Dance technique & harp playing

This is a post I wrote after the Harp Friends Meeting Leerdam (May 2013). Lately, Tristan Le Govic is posting very interesting posts about the ergonomic / postural aspects of harp playing, and I thought it would be nice provide a learner’s point of view. 

As a dancer, It’s quite common to re take a level of dancing lessons or take lessons in a lower level than you actually have. There is no dishonor in this – you’re just showing that you’d like to go back to the basics and work on the foundations of your dancing. And as every teacher has something unique to offer, you might discover things about dancing that you’d never known before in a class for absolute beginners.

I’ve talked about this before, but I seem to have a weird sense of pride where it concerns harp playing, I never even thought about going to a beginners workshop, because, well I’m by no means advanced but I do know about basic placing, playing hands together etc? No need to waste time relearning stuff I already knew, right?

Then the Irish dancing workshop was cancelled. I was offered a place in a beginners workshop in Breton music by a teacher I love – Tristan Le Govic.

I first met him and his teaching style in Waregem. Just like there are few dance teachers who can really convey the essence of dance in a workshop, Tristan is one of the rare teachers who really grasps wat harp playing is about and can convey it perfectly. Listening to him and doing a workshop with him is like one giant aha erlebnis. So I knew, Tristan is doing this class and he is good so it will probably be a good review of basics and I might learn more about the Breton style – where that is concerned, I really am a beginner.

In the workshop, we learned an Andro tune. That’s a dance that is commonly played in the Dutch balfolk scene, so I’ve had a lot of lessons by various teachers on it. At first sight, the Andro is a very simple, repetitive group dance. However, you sort of need to relax and tense at the right moments to make it a dance. Actually, it’s a little bit like taiji quan, it’s a very decisive but relaxed movement. So it’s easy to learn but it’s hard to master, to make it a dance, being connected with each other as a group instead of going through the motions on the rhythm of the music.

Tristan also dances Breton dances, so of course, he taught us how to dance it. Perhaps it’s because he is from Britanny,  but Tristan indeed dances the Andro very well. And then there was a revelation. He applied the principles of the Andro to the harp.

You need the same kind of relaxed shoulders; even though it’s a movement done with the arms, you shouldn’t tense up. Same goes for the harp, you can’t play comfortably with your shoulders all tense. I had never thought to apply the whole body work of dancing to the harp, but it turns out that harp playing is also related to moving from your center /hara.

When dancing, you really notice that center- derived motion is not esoteric or abstract. If a leader doesn’t move from his center / lacks proper frame, you as a follower don’t understand what’s going on. That’s why some men get really good at leading in a short time – they naturally have either a frame or the necessary body awareness to create a frame. Everyone else is left struggling until they suddenly get it. That’s because a huge part of having a frame and properly transmitting movements of your center is to have proper posture – straight back, relaxed shoulders but a certain tension in the arms… And it’s not like our society really helps us to achieve a good posture. So generally, we don’t know about good posture – me neither. But Tristan showed how much this is needed to avoid uneccesary strain while playing.

I know that Alexander technique is often done by musicians but I never thought about the possible benefits for me, an amateur harp playing. But essentially, harp playing is about movement and all movements come from the center, just like dancing or pencak silat!

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2 Comments on “Dance technique & harp playing”

  1. I recently started Alexander technique lessons. When I’ve worked at the harp with my Alexander teacher, the sound I get from the harp is like nothing I’ve heard before. Moving from one’s core, with good alignment, makes an amazing difference in the sound, and in how my body feels while I play. I’m not yet able to get that sound all the time, but it’s getting a little easier to remember how my body needs to feel, from the inside out, to support making such amazing tone.
    I often feel that I am going backwards when I have to return to some basic harp technique issue. Your post helped me remember that it’s a good thing to go back to basics, and that there is more to be learned each time I revisit an old exercise, or an older simpler tune.

    • CT says:

      Yes, I read your blog about it, it’s very interesting! In the Netherlands, Alexander technique lessons are marketed as only useful to professionals (at the national harp day, there are music workshops for the amateurs and Alexander technique lessons for the professionals / teachers) so I was never really exposed to it, it sounded like something very mysterious and advanced. Tristan Le Govic shared during one of his workshops that he has new pupils start with a lot of postural exercises – a significant amount of lesson time is dedicated to body awareness and proper posture (including arm/elbow/wrist/hand placement etc) while at the harp. Apparently, this prevents them from creating bad habits and saves a lot of time/stress/pain later on. And the kids don’t even mind, they think it’s fun!


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