It was love at first sight for the harp and me, in a 14th century inn just outside of Cardiff, Wales, last July. On my birthday, even. We’ve been an item for two months, now, with no sign of the passion abating. While we are locked in our embrace, my harp and I, time evaporates and stops at the same time. I am lost in the challenge of marrying what I already know about the piano to the particular demands of the harp.
My background in piano eases the learning curve. Eye-hand co-ordination, suppleness in the hands, the ability to read notes and rhythm, and a well-developed practice and performance ethic, all developed over years of playing the piano, allow me to short-circuit the process somewhat. From a fast-tracked relationship after a casual meeting during holidays to a short engagement, it seems that my harp and I share a destiny.
Still, despite everything the harp and I have in common, a new relationship does take some adjustment. Whereas, with the piano, each hand had limited access to the range of the other hand, on the harp, both hands have equal access to the instrument’s entire range. I have already learned that key difference while arranging Christmas carols for the harp from my beginner piano books. What’s designated as left hand and right hand for piano doesn’t necessarily apply to the harp.
Another difference is placement. With the piano, I learned as an adult to prepare my hands over the keys to play chords. That means, to form my hands in the correct position on top of the keys, and then to play all the notes in the chord simultaneously (often, four notes in each hand, at once). That training helps with the harp, but placement is even more exacting for this instrument. Not only do I have to place my hand on the string before playing one string, I have to know what’s coming, along with the correct fingering, so I can place the next series of notes as well, in each hand.
Given the critical importance of placement to playing the harp, I have to look at my hands much more than I ever do on the piano. In fact, I have spent fifty-five years of my life honing the skill of seldom looking at my hands when I play, and looking at the music!! With the harp, I must instead watch my hands constantly to be sure that I am placing correctly, and to check my technique. As a result, playing from memory is a necessity for the harp, I think, whereas memory is a convention and a tool for the piano. I have to work at memory; it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it might if I had a better ear. I know that these challenges will enhance my piano playing too. After all, that’s what happens in a great relationship—your partner helps you grow.
It occurred to me one day that my experience with the harp is a wonderful analogy for handling personal and professional shifts in life. No matter how new the experience with which we are confronted, whether we have chosen the experience or whether it is thrust upon us, we have a prior set of transferable skills we can use. The idea is to identify the new skills required, and then figure out how our prior knowledge can help us to master them. We do that one step at a time, one measure at a time, one practice session at a time.
Two months since our fateful first meeting, I spend as much time with my harp as I can. The experience has convinced me that I have a skill set that enables me to learn new things—not despite my age, but because of it.