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Looking at the harp while playing

  • isaac
    isaac Brooks

    I've been learning harp for five years - first for three with weekly lessons, then an unfortunate year-and-a-half hiatus, and recently I've been trying to get back on track, though I only end up being able to have lessons every few weeks (average about one a month).

    I've noticed that I am unable to avoid looking at the harp strings and my fingers while playing. This means that I can't look at the sheet, so I have to memorize all my pieces, which takes a lot of time, and makes the first few times I go through a new piece unbearable (especially in cord pieces, where I have to learn several complete fingers each measure).

    With my limited time to practice and in lessons it's very annoying to me how much of time is spent just learning the text, rather than being able to work on the music or technique.

    Do any of you have the same problem? What would be a good way to learn how to "blind-type" the harp?

    replies to "Looking at the harp while playing"
    • Sherry
      Sherry Lenox

      This has driven me crazy, off and on, for the two and a half years I've been taking lessons. What has helped me is to practice easy pieces while looking only at the music, never at my hands or the strings.

      There has been a lot of posting here about the complexity of this problem. We all know that the harp is unique in that all the other instruments in the music world can and should be played without looking at your hands, but while playing the harp it is sometimes essential to check distant intervals.

      Memorizing the music isn't the answer as you've already realized, and in fact, for me it's a huge complication to play from memory, because I've found that I have several kinds of harp-memory such as kinesthetic memory, visual memory, and oral memory.

      I'm looking forward to reading more suggestions from the experts, but for this beginner it's force myself to read only and not to cheat!

    • Audrey
      Audrey Nickel

      I've heard it theorized that the blind harpers of old were able to do what they did because they likely played a "coupled hands" technique, similar to what many harpers today use.  I'm only just learning coupled hands myself, but it is easier to keep track of the intervals so.

      Another thing I try to do is "advance spotting."  In other words, rather than looking at where my hands are now, I look at where I need them to be in the next measure.  That gives me a chance to then look ahead at the music.

      Using cross-overs, and practicing certain intervals until you can do them by feel helps a lot too.

      Audrey

    • Sherry
      Sherry Lenox

      Hmph- I meant "aural: memory!

    • Patricia
      Patricia Jaeger

      Isaac, I must ask, has your teacher requested that you try not to look at the harp strings while playing? Do you realize that when a harp soloist on a stage is performing, he or she usually does it from memory with no music stand, and the soloist looks at the strings? He or she has translated what was on the printed page, into the geography of the harp strings, and the information comes from the brain, just at the moment needed. The concept of avoiding looking at the strings is strange to me so I hope you can explain it to us.

    • Tacye
      Tacye Phillipson

      I am in sympathy with not wanting to look at the strings all the time- I would never be able to sightread in orchestra if I had to!  I have to look at the strings for large leaps, but usually only have to look for one note of a chord and the rest fall into place by the fammiliar spacing.

      -learn to absorb sections of music at a glance and then look away, just as you probably do if reading aloud and wanting to look at the audience.

      -be scrupulous about placing where appropriate and use very consistent fingerings so your fingers know the intervals.  Can you do the cbcacgcfcecdcC exercise with your eyes shut?  Exercises are good for this and for helping written music look like a series of familiar patterns rather than individual notes.

    • Karen
      Karen Johns

      Hi Isaac!

      I've been playing for about the same amount of time as you- unfortunately, I have not had the advantage of lessons by an experienced teacher. I have had to teach myself from books and DVD's (lack of funds & geography has made taking live lessons for me impossible).

      Despite this, I have found that I am able to "blind-type" the right hand on my harp when learning music. Still working on the left-hand, but I think with enough practice I'll get there. I feel setback on the bass line mostly due to the fact that I started out not knowing the bass clef.

      I strive to keep good technique in all stages of learning a new piece, starting out slowly and gradually bringing it up to speed. It's been a lot easier for me this way.

      One of the biggest assets towards learning music for me is chord association. Once you memorize the chords changes in a piece of music, the patterns seem to fall into place. I usually have to play through a piece a minimum of 20 times before it flows smoothly. But that's just where I am- even though I have 5 years experience, if you compare me to someone who has played for 5 years @ 40 hours per week (this is just an estimation), you could probably say I've only played for 2 years. Practice hours make a BIG difference, and "perfect practice makes perfect".

      As far as looking at the strings, I have watched many harpers/ists (on YouTube) who either (a)look at the strings while playing without music(occasionally glancing away), or (b) look at the music, occasionally glancing from time to time at the strings to check their placement. I have yet to see any harpist staring off into empty space while playing and never looking at the strings, but then again, I've never met a blind harper. I hope with practice I may approach "O'Carolan" status, but I'm not there yet!

      Here is a way I look at the music: Look at the lines and spaces on the staff as  strings on the harp. The easier you can associate these, the quicker learning music should be. Also, tackle the tough and/or unfamiliar musical passages first, working in phrases.

      Hope this helps!

      Karen

    • Diane
      Diane Michaels

      How you look at either the strings or the music (what are you looking at specifically?) is the issue.  I watch students' eyes during lessons and often see their gaze focused only on where they are at that precise moment in time, i.e, fingers are already placed on the strings but the eyes are on that exact spot on the page or on the strings they are touching, creating a pause before playing.  Keep your vision fluid, moving ahead - seeing where you are going next on the strings or on the page.  When the vision gets locked, the brain has time to start playing games, asking questions your ear and fingers have already answered.  Don't give the brain this chance to overthink!

    • Briggsie B.
      Briggsie B. Peawiggle, Esq.

      I am being taught that the more I know the music intimately -- the melodic and harmonic structure -- the better I know the music in order to memorize it, and thus I won't be looking at the page. If I look at my strings/hands I am getting a good playing position, can concentrate on the actual musicality and not be locked onto a page. I find I can "finger memorize" rather easily, but that doesn't help when you get rattled in performance, nor does it help when you don't play that particular piece for several months and go back to it. If you truly memorized it -- that is learned the music intimately -- it really doesn't go away quite so thoroughly and comes back quickly. I can stare at the page and play quite handily, but not always correctly -- thus, not making the best sound. I'm forcing myself to do it right....it's not easy, and I know music quite well, possessing a master of music degree which I worked hard to earn and tried to learn thoroughly as I got both my degrees as an adult who understood that learning is not paying tuition alone. Still, learning a complex piece completely is not a simple task....but in the long run, I believe it is well worth it.

      Just my 2 cents....

      Briggsie

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen Dougherty

      Very new, already gloriously obsessed harper-to-be here! I've had five lessons with the inspiring Cynthia Douglass in Salt Lake City, so that cbcacg...etc....exercise is new to me. Can you point me in the direction to see the fingering and/or the written music?

      If cognitive science is correct in estimating 10,000 hours to become an expert, let's see: if I practice six hours a day for 4.6 years...erhm, maybe eights hours a day so about 3.5 years...

      Maybe I'll just stick to not having my eyes cross as my fingers stumble over chords.

      Cheers,
      Kathleen

    • Tony
      Tony Morosco

      Most of what I would say has already been said, but I will re-say it just for the hell of it.

      First, you need to be able to look at both. Unless they are blind I don't know any harpist who never looks at the strings. Yet you need to be able to look primarily at the music if you ever want to sight read.

      The key is looking and placing ahead. You place ahead and then you look back to the music. Play the music you see. If possible place the fingers for the next phrase before playing the last note of what you already placed. With a little practice you will find that you can go quite a bit without having to lift off the strings and look at the harp.

      When you do, either out of necessity or because musically it is necessary to come off the strings, then you look ahead again quickly and place your fingers ahead again.

      And the other thing that was mentioned, know the music. Not just where the fingers go. Try to understand it. With practice you will learn what the different intervals feel like when you place your fingers on the correct strings, and you will be able to see the notes on the page and know what it should feel like when you play the intervals. The better you know the structure of the music, the intervals used for the melody and the chords the piece is built on the more you will know what to expect when you are placing your fingers to play.

      Also part of knowing the music is knowing when to look at the strings in the first place. Just like knowing what chords are coming up, or knowing when it is time to press a pedal or flip a lever, you should know ahead of time when to look. It is as much a part of playing as lever or pedal changes. If necessary even mark it in the music somehow if you have to. I think part of the problem many people have with this is that they are trying to look back and forth haphazardly on the fly.

      Just like working out fingerings in advance generally works out better than trying to use just any old fingering on the fly when playing, the same goes with looking back and forth between the strings. Try to figure out when it is most needed and the best timing for it and make it a part of the music just like every other action.

      All this comes with a lot of practice and familiarity. One of the things to remember is not to rush yourself. Work hard and strive for what you can, but some things just take a lot of time and if you expect too much too soon you will only be frustrated. So strive for everything, but at this moment be happy with what you have.

       

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      There are many very good suggestions here, but I would like to add one that I haven't heard yet. A great deal of your ability to move around the instrument quickly and accurately has to do with being able to "feel" the position of different patterns like triads in all positions, 4 note chords, including major chords and V7 chords in all positions, and being able to play scales with a variety of fingerings. If you can do these things easily, then it becomes much easier to find notes on the harp as you play.


      To achieve this, a variety of exercises might help you a lot. Play octave scales in each hand alone, and don't look at the strings as you do them. Play any major 4 note chord in all positions(root, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, etc.) up and down several octaves, again, not looking at the strings. Do the same thing with a V7 chord, playing all of it's positions up and down the harp with each hand separately and also hands together. Play scales up and down the instrument over several octaves without looking at the strings or your fingers. You don't have to do all of these every day. Pick one of these to work on for a week or two, and then, once that starts to work easily, add another exercise to work on. You will eventually get to the point where you will be very good at 'feeling' your way around the instrument. The muscle memory you develop for each of these patterns will help you to find the notes in the pieces you are working on.


      Once these patterns have become fairly easy to do, make the exercises harder by making variations. Play the scales, hands together, with the left hand above the right, or start the scale with the right hand and then, on the third note the right hand plays, start the left hand scale. Go up and down 4 octaves like this. Play scales in opposite directions. Play scales using a fingering 123123123 etc. only, and then 12341234 etc. Play 4 note chords, hands together, up and down the instrument going through all the inversions. Like this, each hand is playing a different position. Play 3 or 4 notes chords, hands together, starting in the middle of the instrument with each hand going in a different direction: the right hand up the harp, the left hand down. Do all of these exercises without looking at the strings or your hands. If you do these exercises and get good at them, you'll be amazed at how easily you can find your way around the harp.

    • Chris
      Chris Asmann

      I have not been learning as long as you have, but I also find it hard to look back and forth. I was at a conference earlier this year and saw something that hadn't occurred to me and has definitely made my practice easier. You may want to try this too and see if it works for you too.

      Try placing the music stand to your right, behind the harp strings. It's not perfect, but I find that I can mpre quickly find my place on the page or the strings when looking back and forth since I'm just changing focus and not turning my head. The closer to the harp I can get the stand, the easier it is for me.

      I still have to use the stand on my left for lessons (between me and my teacher) but when playing music I've worked on for the week I don't have to look as often and it's not too bad.

      Page turning is a little harder, but not impossible. My teacher also keeps advising me to look ahead at the strings, to look where I'm going and not where I am at the moment as some of the other repliers mentioned.

      Chris

    • Karen
      Karen Johns

      Excellent advice Carl! Thanks a lot- I will definitely incorporate these exercises into my daily practice! :-)

      Karen

    • Dawn
      Dawn Penland

      I tried my music stand on the right tonight and I really liked it.  I could follow along with the music and not get lost.  I had time to see pedal changes and upcoming measures too.  Before I was trying to remember what I had just seen, like instant recall.

    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      re music stand on the right - I remember a Lincoln Center concert some years back and the harpist (I think it was Barbara Allen) had her stand on the right - I wondered if it was something she did all the time, or was necessitated by something in this particular concert -

    • Sherry
      Sherry Lenox

      Relating to Carl's post, I think the three months I've worked on Bochsa (the book that's all in Eb) has improved my ability to feel where the strings are a whole lot.

      When I began lessons 2 1/2 years ago it drove me crazy that I couldn't develop finger patterns but the repetition in the Bochsa forces you to do so. It's not hot fun, but for finger skill acquisition, I love it!

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Sherry- thankyouthankyouthankyou!!! You're exactly right. The Bochsa etudes(any of the sets) are wonderful for developing muscle memory patterns. If only more students and teachers would realize that and use them. They would progress so much faster.