Do your fingers have a support system?
We rely on support systems daily, whether those systems are the people closest to us or the piers and pilings underneath the bridge we drive over daily. Those systems enable us to do our work more easily, with less frustration, danger or difficulty. They often work in the background, but without their strength, our accomplishments would be impossible.
Your fingers need a support system too.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that your fingers can’t do everything you ask of them on their own. We want them to play faster, to produce a more beautiful tone, to have control over a large dynamic range, to play with energy and strength, yet be relaxed and flexible. That’s a daunting job description for the eight fingers that we use to play the harp.
It’s easy to see why your fingers may get tense or tired when you play. But your fingers will stay fresher and more relaxed if you build strength in the structure that will support them in their work. We often think about exercising our fingers, but when is the last time you gave thought to how the rest of your body can enable - or sabotage – your fingers to do their best job?
Let’s start now.
Support for your fingers begins from your feet. Let them rest flat on the floor or resting lightly on the C and F pedals with your heels on the floor. With your feet as a foundation, check your back; you should be sitting tall and straight, not twisted or hunched.
Use your abs to support you and feel your chest open. This will help your breathing and increase the circulation of blood and oxygen to your fingers and your brain.
You may need to adjust the height of your seat to allow for this kind of good posture, and I encourage you to experiment. You will play and practice better when you are sitting in a comfortable and ergonomically correct position.
Try this quick posture check: sit tall, suck in your stomach, lower your shoulders, then bring the harp back to you. Remember that the harp is made to come to you, not the other way around!
We harpists often hold tension in our shoulders. This is not only unhelpful and uncomfortable, but it can cause chronic tension and pain.
Your shoulders should be naturally lowered, not hunched or raised toward your ears. I know this is basic good posture, but I often see harpists trying to be expressive by lifting their shoulders or tensing their shoulders in a difficult passage or when they are concentrating. It’s a natural response but one that is counterproductive. Hunching your shoulders restricts your breathing, your energy flow, and your fingers freedom to move.
Your upper arms are made for heavy lifting. Those large muscle groups are meant to be developed and utilized. But if your arms are clenched to the soundboard, those muscles can’t do their job.
Your upper arms are the gravity-resisters; they provide the support to let your hands and fingers travel freely and easily around the harp. Try lifting your elbows slightly – or more than slightly, if that’s how you were taught – and feel how your arm muscles naturally take over this critical function.
If you aren’t used to playing this way, you may notice some initial fatigue in your upper arms when you try it. This is a good sign; you are developing these muscles. While fatigue in your forearms means you must stop playing, relax and rest, fatigue in your upper arm muscles will build strength and endurance. And there’s a nice bonus too: those upper arm muscles are beautiful as well as functional!
Your wrist should be steady but not stiff. In and out movement of your wrist changes the angle of your hand in relation to the strings and makes it harder to play. When your hand stays steady, your fingers will find the right strings more consistently and play them more evenly.
Consider the angle and movement of your head as you play. Be sure not to jut your chin; basic good posture is again the rule.
A note about your music stand placement is in order here. Don’t put your stand too far to your left. Your head will need to turn away from the strings to see the music. Instead, try to create an unbroken line of sight where you can use your peripheral vision at least to see the strings.
I remember from my days at harp camp noticing that Salzedo’s custom music stand had a very small base so it could be moved very close to the harp and required very minimal movement of the head to look between music and strings. If you are turning your head to look between music and strings, move your stand!