Fundamentals of harp playing

When I go to a folk dance event, I always get excited by workshops promising to cover ‘fundamentals of dancing’ or ‘dance technique’. Such workshops won’t teach fancy moves but you get to explore the instructor’s view on quality of movement and connecting with your leader/follower. Even just two hours of working on posture, breathing and walking around can make the evening’s social dance a completely different experience when compared with how I danced before. Every teacher emphasizes something different and sometimes things I’ve struggled with for a long time just fall into place.

The workshop ‘extend your technique’ by Tristan Le Govic during the 2015 the Harp Friends Meeting sounded like just that, but then for the harp. I’ve taken workshops from him before and it was always a great experience – he really gets to the core of harp playing.

I’d like to share some insights Tristan provided during the workshop, as workshops like these seem to be quite rare in harpland, the workshops where you mostly listen and maybe try a few moves (notes).

 You can’t extend on something that’s unstable, so you need a solid foundation of technique. But how do you progress from playing scales quickly to creating music? You need full control over your fingers. Can you make all the notes in a scale sound exactly the same? What happens when you play a scale with just one finger? Does it sound like this due to chance or did you intend it to sound like this?

(Tristan le Govic, paraphrased from my notes)

When I once met Remy van Kesteren after a concert I asked him, how do you progress from simple pieces to the real repertoire, what do you need technique-wise to become more advanced? Unfortunately, he was stung by a wasp just after I asked him, so I never got his answer. The questions that Tristan raises, however, provided the answer I was looking for. Extending your technique begins with trying to gain control, to be aware of the sound you are producing and being aware of how you can manipulate it. Of course, when speaking about sound, you need a framework to describe sounds in so we can understand each other when describing sounds.

There are various dimensions to a sound, various textures. On one axis, we have volume, from pp to ff. On another axis there is depth – is it a very tinny, frail sound, or is it a full, warm bass? From which direction does it come? And there is time – is it a long, lingering note? Does it stop immediately? Is its texture filled with a subsequent note?

(Tristan le Govic, paraphrased from my notes)

He showed this by demonstrating how to do the bass line of a plinn he wrote. He didn’t just randomly decide to play the string this high, he was looking for a specific sound and found out how to produce it. You can hear how the sound of the bass evolves when he plays the string lower and lower. For me, this way of reflecting on the sound I produce was quite new. My harp teachers tend to describe it in terms of emotions (angry? sad?) but I always have trouble understanding – what does she mean? Volume? Tempo? Now, a few months later, I have less trouble with creating the sound or flow in a piece, Tristan seems to have opened an entire new dimension in my playing.

Technique is also about how to economize energy, to reduce unnecessary or even harmful movements. Let’s start with posture. How can your shoulders be unlocked and relaxed if you are slouching?  What if you wanted to cut bread while sitting like this (mimes cutting a bread while slouching on a chair)?

Where does your movement start? How do you generate sound at the harp?

When walking, we sink into the ground a little before stepping. Thus, ‘motion’ requires a fixed point – and this fixed point is the hara, the center.

(Tristan le Govic, paraphrased from my notes)

This really is where dancing meets playing the harp. I’ve been taking argentine tango lessons for a while now and we spent a lot of lessons just walking, to figure out where the movement starts. Real argentine tango isn’t the showy over-the-top dance you sometimes see on TV, it is an improvisational dance with no fixed steps and a huge emphasis on connection. Connection doesn’t work if the leader or the follower don’t have a frame, a kind of dynamic tension/relaxation in their bodies. ‘Too much’ frame causes tension and muscle aches, ‘not enough frame’ causes a kind of floppy wobbly dance. Connection also means that you have to be aware of your body’s axis and torsion – the leader doesn’t drag their follower across the floor but invites the follower to a movement – if the follower responds, the movement flows through their body and a shared movement (a step, a turn) happens. When done correctly, it feels as though you are moving like one person, you can both have input on what happens and it’s all one big exploration of the music and movement (here’s a little movie, it’s hard to find good ones!).

So of course, why not apply this to the harp? Where does my movement start from when I play? It is easy to forget when I’m completely into something very technical, but it doesn’t really help the sound if I’m all tensed up. And why shouldn’t I bring the nice, relaxed feeling of having an open chest and relaxed shoulders to the harp?

This part is much harder to apply, I think I have still a lot to learn in the field of body control and awareness. Being relaxed when doing microscopic finger movements is somehow more difficult than being relaxed while doing weird cross stepps… I’ve looked into Alexander technique lessons, but these teachers are really rare, unfortunately, especially AT-teachers who play the harp.

Breathing is key. A performance involves both breathing and gestures.

(Tristan le Govic, paraphrased from my notes)

We did not spend much time on this but I would love to explore this further. I notice that I sometimes stop breathing when practising a difficult passage. How do I gain control?

During the workshop it became obvious that some of the other attendees had hoped for the fancy moves and techniques, while Tristan covered more abstract topics. So I tried to share one of my experiences with how important and helpful controlling your breathing can be.

As a doctor, I’ve done venipuncture and intravenous line placements countless times, but I have been blessed with tremor when I’m nervous, or when I’ve had coffee or when it’s time for lunch or sometimes just because I’m me. For a patient, it’s very disconcerting to see their doctor’s hand shaking (it’s a real macroscopic tremor). I’ve found that it helps me to sit up straight, relax and take a few deep breaths from my center and then do the ‘stick’ on the exhalation. It steadies my hand and calms the nerves that arise when I see the tremor (trying to focus on ‘not shaking’ usually doesn’t help). So ‘breathing control’ isn’t something just for health nuts who like yoga, it’s something very fundamental in how to control your body and movement.

I think the harp world was really lacking these ‘fundamentals’ type of workshops – if there’s one thing that can change your playing it is working on fundamentals that you don’t need a harp for to practice. I really hope that Tristan will continue sharing ‘the message’ and maybe, in the future, workshops where we don’t touch a harp but spend lots of time walking, breathing – and perhaps even dancing – will be the workshops we’re looking forward to.


2 Comments on “Fundamentals of harp playing”

  1. I agree! You can’t do the fancy twiddly bits if you cannot yet control your fingers. I see so many people neglect learning the basics of technique, and so never really get the best and most beautiful sounds from their harp. In some ways the harp does us no favors by sounding beautiful pretty much no matter what we do…it can be easy to avoid diving deep because it sounds good enough when playing on the surface. One of the best decisions I made was to drop learning repertoire for a year, and focus on etudes for scales and arpeggios. There are a few teachers doing workshops in the States that focus on learning core harp technique. But way too many workshops are all about the flashy stuff.

    • CT says:

      For me, it also helped to play together with oboists and violinists. For them controlling tone and timbre is much more a given because they need to practice so long before they can produce a good sound from their instrument. So they also train their ear skills etc (apart from hearing whether the harp was in/out of tune it took me quite some time to e.g. hear the differences between two renditions of the same classical harp part, and I’m still learning). When playing together I started to notice how I was sometimes ‘aligned’ tone wise and sometimes ‘not quite there’ and I’m still finding how to to ‘control’ this.

      It would be interesting to see what happened if more workshops for amateurs were taught ‘masterclass-like’, that you present a piece and receive feedback on it (basically a public lesson). Teaching one group the same thing (tune, ornament) seems to be quite difficult (different levels, learning styles etc…) and usually I don’t get much out of it apart from a couple of new cool tunes.

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