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Friday, March 30, 2012

Harp Yoga for New Moms

Ok, everyone! Get out your copy of Ed. Larivière "Exercices et Etudes pour la Harpe" op. 9.

Harp yoga for new moms. That's right. 

I find myself with very very very little time to play the harp these days while managing baby and household. No complaints, although I miss having daily time to indulge in projects and repertoire. Those days are on hold for now and these days I really enjoy playing: etudes! Slowly. As if each movement and note was a meditation. An hour of slow scales and exercises can be as rejuvenating as a nap. 

It's not the sun salutation series, but you've got it all in this book: breathing, awareness, focus, relaxation, strengthening, and stretching. 

The discipline of studying certain exercises, let's call it harp yoga, started for me when I was studying with Delaine Fedson. She graciously suggested that my technique needed work, and she was right. And it's never finished or complete, this thing of technique. Having a solid technique on any instrument means having the agility and strength to achieve the sound and speed you want. Right now (with little Eloïse), I'm not keen to invest emotion into a new piece. I don't have the mental energy to memorize notes, yet I long to touch the harp. And this is where Ed. Larivière is helping me.

Why this book of etudes and exercises? I've spent recent years using it, and it's become like a cozy pair of pajamas. It's not volumes and volumes of exercises- only 30 pages. Unlike the extensive Grossi, Pozzoli, Bochsa or Salzedo methods and studies-- this one is concise and dense. It takes me about 3.5 hours to get through all 79 exercises (1.5 hours on the first 4 alone!).

After spending years training the body to play ergonomically, just opening up an exercise book makes me engage all the muscles in my body in a supple fashion, find my sitz bones, sit up tall like a ballerina, and breathe. I practice unwinding the muscles in my jaw. I pay attention to the upper back. I make sure there's a lot of finger flesh on the strings and that the fingers close directly into the palm, immediately releasing tension upon plucking. 

Like yoga, this isn't just another exercise program. It's a practical and methodical application of awareness and self study. The goal is consistent, hearty, and buzz-free sound. Unless I'm thinking about each motion and note, I'm wasting my time. I love it! Because even if there's only 15 minutes to spare at the harp, you can go there, to this place of sound and motion, then come back and get on with diaper changing. 

But hold the phone: who made this stuff up? Alphonse Hasselmans of course! The French granddaddy of the pedal harp (1845-1912) and one of the most significant harp teachers of all time. Apparently, it was a student at the Paris Conservatory, Raphaël Martenot, who dictated these gems. Martenot added a little note explaining a few of the exercises in the beginning of the book. I'm not sure of when they were put on paper. The publisher Alphonse Leduc first printed this collection in 1946, more than 30 years after Hasselman's death. 

Just to point out a few super fun (and significant) exercises, take number 13 for example: 3 octave scales in both hands. This one is important because it allows me to push for equal sound on every note, even though every string is a different gauge and even though it spans three different types of strings (metal, gut, nylon).

Whenever there is a slur in this book, it's there for a good reason. It's a guide for phrasing and breathing (page 9 and 10, for example).

Speaking of page 10, I like this set of scales because it sounds like different sets of voices in a choir. The trick is to listen to two voices at the same time. It's like needing two sets of ears. Fun. No really. It's fun!

If I've got just a few minutes to spare, it's nice to dive into the mini-exercises  (Number 4, marked "Theme and Variantes"). These are basically arpeggiated chords in different patterns: sets of 4 notes at a time in one hand in a certain order, with the same set of notes in the other hand but not particularly in the same order or direction! 

There are a few that just feel good in the hands:
- the second to the last measure on page 5
- page 6 line 3 measure 2 & 5
- page 7 line 1 measure 4

If I want to stretch my mind a bit and even go cross eyed for a second (and if I'm going hard-core, I do it decaffeinated):
- page 6 line 4 measure 4
- page 6 line 5 measure 5
- page 6 line 6 measure 3
- page 7 line 2 measure 2

And before I become overly long-winded, let's look at the 3 "etudes" in the book. These are occasions to put into practice the previous exercises. It may sound bland, but these etudes are sooooo lovely and sweet. Its the best use of peas and carrots that I've ever heard. My favorite: the third. Allegro con fuoco in f minor. A little sad and particularly challenging. Mmmm. And so rewarding. 


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