Rehearsals with Plaisir d’amour are a source of inspiration, in no small part because there are always new things to discover with my duo partner Jos Koning. Jos is someone who likes to reflect on subjects and searches for an explanation for situations where others would sometimes think: ‘That is just the way things are’. I like that.
During our last rehearsal our discussion struck a chord with me. Jos talks with some regularity about how his instrument is a part of himself, and how it helps his understanding of music.
When I started out playing folk music in groups, I played in a group with a guitarist. Now and again he would ask me which chords I was playing. I would reply with ‘E’, on which he would play an E-chord, to quickly find out I was playing an E-minor chord, because the whole piece is in E-minor. The guitar player could not understand why I would make this mistake: how can you say E when it’s E-minor.
The explanation with quickly found: on the harp it doesn’t matter whether you play E-minor or E-major, the position for your hand is the same for both. While on the guitar changing the chord means changing the fingers. On the harp, the sound of the chord is determined by the position of the levers/pedals, but it makes no difference to the position of your fingers, they stay the same. This fact has helped me with playing chords, by making sure my levers/pedals were in the right position and using the same hand position you can accompany many songs, ideal!
But during my last rehearsal with Jos I have started to see the disadvantages of this system more clearly. Jos told me that as a violinist he is conscious of the half tones in his music, not only because he can hear them, but also because the physical feeling of playing is different. The sound of a second is connected to a feeling of distance in your fingers. Which seems to me to be an advantage if you would like to play a melody be ear.
It has taken me a while in my development as a musician, before music theory became something practical and part of making music. For years, the theory was something that stood on its own, apart from the practise and it took some effort on my part to change this. Could it be that music theory is harder to learn for harpists because our instrument has a ‘handicap’? Would it be easier to play by ear when you not only hear the distance between notes, but you feel them in your fingers? Do we harpists have a restriction, because we don’t experience the distance between notes as a physical sensation….?