One of the things about being a therapeutic harpist is that you don’t often get to see people more than once. In my hospital visits, people are (hopefully) better and gone by my next visit. One exception to that is when I play at residential facilities. I have a regular memory care facility that I visit twice monthly, and I am starting to get to know the residents there. Most of the residents are Alzheimer’s patients. It is so nice to see them again, and even if they don’t remember who I am, they are always happy when I play and they love to sing along. When playing for memory care patients, it is important to play very familiar music, preferably from the patient’s childhood. So we play a lot of folk songs, like “Oh Susannah.”
It’s easy to connect with this population, and I have grown to love a few of them. One woman in particular, has been very attached to the music. Younger than most of the other residents, she sits in a wheelchair, and is vocal, but not verbal. On my last visit, I was delighted to see that she was beginning to walk, with help from her family. Even though I have grown attached to her, I hope this means she will be home soon.
This was a crazy, busy, weekend for me. I spent Saturday with my IHTP mentor, working bedside at the hospice, and that means that Sunday is a catch up day. But still, I wanted to take a quick jaunt out to play for Random Acts of Harping Day. I knew I would regret it later if I skipped it this year.
The problem with RAOHD in Phoenix is that it happens in late June. Playing outside is not something we relish, exactly, when it’s 108 degrees. So I decided to go to our great little froyo place. Locally owned, and laid back, this place has a shaded porch where I could kill two birds with one stone.
After loading up on raspberry/strawberry/lemonade and lots of strawberries, I sat outside next to the sweet old dog who hangs out on the porch. Did I tell you that this place was laid back? They make milk-bone yogurt for the dogs.
This poor doggie, though, was afraid of my little harp. He barked and whined when I got it out, and hid behind a column for the 5 minutes that I played it. What torture for the poor fella.
So my Random Acts of Harping Day was pretty brief. Maybe I should have skipped it this year. 😦
When I worked on an assignment clarifying my intent in the very first IHTP lesson, I understood that it was an important exercise in goal setting and motivation – helpful for working through the year long (or longer) program. The IHTP also needs to know what we are thinking; they need to protect the quality of their stamp of approval for the sake of their graduates, the facilities they work in, and for their own viability.
I am playing bedside in a local hospice to fulfill some of my internship hours. The very first person I played for was near death and unresponsive. As I played, my mentor suggested that I add a high F to my improvisation. With that addition, the patient gave a little sigh and settled himself int bed a little bit. Another F. Another little sigh, another little settle. Another F?
There is fine line between exploring to find what will help the someone relax, and experimenting- manipulating someone to see exactly what the limit of the music is. The difference? You guessed it – intent.
The effect of that high F was so astonishingly, dramatically, evident, that now I see just how easy it was to wonder, “what if I…,” instead of “what is helping” – to manipulate, instead of meet and follow what is already present. It is such a simple thing for delusion to take over and color our approach to this work.
This firsthand message shows me another facet to the importance of right intent. Our intent is our mission statement and our target, and we need to keep our eye and our focus on it. We have not only to identify our purpose for others, but to articulate it to ourselves, actively and regularly, so that we continually remind ourselves why we’re here.
How do you find that fine line in your own life? Do you have a daily practice, or is it easy for you to see where you need to go? Or something else?
David Ice (pictured above) is a fabulous Phoenix harpist. He is also an entertaining writer, and gets to the point in a way we can all appreciate. Here is an open letter to a bridal magazine, which he posted in the Harpcolumn (membership required to view forum posts)
As a vendor at the recent Bridal Fashion Debut bridal show in Phoenix, Arizona on June 10, 2012 I was given a copy of your magazine.
What distressed me was an article. In it the author states “if the DJ’s already there for the reception, you just have to adjust the time for the ceremony…..it’s cheaper than bringing a harpist or a guitar player in.”
The advantages of having a live musician—an instrumentalist—for the ceremony are huge, and I feel this has been totally neglected and our contributions ignored. Indeed, with the possible exception of the Phoenix Boy’s Choir, I can find no other ceremony musicians advertising in your magazine. And, given the above statement, I can guess why.
Why do I feel this way? Let me explain, and please, really think about what I’m saying.
Let us assume that a DJ is providing the ceremony music for a wedding ceremony. Now, I’m not picking on DJs at all. This is just the physical reality of how things are.
All it takes is one lost bobby pin and all the timings, rehearsals, and planning go out the window. The ring bearer starts to cry, and simply refuses to go down the aisle. (I see this more often than not!)
The DJ has 73 seconds of recorded processional music. And the kid refuses to budge. What is the DJ going to do? All he can do is hit REPEAT.
A live musician can do much better. For example, I can realize what is happening, and think to myself, “okay, go back to bar 17, play up to bar 26, then vamp on bars 23-26 until the kid starts moving, and then jump to the coda.” Voila….a processional that times out perfectly. If I need an additional 22 seconds of music—or 8—I can make it work. A DJ has no other option than hit REPEAT and fade out. Think about this. Play a CD….hit repeat at the end of a tune, and then fade it out at random. This is exactly what the audience will hear.
Conversely, you can rehearse a processional until you are blue in the face—but at the actual event, people are nervous and can practically run down the aisle. Your 73 seconds of music must now be cut to 42 seconds. A live musician can do it. The DJ has no option but to just fade it out—just like turning down your car radio.
And more often than not—we’ve ALL done it—you hit the wrong button or hit it too many times on your CD player, your iPod, your computer—and the wrong track plays. Another vendor told me about a wedding where the Canon in D didn’t repeat…what came on was the Theme from The Tonight Show. Oops. I’ve personally heard a DJ start the first dance for the bride and groom and hit the wrong button on his computer, and what came out the speakers could only be described in polite company as The F-Bomb Deluxe.
Similarly, having a family member sing to a karoke track can be hysterically awful. People get nervous and emotional, and it’s a rare wedding where something does not go wrong using a pre-recorded track. I was at a wedding on Sunday where the singer (a family friend) got nervous, and was soon 4 or 5 bars out-of-sync with the track. It was truly awful. A live musician can follow and accompany appropriately. But a mechanical recorded track marches on regardless of whatever problems the singer is having!
Another personal story: I had a bride ready to go down the aisle. I got the cue from her, and started Here Comes The Bride. A couple of seconds later, I looked up to see where she was. She was nowhere to be seen!!!
I started adapting and vamping. It was the longest 90 seconds of my life—did she get cold feet? Was she the proverbial “runaway bride”??
She finally reappeared. It seems she forgot her bouquet, and ran off to find it!
Had it been a DJ, he would have had no option than to hit REPEAT several times. And it would have been immediately obvious that something was wrong.
As it was, I was able to vamp a very long Fanfare and Introduction to the classic Wagner processional—while aging about 10 years in the process—praying she would reappear! But in the end it was seamless and nobody knew what had happened.
If a bride is spending huge sums for everything else to be perfect, why gamble on the ceremony music? Would you advise, “don’t worry about shoes, nobody looks at your feet anyway”? Music is the emotional glue that holds the ceremony together! Has there ever been a wedding guest who stated, “Every time I see a pink lisianthus I cry remembering your wedding” or “every time I see a Vera Wang #1729 I think of your wedding”?
But people will say, “Every time I hear that song, I think of your wedding.” Since the music is so important, isn’t it equally important to make sure it fits, it is in sync, and it is as flawless as possible? DJs can only do so much. A live musician can do so much more.
Deborah Henson Conant, arguably the most creative harpist alive. She’s working in a new way, touring with Steve Vai this coming fall, and chronicling it in her blog:
I’m so far out of my comfort zone – so far out of my natural-ability-zone. … When I see my students experiencing it, I know it’s just their brain shifting from an old way of knowing music to a new way, and that the deep sense of disorientation and uncoordination is part of making that shift. I know that the things that seem obvious to me, are often completely invisible to them until the structures finally become clear in their minds.
There is a saying in mathematics: Every problem is impossible until you know how to solve it, and then it’s trivial. Confusion is a good thing.* When you are confused, that is a clue that there’s more to the what is happening than what meets the eye — you are in a rich situation, and you are on the verge of discovering something completely new, something that no one has ever known before, and you are going to make it yours.
So is confusion an essential part of creativity? Is it even possible to make anything new without feeling groundless? At least for a little bit?
Joey Tribianni – the chronically out of work actor on the TV show Friends – is the poster boy for self-defeat. He seems to find a way to bungle every part he gets. He even jeopardizes his big break – a movie part with Charlton Heston – by arriving on the first day of filming straight from a weekend fishing trip, and sneaks into Heston’s dressing room to take advantage of the only shower on the set. If you were a Friends fan, you know what I’m talking about. If not, you can see it here – the real action begins at about 1:40 minutes in.
OK, we probably don’t have that problem. But we all have times where we finish a lesson, a performance, a jam, and we realize: we just stink. Our greatest desire is to list our gear on Craigslist immediately, under an assumed name, and hope that nobody who knows us sees us again. Ever.
Guess what: this too shall pass. We will live to play again. And unless we want to live to stink again, it’s best to do a little bit of analysis and make a preemptive strike on the habits we have that work against us.
Before you do anything else, get a good night’s sleep. Have a nice breakfast. While you are enjoying the morning air, think back over your gig fatale. Did you really stink? Or were you being hard on yourself? This is not to say that you should let yourself off the hook if you did not play up to your own standards, but a little objectivity is important. Everyone makes mistakes; the important thing is how you handle those mistakes. Did your audience appreciate and enjoy your music? Or did you go down in a blaze of infamy?
Assuming that you did slowly self-destruct on stage, here are some things to consider:
Was your program appropriate to the audience, the setting, and your skills? Did you plan ahead and prepare a program that fit the venue and was within your capabilities? It’s important to have a command of the music; the better you know your repertoire, the better you’ll be able to decide when to fudge and leave out a note or two, or when to “go for it” when calamity (like a wrong note) happens. It’s best not to be too ambitious. Premiere your new pieces in low stakes settings – busking, or in front of your friends and colleagues – so that if nerves flare up, you can learn to handle them before your biggest events.
Did your nerves get in the way? We have all heard about beta blockers, both in prescription form and in their natural state (streaming audio). These approaches are not without controversy, so let’s just move on. Nerves can affect you physically, with your breath and tempo. It’s easy to dive into a piece before you’re fully ready to begin, but when you are on stage, you don’t experience time the same way the audience does. Taking a second or two to breathe deeply and center yourself is worth it, and does not seem as long to them as it does to you. Mentally, nerves can get in the way of memory, or they can also send those little self-defeating thoughts to you at the worst time. Remember, your thoughts are only your thoughts. They’re not real, and they can disappear as quickly as they come, if you let them.
Your audience is on your side. They are predisposed to make allowances for errors, because they want to have a good time. The way you can give them a good time is to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the music and the emotions that the music invokes in you. You are there only to communicate those emotions to the audience, to share what you know to be true, so that they can experience it too.
Finally, did you do your best? Preparation, as mentioned before, is crucial. But so is intent. If your goal is to get people to pay attention to you, then playing poorly will do a much better job of it than taking the trouble to prepare and play well. Easier yet, get a YouTube channel and stay home, videotaping your cat. Even if you play well, it can serve you well to examine your intent at every performance.
Keep your goals and intent true. It’s not about we performers, it’s about the music – the total experience. If we stink, some self-examination can turn things around. Instead of stinking, we can come out smelling like a rose – and somebody might even throw one on stage for us.