Dancing through the plateau

“I don’t know, I’d rather focus on just dancing than spending much time thinking about the mechanics of a move”

“Why do I have to pay so much attention to connection? I can’t relax anymore now!”

“I don’t care about how it looks when I step, it feels right and then it’s okay!”

“There is so much to think about, rhythm, musicality, connection, now I can’t concentrate on having fun anymore!”

The statements above would sound really stupid to most dancers. Posture, connection, paying attention to what your body does is the core of a nice dance, it’s what makes it fun and enjoyable, not the other way around. The heightened body awareness brought on by lots of lessons and practice allows you to have fun and you will eventually internalize a lot of it so you won’t have to spend every minute thinking about it and can instead concentrate on the music and the dance itself you’re creating with your partner. But before you reach that level, there’s lots of stepping on toes, stiff muscles (due to not knowing how to hold proper posture), confusion about how to ‘feel’ something in your body, etc. etc. Crossing over to another style of dancing may feel like you’re dancing blindfolded and with gloves on until you get acquainted with the mechanics of another type of frame.

And yet… when playing the harp I apparently have a lot of these preconceptions. My journey in learning to play the pedal harp has led me to another teacher and her lessons are completely different from what I was used to. In a way, it’s like learning to play harp all over again.

First of all, it is about critical listening. What kind of tone am I producing and is it what I want? Am I hearing what I’m doing or am I hearing what I’d like to hear? I never paid much attention to how equal all the notes in a scale are, but apparently, it was very uneven. Are the notes in a chord completely simultaneous or are some of them off? And not just focus on these aspects as a one-time event, but ask yourself these questions over and over again in every piece.

Then dynamics. What do you want to convey and how? I notice that I still have a huge gap in knowledge and listening ability. Because I used to think that dynamics are sort of childish, I really thought that being able to play a piece well was playing the notes well and evenly, and not make it too dramatic. My previous teachers certainly cannot be blamed for this, I don’t know how I got this preconception, but it’s there and I really need to work on learning to control dynamics, to listen for them in my own playing and to develop a kind of idea on how to use dynamics in a piece. My current teacher is very strict with this and won’t allow me to accidentally forget about the dynamics aspect. She will work with me and try to find examples until I understand ‘how to do it’ and ‘how to control it’. It won’t work to just tell me about a musical shape or an effect, but it really helps to break things down and create exercises to isolately practice dynamics. And it just needs a lot of specific practice. I found myself saying ‘well, I can easily play the notes, but then the dynamics…’ but that’s essentially still saying that I can’t play it, just the notes is just half of the story. It’s like saying, I know the steps but I can’t follow.

As my teacher also gives very specific tips about how to practice things, my practice sessions are now transformed from trying to play through a piece and focusing on making it work technically to working on a long list of specific things. On one hand it is nice to know, it’s clear what to do and what needs to be improved. On the other hand, it is a long list and it is really hard to think of everything at once. I used to mindlessly play my pieces, enjoying just the sounds and the harmonies, practising to ‘get it in my fingers’. But actually I wasn’t listening at all. Now it takes a lot of concentration and harp playing isn’t my mindless outlet anymore, it’s actually a lot of work and takes a lot of brain power!

Something new is also how to start playing. I just started out of the blue. But actually, that isn’t natural at all, in dancing you would also first make a connection with your partner and then do the first step. It felt a bit stupid when I did it for the first few times, but sitting behind the harp, then pulling it toward you, putting your feet on the pedals, deliberately touching the strings, inhaling and then playing really makes a difference. Even though I still tend to forget, so far my teacher has had to remind me to BREATHE before I start every lesson.

I try to tell myself that it will probably get better, just as in dancing. Maybe I’ll once be able to do a lot of the things I’m now struggling with without thinking. But for now, almost every lesson is a complete turnaround of how I have always viewed harp playing – maybe it’s a bit stupid in hindsight, but I’m glad to be learning now!

I was sort of in a plateau, mainly caused by the fact that I apparently never developed the ability of being able to critically listen to myself (apart from right/wrong notes and tempo). My harp lessons the past year felt like they were not really progressing, I was learning new pieces but I didn’t feel like I really improved my playing. Now I’ve broken through that plateau with the help of my teacher. In a way this is exhilarating, there is so much to discover and to learn! It also reminds me that I have a long way to go- I really hope I can transform my struggles into a fluent ‘dance’ on the harp.




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