

Right hand: 1-click-3-4
Left hand: 1-click-3-4

RH: 1-2-click-4
LH: 1-2-click-4

RH: 1-2-3-click
LH: 1-2-3-click

And my ability to lock in got a lot better. Still not perfect; I’m too scattered and tense to really lock in well yet. But it’s gotten a lot better.

So anyhow, move the click around. Don’t always put it on the downbeat. It feels like you’re entombed in the beat when you do that. Move it around.

Yep, still here.

Doing my little descending arpeggios like a trouper, and every now and then it feels like I can actually play the thing. Continuing to work on my arrangement of “Romanza d’Amor” and wishing I had enough free time to get decent on all of the instruments I play rather than having to rotate among them. I think I’m going to arrange “Cara speme” for the harp next. I don’t really know though; I tend to say that I’m going to do something, and then my head gets yanked somewhere else and I end up arranging something completely different. I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to play “Lost” like I want, though. Amy Turk can probably do it, but not me.

Yes, I’m still here.

And still playing. Still working on Romanza de Amor (happy with it, but still tweaking). Arranging Zoe Keating’s “Lost” on it, which is a favorite of mine. Still working on descending arpeggios, and having some good success by moving the downbeat around in my head while I do it; turns out that that is a fantastic way of learning to play in time with a metronome, every bit as good as dotting the rhythms.

I’m still annoyed with my short fourth fingers, but they are much, much less of a problem than they once were, and it’s just by pursuing suppleness and relaxation while actively looking for ways to make it work that I’m managing it. All the excuses — all of them — for not advancing, be it age or having the wrong hands, are bullsh*t. The only thing stopping anyone is lack of time or lack of desire to do it, both of which are acceptable reasons to plateau. If you are stubborn enough, clever enough, and have enough time though, you can manage it barring major physical pain issues.

More Romanza

Still enjoying things, getting better, improving, focusing on relaxation, etc. It’s just fun to be able to do things I couldn’t do before and trust that my hands are on my side again. My relationship with them had been adversarial for so long on the harp that it’s wonderful to be reconciled with them again.

Teacher v teachers: actively assembling one’s own pedagogy

I’m wondering whether the problem isn’t teachers in general but just limiting oneself to one teacher — having one single point of view rather than trying a variety of things. One of the nice things I’ve noticed from watching video art tutorials is that there are three people I watch habitually and not just one: Lisa Clough/Lachri, Hajra Meeks, and Sadie Saves the Day. Each is very good at explaining things — not at telling me how to do things, but at telling me how they do things, and since there are three of them, I get a bit of parallax, and can judge which approach might work, as well as seeing that if one approach doesn’t work for me, there is a variety of others that can be tried. There just isn’t that kind of parallax, that kind of pedagogical variety, on the harp yet.

But when one is wedded to one teacher, one sees only that one point of view and gets only one kind of advice. Even if that teacher is good and gifted, it’s still only one way to look at things, and for me at least, it felt as if, should something not work for me there was no other option but to keep hammering at it even if it was obvious that it wasn’t going to work. It also felt as if, should something not work, I Guess I Just Can’t Do That. 😦 The absence of parallax was crippling.

And even having a kind, gifted, enthusiastic teacher (as I did) didn’t matter, unfortunately. Again, this may be a personality thing; there’s a strong chance that it was just very hard for me personally to have only one teacher rather than a variety of viewpoints that I could use to actively assemble a pedagogy for myself.

Most classical music pedagogy also, even with a kind, gifted teacher, really does assume the student is too stupid to not to stick their own thumb in their eye. The whole culture really looks down on the student. It’s just part of the culture. This means that even the idea of actively assembling a pedagogy would cause most classical teachers to cringe in horror.

In the end, I’m confident that after years of learning some of the most intellectually demanding subjects to cum laude/Phi Beta Kappa level, learning several languages pretty much on my own, and mastering many other things, I am more than capable of learning how to pluck a string and not burn the building down in the process. The fact that I’m playing more demanding music with greater ease and relaxation, along with finally bringing my fourth finger online, maybe two weeks after finally coming to terms with striking out on my own, has shored up this impression.

I think there is just a style of learning where you either stick with one teacher (which probably did me damage on the piano as well, now that I think about it), and another where you listen to people explain not how you should do things but how they themselves do things, and then assemble a pedagogy for yourself out of whatever’s on display on the banquet table.

If you happen to hit the jackpot and randomly find a teacher whose style and hands mesh well with your own, then maybe that’s fine, but really — what are the odds of that? And it still won’t teach you to winnow and assemble, to take an active part in your own learning, which every student ultimately needs to be able to do. In the end, you still will only be doing what you’re told and unaware that other options exist. Even if that one teacher’s pedagogy fits you well, knowing the other options will at least let you figure out why it works for you.

I’m not sure whether one teacher could help but become a sort of Procrustes in the end, even if they set out not to be. In the end, you need the freedom to sample more than one bed and to make up your own mind which one fits you best and in which circumstances.

It will be interesting to see whether or not this new way of looking at personal pedagogy will also translate to improved relaxation at the piano. I never thought of that before. It might. And significantly tension/tiredness has limited my piano playing since I was a kid. Maybe I can start trying Hanon this way or something, approaching it like I did the Salzedo exercises, just doing them and paying mind to my own hand while I do it. I don’t know. If I can pull myself away from the harp long enough to do it.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a lot of teachers will tell you that the most important thing you can do is find a teacher. They’re teachers saying this! What self-employed businessperson is going to think and tell you that their services aren’t vital?

The relaxation I’m able to get

… is amazing. I seriously somehow loosened up the back of my hand to the point where I can do things without strain, or at least without noticeable strain. I can seriously play for a long time, even using my ring fingers, even doing the up and down arpeggios that had stymied me for years. I just don’t know what happened, other than that it didn’t until I finally just gave up on that stupid classic “place all fingers in one direction” business and the Salzedo stuff that I thought would solve the problem (and only exacerbated it) and just started thinking about my fingering from first principles.

Instead of assuming that someone else could tell me what it would feel like inside my own hands (which are unusual for the harp), and wasting time looking for that written down, I just sat down and figured it out for myself, and it was faster and much less stressful. I had been drained and disempowered when I was trying to make my hands work from the outside; once I inhabited them from the inside and listened to what they wanted, and solved my problem myself, it was energizing and empowering.

And thanks to this, I just cannot get over the relaxation that I’ve managed to achieve while playing. And I’ve got confidence that I can manage future challenges, too.

Again, I’m not Catrin Finch by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m a lot better than I was and am able to do (slowly) or visualize doing things that I never thought possible. I am honestly still in a kind of shock. Maybe it was some kind of nerve pathway thing? I just don’t know. But once I realized that I could treat my hand as two intersecting see-saws, that did it. That did everything. That was the breakthrough that I’ve wanted since November 2014.

There is no such thing as a received truth.

No matter how many teachers you listen to, how many books you read, or how many videos you watch, you will always learn faster by just doing it. And despite what people will tell you, a teacher is not necessary, and with the addition of simple common sense, you will not destroy your hands if you touch a harp without a teacher. (My hands didn’t hurt until I started taking lessons and trying to do things The Right Way!) If you are an idiot and don’t pay attention to your body, if you take that “hardcore” boo-yah nonsense on board, if you are stupid enough to think that “pain is weakness leaving the body,” then yes. You will screw up your hands beyond repair.

But if you play thoughtfully, approach the instrument and your hands as an engineering problem to be solved (since that’s exactly what it is), and go slowly, paying mind to your body the whole way, you’ll be fine. A teacher will not make things any faster, and for people such as myself who think better in silence, an external voice will put our internal thoughts into disarray and scatter any attempt by them to draw together into a coherent idea. I can always think better when I’m by myself. I like to gather data from other people, but when the time comes to assemble that data into a coherent structure, I need solitude. (A more externally-focused person may find a teacher more useful.)

The one thing a teacher can help with I think is when you are playing a piece and then partway through you realize, “Hey, my shoulders are up to my ears, when did that happen?” and you can’t always tell when. A teacher can tell you, “They started getting tense right here.” That sort of thing is useful — but then that’s more what a coach does than a teacher. (I should start videoing myself to see when things start going awry when they do.)

I don’t know. I’m lately just thinking about this sort of thing. I’m just not comfortable with the idea of a teacher at this point. This breakthrough, and the fact that it only came when I finally signed off on Received Harp Truth once and for all — and made it stick — really has changed the way I look at everything.

I also watch art videos made by a very successful artist and art tutor named Lisa Clough on YouTube. She is always the sort to say that picking up art supplies and just playing with them on your own will teach you more than reading a billion books or watching a billion videos — despite the fact that she makes money on her videos.

But she’s also really good at giving first-principles-based advice on artwork. She’s golden at saying things that don’t tell the student what to do, but tell them where to look on their own for the solution that works for them.

I think that’s a good thing for a teacher, but … I don’t think that’s what most teachers do.

I’m just still thinking all of this through.

Practicing error correction

I’m thinking now of things that I need to practice in terms of recovering the still point after wandering off course:

  1. Climbing and descending the harp,
  2. Bringing the shoulders up then down, and
  3. Bringing the pinky up then down.

I think the third one will be the hardest, but it’s probably extremely important. Getting that teacup-pinky is a killer, and it’s distracting to have to recover from it in the middle of a piece.

“Tu grimpes aux harpes … “

I remember watching this a while back:

and really enjoying the music and the instruction. But one thing struck my ear, when she was telling one of the students that her hands were climbing the harp.

Every single harpist in the world I think has done this, including myself. You get tense, your shoulders come up, and before you know it, the back of your right thumb is scraping against the action, and you’re thinking, “How the hell did I get all the way up here?”

I think I’ve come up with a way to manage that: I practice first climbing and then descending down the harp in arpeggios. Up, down, up, down, calm and relaxed … that way, I recognize what it feels like when I’m too high and I can get myself back down without panicking.

No one wants to be up there, so it’s not with the goal of practicing oscillating your hands around. The point of doing this is to recognize when your hands have gotten too high, and then calmly moving them back where they belong without freaking out.

So much of playing a piece of music (of life, in fact) is error correction — how to find the equilibrium point when you’ve wandered away from it. If you just practice playing 100% right all the time, that means that your inevitable deviations from the course will not be under your control, and when they occur — not if, but when — they will freak you out. And that’s the last thing you want. What you want is to recognize that you’ve wandered off and gently shepherd yourself back on course.

You don’t want to practice playing the piece that way — you want to practice playing the piece correctly. But you do want to play arpeggios and exercises both straight — at mid-string — and also oscillating, so that you are used to what you should do when you find yourself either too close to the soundboard or, more likely, too close to the action. The process of recovering and getting yourself back on course also must be practiced and not left to chance.