Playing the harp in an orchestra – for dummies

If you’re playing the violin, there’s a big chance that you’ll be playing in some kind of orchestra within a few years after starting. There are many student orchestras that help you get acquainted to the whole ‘playing different parts together’ thing.

Not so much for the harpists. Most orchestral music requires a pedal harp, and most amateur harpists don’t have one until later in life. If you’re really talented, you also get to play with student orchestras at a young age so you learn with all the others – but you might also end up in my situation: playing with an orchestra of adult semi-professional amateurs and never having done it before.

Playing with an orchestra is an absolutely amazing experience, as you get to be part of something bigger and sometimes you can really transcend the music, all being in the moment together. But it can also be really daunting. I’ve now done several collaborations and as there isn’t a lot of specific information on how to prepare and how to tackle such a project, I’d like to provide some tips. I just took the plunge even though I was very scared I’d mess up – I hope I can help out others who are a bit hesitant about their first orchestra role!

Read the rest of this entry »


Out of my comfort zone

I used to be a rather timid kid, the first time I travelled alone by train was to go to the entrance exams for medical school and the first time I boarded an elevator all by myself was when I had to go to the fifth floor for clinical skills training and somehow no one was around. OK, this makes it sound worse than it was – I wasn’t scared but before starting medical school there simply wasn’t a reason to do these things alone – I always travelled with friends, we didn’t have an elevator in our high school. My parents allowed me to go to a fan convention abroad when I was 14 and I did loads of things like that, but I was never completely on my own.

So the first time I had to take a 30-minute bus drive in a new city was quite an adventure. I prepared extremely well, printing several pages worth of public transport details, including all the stops of the bus, the bus and train schedule for the entire day, a map to the bus station, a map from the bus stop to my teacher’s house etc. etc. During the bus ride I spent every minute looking at my lists even though I’d asked the bus driver to warn me when I had to get off the bus.

It’s now almost nine years later and I’m surprised at the number of interesting places music has brought me to. It’s not like I discovered interesting landmarks or really ‘big’ things, but it’s the small things that matter and I love discovering such ‘small things’.

For instance…

…. In the city where my first harp teacher lives, they thank the bus driver when getting off the bus. It was completely new to me, but I picked up the habit, sometimes leading to confused bus drivers.

…. When I went to the Waregemse Harpdag a couple of years ago, I stayed at the house of a very generous and nice family (their daughter also attended the workshops) whom I met through a harp forum. It was a great experience, eating fantastic Belgian bread and sleeping in a luxurious room. If I ever become a millionaire I’d like to have a house like that, an enormous bookcase in the living room that filled an entire wall and went all up to the ceiling, a kitchen island…

…. During my surgery internship I took a lesson with the harp teacher of a friend (whom I also met though a harp forum). It was a very interesting experience – first cycling through another new city trying to find it, then spending two hours working on the Händel concerto with a great teacher. She taught in her living room and her son was playing videogames (with head phones in) during the lesson. The experience of being invited into someone’s home is still special – you get to see where they live, how they personalize their home. That lesson was the first that opened my eyes to really listen to myself and create a musical line, even though I didn’t completely understand her at that time.

….When I was studying medicine I heard that you could get harp lessons by conservatory students for free. Being a poor student, that was perfect. So I’ve have had quite a few free lessons from various great harp players who have gone on to win major competitions. In hindsight, they had just started learning how to teach so the quality of the lessons varied widely. However, the experience of being inside a conservatory, playing on a pedal harp for the first time (the one lever harp they had was too clunky) and focusing on in hindsight way too advanced concepts did make me curious to keep taking lessons. Sometimes I arrived a little early and I was treated to a live performance of the Faure Impromptu or another piece they were practicing for an exam or a competition. And one time they had an ensemble lesson going, it was very interesting to see how different ensemble playing is from just playing on your own.

…. My former harp teacher teaches in her attic. It’s in a nice and cozy house located in a rather old street. Her neighbours have a beautiful canopy in their small garden on the front of their house.

… I took lessons with a Scottish harp teacher for a year (it was almost impossible to combine with rotations so after a year I had to stop). That required travelling to a little train station in the Netherlands, running to transfer trains (you had to cover 200m in 2 minutes, otherwise you’d have to wait for 30 mins) and then a walk through a nice, provincial city. On the way back, when it was all dark, you had to wait for your train on a completely deserted train station, lighted with these yellow lights, so especially hwen it was a little bit misty, it felt a bit otherworldly. The whole ritual of getting back to the major train stations, back to the light – it was a wonderful experience all by itself.

Don’t we all just play by ear?

Tristan Le Govic once remarked during a workshop that everyone is playing by ear, even people who only use sheet music, because if you’re playing from the sheet music, you’re aurally checking whether it’s correct (then it will sound ‘logical’.). I’m now working (eh, still working) on a piece which has a lot of three fingered chords in eights. It looks pretty boring and etude-like on paper. Yet when my teacher plays it, it comes alive, it flies from the page and it really grips you until it’s finished. I’m trying to achieve the same effect (or at least trying induce a pulse in it) but it is really, really hard. And I think it’s so hard because I’ve been approaching it like ‘a piece of music on paper’ and not like part of the oral/aural tradition of music making.

During the past months, I learned that in French music the first note is often ever so slightly emphasized, but not too much; there is also a very distinct shape in phrasing, including the dynamics and the tempo. But my teacher really needed and still needs to spell it out for me, I can’t just read from the written page that I’m really allowed to really really accelerate and really really decelerate to the point you’re not in sync with the metronome anymore. Indeed, these boring eight-note-figures really become something else when played in the way they’re supposed to sound. But how was I supposed to know? I thought I was on the right track, keeping in mind the right notes, the right dynamics and the tempo markings. Am I just so untalented that I can’t ‘know’ all by myself what it’s like to sound?

In folk music, it’s a total no-go to learn a song from paper. It will sound really weird because it’s impossible to write down e.g. the subtle accents of a bourree in 3 times vs a waltz in 3 times vs a polka in 3 times. But they all sound very distinct from each other! So that is why – if you really have to make do with sheet music e.g. for time constraints or laziness – you listen and play along with a recording because otherwise you know you’re missing something.

Why don’t we accept that classical music is exactly the same? You can’t just go and sightread a piece,you need to know how it’s supposed to sound. How do you gain such knowledge? Your harp teacher! Where did they learn it? Their own teachers! And the only other sources are CD recordings and live performances! Doesn’t that sound like aural/oral tradition?

Of course, eventually, you’ll internalize the knowledge – just as I can effortlessly switch a waltz-melody to a mazurka or a polka. But it took some time to get there – workshops, a lot of dancing (to know what sets apart a waltz from a mazurka) and getting feedback from dancers. So the exposure to ‘classical music’ and being taught what to look/listen for are vitally important to be able to play well using sheet music. For some classical musicians this will sound really odd, because they’ve been exposed to classical music and its idiom for their entire lives. Of course you play a Bach piece like that and a Chopin piece like this. But for me that wasn’t all that obvious. I think there should be more aural teaching in classical music. Of course, then you’re imitating the teacher. But now we’re all imitating an abstract unheard concept -which is still an aural concept and less of something that you can easily write down.

When will we have the first Classical Harp tune learning sessions? 🙂



Oh, so you don’t anchor your fingers to each other, the idea is to move all of them independently while keeping the four others relaxed.

How do you force a finger to relax itself? 

Memorizing a piece actually frees you to focus on interpretation instead of binding you to the notes



Eventually, your feet will have to move independently as well, sliding a pedal out of its slot ever so slightly before the beat – and I was already happy that I could identify a pedal with my feet and slide it out of its slot slightly-after-the-beat-but-still-in-time-ish

You don’t actually ‘squeeze’ the strings – you have to let your hand be guided by gravity and then the fingers will find their places

Doing controlled glissandos is really, really hard. Especially when you thumb is not allowed to collapse inward.

Yep. There is definitely a lot to be learned!

Currently working on:

Sonata in C minor by Dussek – 1st movement (I can play it at 70bpm! Now working on getting it to 100 bpm and then finally moving on to the 2nd movement. It depresses me a little that this took me almost a year.)

Song in the Night by Salzedo. This piece has been on my wish list ever since I learned that this is an entrance requirement for the harp studies at the Amsterdam Conservatory. Now I understand why. It sounds not too complicated, but there are all kinds of weird effects, interesting rhythms… To play this effortlessly will require quite some study!

Butterflies by Gabriel Verdalle. It sounds a bit weird at the low tempo I’m practising this on, maybe it will sound a bit better when I speed it up.






No prescription needed

I’m not really an ‘artsy’ kind of person, until a few years ago I never enjoyed looking at paintings or art in particular. I could sort of judge whether the figures depicted looked like they were supposed to be (figurative art), but abstract art? I never saw the point and the idea of enjoying looking at something that might or might not mean something was foreign to me.

My first ‘real’ encounter with art was during a clinic with one of the oncologists at the hospital where I was doing my sub-internship. He had two tiny wooden statues in his window sill and somehow, I couldn’t stop looking at them. They reflected a kind of hope, some humanity in this room full of bad news conversations. I don’t even remember anymore what they looked like, I only remember the emotion of being ‘touched’ by seeing these two pieces of art. I had never experienced that before.

The second time I was stopped in my tracks by a piece of art was in the Louvre. We were in the room where the Mona Lisa was displayed and there was this huge crowd around the Mona Lisa so you could barely get a visual on it. On the wall next to it, there was this painting (The Deposition by dal Ponte/Bassano). At first sight on a computer screen it’s just another of those pictures with a dead Jesus. In real life, the full sized version in the Louvre really draws your attention due to the big contrast between light and dark. I was reminded of acute care settings, of hopelessness – and yet there was this light, hinting at a possibility of a new beginning.

Yesterday, I found another piece of art that really did something. It started with this facebook post:

Without thinking about it too deeply, I proceeded to feel a bit offended. The suggestion that somehow prescriptions for ‘anxious people’ are a bad thing can really set me off.  Patients often tell me ‘I don’t want to change myself with pills’ or ‘I don’t want to rely on a crutch’. So is taking iron tablets or chemotherapy or whatever ‘somatic drug’ a crutch? Medication for anxiety is just as justified as taking iron tablets for anemia.

However, when I calmed down I decided to check out the music and I was very pleasantly surprised. This music was kind, embracing, caring. The soundscape succeeded where the written word failed for me – this track was clearly not meant to criticize medication, it’s meant to provide another option, to show a way to make people feel like someone cares. It’s hope in audible form.



Seven things no-one tells you about pedal harps

You took the plunge and now it’s there. Your pedal harp. Here are seven useful things to know.

1. It won’t break.
Yes, it cost a lot of money. No, it won’t break when you try to pry the transport cover off (you did buy one, did you?). Nor will it break when you move it. Your new harp is made of nice and sturdy wood, there’s a reason it cost so much! You can just put your hand in one of the sound holes and grab the pillar, just like you would do with your lever harp.

2. Yes, the two lowest strings and the highest string are supposed to lack discs.
Breathe! You didn’t just discover a manufacturing flaw, all pedal harps are made like that.

3. Tuning it may be a challenge 
The first time I tuned my new harp it seemed impossible, I had to stand on a chair to get to the lowest strings and even then it was hard to turn the tuning key on the lowest strings. The lowest C and D are also not picked up by my electronic tuner so it was a bit of a struggle to hear whether it was in tune or not. I found out that it works to play it really softly and then play the string an octave higher and then it’s easier to compare. You can also look at how it vibrates but I am never sure which way it should vibrate. However, after a couple of weeks, you’ll be used to it and tuning 47 strings feels no different than tuning just 34!

4. There’s an art and science to pedalling
Of course you also splurged on heaps of interesting sheet music. So you sit down at your harp and you decide to try that one piece you’ve always wanted to play. You play half a measure… and then there’s an accidental. What to do now? Your feet shuffle a bit and you hear some wonky sounds, but how to proceed?

There are various schools of harp playing, so I can only share what I was taught. You always keep your heel on the floor and then engage the pedal by sort of pushing it diagonally. In the beginning it may help to first slide it out of its slot and then pressing it down/letting it go but that doesn’t work anymore for fast pedal motions. So you are not really pushing on the pedals like driving a car (or like I imagine how you’d drive a car 🙂 ) but you sort of lightly touch them on their lateral side. It helps a lot to wear heels if you are not too tall.

Then, when you can comfortable move the pedals into various positions, it’s time to try to combine playing with pedalling. In the beginning everything will fall apart because you have to concentrate on two things at once, but supposedly, eventually you will be able to continue playing without stopping or producing weird pedal-related noises.

Do not give up! It takes a lot of practice! Try to refrain from the temptation of looking at your feet. Try playing in your socks. It will really get better, don’t feel like you fail at being a good harpist if you can’t do it in one week.

5. Writing in the pedal markings before you start playing saves you a lot of annoyance
Some music already contains pre-written pedal markings but in most cases you’ll have to figure it out yourself. I was sorta used to writing in lever changes, but it was a bit daunting to start on the pedal changes, especially as I wasn’t any good at it. However, pedal changes work almost the same as lever changes. Sit down with your score, see where the accidentals are and write in where you could feasibly do a pedal change. Easy, right?

But how do you decide where it’s feasible? First you look at where the pedal is needed again. Even though you will probably struggle with the pedals a lot in the beginning it works to put in the pedal marks as if you could properly do them. So don’t engage a pedal 4 measures before you need it, I generally write them on the beat. Don’t forget that all the notes change pitch when moving a specific pedal, so you should also pay attention to when you last used it. It takes a while before you get the hang of the pedals but that’s totally normal!

6.  Playing it is like a full body workout

If you were previously a bit lax about posture, the pedal harp will punish you for it by making you feel sore as though you ran 10 miles yesterday. So don’t forget the low shoulders, sitting straight on your ischiadic spines, keeping yout head in a neutral position etc. etc. Something new may be the balance point, where lever harps are rather light, you can’t carry the full weight of a pedal harp on your right shoulder without getting injured after a while. So try to find a position where it will rest very lightly on your inner knees and a litle bit on your shoulder – there should be one (the balance point of the harp). It may also be necessary to adjust the height of your bench and the distance to the harp.

And take it easy, it’s probably better to restrict the playing to 30 mins at a time during the first few weeks (which is almost impossible, I know!).


7. Buy a harp trolley as soon as possible – don’t wait until you’ve finally scheduled your first concert.
These things are way over priced but not being able to move your harp outside the house apart from lifting it and carrying it is extremely annoying. Order it now! I didn’t and I had to stress until it was delivered a couple of days before Christmas.


Some of you may be familiar with the stereotypes of medical specialties (nicely illustrated by Michelle Au over here). Surgeons are mostly loud people who love ‘doing things’, internal medicine docs will agonize over 0.01 change in obscure lab values, psychiatrists are hippy softies etc.

While part of this is making fun of ‘the others’, knowing a bit about each specialty helps you to properly frame requests and also to know what someone will or won’t do. ‘He’s a typical surgeon’ tells you that he won’t hesitate to act but doesn’t enjoy lengthy thinking about labs and differentials. Surgery is not going to manage someones insulin so you should make a plan for them and not expect them to learn how to do it themselves. ‘Maybe we should hold off on the internistic thinking for a while – what do we actually know about this patient’s social situation?’ would also be a valid contribution to grand rounds. The day to day use of these descriptives is so ingrained in my daily practice that I sometimes forget that the lay public has a very different perception of all of this.

‘I’m most definitely not a surgeon,’ I told the people who were going to host me during my final rotation. ‘Not my kind of people,’ – it’s true, I’m introverted, less brash. This got us off on the wrong foot from the start: their neighbor had just retired as a surgeon in the local hospital and they knew him as a kind man who would often cycle back to work after dinner to visit next day’s surgery patients. I know that that was either poor planning – patients are usually admitted in the afternoon and it’s not very nice to let them wait for hours – or he would just return to the hospital because he was on call. But in their perception, all surgeons were awesome people, so me saying something akin to ‘I don’t like surgeons’ was very offensive for them.

In another instance, I was discussing a case of unexplained illness and I remarked ‘of course, it was a typical internist -‘ and then I was fully reamed out, as that person had a relative who was an internist and they love piecing the puzzle together, searching for a diagnosis – how could I say that about internists because I know they will not give up- well, sorry, yes, they will. If all the labs and tests are normal, a typical internist will insist everything is fine and if you are still feeling ill, maybe a psychologist is a good idea. There are very few doctors who take ‘unexplained symptoms’ as a challenge and feel personally responsible to manage their care. Consult to psychiatry with no follow-up is the common solution, unfortunately.

I work in a patient population which spends years looking for a diagnosis (‘tiredness ”upset stomach’ ‘weird skin rashes’) and then suddenly gets diagnosed with a terminal illness when all the pieces are finally there. So this kind of hit close to home – reality is often far from the ideal world in which all doctors continue to feel responsible to their ‘difficult’ patients. We keep letting patients slip trough the cracks of the system because we don’t understand whats wrong with them. But that only reflects our ignorance!
These two interactions really opened my eyes to be a bit more careful regarding the stereotyping when speaking with lay people – some things just can’t be explained in a short conversation. In both instances I didn’t feel comfortable to try to convey my viewpoint because of the vehement reaction. I know what surgeons and internists are like, I’ve done four months worth of rotations in each plus a half year sub internship – and I want to become an internist myself (but with a special focus on unexplained complaints). I certainly don’t ‘hate’ surgeons  – now I’m not a clerkship student anymore I actually rather like interacting with them. But I’d be lying if I said that I was a typical surgeon (on my evaluation, the head of department wrote ‘not a typical surgeon, good luck in internal medicine’ – end of discussion 🙂 ).