Harp Improvisation (1) Introduction

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Improvisation is often considered something special, unfamiliar and/or difficult to understand by many classical musicians, although, upon reflection, improvisation is probably the most common activity in our daily life. We engage in many different activities everyday, from the time we get up to going to bed at night. We wash our face, take a shower, our daily cooking, driving the car, talking with others, writing emails etc. If you think of how you do these daily activities, you would notice almost all these activities have large space for improvisation. Using the example of brushing teeth, it is likely we don’t follow any fixed procedure of brushing teeth, such as number of strokes, amount of tooth paste, order of teeth to brush, amount of water to rinse mouth and so on. We brush teeth with the aim of “cleaning our teeth”, where there are general guidelines but not movement by movement detailed instruction, such as 4 circular strokes on the front left tooth in both directions. Sometimes we start from front teeth, other times from back teeth, sometimes we do a full 2 minutes, sometimes we just need to freshen up. It all depend on our feeling and necessity in that moment. Like that annoying small piece of fiber from stuck between the back teeth, you may start working on back teeth first.

 The principle of music improvisation is basically same. With knowing the final destination, we choose the way to get there depending on inspiration in that moment, the necessities and/or experience we want to have on the way there.

 In our daily life, it is rather very rare to do things by following fixed procedure precisely, although in music it is very common to play what is already fixed as precisely as possible. In a sense, classical musicians are tackling the very difficult task of non-improvising, that we rarely practice when we are engaged in life activities. From this point of view, it is very natural reaction for unexperienced performers to struggle with fear and nervousness coming from pressure of performing difficult piece of classical music. We get nervous and frightened simply because we don’t do our daily activities in the way we play classical (non-improvisational) music.

 I discovered that I am essentially improvisor by disciplining myself as classical harpist in a past. I never got comfortable with playing non-improvisational music. Even when I got good outcome in performances, I couldn’t feel the strong sense of “ I am doing right.”

 In 2010, I completely retired from classical (non-improvisational) music performances and I have since solely specialized in improvisational music. Personally, I feel more fulfillment playing improvisational music.

 I have no intention to discuss which is “better” improvisational music or non-improvisational music. Each musician has natural tendency either suitable for improvisational music or non-improvisational music. Since harpist population has never been large(compare to other major classical instruments) and the tradition of harp improvisation is very limited both in time and space,  we haven’t gathered a large mass of improvisation specialization; the accumulated knowledge and experiences of improvisation on harp. Frankly speaking, the development of knowledge and skill of the harp as an improvisational instrument is still at a primitive stage compared to other instruments such as piano, guitar, sax trumpet and so on. This fact makes the path of becoming harp improvisor almost invisible and so most harpist pursue the path of becoming classical harpist no matter how suitable they are for that path or not.

 I used to be serious Jazz guitarist before starting harp at age 27, in 1999. Within a few years I, fortunately, became a professional classical harpist by teaching myself. In first 7 years I strictly played only classical music, and later started applying the knowledge and experience as Jazz musician to harp. There are many of differences between these two instruments but the principle of improvisation and playing jazz is same. In spite of widely accepted view of “harp is not suitable instrument for jazz”, I think harp is as suitable for Jazz / highly sophisticated improvisational music as any other instruments commonly used in jazz.

 My point as a jazz harpist is to be a“ jazz musician who plays harp” in stead of “harpist who plays jazz.” As Jazz musician, I believe in unlimited possibilities of harp as instrument for improvisational music. My mission is to keep a sincerely dedicate myself to the exploration of the potential of harp for improvisational music, to introduce harp to non-classical music community and share the achievement with fellow harpists. Although I am still in the process trail-and-error and am aware the style of music I am naturally good at has certain limitation, I think I have accumulated enough knowledge and being to be able to start sharing with those who are interested in harp improvisation.

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