Category Archives: Technique

Harp Hand Coordination

Many students struggle with the task of coordinating their hands, especially as they move in different directions at different times and with different placing groups. If you find yourself in a stuck place with the piece you’re learning, don’t just keep “trying” to make your hands work together. Instead, try one of these magical techniques for laying down the pathways in your brain and body that will help you, not only with this piece but with those to come.

Assign one part of the music (either hand) to another part of your body. Sing it, tap it with your foot or on your lap, or say nonsense syllables (doo bee doo be do) that fit the music while you play the other part on the harp. You may feel silly, but you will make more progress this way than you can imagine.

Try tapping the rhythm of each part with your two hands, on your lap (no harp required).

Or, tap one part with one foot, and one with one hand. Cross your body; in other words, use your left hand or foot for the right hand part and vice versa.

While we’re on the subject of crossing, try simply playing the right hand part with your left hand (alone) until you can do so relatively smoothly, and then learn to play the left hand part with your right hand. If you’re really brave, you can try them together, but this isn’t necessary.

Now, after all the crazy experiments, put your hands together as originally intended and see what happens!

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Stop Harp Buzzing

Buzzing is the bane of many a beginning harper. It’s especially hard to play “note-y” chords in the bass, because those strings, whether wire or wrapped nylon, vibrate in wider patterns. You can see them moving for a long time. So what is a harper to do to stop harp buzzing?

First, check for hand position. Notice if you’re catching that vibrating string with a fingernail. If so, change the angle of your fingers so that you will avoid the nail. Usually, students are placing from above, or sideways, making it all but impossible to avoid buzzing. The answer is to place from below. Keep your fingers down after they close open your hand right to the notes and replace them without “breaking the plane” with the top of your hand, and a lot of buzzing will disappear.

Another way to think of it is this: are your fingers closing and opening below your knuckles? Or are you allowing your hand to twist or pull out of it’s good harp hand position?  If you buzz, stop immediately and figure out which finger is hitting which string at which point as you place, and adjust that finger’s position.

The second thing to check is timing. Often, buzzing happens because you’re over-anticipating when you place. Yes, you want to place in advance, but at exactly the right time. Place just before you’ll play, and with deliberateness. Hesitation will always create buzzing, as will sloppy placing of a group of notes as less than a unit.

Finally, play the passage very slowly, changing your hand position ever so slightly until the sound is clean. Now do it again, and if it’s still clean, figure out just what you did to get that sound. Remember, you are ultimately the only one who can determine what fine adjustments in your finger angle or approach will allow you to “land” the notes without buzzing.

Once you know what to do, practice it until you do it automatically. You will get it, I promise.

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Q and A: Why harpists watch their hands

Q: When I started piano, my teacher would cover my hands with paper so I couldn’t watch them. She said watching my hands would make me slower. When I see harpists perform, they almost always have their music memorized and watch their hands when they play. Is this how you are supposed to play, or can a harpist learn to play by touch? I’m just wondering how anyone can memorize hundreds of pieces for performing. –Helen, in South Carolina

There are several reasons why harpists watch their hands. We all learn differently, but for many of us, going back and forth from the music to our hands gives us tennis neck. Memorizing means we play better and get less lost. Harp strings are harder to see and find than piano keys, and watching the patterns on the strings actually teaches us the music.

There is no one right way to play the harp. It is of course possible to play without looking at your hands, but harder than it is on the piano (and gravity is not on our side). Many of us use music at least part of the time, especially for longer gigs. Knowing your chords so you can play without reading every note is a huge help, not just to playing from music without having to study every note, but to learning to play without it (and to memorize, as well).

If you learn to improvise and “make things up”, and you can pick out melodies here and there, you can play for a long time without anyone else’s music (in sight or memorized). There are many ways to gain fluency; you just need to find what works best for you.

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Harp Hand Position Tricks

Harp teachers everywhere emphasize the critical key elements of hand position. You know the drill: thumbs up, fingers down, all closing into the palm every time, and so on.  But how about some harp hand position tricks to help as you try to practice?

As a teacher, I enjoy the creative challenge of coming up with colorful ways to help my students remember the feeling of good hand position on a physical level, since of course I’m not there to watch them practice and keep adjusting their hands. A few tricks that help tremendously are playing in front of a mirror, checking your hands against pictures, video-taping your playing so you can watch it, and using things like sticky tape on certain parts of the hand to alert you to when you’re doing something unproductive like bending out your wrist or not closing your fingers all the way.

But what I’d really like to talk about today is the power of metaphor. Take “thumbs up” for instance. In order to remember what that should look and feel like, it helps to have an image to conjure up. Christina Tourin talks about a little dove keeping its head up, instead of sleeping. I’ve heard Suzuki teachers call that open space between thumb and index finger the “strawberry space,” reminding the student that a big, fat strawberry could nestle there. My current favorite image is rope climbing; you can’t imagine doing that without your thumbs up, can you? If you pantomime climbing the rope, you will open and close your hands just as you would ideally do playing the harp.

Closing your fingers? Imagine closing around a butterfly: you don’t want to hurt it by clamping but you need to keep it from flying away. (And double-sided tape on your palm can let you know that you’re making contact every time).

Fingers pointing down? Imagine that if your fingers were longer, they could brush the soundboard like it was the fur of an animal.

Elbows raised, but not too far? Imagine a shelf at lower rib height and “rest” your right elbow there (left can be more at waist level). Of course, for this one check with your own teacher because these guidelines are hotly contested by different schools of harp technique.

Think up your own helpful metaphors, and have fun as your technique improves!

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Quick Fixes for Harp Technique Issues

This post covers three fixes for harp technique issues.  These are three of the most common issues that harp students have, once they’ve started to master the very basics of hand position.

Trouble crossing over/under: Make sure your fingers are low and your thumb is high–usually its the REplacing that’s the problem and we gradually creep away from the ideal location. Another tip: when you get to the cross, squeeze apart the strings to give yourself more leverage.

Trouble making lever changes smoothly: Practice flipping the lever in one exact spot every time, counting it just as you do a note. Follow the string up to the correct lever with your eyes or finger. If it’s still hard to flip in time, look for another spot to make the change (earlier, later, or not at all).

Trouble with buzzing: Buzzing is caused by imprecise timing and/or hand position issues. Make sure that you are not replacing early, but just in time. Check that there is no extra motion in your replacing; your fingers should place from below (not sideways or from above). Likewise, your thumb should place from above.

Often, buzzing happens because we’re opening and placing out of order–getting to the strings before our hand is in the correct position. Use these hints to diagnose the problem and correct it on the spot–never keep ignoring buzzes, or you will train your hands in the habits that cause the buzzing in the first place.

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.


Sitting at the Harp

Poor harp position can lead to slumping, aching arms, aching neck, aching shoulders–too many issues to mention.  It’s very critical that you find a way to sit and play your harp that avoids injury and allows for ease and musicality. There’s a whole page here at My Harp’s Delight about posture, including sitting at the harp and how the harp should fit to your body (never the other way around).

Sometimes, though, it really helps to see these principles demonstrated in action.  Luckily, harpist Marta Cook has a video on YouTube that shows you exactly how to sit at your full-sized Celtic harp to make playing easy.

Thanks to Marta for posting this great resource!

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

Harp Hand Position: Easier Octaves

Do you struggle with octaves, especially when they come in fast succession? For the left hand, we have open-handed technique to make octaves easier, but what about the right hand?

Instead of using standard harp hand position, with a high thumb and low fourth finger, drop the thumb a little. Now round the space between finger and thumb into a C shape (the same shape you would use to make an OK sign, just with a different finger). If you keep this shape as you play, you can much more easily play octaves up and down the harp ~ try it and see!

I also learned from my workshops with Alfred Rolando Ortiz that Latin American harpists use an open-handed technique for the right hand as well as the left. Not only are the fingers up and the hand open, but there is that same curve to the fingers that allows them to close fingers 4 and 1 (or 3 and 1) like crab pincers.

I’ve been experimenting with this technique on octaves and large chords, and I have to say it’s a far easier way to play them fast. This isn’t to say you need to abandon your traditional technique (as Ortiz would be the first to point out), but it’s a great tool for your technique toolbox. The bottom line for me with hand positions is effectiveness and lack of tension, and this one is a winner on both counts.

Subscribe here to receive notice of new posts and pages:


 

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.