Archive for August, 2011
A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a fascinating local harpist. She said he was gigging at a Tex-Mex restaurant near her house, and she described his instrument as sounding more like a Mexican guitar than a harp. This was exciting news for me! I love the Paraguayan harp music in my CD collection, but I’d never seen a Latin American harp performed live. I wanted to meet this harpist and hear his playing.
So on Friday evening, Michael and I joined my friend and her family at the Pulido’s Mexican Restaurant in Hurst, TX to enjoy some food, fun, and harp music.
The harpist, Gonzalo Mata, was amazing … and judging by the lobby sign advertising his gig, he’s had quite a career! Our party had a ten minute wait for a table, so I edged my way toward Gonzalo to watch his fingers and take in the fabulous resonance of his instrument. He was very friendly, so I struck up a conversation with him between songs. I told him about my own harp playing, and he cheerfully answered my questions about his Mexican harp, explaining the difference between it and the Paraguayan harps I’ve seen in pictures. The next thing I knew, it was time to join my friends at our table.
While I munched on a dinner of fish tacos, I enjoyed the dinner conversation, the sound of the harp, and other people’s responses to the music. Gonzalo played an entertaining mix of 60s pop hits, country songs, and traditional Mexican tunes, drifting from genre to genre with perfect ease and Latin flair. His music created a warm and festive atmosphere that invited audience participation. People applauded between songs, and the whole restaurant put their hands together when he played “Chiapanecas,” the Mexican hand-clapping song!
The longer I watched and listened to Gonzalo’s playing, the more I wanted to try that Mexican harp. My friends urged me to go for it, and Gonzalo seemed genuinely pleased that I was interested. He beamed at my attempts (which were clumsy, as his strings didn’t follow the normal color-coding pattern at all!) and we talked more about harps, harping, and music.
As it turns out, Gonzalo lives fairly close to Michael and me, and he knows other local harpists who play both Paraguayan and Celtic harp. I’ve been invited to bring my harp and join them the next time they get together to play. Gotta love the worldwide harp family!
[Thanks to Michael for wielding the camera, and to Wynde & family for sharing the music!]
There’s a pool of creative angst that’s never too far away from me. Every so often I fall in. I could drown in that pool. It’s filled to the brim with overwhelming emotions: deep longing for my inner music to find expression … grief when I see how far away I am from that goal … intense frustration with the obstacles that delay and thwart my growth … fear that I will die with my music still inside me … and hanging over it all, the dreadful possibility that, despite its relentless clamoring to be heard, my music may not be worth hearing at all! The edges of the pool are slippery, and I’ve never found a reliable ladder. Somehow I always manage to get back out, but not until I’ve had a thorough, head-to-toe soaking.
Last week I was back in that wretched pool again. I can’t quite remember when I slipped, but I usually fall in for the same reason. It starts when I listen to myself playing my harp and I’m struck, once again, by the aching gap between the music I hear in my soul and the sounds I’m able to produce with my current levels of knowledge and skill. The distance between the two looks insurmountable, yet the thought of not reaching my destination seems like the worst kind of death. Will I ever make it? Or is my dream just too impossibly beautiful to come true?
I was still stuck in the pool late last week, even as I was preparing for a weekend road trip. Part of my agenda was to play my harp for a very loving, accepting audience. I felt like a fraud for planning to offer up my puny skills to these kind people, yet I hoped the process of forcing myself to play (however insecurely) would give me some sense of accomplishment. It might even give me a boost out of the pool. Then, the day before the trip, my plans fell apart.
Texas remains in the middle of a record heat wave and drought. Air conditioner repair companies are working practically 24/7 to keep people cool. They’re doing a phenomenal job. Even so, it was 24 hours before our company could get around to us. At 2 p.m. that day, it was 103°F on our shaded front porch and far too hot upstairs. Our musical instrument zoo retreated to the safety of our downstairs living room, where (blessedly) the AC was still running.
The AC technician finally arrived around 9 p.m., coated with a shiny layer of sweat. He had been working on one air conditioner after another since 8 a.m., doing fun things like crawling around in 130°F attics and fielding the complaints of overheated customers. As it turned out, we were the last stop of his very long day. He got right to work.
While the technician went in and out of the house, checking things and testing parts, I stood staring at my living room. The furniture was rearranged to accommodate my harps, which sat sulking under their covers. Looking at them, I was suddenly in the mood to play. Not for myself; I was still angst-ridden and sick of my own sound. No, I wanted to play for someone … and we happened to have a visitor. I asked Michael if this was too weird. He said I should take any audience I can get! Since my other plans had disintegrated, I realized my only audience for the weekend might be a captive one.
So, while the technician was working outside, I unwrapped my Merlin, found a bit of space on the living room rug, and started a mini-concert for Michael. I kept it up when the technician came back inside, all business, writing out invoices and explaining the repair. For several minutes, he gave no real sign of noticing the harp.
Then, during a pause in the AC conversation, he looked up from his clipboard and said, “I’ve never actually seen someone doing that. That’s awesome. It’s really relaxing!”
A smile crept up on me.
“How’d you learn to do that?” the technician continued, eyeing my fingers on the strings.
“Three years of lessons,” I replied.
“Sounds like you’ve been doing it forever,” he said. I looked up in time to see an expression of genuine respect cross his face before he turned his focus back to his paperwork.
It’s a good thing he was covered with sweat at that moment; otherwise I might have embarrassed us both by leaping up and hugging his neck. “Dude, you just made my day,” I thought, “and not because you fixed my air conditioner!”
My playing that evening was nothing fabulous. I still can’t play with enough skill to give life to the music in my soul. It may be many, many years before that will happen, if it ever does at all. The pool of angst is always ready and waiting.
But in spite of all that, when I sit down to my harp and play, a little bit of something does come out. It’s a long way from being able to satisfy me, but it’s good enough to bring joy to the people I was going to play for during my weekend trip. It has been good enough to make a number of other people happy so far. And it was good enough for that hard-working, sweat-drenched air conditioner technician, who more than deserved a nice ending to his day.
Hand me a towel, will you? It’s time to get out of the pool for a while.
This story and interview from The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock” blog made me smile. Unexpected beauty for commuters, plus money for college! Way to go, Emily!
Follow the link below to read the full article and watch a video of Emily Mason playing her harp.
Posted at 08:07 AM ET, 07/11/2011
Emily Mason, 22, of Front Royal, plays her harp a few nights a week at a Metro station in the area to attend college.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Dave Woodworth’s fascinating new carbon fiber lever harps. Dave and his assistant, C Jay, have been traveling all over the USA this summer giving harp demonstrations, and the last leg of their tour brought them here to Dallas/Fort Worth area. After much anticipation, I was excited to be among the group of local harpists who gathered at the Hilton in Arlington on August 10 to test-drive these innovative harps. The experience was well worth the wait!
My husband and I, along with harp friend Kathy, were the first to arrive at the demo and marvel at the assortment of carbon harps on view. We were also the first folks of the evening to pick up the harps and be stunned by their lightness. It’s a Law of the Known Harp Universe that harps are heavy, so harpists and their helpers are accustomed to making many provisions for harp-moving. That’s why it’s such a mind-bending sensation to pick up one of these harps for the first time! Descriptions and statistics can’t quite convey the otherworldly feeling of a full-size lever harp that only weighs 10 pounds!
I had time to get over my initial fascination before the other harpists arrived, so I had the fun of watching each of them make the same discovery, one by one. Maybe I’m weird, but I never got tired of seeing that first look amazement and wonder! My favorite reactions came from two lovely and distinguished local harp instructors, who I’m sure have spent their share of time lugging and wrestling heavy harps over the years. It didn’t take long for them to ask Dave if he has plans to make carbon fiber pedal harps too!
Since carbon fiber harps are nearly indestructible, they lend themselves to a number of attention-grabbing antics. Dave hammered the harps with tuning wrenches, turned them upside down and thumped the floor with them, and even poured bottled water down the soundboard of one harp, eliciting gasps of horror from every harpist in the vicinity. After all, another Law of the Known Harp Universe is “Harps are fragile! Guard them with your very life!” The concept of an abuse-proof harp is basically unfathomable to harpists. Dave seemed to be having a ton of fun trying to stretch our imaginations!
There were several samples of the Delight and Infinity models on hand in a variety of colors, from black to white to “Maserati Red.” Some were strung with nylon and others with fluorocarbon, giving everyone the opportunity to sample both. (My advice? Go for the fluorocarbon.) A few of the harps also had a new feature: red and blue C and F tuning pins, designed to make tuning easier. Dave also debuted the brand new Legend model, which has a straight soundboard and a rounded back, rather than the curved Heartland soundboard.
In my earlier post about these harps, I wondered if their sound and feel would live up to their other qualities. I was eager to find out for myself. It took a while for me to gather up the courage to seriously sample one of the harps, as I knew I was within earshot of two of the most accomplished harpists in the area! But with Dave’s kind prompting, I finally sat down to a black, fluorocarbon-strung Delight model.
This was my first time to play a Heartland harp, so the curved soundboard felt strange at first. The whole idea of not pulling the harp back onto my shoulder was a bit odd, too … but after a few awkward minutes of shifting and positioning, I found a posture that worked, tried to shut out everything else, and started playing.
As I focused on the sound and feel of the harp, I found myself slipping into that state where everything else but the music begins to drop away. I got into “The Zone.” Some harps have a way of welcoming me into that comfortable place right away, while others leave me cold from the very first moment. A number of factors play into this feeling, and they blend in ways I may never fully understand. I’ll just say this: if I’m able to get that feeling in a hotel meeting room with people walking by and multiple conversations taking place around me, there’s something compelling about the harp! It was hard to say good-bye to that Delight when the evening ended.
These unique harps make quite an impression. The only downside I can see is the price, which is relatively high. I hope this difficulty can be reduced at some point, as I can imagine these instruments changing the harp world in wonderful ways. Even though a new harp is not in my plans or my budget right now, I can’t help dreaming about these go-anywhere harps and their potential to empower radical new displays of unexpected beauty! (Benevolent art patrons who happen to like the idea of funding interesting experiments by aspiring musicians are more than welcome to contact me. )
[Many thanks to my husband, Michael, for the fun pictures he took at this event.]
Have you seen a Random Act of Culture? I’m fascinated by these pre-planned yet seemingly spontaneous performances in public places. They strike me as giant musical surprise parties! Here is one example:
As of today, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has funded 379 Random Acts of Culture in cities around the USA, with a goal of 1,000. The Foundation’s stated goal is “promoting informed and engaged communities,” and they believe in the power of the arts to bring people together:
Hearing Handel, or seeing the tango in an unexpected place provides a deeply felt reminder of how the classics can enrich our lives. As you’ll see in our videos, the performances make people smile, dance, grab their cameras – even cry with joy. For those brief moments, people going along in their everyday lives are part of a shared, communal experience that makes their community a more vibrant place to live.
There may indeed be a communal experience involved with these Random Acts of Culture, but I can’t help thinking these events have a deeply personal impact as well. Just look at the people’s faces! What a spectrum of emotions! This is so interesting and moving to watch. I love to see people start to laugh, cry, or dance, but I’m equally touched by the people who don’t seem to know how to respond. What has happened in their lives to cause them to react in these ways? And how is it that music can tap into all these different feelings simultaneously?
In an earlier post, I wrote about the great power of unexpected beauty. I believe the Random Acts of Culture offer proof of this power. Watching these videos and seeing the surprise and wonder on people’s faces only increases my conviction that more musicians need to bring their music out into the world. Not every musician will have the resources to put on a big, bold display, but that’s not really necessary. Just one musician, one simple song, can change the atmosphere. We all need to experience a bit of beauty now and then! Even a small dose can be enough to remind us that, despite the chaos and trouble we see all around us, our world is still filled with things to love and embrace.
YouTube can be a great place to find musical inspiration. Of all the cello videos Michael and I have found there, my favorite is this cover version of “Smooth Criminal” by 2Cellos. The original Michael Jackson song is more about rhythm than melody, and I’ve never considered it one of Jackson’s best, but cellists Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser bring such a feverish energy to their interpretation that I can’t help but be fascinated by it. I love the way they exploit the percussive qualities of their instruments to layer rhythm upon rhythm. This is the cello version of “The Wild Side,” and I’m guessing the Suzuki cello repertoire doesn’t include anything like it!
It seems these very talented cellists have parlayed their YouTube success into a recording contract with Sony Masterworks and a tour with Elton John. My local public library has copies of their first CD on order, and I’m in line to get one when they arrive. I’m eager to hear what they’ve done with Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Sting’s “Fragile,” but I’m having a hard time imagining a cellistic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”!
8/22/2011 UPDATE: We finally got the CD, and wow … I love the way these guys hear and relate to music! Their bare-bones rendition of “Human Nature” was goosebump-inducing, and I was pleasantly surprised by the haunting beauty of the verse portion of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m forever imagining alternate arrangements of songs in my head, so for me, this CD is a scrumptious piece of ear candy.