Tuesday, October 16, 2007

This Weekend's Harp Adventure

I played the harp at a wedding this last Saturday.

Way back here I mentioned that, in preparation for the wedding, I would be cutting back on my blogging to make more time for my harp practice. (Let's see... Should that read: would be? Would have been? Wouldon haven been? What tense do I use for something that I was going to do, but wound up not actually doing? That sounds like it should be called the "Alternate Future Imperfect" tense or something....)

Now, many of you are probably thinking: We don't care about the harpist; how was the wedding? How did the bride look? What did the auditorium look like? Did the bride and groom moosh cake in each other's faces, or were they nice to each other? How was the reception? Were there any stupid ring tricks (e.g., pretending that the ring is lost, until one of the groomsmen "finds" it in his shoe or something)?

Well, fine. The answers to these questions, in random order, are:
  • I couldn't tell from where I was sitting.
  • A little messy, but not too bad.
  • About as good as could be expected given pre-existing constraints.
  • Very nice.
  • Simple. Understated, yet elegant.
  • A lot of fun.
Ok, back to my topic now. My blog, my topic.

So it turns out I didn't cut back on my blogging to make time for my harp practice, I cut back on my sleep. I should have cut back on my blogging to make more time for practice, but I didn't. Y'all are so important to me, I just couldn't neglect you....


I started playing the harp about ten years ago. At the time, my job was located at a financial services firm in Berkeley, CA (long story there), and I was riding the light rail to work every day. I had a friend who also rode the train, and she played the Celtic harp. One day she brought a small lap-harp on the train with her, and showed it off to me. Now, I'm the kind of guy that cannot resist the lure of musical instruments. If you have an instrument of which you are particularly proud, I will be right there to admire it with you--and the more unusual, the better. If she had brought a bagpipe or an alphorn on the train with her, I would have been in heaven. (Though I suspect the physical act of getting an alphorn on BART would have been the most intriguing part of the experience. And playing a bagpipe on BART would probably have set off some kind of anti-terrorist response or something....)

Anyway, I was fascinated by the instrument and decided to try my hand at it. I found an instrument to rent, got myself a teacher, and off I went. I quickly discovered what anyone with an ounce of intelligence could have told me--it takes a lot of practice to be any good at it. The harp is after all a tricky instrument; it's entirely too easy to snag the wrong string with a fingernail, making a loud, sharp-sounding twang; or brush a knuckle against a vibrating lower string, making a loud, unpleasant whaaaangggg; or to throw the wrong sharping lever, so that one of your strings is tuned to F# when you should be playing in the key of C....

And I quickly discovered that, even though I have a great deal of experience singing on stage, that I was terrified by the idea of playing this instrument in front of people. So much of what I took for granted when singing--the ability to control my tempo, the ability to shape phrases musically using dynamic changes--I found next-to-impossible to handle on a harp. Or rather, I was spending so much time and mental energy just getting my fingers on the right strings, that I didn't have any brain cells to spare for the task of turning this sound into music. Of course, those few times that I actually did play in front of people, they were so mesmerised by the sound of the instrument itself that they didn't actually notice that I was sweating through the notes with uneven tempos and utterly flat dynamics. And in this regard the harp is one's ally--it is such a lovely sounding instrument that it melts audiences even when the player misses half the notes.

Anyway, about two-and-a-half years ago word got around at church that I played the harp; and soon thereafter, I received a request to play at a wedding. I agreed, because the young couple were very nice people, and they asked me very nicely, and they gave me five months warning to practice.

So I practiced my butt off for five months. And it took me all five months to get ready. And I played at their wedding, and everything worked. But then, relieved from the pressure of practicing for an impending gig, I slacked off my practice.

And because everything worked, another bride-to-be asked asked me to play at her wedding the following summer (2006). Again, I pulled out the harp and practiced my butt off for about five months, and again, everything worked out. And again, as soon as the pressure was off, the harps were put back in their corner and I did very little practice until early this summer.

So then I had two couples ask me to play for their weddings this summer. This time, I was starting to feel like an old hand at this; that, plus the fact that I had another little rugrat crawling around, tempted me to slack off a little from the practice. And I didn't have as much lead-time to practice, this time around; I only had three months warning instead of five. But knowing that I wouldn't have as much time to work on it, I picked easier pieces. And the first of these two weddings, back in early August, went very smoothly.

Now because I had been using a lot of the same pieces at all these weddings, my fingers have pretty well got all the movements memorized. I say my fingers have it memorized, because it's not my conscious mind doing it. In fact, when I start thinking about what my fingers are doing, they immediately get all tangled up. I find I can only play the more intricate passages if I have them absolutely memorized, and if I don't think about what my fingers are doing. So over the last several months, my practices have been shifting away from the object of making my fingers play the right notes, and toward all these features of musicality--dynamic phrasing, tempo that is completely under my control, so that I can intentionally change it, fluidly, to match the needs of the music. And I got pretty good at making the harp sing.


Saturday's wedding was the first wedding I ever played for where I didn't feel frightened going in. It being my fourth wedding in just over two years, I'm starting to feel like I'm an old pro at this.

However, I gave myself a bit of a reminder that I'm not in fact a pro. I wound up completely losing my fingering during the bridal procession, of all places. I was playing Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, and my fingers were on autopilot--which, as I mentioned, is the only way I can play these pieces and not fall apart--when my fingers pre-placed themselves on the wrong strings. Then of course they played the wrong notes. Then my conscious mind jumped in to try to fix things. Then I was thinking about what my fingers were doing, then I lost it. I was able to recover enough to noodle out some nice-sounding Bach-like fluffiness until the bride made it to the front of the auditorium, but that felt like the longest bridal procession I've ever had to play.

Now the nice thing about the harp, as I mentioned above, is that you can miss half your notes and everyone will still ooooh and aaaah and think you meant to do that, and this weekend's wedding was no exception. It's a very good thing that I was playing harp, and not bagpipe or alphorn. The bride and groom were still happy (although I seriously don't think they were paying much attention to the music while the bride was floating down the aisle toward her love-struck groom). And I didn't hear any complaints from anyone else present, and I did have lots of people come up to me and thank me for doing such a wonderful job. And I'm certainly not going to complain about the fact that people appreciated what I did.

But I can tell that I have a lot more skill-building yet to do before I'm ready for prime-time as a harpist. I'm not quitting the day job anytime soon.

1 comment:

Wendy Power said...

Still, it was lovely, and your pre-ceremony noodling was just right. Isn't being behind the scenes at a wedding stressful!?