Starting Fresh a Year Ago

It’s January, and many of you are still in for months of snow and ice.  Yet just a few days ago, I noticed that the copper flowers had opened overnight on the witch hazel in the front garden.  That, along with the sight of crocus leaves popping up through the mud, is certain evidence of spring’s arrival.  The signs become clearer after Brigid / Imbolc, at the start of February.

Witch hazel in the garden, January 2011. Photo by Sue.

Now is a good time to take stock of the changes I have made over the past year, and whether I have made some progress toward my goals.  Just over a year ago, I switched to playing on the left shoulder.  It was a neurologically challenging experience for the first few months, and one that I had avoided by making all sorts of excuses for a few years.  Initially, when I thought of changing shoulders, I thought it would be too difficult.  It felt like a long reach through the harp, or across the strings, and I didn’t like the fact that the strings now appeared farther away from me, as they fell from the left side of the tuning pins, quite away from my face when playing.

At some point I’m going to write a great deal more about changing from the right to the left shoulder, but for the present, suffice it to say that all my excuses for not changing shoulders were just that:  excuses.  Yes, it’s difficult, and somewhat confusing to the poor brain.  I had to make some adjustments, as I’d been playing on the right shoulder for a few years, and worked with a wonderful local harper and teacher, Doug.  As you’d imagine, I had a fair amount of repertoire on that shoulder.  I could play all sorts of Breton dance tunes, some pretty Irish tunes, Morris dance tunes, and a fair number of pieces from Ann Heymann’s Coupled Hands for Harpers on the right shoulder.  What became of all of that when I switched?  I still have it, but I don’t use much of it anymore unless I turn the harp and place it on my right shoulder.  Some people are truly shocked to see me switch back and forth between shoulders, but it isn’t as difficult as it seems.  My brain simply knows one set of patterns for all the old repertoire, and a different set of patterns for everything I’ve learned since the change.  My style is quite different on each shoulder, too, which is rather strange, but I suppose it makes sense.  Over time, my expectation is that I’ll come up with a new way of playing music I want to keep by moving it over to the left shoulder, and that will be that.  For now, I spend over 90% of my time playing left shouldered, and only switch when I visit a friend and play my old music with him.

A year ago I decided, too, to begin studying historical harp technique and repertoire, and began taking Skype lessons with Simon Chadwick in St. Andrews, Scotland.  The discipline of a weekly lesson has been a great help to me.  I think that the change of shoulder, accompanied by a rather abrupt change of harping style, have slowed down my progress, but all to good effect.  Some of you might get testy when you read what I’m about to write.  After working on historical harp technique for a year, I think that it requires much more work and practice than playing in a more standard style.  There is so much to know that I wish I had started as a flexible adolescent with a speedier brain and quick hands.  Although I still like the sound of some of my old music played on the right, much of it sounds blurry and unfocused to me now.  It’s too ringy and lacks power in the bass range.  I am acquiring new music more slowly in favor of learning all sorts of curious and arcane skills that will later help me play with the control I want. You know what?  It’s been worth it.


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