“Hurry up! You’ve taken enough pictures. They’re already in the next room!”
I heard this refrain constantly on one European trip. Actually, I didn’t hear it; I said it. My husband is always the one lagging behind the tour group to capture an interesting photo. In those moments, I’m always afraid we’ll miss what the tour guide is telling us, but when we get home, I’m so glad we have those special photos that the others missed.
Thankfully most tour guides carry flags or balloons so picture-crazy tourists like us can catch up with the group. The rest of the group who are obediently following the flag won’t get lost, but they’ll never know what they may have missed seeing along the way.
Too many harpists follow the fingering in their music with the same commitment to security over serendipity.
When we begin studying the harp, we are taught to follow the printed fingering. This helps our fingers become accustomed to the patterns we will most often encounter in our music. It teaches us the habit of correct finger placement. We learn the role of good fingering in making our music smooth, fluid and expressive. The printed fingering plus regular practice of scales, chords, and arpeggios helps our fingers absorb the basic idioms of harp playing.
Additionally, we develop a fingering “repertoire,” a toolbox of fingering patterns that our fingers can execute more or less automatically. Those repetitive exercises that sometimes try our patience are designed to ingrain those patterns into our fingers so they can perform them without our attention or focus.
Many harpists often fail to take advantage of all the time and effort they have invested in their technical work. They continue to write in fingering to an extent that their fingers don’t really require, which slows down their music reading and adds greatly to the time it takes them to learn a piece.
As our technique develops, we need less and less printed fingering. We learn to rely on our fingers to use what we have taught them, to be smart, to “see” the patterns in the music and do what they have done countless times before. Our fingers know how to play a scale. All they may need to know for this particular scale is which finger to start on and where to cross over or under. A few little fingering cues here and there are all most experienced harpists need.
But it isn’t just a case of doing extra work by writing in more fingering than you need. Writing in all your fingering actually prevents you from developing your musicianship in important ways.
I often hear from students who wish their playing came more easily. They feel they learn too slowly; simply getting the correct notes and the fingering takes so long that they lose interest in the piece before they can truly play it. They blame their note reading or their rhythm. The truth may lie in a completely different direction. It may be that they aren’t allowing their fingers to do their job.
My question to these students is this: How can you improve your note reading if you aren’t reading the notes?
The first step in developing your reading skills may be simply to not read the fingering instead.
The notes in a piece are unique; you must read the notes. Finger patterns, however, repeat from piece to piece. There are scale passages, chords, arpeggios and a small number of patterns like an Alberti bass, for example, that make up most of what we play. Try looking at the pieces on your music stand right now. I would be surprised if you didn’t find note patterns in common, even if the actual notes are different.
By working on your exercises and etudes you are training your fingers to recognize those patterns and to play them without your having to instruct them. That’s the purpose of those drills. Plus, with every new piece you learn, you add more fingering patterns to your toolbox.
But if you put in every finger and read every number as you learn a piece, you are making all that training worthless. You must let your fingers do what you have taught them to do and help them only when they need it. Is it any wonder that your note reading is so slow, if you’re still trying to read the fingering too?