by Jaymee Haefner
Achieving balance in your body to make better music.
Open a web-search for the word “balance,” and you will be greeted with cheerful tips for balancing your meals, your finances, your work and personal life, and your exercise routine. Almost all of our daily activities require some sort of balance, including our harp practicing. Not surprisingly, balance is a key component of almost every motion we make as harpists; having an awareness of this balance can correct many issues before they become bad habits.
Before discussing balance, we need to define what this word means for us. Go on—I’ll wait while you ponder the meaning of this word (insert Jeopardy theme song here). Probably, you are picturing something that is in a natural state of equilibrium, stable, and supported—something that stays that way naturally, without effort. Achieving balance in our playing starts from the moment we sit down on the bench and is part of every note we play.
The Core Issue
When sitting at the harp, our gravitational balance comes from two places: our sit-bones (where we make contact with the harp bench) and our feet (where our heels touch the floor for pedal harpists, or the bottoms of both feet for lever harpists). These are our grounding points and are normally the starting-point for workshops in Alexander Technique. Without awareness of our grounding, any other sort of balance work will be skewed, so we must start here with balance practice.
Achieving balance in our playing starts from the moment we sit down on the bench and is part of every note we play.
Our core connects the ground to our arms and fingertips, so core support is equally important to harpists. The stronger our core (planking, anyone?) the better-supported we are in practice and performance. Try this experiment: sit on the edge of a chair using a poor posture (rounded back, feet wrapped around the legs of your chair, not sitting evenly on your sit-bones). Now raise your hands to the height for playing the harp and hold them there until you feel tired. Compare this to a well-grounded, balanced position with a supported core, holding your hands to harp-playing-position. Now how long does it take before your feel fatigued?
After practicing for a few minutes, we frequently hunch over because we are tired, or we lean toward the left in order to read our music, causing our shoulders to twist as we strain to read the music and reach the strings as our spin curves asymmetrically toward the harp. If you notice this position, it’s time to take a break for a stretch, or to move your music stand closer… or get some reading glasses. A poor position will affect everything else (your arms, your hands, and your fingers), so this must always be addressed if you have discomfort or fatigue.
To check your position, start from the floor:
- heels touching the floor
- bench parallel with or slightly above your knees
- back with natural curve
- shoulders down and relaxed
- neck neutral
Now, you’re ready to move on.
I Can See!
As a young student, I remember lamenting in one of my lessons about how the music was on the left and the strings were on the right. I just hated the way that I constantly needed to move my head and eyes back and forth between the music and the strings. Now, after teaching for 20 years, I see the same situation in students of all ages, coupled with a tendency to hunch the back in order to read music, which is lower than eye level. Both of these tendencies are recipes for a chronic backache.
Instead, make some simple adjustments for better balance between the music stand the strings. Set the music stand at a distance that is comfortable for your eyes to focus, but as close to the strings as possible without interfering with your hands. Also, raise the stand to a height that is on an even plane with your eyes. You can slide the music to the right side of the stand so it is as close as possible to the strings. When reading, work to move only your eyes (not your head) back and forth utilizing your peripheral vision as much as possible. No more “shaking your head no” while you play.
Handle Those Arms
So, if you’re primarily concerned with balance in your hand technique, go back and read the first section of this article (“the core issue”) before diving into these tips. Go on—I’ll wait here.
Now that your posture is working better, you are ready to focus on your arms and hands. In order to play with relaxed, effortless, supple technique, it’s important to use our muscle groups in the way that they were designed. The large muscles (shoulders) are meant to support the smaller movements (fingers). It’s important that we do not confuse these two—so often, I see students who use their shoulders to play, raising their shoulders for every note played, rather than leaving this to their fingers.
By keeping your elbows at a comfortable level, your fingers will require less effort to move. For example, one of the most common mistakes that I see is students who approach the bass strings in a “claw” fashion, reaching for the strings by opening the hand with knuckles facing the ceiling. Although this seems like a finger placement issue, it is more often an arm and wrist balance issue, because by “clawing,” you must first drop your elbows. By preventing your elbows from dropping, your finger placing issue is solved as if by magic!
Similarly, in placing large chords, if you feel like you can’t reach the top or bottom notes, or in reaching these notes the top or bottom you have an uncharacteristically harsh sound, you need to adjust the balance of your hand. In placing chords or arpeggios, the hand should be “centered” over the notes in the center of the chord, with the fingers moving toward the center of the hand as they play each note. So often, a harsh sound is the result of the hand moving toward the fingers (especially the thumb) rather than fingers moving toward the hand.
A special note: Harmonics
Of all the harp effects, most harpists would agree that reliable, beautiful harmonics can be one of the most elusive techniques. Not surprisingly, harmonics are directly tied to balance. The fine points of this technique will be discussed in detail in an upcoming Harmonic Curve article, so please stay tuned.
Balance in Practice
Thomas Merton famously wrote that “happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.” Likewise, in our harp practice, our awareness of balance can restore the order between technique and artistry. •