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Mastering Harp Geography: Get Out of the Middle of the Road

Would you drive in the middle of the road?

I live in a very rural area. We have beautiful forests of pine and hemlock and sparkling streams with plenty of trout, unless you listen to the unlucky fishermen. We also have very narrow roads. The middle of the road is sometimes the only place to drive.

But playing the harp is not a “middle of the road” venture. Your harp has plenty of strings and there’s no need to stick to just the middle ones.

So are you a “middle of the road” harpist? This has nothing to do with skill level or ability. It’s purely a matter of geography.

Try this: take a look at your harp. Which strings are the most worn? Probably they are the ones you play the most, likely the ones in the middle. Or perhaps you’re one of those harpists who never tunes the bottom or the very top strings telling yourself that you don’t use them anyway. These are both signs that you could use a refresher course in harp geography.

Geography Tip 1: Live on the Edge

The middle strings of the harp are like our home base. Most of the music that we play requires them using the strings at the harp’s outer limits only for special effects.  But if we don’t practice using the outer strings, we aren’t comfortable playing them when we need to. We should all try living on the edge a little.

The simple way to practice this is to do some of your warmup exercises in different octaves. Do your scales using the entire range of your harp, not just the center, most convenient octave or two. Make sure you practice arpeggios and chords all the way from the bottom to the top of your harp and back again.

And remember to tune those bottom and top strings!

Geography Tip 2: Measuring Distances

Each of your hands has a important mapping task of its own: learning interval spacing. Imagine how much faster you could learn your music and how much more accurately you could play it, if you could rely on your fingers to “know” the intervals. Think of the practice time you would save if your fingers could instinctively reach an octave or a fifth or a third without you having to double check them.

This is precisely why interval practice is a part of every harp exercise book. We want our fingers to be able to respond predictably and correctly. And the only way to do that is to practice interval drills.

Be sure to practice these drills in several ways. Of course, you want to practice intervals watching your fingers to help train them to place with precision on the correct strings. But also practice the drills watching the music, not your fingers, to help you train your fingers to respond to the intervals you see on the page without you watching them.

The third way to practice is to play through the interval drill with your eyes closed. Try feeling the spacing between the intervals. Don’t worry about the wrong notes you will play at first. You’ll get better at this over time. And your sight reading will improve too!

Geography Tip 3: Independent Travel

Are your hands good at independent travel? This is another challenge to your comfort zone.

Most of the time our hands play just an octave or a little more apart. So when the occasion calls for our hands to play much closer together, or two or three octaves apart, we feel much less certain of our bearings. It’s even worse when our hands have to cross!

This is another practice. Playing your scales with your hands two or three octaves apart, and close together with only a sixth or a third between the hands is one sure way to help your hands be more at ease with these spacings. Many exercise books will include hand-over-hand interval drills – a great way to practice two skills at once.

Those are just a few tips to help you get out of the middle of the road. Now let’s work on losing that “deer in the headlights” look…

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