Sunday, February 3, 2013

Harp Teacher's Corner - Hand Position Part 2

In Hand Postion Part 1 I addressed the fact that there are a number of different harp techniques and hand positions used around the world.

To briefly recap - a harp with a very loose tension, such as a paraguayan harp, will use an entirely different hand position from a harp with tight tension, such as a concert pedal harp. If you are searching the internet for videos and other tutorial materials related to hand position be sure you know what kind of harp you plan to be playing and what type of tone you prefer. If the harp in the video is not the type you will be playing - or does not have the tone you are looking for - skip that video and find one that matches your ideals.

I teach both pedal and lever harp students, many of my lever harp students being adults. Many of these adults are hoping to play harp in a spiritual setting of some kind - either in church or in the sick room. The most important thing to keep in mind when you are pursuing this type of playing is that you want a smooth, non-jarring tone and technique. The experience you create for the listener should be as calm and healing as possible. This will not happen if your movements are jerky, your hands are tight or stiff, or your touch is too strident. It is also not possible to play with a healing energy if you are completely stressed out about your own ability on the instrument. For this reason you must find a competent teacher near you to help you tame your hands into a good position to enhance tone and facility. I have worked with many students who are impatient to begin playing "a lot of notes" with no regard to tone or technique. In my experience "short cuts make long delays". Ignoring your teacher's advice regarding hand position, refusing to stabilize your technique, will only frustrate you and delay your ability to play the harp with the tone you enjoy hearing from others.

My technical background is rooted in both the Salzedo and Grandjany techniques. I find the Salzedo technique most useful for flashy concert playing as well as orchestral playing that requires the harp to project through an entire orchestra. However, it is my Grandjany training upon which I call for any piece of music in which the desired goal is a beautiful tone and nuanced phrasing.

In my over 30 years of teaching I have found that the "squeezing" technique advocated by Marcel Grandjany and his students produces a tone suitable for both pedal and lever harp. (Although it is helpful not to squeeze too much when playing a lightly strung lever harp such as a Triplett or a Yoder).

The most important facets of this technique are:

1) An "oppositional" relationship between the index finger and the thumb.

By this I mean that the thumb and index finger must be pointing in opposite directions (thumb up, finger down) so that the hand can truly squeeze the strings. You should never think you are plucking or strumming the strings. Rather, you are "pushing" them. The thumb pushes the string toward the column and the finger pushes the string toward your sternum or other part of your core. This will allow both the thumb and the finger to push their way through the strings to their ultimate destination. The finger will close entirely into the palm and the thumb will close over the hand touching the index finger between its knuckle joint and the  joint immediately adjacent. This closing is imperative for a deep tone. Peeling your fingers backwards off of the strings in a plucking motion will create a superficial, and often tinny, sound. It will also guarantee that the listener will hear your fingernails unless you have trimmed them all the way down to the quick.

2) A loose, relaxed extension of the arm with an elbow neither too high or too low and a wrist that does not stick out but is, instead, tucked in.

If you imagine yourself sitting on a horse and holding the saddle pommel you will understand what your goals are for your arm, elbow and wrist position. On this horse, if you do not want to fall off, you cannot raise your elbows too high or stick your wrist out. Doing so will eliminate the use of all the muscles on the inside of your arms. You will be reduced to the strength of your outer arm muscles only and it will be a very unstable feeling. Likewise, if you clamp your elbows into your body and flex your wrists at an extreme angle, you will short circuit the signals to your outer arm muscles. Good harp position, as with good riding position, requires your arms to be balanced so that your movements are both strong and flexible - creating security and stability. Probably the most frequent problem I see in beginning students is a wrist that sticks out. This lowers the thumb and raises the index finger so that they are almost parallel, making the relationship I outlined in section 1 almost impossible.

3a) Fingers that open and close properly as a unit.

Harp often requires that you place several fingers on the string at once. Many passages are simply not playable when one attempts to "load" the fingers onto the instrument one at a time. To accomplish the act of placing more than one finger at a time your fingers must learn to function as a unit. Everyone opens, everyone closes. Beware of the "trigger finger" syndrome where the thumb and index finger are on the string but the other fingers are held back in the palm like a child shooting an imaginary gun. If the index finger is on the string, the other fingers should be open as well but just slightly. They should not be open past parallel with the index finger.

3b) Avoid "over opening".

This is when you open your hand to play the next sequence of notes -let's say it is a four fingered chord - and, instead of opening your hand to the precise amount needed to hit your target strings, you open to a random "wide open" shape. Imagine you wish to pick up a pencil from the table. You open your hand to the precise amount needed and grasp the pencil. You do not open your hand twice as wide as you need to and then shrink down to grip the pencil. It is just as unnecessary to make this extra motion when placing more than one finger on harp strings. Think of your strings as a target you are trying to hit and be as efficient about it as possible. Over opening also causes problems when playing a one handed descending scale. After the thumb crosses over (maintaining a high position above the index finger,) the rest of the fingers should only open enough to find their next target. If they open above the desired target and have to be adjusted downward, you lose speed and evenness.

4) Fluid and controlled hand wrist, arm and finger movements.

Sharp movements will produce a sharp or harsh sound. If your goal is a smooth, rich tone, you need smooth rich movements. Go to the ballet (or watch some online) and examine the way the dancers use their arms. Professional dancers will use their arms to fully telegraph the emotion of the dance in question. A ballerina performing in Swan Lake will have a very distinctive pace and grace of arm movement that will match the emotion and tempo of the music. A fine harpist will do this as well. It is astonishing the amount of effect follow through of the fingers, hand, wrist, and arms will have on the tone you produce on your harp.

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