Meg wrote this piece below many years ago as a way of encouraging other people to make the most of their playing. Then, amazingly, in June of 2014 one of Meg's pieces was in fact performed at Carnegie Hall! (Photos are included in the "News" section of this website.) So sometimes you can get to Carnegie Hall without having to take a cab!!
I just returned from Beginning in the Middle, a four-day harp conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, designed for harpist who have begun playing as adults. I was wearing two hats at that conference, one as a participant and the other as a composer offering my harp music.
As a registrant, I was there to gather the pearls of wisdom others had to offer. I was reminded of the importance of using the metronome and developing good practice techniques. I learned a new way to gliss and methods of improvisation. I was inspired by the accomplished playing of the instructors, and appreciative of their willingness to teach adults. But as always for me, the best part was hanging out with other harpists, a group I find warm, interesting, and inspiring.
One of the most vivid memories of my four days at the conference was a woman who approached me while I was selling my harp music. She was somewhat emotional in telling her story that for two years, she had played the harp, working hard on pieces she wanted to learn. She became more and more frustrated as she found playing too challenging. She eventually gave up her harp for six months, until she discovered my music. She said that she found my pieces compelling and melodic, but most importantly, they sat well in her hands and they were easy on her fingers. She came by my table because she wanted to thank me for writing this music. It was clearly the highlight of the conference for me, and it made the hard work of composing, editing, and notating all the more gratifying.
But her story got me thinking about what had happened to her, and I asked myself why she had put so much pressure on herself and eventually gave up an instrument that she clearly loved.
I started to listen to the comments of other harpists around me. When asked what level they played, there were often pained, embarrassed expressions on their faces. “Oh, I’m really just a beginner,” said one woman. But when I asked her how long she had been playing, the answer was “Ten years.” At what point does a beginner morph into an intermediate? How advanced does one’s playing need to be to label oneself more than a beginner?
And now for a personal confession. I play three other instruments besides harp. I have performed in front of large crowds as a singer/songwriter. Despite this, and the fact that I write harp music, it has taken me close to five years to feel comfortable playing my harp in front of other people. Five years!! I finally decided that this situation was ridiculous, that I had to, as the saying goes “Just Do It”, and now I am playing more and more for others. Do I sometimes make mistakes? Yes! But I just don’t care as much, and by not caring as much, I make fewer mistakes. I want to play the music I write, and although my first priority will always be composition, music is a beautiful way to communicate with others, and I don’t want to miss out on that part—I want to connect and share what I know.
So what is the key to these fears we have as adult players, and how can they be overcome? We lack the casual confidence of the child who will simply sit down and play, unabashedly, because, after all, why not? What’s the big deal? A child in some ways has less at stake, less baggage as it were. But we’re all grown up. We are supposed to know more. We are supposed to be better, to be competent—aren’t we?
The dirty little secret is that we play one of the most beautiful sounding instruments in the world, and that no matter what we play, no matter how simple the piece, if it’s played with expression and with reasonably good technique, the crowd is going to love it! It’s true! I’ve seen it happen. We do not need to be Salzedo to sound good and enjoy what we play.
We adults put lots of pressure on ourselves. Maybe we feel others are judging us, evaluating us, and we want to measure up to their expectations. And so as relative beginners we learn pieces that are too difficult for us. Maybe we have an overzealous teacher, or because we are old enough to appreciate complex music, we want to play that music long before we are ready. Maybe we can’t handle the fact that we might a mistake. I will never forget what Louise Trotter said in a conference a few years ago. “If you play the wrong note, play it twice and with feeling. Make the audience believe it was intentional, and if all else fails, gliss!” As Microsoft has been rumored to assert, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”
So here are some things to think about, all of you who may suffer the tyranny of expectation. Take it slowly. Find a teacher who will not only show you technique, but who will encourage and nurture you. If you’re not feeling nurtured, you need to find another instructor. Enjoy the process of learning and playing each step of the way. Find music that you can enjoy and that you can master.
I believe in finishing what you start, but if you are working on a piece for months and you’re not making progress and it is beginning to turn your harp playing into an onerous task, put the music--not the harp--aside. Find something easier. Build a repertoire of playable pieces and feel good about yourself. Get out of your house and play somewhere—even if you’re the background music. Spread the joy of harp to others.
Improvement does require practice and discipline. We all know that. Just remember to set goals you can reach, and enjoy the process. It is a journey filled with beauty. No one should ever give it up. And if you do decide you want to get to Carnegie Hall, you can. Just take a cab.
by Meg Robinson
Published by the Folk Harp Journal