Sunday, 31 July 2011

New harp and new music

I've now had my new harp for just over a week and it's about time I put some pictures of it up here.
 The wood is maple with a walnut satin finish. When I ordered the harp over the phone I was given lots of choices but didn't really have a clue what it might look like. It feels very much like the old harp to play which isn't that suprising really. The main difference is that the levers are made of brass, unlike the old plastic ones and these go up to sharpen the string. The plastic ones went down. I didn't give it much thought before but it makes more sense for them to go up as when you sharpen a note it goes up in pitch so that has helped me remember which way I am supposed to go. One problem I have found is that the plastic levers were coloured to match the strings. All the C levers were red which made them easy to spot. The new levers are all brass so you have to work it out from the string. This has taken a bit of getting used to.

Although my grade 2 exam is over I have plenty of new pieces to learn and work through. My next public performance will be at the Learning Orchestra course in Provence, later in August. One of the pieces is Elgar's Chanson de Nuit. The conductor forwarded me a part to have a look at. Elgar wrote for the pedal harp and as there are frequent changes of flats and sharps the part is not that playable on the lever harp. However I can rearrange some of the chords so that most of the notes can be played. I've listened to a recording so know that the beginning and end are quite important. It is also very slow so that gives me plenty of time to think. I have started writing in lever changes in red on my music which makes it easier to spot. I am alos hoping to get as much of this as possible from memory so that I can look at the harp and occasionally the conductor. I know that harpists always like to see any orchestral music well in advance of the first rehearsal and I can see why. So many moves need forward planning so you don't get caught out on the day.

I have not been sent my grade 2 result yet and it will have been two weeks tomorrow. No matter how well (or badly) I've done I have set myself the aim of doing grade 3 at Christmas. I have a couple of the pieces as they were in books for grade 2. This week I managed to learn most of Etude, a 17th century study by Carlo Grossi. It is made up entriely of scales and after a few play throughs I worked out what patterns were being used and managed to get this from memory in just a few days. Like an eager child I find that when I can do something half decently I am quite content to just play it over and over again, rather than tackle anything new. It's not ready for performance yet as my fingers slip, especially when changing hand position, so I'm working with the metronome, building up the speed. I've been playing through two other tunes, very slowly so may start to work on those when I get back from a holiday next week. Finally, looking much further into the future I've had a look at the opening few sections of the slow movement of Mozart's Flute and Harp concerto. This would need some serious work and probably a more tidy technique but I've had a look at a few bars and have planned how the lever changes would work. I'll probably revisit this one from time to time over the next year or so.

Hopefully the next post here on the blog will have my grade 2 result. I know you're all as excited as I am to find out!

Friday, 29 July 2011

Jazz harp

As a clarinettist I have the potential to explore and perform music from a huge aray of genres. Add the saxophone and almost all modern and popular styles are included. The only exception is Rennaissance as the clarinet wasn't invented until around 1750. Even the Baroque era is not entirely without a single reed as Vivaldi and others wrote for the chalumeau, the forerunner to the clarinet. At school I only played the clarinet and mostly focussed on classical styles, playing in orchestras and chamber ensembles as well as working on solo pieces. I had always enjoyed jazz but never made an effort to get into any groups. As I started playing in show bands and had pupils wanting to learn jazz I realised I would have to get a bit of help to develop my limited skills. There are many publications including sheet music, tutorial books and recordings available for clarinet and saxophone as well as other standard instruments of jazz. There are also courses run by top pros to help with improvisation. I went on one last year which was excellent and concentrated on jazz harmony and techniques but I was able to transfer a lot of what I picked up to any sort of style. These courses always feature rhythm sections (piano, bass, drums, guitar), winds (saxes, clarinets, occasionally flutes), brass (trumpet, trombone) and the odd violinist. I once heard of a brilliant jazz oboeist. Never have I seen a jazz harpist.

Last Sunday friend (and groupie!) Margaret borrowed one of my keyboards for an improvisation workshop and she invited me to the end of course performance. Between the rhythm section and the brass and saxes was a harp! Rather than a performance the course, led by saxophonist Rob Hall, was concluded with an open rehearsal and the group worked through a few pieces they'd covered over the weekend, learning the structures and working on communication. Naturally the saxes and keyboards were not shy in coming forward to play a solo but from time to time the harpist, Hibah did play out, usually just a single line in the right hand but occasionally adding a few notes lower down in the left. It was a fascinating sound although Rob had to remind the rhythm section to keep down when the harp was playing and for players to be aware that if she did choose to start a solo it wouldn't be that clear that she'd started. She then did a huge glissando downwards which would have been a perfectly clear sign of her desire to take the spotlight! Here improvised solos swung quite nicely and included some blues notes which would have needed some thoughtful preparation of pedals. Rob mentioned that harpists should not try to sound like a saxophone or a trombone, nor aim to match that style of playing but to find a jazzy style that suits the harp and matches the nature of the instrument.

Margaret had already warned Hibah that I was coming so I feared she might make a quick exit but she was lovely and asked me if I'd like a go. I couldn't believe my luck! I asked if she could put it in F major and I played While Bagpipes Play. It felt very easy to play, just slightly heavier on the knees as it was a full size instrument. Hibah had been playing for ten years, starting as an adult. Her teacher was none other than Rohan! I suppose we should have been more suprised if we'd had different teachers. She'd chosen to go on the course as it had looked really interesting and broadened her horizons a little more. We didn't have long to talk as everyone was packing away which was a shame as I later learnt she had just finished a PhD at Cambridge and was going back to Israel the following week. As I left I saw her pushing the harp up Hills Road back into town. Who says you need a big car for your pedal harp?!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Pilgrims and the new harp

I rarely look forward to birthdays, not because I'm another year older but I am usually more relieved to be at the end of the school year. This year was no different and Friday 22 July was my first free day in a long while. It was also predicted to be one of the busiest days on the roads so I set off early and made it down to Pilgrims before lunch. I met Naomi who was expecting me and she went and got my harp. It was a lovely dark wood, almost a shock as most harps I've seen have been lighter but I was quickly taken with the classy colour. I said I liked it and Naomi seemed relieved. I also have a smart new case with pockets for the legs. Naomi had a quick look over the old harp and gave me the necessary paperwork. Another worker, John, carried the new harp to my car and I asked if it might be possible to have a tour of the workshops, as advised by Anne and Rohan. John happily showed me around and we went into the first room. I saw harps and parts of harps at all stages of construction and John explained quite extensively the various processes from choice of wood (from trees grown at the top of a mountain), to cutting according to how the grain lies (strength one way and flexibility the other) and how the wood is cut then left three years to settle before being used. I saw the mechanism for pedal harps and these instruments have over 1000* seperate parts (* I think I remember this figure correctly but it may get amended if I'm way out). One worker showed the block of wood that is attached to the pillar and shaped and smoothed by hand as machines would not be able to do this sort of delicate work. Some harps were being decorated with intricate carvings, beautiful patterns featuring leaves and animals, again all by hand. There were three rooms with one up some rickety stairs. Some machinery is necessary but much of the work is time consuming and requires a super level of skill so it became much clearer why harps cost as much as they do. There are four main workers at Pilgrims and they are quite busy at the moment so it was good to see a British business doing well. A final room was set aside for restoration had a couple of much older harps waiting for some repair work and Anne's pedal harp that she bought from Rohan will have been through here. John was so welcoming and I was grateful for his time.

After roaming Surrey and Kent for much of the afternoon I went to visit mum's cousin Chris and family in Birchington. After treating me to tea and a birthday cake I treated Chris, Pat and Catherine to the first performance on the new harp playing my grade 2 pieces and The Old Windmill. They were very appreciative asking lots of questions and Chris had a go. His builders hands made some quite nice sounds!

Saturday was spent in Deal with Caroline and Charles, along with Palace Band members Barbara, Margaret, David and Ziggy the dog, all of whom were mentioned during the grade-1-a-thon. I played my latest recital programme which went down well. Mozart's flute and harp concerto was mentioned as Caroline has played this several times with BBC Symphony Orchestra harpist Soined Williams and I let her know my intention to learn the middle (slow) movement, and arrange the orchestral parts for the band. While it was Caroline who jokingly put the idea in my head the seed was sown and she is now coming round to the idea that it could be a reality. Performance date would be November 2012 so I've got a little time to learn it. Last word for today goes to Margaret who quoted a line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice which reads, "You have delighted us long enough". I take that as a compliment indeed to my playing!

Friday, 22 July 2011

A birthday and two new instruments

Today is my birthday and it is also the first day in a long while with no work of any kind so I am off to Pilgrims to return the hired harp and pick up my new harp. The hired harp has done me proud and has coped admirably with my practise routines and travel across the country but it didn't quite last the full distance as on Tuesday, the day after my exam, the top D string broke. I didn't hear it go just noticed something didn't look quite right as I sat down to play on Tuesday morning. I gather I've been very lucky not to have a string go as it is quite common.

After swapping harps and seeing how much of my deposit I have left (as well as the broken string the hired harp has taken a few knocks and one of the rubber feet fell off somewhere) I am off to Kent to see some family and friends and hopefully give a few more little performances in return for a spot of grub and company. Poor old Chris is off to work but he can take me out on Sunday. As soon as I get back tomorrow evening I will start practising the new instrument he bought me for my birthday - a theremin! Unfortunately all of the instructions are in Japanese but he's done a little internet research and I did manage a bit of a tune this morning so I will have fun trying that out.

Happy Birthday to me!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Grade 2 - The exam

As far as exams go this one was one of the more enjoyable. The venue today was much calmer than that when I took grade 1. Back then there were hundreds of musicians milling around, instruments breaking, people warming up, gossiping, sharing experiences and having a great time. In the Music Gallery, a quiet music shop on the outskirts of Cambridge, there were one or two shop assistants, one or two shoppers, one or two exam candidates, Rohan, Anne and, just after 2.30, me! I started getting my harp out just as Robyn was finishing her exam. Robyn was another Grade-1-a-bee and has continued the harp because she also had a great time learning it. She went for grade 3 today, an impressive jump from grade 1. She felt the pressure a little more than I did but hopefully she's done enough for a good mark. We had a quick chat afterwards and are hoping to get together over the summer with Anne to do some harp trios. When Rohan suggested that my harp might want tuning I looked at her pathetically and said "I thought you might do it" so she sighed and picked up my tuner while Robyn and I kept up the chat.

I did a quick warm up as I'd done quite a bit of playing that morning. I went in right on time and set myself up. The examiner was very friendly and if I didn't already feel at ease would have done with his caring words designed to make nervous candidates feel more at home in the exam room. When Bagpipes Play began well enough and in bar 3 I remembered to lift my right elbow a little higher as Rohan had told me to. I had a funny slip in the last line. Even now I'm not sure what went wrong but I missed a note, or mis-hit one and ended up a string too high for one bar. I bodged the bar and finished with the right last note. I remembered to take Goblin Rustle slightly slower to give myself time to think and this worked really well. I know from my own pupils exams that it is easy to go dashing off, especially when a bit nervous so was glad I thought to hold back. Mountain Stream also went without a hitch but looking back I'm not sure if I really made the most of the dynamic contrasts (louds and softs). Rohan has pointed out playing in an exam room is very different to playing in your front room so there will be differences in the performances. Scales were fine and I at least got the levers the right way round this time. I paused when the examiner asked me to do D major. I know this scale but it's not on the list so I'd not practised it and the examiner ealised something was wrong when I sat staring at the levers with a puzzled look on my face. He said something like "Oops, my mistake, sorry about that. Shall we have C minor instead?" and I happily obliged! For any potential exam candidates out there proof that examiners are only human after all! Sight-reading was very easy and I managed to play it twice within the 30 seconds practise time. I even memorised one bar so that I could look at my fingers. Aural tests also appeared to be very easy so I'm in for a shock if I got any of that lot wrong! I came out smiling and realised I had actually enjoyed it. Robyn did ask me if I got nervous, looking slightly suprised when I said not really but then I am highly used to these conditions regularly entering and accompanying pupils. It is good to see the exam structure from a different angle as it reminds you of what your own pupils have to go through. Next up was one of my own pupils as Sam was doing his grade 4 clarinet. Sam said he played to a few of his friends that lunchtime to get a little bit of last minute practise and such was his dedication he forgot to get anything to eat. I just wish he'd been more dedicated in the last few months but hopefully he's also done enough to scrape through! I might get the harp out and do just a little more playing this evening. I've got a grade 3 piece to look through and it's never too soon to start those scales...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

One day to go

So grade 2 is tomorrow and I now wonder if I've missed a trick this time around. A few people have asked when the exam is and Susan, one of my sponsors, asked if I was being sponsored for this exam heavily suggesting she would have given generously if it was. Maybe I should have set up another donation site with something like "harp fund for poor single reed musicians" and cashed in on the kind nature of the many people I come into contact with! No, this time it's just for me and although the pressure is off the preparation has not been to the same level as grade 1. I have gone for days without playing, I've performed to far fewer folk than before and I've left the aural test practise until the eleventh hour, something I was very smug to have prepared much earlier last time. Back in February I used one of my pupils to play the tests. I have been reluctant to use Nicola again as she has been working towards her grade 6 clarinet and I felt that any extra time in her lessons would be better spent helping her through the grade 6 aural. Fortunately I know the aural test format pretty well from working through it with most pupils and a quick run through the mock test on the CD this evening confirmed that I should be fine with this. If I don't get 18/18 for this part tomorrow I may consider a career change. Anyway best not to be complacent so at least I have practised.

I have tomorrow morning free for last minute preparation so I'll tune the harp, play everything through once or twice, find something I've not played yet for sight-reading practise and set off for the venue in plenty of time. Rohan will be there and hopefully she'll retune the harp for me as I'm quite slow at it and do not have her exacting standards of how in tune it should be.

I'm not a superstitious performer as I believe how well you do really does depend on how well you've prepared but I will take my lucky mascot from Caroline (see Long lost ancestor post in February) just in case I need an extra boost of confidence. Next time I write it will all be over (one way or another) and I'll let you know how it went. If you want to keep it interactive cross your fingers at 3.11pm!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The lesson

I went round to Rohan's this morning for my last lesson before my grade 2 exam. After catching up with the gossip I tuned my harp then played When Bagpipes Play. She asked if I was going to lift my right elbow at some point to which I replied my imaginary balloon holding my elbow up had not yet been inflated so I used an imaginary pump to inflate it and had another go. I really must remember to lift my elbow before starting to play as the sound is much better. Rohan also said the fortes can be much stronger. I do need to practise this as when I play really loudly I lose control of my fingers. Rohan told me to make more of the phrasing, slowing gently at the end of one section giving me time to thin about what's coming next and to let the music breathe a litte. She said harpists use that as a trick for difficult bits, and get away with it! The other two pieces were generally fine but again I could do much more with the dynamics but just need the confidence to play more loudly when required.

Rohan tested me on some sight-reading and she showed me the scales charts she uses for her own pupils. I'm happy with my scales but will design something similar to what she uses for the next exam (assuming I pass this one first...). I learnt about a new course taking place next year through the ACE Foundation. I have worked on calrinet and saxophone courses run by Trevor and the team at ACE and they are particularly well organised and enjoyed by all who attend. Rohan is co-ordinating a harp course for Novermber 2012 and has been in discussion with a very well known harpist to run the actual day. Rohan is hoping to attract 100 student harpists, including all 40 of her current students.

I let Rohan know that I was off to collect my new harp next week and she gave me some new music suggestions. If anything I am going to be doing more playing after my grade 2 to learn all the new material I am hoping to get.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Memory tricks

For as many summer terms as I can remember I've always told myself not to take on too much the following year and to try and save more time for my hobbies and getting out in the fresh air. Then once July finishes I happily reflect on all the activity that went on, appreciating all the experiences and the following year cram even more into my schedule. The harp has now become one of my hobbies and yet again has taken a back seat while I get the various lessons, exams, school concerts and my own performances out of the way. At least in February when I did my grade 1 there were only a few concerts dotted around and my own pupils' exams seemed a long way off. I am now in the middle of those exams, and the extra lessons some pupils seem to need, along with all the other activities mentioned. Needless to say I have done a lot less practise this time around, certainly not every day, and those practise performances to captive audiences have been few and far between. When I have given a performance I've chosen to include other favourite pieces rather than all the grade 2 pieces.

I am hoping to get all three exam pieces videoed by the exam date as this will test how well they are known. Today I got Chris to film Mountain Stream and the second take can be found just below this post. This one was quite easy to memorise as the arpeggios are based on chords. Fortunately I did pay attention in theory and harmony classes so the patterns in this piece make sense and that means it is easier to remember. When Bagpipes Play by Bach is also straight forward to remember as it is a tuneful melody in the right hand with the left hand doing a mixture of bass line and chords. Learning the dynamics right from the start also helps me remember what the music should be doing. Many players think they need to learn the notes first then get the dynamics, expression and accents in but it is worth learning all the detail within the music right from the start. That way you learn the piece once rather than learn then re-learn. More of a challenge has been Goblin Rustle. I didn't put as much effort into this back in May and June as I found it harder to memorise than the others. I've gradually spent more and more time on it but have had to be imaginative to remember all the various patterns. I divided it roughly into sections and firstly aimed to learn the beginning and penultimate sections as these are similar. They are not identical but noticing the differences is another way to memorise it. I then added the thrid section then the ending. The second section was the last bit to be learnt properly. I'd play the whole piece without music to see where the problems were (usually all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order) then I'd play through with the music to see what the right order was. I now need to play it to an audience to see if it survives the added pressure! I am meeting up with some family members on Thursday so will spring a performance on them when they least expect it!

Mountain Stream

Sunday, 3 July 2011

A holiday with the harp

The school term is almost over and regular activites are gradually winding down. I now find a little time to write the blog, having done a good 50 minutes practise this evening (during Top Gear as I know I won't be disturbed). All is going well. The scales patterns are fine. I went through them in the order they appear on the syllabus but I should start mixing them up more to practise finding the right levers so I don't make the same mistake that I did in my grade 1 (B flat major with an A flat and B natural!). I'm still working with the metronome, moving it up each time that I practise. Scales are now at 124 and arpeggios at 108. The arpeggios feel a lot better. I was a bit worried about those as the stretches are wider than the scales so there's more room for error. The pieces feel great although Goblin Rustle is not as memorised as I would like it to be. My practise sessions still include lots of other pieces that I enjoy playing as having played a wide range of styles will be useful preparation fro the sight-reading. As for performance practise I had the chance to play to an audience this week. It was Chris's birthday on Thursday and his parents popped round so I played When Bagpipes Play and Mountain Stream to them. They appeared to enjoy the performance.

Exciting news... I had a phone call to say my new harp has been finished and is ready for collection but due to commitments in my diary every day until the end of term I won't be able to pick it up until after my exam.

So far I have done most of the things the amatuer musician does such as taking lessons, purchasing the best affordable equipment and reading books about the instrument and players. One thing I have not yet done is gone on a course, either for a single day, a weekend or a whole week. I run lots of these sort of courses for woodwind players and know how enjoyable they are. Participants tell me they feel they learn a huge amount in a short space of time and the opportunity to be completely immersed in the playing helps them forget their regular lives and all it's stresses. Internet searches have offered a variety of courses for the aspiring harpist but the one I have chosen to attend this year was suggested by some members of the Palace Band. Alan, an oboist and sponsor, also plays with the Learning Orchestra which is a London-based ensemble open to grades 4 and above, giving less experienced players the chance to play with an orchestra. They have an annual course in Provence in August so after some deliberation and financial consideration I signed up.
The conductor was delighted to hear there would be a harp although I'll take my clarinet for the pieces that won't need the harp. We stay in a lovely venue somewhere near Avignon and rehearsals take place in the mornings and late afternoons giving us time in the day to go on trips, or swim in the pool or visit the nearby village. It all sounds idyllic.

I felt it would be easier to drive down rather than get the train and will have the company of Katy, another sponsor and clarinettist, who has lived in France and speaks French a little better than I do. At the end of the week we give a concert to local villagers then Katy and I will drive back hopefully more skilled than we were before we set off. I will be able to see some of the music before the course so am looking forward to having something else to practise when my grade 2 is over... assuming I pass...