Since Michael and I started studying the cello and harp, we’ve gotten to know several current and former members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. We’ve been to FWSO concerts in the past, but it’s so much more fun now that we feel a personal connection with the orchestra. These musicians are dedicated artists who love what they do … and from our perspective as music students, they do it with mind-blowing skill! Their accomplishments encourage and inspire us, so we try to attend FWSO concerts as often as possible.
We went on another Symphony date Sunday afternoon. It’s always a treat to settle into the beautiful Bass Performance Hall and hear the FWSO fire up the music, but Sunday was exceptional. Principal Horn Mark Houghton wowed the room with Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat Major, Op. 1, making an insanely difficult part sound effortless. Then there was Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 2 … my personal favorite of the day, since it came across to me as a revelation of the composer’s soul. When the music stretched its arms open wide, I felt as though it were Rachmaninoff himself, reaching out to me across time and space, pouring out his heart over some ravishing, uncontainable beauty he’d experienced.
A good part of Sunday’s magic was related to the presence of guest conductor Rossen Milanov. I don’t know much about the conducting art, but Milanov is clearly an artist! Some conductors appear to wave their hands at the musicians from some place above or outside of the music, but this man was inside the music with the orchestra. His love for the music and complete presence in every moment of it were undeniable. I’m sure this must have inspired the musicians, because they played at a level that made me feel privileged to be in the audience.
The visual appeal of Milanov’s conducting was my dose of unexpected beauty for the day. With his expressive hands, Milanov was beautiful to watch … by turns a ballet dancer, an elegant traffic cop, and a pastry chef icing an enormous cake to perfection. I was surprised to find myself enjoying this, because more often than not, I end up closing my eyes to shut out a conductor’s movements. In his interview on Fresh Air earlier this year, James Levine talked about the distraction of seeing conductors make gestures that don’t relate effectively to the sounds. I knew exactly what he meant — and before Sunday, I would’ve said I’d prefer to see conductors get out of the way! — but Milanov changed my mind. Every gesture he made melded seamlessly with the music, as if he were coaxing sounds out of the air through some unfathomable alchemy. When I see someone embodying music in this way, I know they must be feeling it in the core of their being. It feels so personal to see a visual representation of someone else’s inner musical life; it never fails to move me.
There are so many blessings to celebrate and be thankful for this week … but at the moment, I’m savouring the gift of inspiration that passes from soul to soul through music. No enchantment can equal it. Life would not be the same without it!
For as long as I can remember, my brain has been attuned to music. It’s an auditory addict, a music junkie. It sucks up new input like crazy … recording, replaying, obsessing, dissecting. It also generates its own music (which I pray I’ll learn to transcribe!).
My husband Michael loves music too, but his brain doesn’t process it quite like mine does. We’ve talked about the differences in our perceptions. He can’t fathom how I have so many detailed recordings in my head; I can’t grasp the linear way he perceives the music he hears and plays. We’ve wondered what it would be like to swap brains for a day and experience music through a new set of filters. Our feelings seem so radically different, it might be like visiting another planet.
Well, along comes Radiolab, my favorite ear-candy podcast, with a story about Bob Milne, a ragtime pianist with musical superpowers. (No, that’s not hyperbole. Listen and you’ll see what I mean.) If Michael and I are on different musical planets, Bob Milne has his own super-sized galaxy all to himself!
There’s so much I could say about this man’s mind-blowing abilities. I’ve tried to write something intelligent-sounding about the untapped power of our brains … the amazing skills we might discover if we knew how to make the right connections … the depth of the human connection to music … but I keep hitting backspace. There’s just no way I can touch the beauty of this man’s gift or the wonder I felt while listening to his descriptions of it. His experience of music is similar to mine in some ways, and yet it’s just so … beyond.
It would be quite a trip to swap brains with Bob Milne. I wouldn’t ask for a whole day, though. He would get bored with my brain in a hurry!
Last month, Michael and I had the fun of attending a faculty recital by Texas Christian University’s harp instructor, Laura Logan. This performance was a special treat because Laura was joined by the other members of the Octavia Harp Trio, Jaymee Haefner and Maia Jourde, for a program of harp ensemble pieces. Grandjany’s “Aria in Classic Style” and Debussy’s “En Bateau” were highlights, and given my interest in Chinese folk songs, I was bound to like the Kondonassis arrangement of “Small River Flowing.” The piece I found the most interesting, though, was “Adagio from Symphony in C” by Bizet, arranged for harp ensemble by Clifford Wooldridge. Laura told the story of her accidental discovery of this arrangement and her growing appreciation of it. I agree it was a great find, and I hope to hear it again someday, as it seems to be the type of piece that unfolds more with each listen.
Now, you may be wondering why a harp trio would go by the name “Octavia.” (Good question!) It’s because they’re part of the Octavia Harp Ensemble, a larger group of eight professional harpists. My harp teacher, Sydney Howell, is a member of Octavia, so I learned about the group after I started my lessons with her. At that point, I was still getting used to the miracle of hearing one lever harp in person, so I couldn’t fathom a chorus of eight concert harps singing together! That was a sound I wanted to hear … and in a short time, I got my wish. Octavia was having a rehearsal for an upcoming private concert, and Sydney invited us to watch.
When Michael and I arrived at the rehearsal, we were ushered into a living room that had been rearranged to accommodate a semicircle of eight concert grand pedal harps, eight benches, assorted music stands … and eight awesome harpists. One piece of regular furniture that remained was the sofa, which was smack in the middle of the harp circle. That’s where we got to sit. Talk about a place of honor! Michael and I were treated to a full surround-sound harp experience that afternoon!
It was fascinating to have such a close-up view of professional musicians working together to hone their craft. Their playing was great, but I was also impressed by the warm welcome they extended to me as a baby-beginner. I still remember their kind, encouraging words, which is probably why I have a soft spot in my heart for this group of harpists.
Last night, Merlin and I went out on the balcony to hang out with the sunset. I had dishes to wash and a stack of paperwork to finish … but who can pay attention to things like those when golden, early-autumn light is painting halos over the trees and there’s a tantalizing hint of coolness in the air?
Alfresco harping is a refreshing change from playing indoors. I don’t know what my neighbors think of it, but the harp loves it. The minute it’s brought into a wide open place, its voice stretches luxuriously, then opens up in ways I never hear in my practice room. It’s a fascinating transformation, and I love getting carried along with it. That harp seems to crave musical expression as much as I do.
There’s so much harp sheet music I want to learn, but I’m more interested in playing “the music of the moment,” the stuff that bubbles up in a particular time and place. That kind of music exists in a universe unfettered by notation. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt close to that other realm. I hear music in the Creation around me, and I ache to play those songs. That yearning was strong last night as I kept company with the sunset … playing what I could, dreaming of more.
“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” — Edward Elgar
“The earth has music for those who listen.” — William Shakespeare
After I wrote my previous post about creative angst, I decided to share it with an online harp group and ask for feedback. I’m not acquainted with many artists, but I was itching to talk with someone creative and find out if they’ve had similar experiences. I figured my feelings weren’t unique. The heartfelt personal responses that arrived in my inbox confirmed my suspicions! Others have been in the pool of angst, too, and they’re passionate about encouraging beginners to keep climbing back out and pushing forward.
Several harpists took the time to offer kind words, thoughtful suggestions, and book recommendations. I am grateful for every tidbit, but the one I love the most — and intend to keep in front of my eyes — is this sky-opening, heart-enlarging quote from Ira Glass of This American Life. I’m including it here because it has encouraged me more than any quote I’ve ever seen. It diagnoses that “aching gap” I wrote about, then speaks directly to it. It means so much to read these words from the perspective of someone who has felt the same pain, worked their way through it, and achieved satisfaction in their creative life! I hope this quote will find everyone who needs it.
What nobody tells people who are beginners (and I really wish someone had told this to me) is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. … It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
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.