Those three measures and a 6/6 Xerafym

They’re still not where I want them perfectly, but they are in my fingers well enough now that I can see getting them down from where I’m standing, which is a g/d relief — finally. And it’s only taken quite a while. I’m still making mistakes, but I can sense that they are the types of mistakes you make when playing something too fast, and not the types you make when you haven’t a clue how to manage it yet.

But at last, I think it’s time to continue forward. I think I’ve gotten it to the point where it’s a matter not of getting the technique itself down but of ironing out the creases. So it’s time for the next measure or so.

And yes, I got the Xerafym — and I got a 6/6 because after being on the harp for this long, I am no longer willing to use the 7/5 piano layout as a crutch. I want two scale fingerings max. I think the 7/5 layout even on the piano is a good way to learn the piano and Western music theory, but once you learn it, then you wish you’d learned 6/6 from the start. You have to have internalized the 7/5 layout in order to really appreciate the 6/6.

And given that I’ve got an automatic new chapter heading in my musical life since I’m on a different instrument from a piano, I might as well just do 6/6 from here on. (I can truly see the appeal of the Jankó keyboard also.)

It should take a few months, so it will probably not be until spring 2023 until I have it. And I imagine I will be one of a very few Americans playing a 6/6 cross-strung.

I’m a bit disappointed though in that I discovered an Austrian maker who makes a 70-string 6/6 chromatic! That’d be almost six fully chromatic octaves! But he’s either not still building or else he isn’t interested in shipping to the US, so the Ravenna-ranged Xerafym is all that’s out there in the US; most other German/Austrian makers make that range as well. I don’t think anyone but Otto Zangerle made a sixish-octave range chromatic.

So when that gets here, it should be fun to see what happens.

A week or two for that one page?

I still can’t believe that I was originally expected to do that whole second page of the First Arabesque in one to two weeks.

I do understand that teaching an adult autodidact can be confusing for a teacher, because we have such an unevenness of achievement. There are some difficult graduate-level things we can do extraordinarily well simply because we’ve never had a teacher tell us they were difficult, so we just learned them. And then there are some basic-level things we can’t do at all because we never heard of them or they were challenging for us at first, so we avoided them.

For me that was successfully arranging Rachmaninoff and Chopin for lever harp and filling out chords, versus doing an ascending scale or using my ring fingers well.

So I can see why she may not have been able to suss me out. But still — if I’m saying, “No, I need to slow down here,” then don’t prod me forward. I’m not the sort of person to say I need to slow down unless I really need to slow down. I complain a lot, but I do not whine about unchallenging things. If I say I need to go slow, then I need to go slow.

My viola teacher did the same thing to me. I would work through pieces in the little Suzuki book and get to the point where I was bumbling and tripping through them, and he’d go, “Okay, next piece,” and I was like AYFKM? And sure enough, by the time I got to the end of the first book, I still couldn’t play a single thing in it well enough to please myself, or well enough period.

So anyway, I’m still not entirely sure if I want a teacher. I keep coming back to the fact that a lot of what I got out of teachers just hasn’t been anywhere near what it should have been.

My piano teacher refused to teach me the music I liked and never once relinquished control. I’ve inherited horrible tension that has prevented me from playing with anything like the liquid grace I’ve seen others play with after nearly a decade of lessons, and it wasn’t until I was out of lessons for two years that I realized I could play what I wanted — and ran to the university library to xerox the entire Schirmer Joplin collection.

My viola teacher didn’t seem to really give a shit whether I could actually play.

My first harp teacher was much better but similarly unwilling to let me just go slowly and get things properly down.

And there is the difficulty of fitting to a predictable schedule when you’re a working adult.

I just haven’t had the best luck with music teachers, even when they were pleasant and smart.

It’s been a while since I started on measures 19-21 of the First Arabesque. And I’m going to stay on them until I feel comfortable moving ahead — they won’t be perfect, but I will be able to see satisfactory from where I’m sitting. Then and only then, I will move ahead to the next three bars.

AT LAST.

I think I’ve finally cracked the fingering needed for Measure 19 of the First Arabesque, at the end of who knows how long. I have been banging my skull against this for a long time, and it’s finally given way. Now, I just have to work it into the first page so that there isn’t a seam in the pavement.

And I think I’ve also managed to figure out at least a little about how to smooth out the transition from the couple of opening measures to the proper start of the piece as well. I’m just not putting a pause where most people put it but a beat later, which feels better to me and helps my head make the transition a little more easily.

Plate-spinning

So one of the things that is always hard for me as a musician on the harp (much less so on the piano since I’ve been playing that one since I was a kid) is keeping in mind everything I need to play a piece correctly.

It starts to feel like plate-spinning of about six dozen plates. I can keep track of about a page worth of stuff to get it right, and then it’s like my brain maxes out.

And the First Arabesque is six pages long. Okay, that’s short compared to a lot of classical pieces. For an adult beginner, that’s pretty long and a lot of tips and tricks and practice bits to keep in mind.

Like I said, I can do that on a piano much more easily. I can spin a lot of plates on that before I max out and forget what the hell I was supposed to do to get that one bitchy measure under control, oh yeah that’s right …

But on the harp, I experience a buffer overflow a lot faster. Argh.

AH MAH GAH

Measures 19-20 in the First Arabesque alone are going to take me about two weeks to get down. I’m not sure why. I think there are just too many things happening at the same time, and I need to work out what has to happen when so I only need focus on one thing at a time. It is so easy to not quite notch that F# and have it slam up into the center notch again when you move your foot to get the A♮.

(Speaking of which, I need to contact the VA Harp Center and ask them about the regulation I’m supposed to be getting, because I’m hoping it’ll make the pedals a little easier to manage. They are stiff as hell, and after getting used to the ones on the little Daphne 40, they are not fun. At all. And the tension is getting into my hands because I’m aware of having to practically slam that F pedal into place.)

And there are a few fifth stretches in the left hand that also need some special attention at the same time, and a mild jump in the right …

… and it’s all within the same two measures, and it’s a pain. I’m kind of mystified that my harp instructor seemed to think I could do that whole page in two weeks, last time I worked on it before ditching lessons rudely.

I think I made an impression on her that I was better than I actually was, or at least that my ability was more evenly distributed than it was as an amateur. I wager that’s probably the most confusing thing for teachers when teaching autodidacts — you end up extremely good at a few very difficult things at random, and then you’ll stink at something fairly elementary. Amateurs are probably very unpredictable for structured classical teachers.

Now this can be good, because for example, no one told me that lever-flipping was OMG SO HARD, so since I didn’t know it was supposed to be OMG SO HARD, I just did it without drama. If I wanted to get something outside of the key signature, I had no choice, and most good music modulates at least a titch.

But ain’t no way I was going to do that whole page in two weeks. These three measures alone will take me two weeks merely to get crappy at them.

I keep telling myself what I told myself when I started this thing: if it’s this hard, that’s an indicator that I really need to learn it. But I’m not in a good mood at the moment, not by a long shot. For a variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the harp.

More harp improv and David Bennett’s YT channel

He’s a very bright and gifted kid on YT with an incredibly deep music-focused channel, and he has a couple videos up on the most common chord progressions and what they are. I’m not entirely on board with some of his notation choices — for example, I don’t see why the 7th chord in a minor key has to be notated with bVII because the whole step between the 7th and the tonic is in the key signature, so it’s not flat. It’s right there in the key signature.

So basically it doesn’t make sense to me how to notate that within given key signatures. Or it seems like using “vi” and “i” would influence how that’s notated. Or something. I don’t know, it’s annoying. I tend to think in key signatures and not in tonics and dominants, strictly speaking.

Anyhow, I wrote down a bunch of really useful progressions straight from his videos — I should join his Patreon just for that — and will spend the long weekend writing them out in all keys with pedal changes notated.

Then, I start vamping over them while letting the always-on counterpoint machine in my brain have fun. We’ll see what happens.

In an improv mood

Just trying to go slowly and be patient with myself to see if I can play things and predict successfully whether the chord I’m hearing in my head is the one my hands go for.

And I’ve stumbled on some advice for harp improv.

Keep your foot ready on the pedals for the IV and the V of the key signature, and be ready to sharp them.

  1. Sharping the fourth allows you to do a V of V, which is always fun.
  2. Sharping the fifth allows you to do two things: get into the relative minor, or do that “nostalgia” resolution where you go from V to IV to iv, then to I.

Of course what you’re actually doing in the second case is a flat sixth, but handwave-handwave-enharmonics. It’s not as satisfying to the brain to use a sharp five instead of a flat six, but it’s easier on the feet.

Pandemic thoughts

I just felt like I needed to write something out.

I am naturally extremely cynical and pessimistic. I dislike people on the whole. I am not the kind of person who responds well to exhortations that I express an “attitude of gratitude.” But even though the past two and a half years have been unspeakably awful for a lot of people, they have actually been pretty damned good for me — and I need to acknowledge that.

My mom had fallen and been on the floor for at least a day if not longer in November of 2019. I found her on a Thursday, lying on the floor next to her bed. She ended up in the hospital while a doctor spoke gravely to my brother and me in a manner that suggested that he did not expect her to survive. She had two extremely severe pressure wounds — one between her shoulderblades and one at the small of her back that was so severe that it was called “unstageable.”

She spent several months in a nursing facility that was very near to where I was working at the time. I was able to work and visit her every night.

I was unsatisfied with that job and obtained another much better paying and more enjoyable job with a fantastic team. After driving home every night, I was still able to stop by and spend time with my mom every night.

I was however driving a very long way to my new job and knew that my mom could not go back to her old house and would have to move in with me. I found a new, nicer apartment very close to my new job and — I am not making this up — moved in the weekend before lockdown started.

The very day the lockdown started, my mom was discharged. Her house sold on the same day. I picked her up and was able to get her into my new apartment — with her own bedroom — right under the wire. If it had happened one day later, I would not even have been able to visit her anymore.

And what’s more, WFH started that very day. So I had no need to worry about getting home care at all, beyond visits from her wound care nurses for the first few months. She was very independent, relatively speaking — continent and only mildly foggy, which enabled me to work well and for long hours and still cook for her, make sure she ate, and keep an eye on her myself. She even recuperated spectacularly well from her pressure wounds.

I also very, very much enjoyed WFH because I am a natural hermit and probably on the spectrum, so I was able to get far more done without distraction and with more socially structured zoom meetings. I enjoyed the company of my team, and we all had the benefit of working for an unbelievably skilled, driven, and wonderful boss who truly has a gift for creating a cohesive, supportive team. She taught me more about project management than any dozen other bosses ever have and improved my confidence beyond anything I thought possible. (Yes, she’s very woo — she’s also a marvelous, extremely high-quality human being, and if the woo works for her, then that’s just fine.)

Then … my old job in California called and wanted me back, literally just as I became aware that the project I was on at my pandemic job was probably not going to survive the new budget. The pandemic had taught my old beloved workplace in CA that remote work was just fine — all you had to do was hire a bunch of super-committed workaholics.

So I got — and once again, I am not making this up — a 50% raise, and began working for the CA nonprofit company I had loved so very much and wanted to retire from before I had to move back home to be present for my mom.

In short, I had my cake and ate it, too. Several times. And it was a really good cake.

Then around Memorial Day 2022, my mom had to go into the hospital and then hospice when her colon cancer recurred.

And because I was now working on CA time, I was able to visit with her for an hour every day every morning in a hospice that was three miles from my apartment, and still work a full 8 hours for the company that valued me so much that seven years after I had to leave, they asked me back.

And on top of it all, my mom was mobile and able to walk for all but the last two-ish weeks of her life, and she passed without pain! And I was there, and my cousin and his wife were there when it happened.

I mean, come on. That is an almost unbelievable string of good fortune, especially considering that so many industries were damaged by the pandemic, and so very many people were killed.

If you lost a friend or family member and right now, you want to punch me in the face, I get it. But I needed to type this out to remind myself that during this past two and a half years that have proven so painful for so many, I have enjoyed a run of good luck almost beyond imagining.

The “attitude of gratitude” business has often struck me as a form of denial and delusion. But it would be delusional for me not to express gratitude at the ridiculous good fortune I’ve enjoyed during a period of history when so many other people have been struck by poverty, evicted, and lost their jobs or even their lives. To not express gratitude in the face of that would be obscene.

Anyhow. Back to Debussy.

Why I bugged out

Well, I contacted Josh Layne and I’ll see what he says about lessons.

But the whole thing got me thinking of why I bugged out of my last attempt at lessons. I mean, I kind of know what happened, but it took me a while to think it through in a more coherent way, and recent events have brought a bit more clarity.

When I started, I had my teacher excited about my arrangements and compositions, at the same time as I was absolutely convinced that my hands were 100% wrong for the harp and would never, ever allow me to really get good and be a “real harpist.”

While my teacher was implying that I was really good, my body and brain were telling me that I’d never be any good.

And I couldn’t handle the dissonance. I felt like I was being set up to fail, and in a big way. My teacher wanted me to play in public with her at gigs and wanted to play my music in public, and meanwhile I was convinced my short ring fingers would doom me to failure. And because of her wanting me to play in public, it would be a public failure.

And I saw it coming and stopped lessons.

And now that I’ve demonstrated to myself that my hands are actually as good for the harp as they are for the piano — and I have very good hands for the piano — I feel comfortable with the idea of lessons again.

(I should also specify that my hands are actually large for a woman; I can reach a tenth with no problem on the piano and well over an octave on the harp. The issue was relative finger length. I have ring fingers significantly shorter than my index fingers, and getting them fully online has taken me the best part of a decade. On the harp, relative finger length matters more than overall hand size.)

Bowing to the obvious and inevitable

I’m making actual written notes of what I need to keep in mind and work on in the First Arabesque by measure and beat, i.e.:

“7/1: Keep RH in proper Grandjany position, palm facing back.”

“11/3: Get EFG placed in RH.”

(And various cautionary remarks on not buzzing.)

Etc. etc. etc. I should have been doing it, and I wasn’t, and I’m doing it now. I’ve been slammed with lots of consideration of mortality given that the past week sucked hard and the suckage is unlikely to stop for some time. And part of that has been the realization that I have been on the harp on and off for goddamned eight f*cking years and still can’t really play properly, and I’m angry at myself over that. I’ll be damned to the deepest rings of hell before I will let another eight years go by and still be playing at my current level. That shit is not going to happen.

I am getting this f*cking piece of music into my head if I have to use a pile driver.

I’m really seriously considering starting lessons again at this point. I probably will not return to my old teacher because if I were her, I sure as hell wouldn’t take me back given that I freaked out and vanished without any warning or explanation. I may get in touch with Josh Layne about online lessons and tell him what I’d like to do. Online lessons would have the added benefit of allowing me to play on my own harp instead of having to wrestle with an unfamiliar CG monster and burn a ton of gas. He may not have time in his schedule, but I’ll ask and see when he’s open for weekly or biweekly lessons.