Monday, September 14, 2015

The Magic of Surprise

Sometimes there is an intersection of magic and surprise. Those are times when you get more than you can imagine. A few Sundays ago was just such a time.
Agnes was going to play at a local church on the first Sunday in August with two services, each with communion. I decided to sign up as a volunteer musician on that Sunday because I figured attendance would probably be at its lowest point for the year with people on vacations. Thus, less pressure.

In the process of planning the morning, Partner and I talked about his role. Yes, he is the Sacred Schleper of the harps – especially in moving Agnes to and from the house to a venue. But, he also helps me by walking the space while I tune and warm-up. Harps are not the loudest instrument and I don’t have sound equipment. He gives me feedback on how the sound carries and what I need to do to accommodate this.

When we arrived, Partner unloaded and placed Agnes in her spot. I started tuning and practicing. Partner walked around the church. Later partner told me that the sound guy saw what he was doing and said there was no bad seat in the house and pointed to the rafters and the sound system.

While tuning, Sound Guy quietly set up one single mic beside the harp. He assured me that this was a very good mic. I saw him, but had no concept of what this would mean in the service. Canned harp, I thought, referring to a tinny kind of sound I dread. 

After the first service, Sound Guy came over to Partner and myself after people dispersed.

He had another sound person play back one of the songs I’d played over the sound system in the church.  My reaction was to try to keep talking and deny that it was the song Agnes was playing.
The music sang throughout the church.

The first song he played, I had a pause where I wavered in my playing. He quickly signaled to the other person to change to the next song. It was clear that he was trying to get me to listen in an encouraging way.

I paused and laughed saying that this wasn’t me, it was the magic of the sound system in this space. He patiently leaned in and subtly suggested that wasn’t entirely true.

It was so hard to take this in.

I am used to the sound of Agnes in my ear with the vibrations ringing through my fingers, chest and legs from her powerful voice. This is why Partner is so vital to sounding out new spaces for me. I have no perspective.

Sound Guy shared a bit about his background. Without giving away who he is, let’s just say I now think of him as Super Stealth Sound Guy. He has worked in the music industry for decades. But the thing that got to Partner and me the that Sunday was this man’s huge heart as a person dedicated to children with disabilities. There was a whole-heartedness to his very being. 

Did music help enable or support that in some small way?

He seemed to enjoy the harp. He said he treats the harp like the human voice because of its sound qualities.

After both church services, lots of people came up and said that that the church has its praise band, the organ and choirs, but the harp brought something quieter and more calming. There was so much encouragement from everyone. I was surprised when people clapped after I played in the church in both services . (Those irreverent church-goers.)

Afterwards, I got a cd from the Sound Guy of the tracks that I played in both services. It was shocking.

My playing wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t awful either. I am trained to listen critically to my music. In the midst of playing, I experience mistakes as huge in the context of the piece. It takes a lot of mental energy to play the music, anticipate the problem spots, recover from the oops, and keep playing. However, listening to the cd helped right-size the errors, and show me where I had recovered. In the scope of the whole piece, everything was just fine.

I found myself thinking of this experience as something akin to the Aboriginal peoples’ experiences of the shock of seeing oneself in a photograph for the first time. What is this? This isn’t me, as I pinch myself. Yet, this is me in a certain sense of space and time captured by a particular medium.

When I was a violin student in the 1970’s, my teacher loaned me his reel-to-reel tape recorder for demo tapes for competitions and auditions. One feature it had was  an “echo-plex”  function so that the sound could range from rather dead/flat to sounding like it was being played in a hall to a ridiculous echoing that distorted the music altogether.

I find myself struggling with the technology of sound capturing and containing – beautiful, but non-the-less, manipulating sound. The truth is that there are very important recording artists I would never have heard and who have enriched my life.

Sound Guy literally was a master sound guy.  My shy self has been playing harp because of its sonorous, vibratory qualities; and, I have viewed playing as an act of prayer that is lifted up to the heaven and penetrates hearts. Mostly, it is an act of impermanence. Now what? It has been captured and beautifully.

I forgot that the very healing qualities of the harp might extend beyond my small ideas of healing.

May I not lose sight of the potential in all life. May my life be (and yours) be filled with creativity and beauty as a gift of life. What we do with it matters. May that vitality, bliss, be made manifest until it echoes out in infinity. What magic!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blessing of the Harps

Agnes, Grace, and Gloria
It seems to be my practice to reserve some things for obsessive planning and others for holding lightly and seeing what comes of it.

Last weekend, we held a Blessing of the Harps. This was done with Partner. But the impulse arose after attending the Therapeutic Harp Forum in July and hearing most of the spokeswomen from various therapeutic harp certification programs speak of some kind of spiritual component that makes this all work for them.

In my gut, I knew when I started playing the harp that I would need five years of harp lessons before taking the harps into the world. This past year, the sixth year, there was a slow, natural unfolding of taking the harps out of the house and beyond student recitals. Hearing about the healing power of sound, the science and the art, and the relationship to the player and receivers, I found myself ready to act on owning this work in partnership with the harps and Partner. And, Partner, in his supportive role as his role of Sacred Schleper and refiner of the sound, was in agreement.

Partner, growing up Lutheran, thought there would be a formal program. How was this to go?

With our experiences of hosting Quaker meetings for worship, I was thinking of worship in the manner of Friends. This usually means that we sit together with the intention of quieting ourselves and listening for the Still Quiet Voice Within or the Divine; then, speak or share if moved to do so. But we weren't limiting this to Friends-style Unprogrammed worship.

I had asked some friends to attend. Some had experience with Friends' style of worship while others hadn't. Some were familiar with meditation practices. Some were clergy.

Perhaps they could be thinking ahead of time about the role of music in their spiritual life, or music as an instrument of healing. In hindsight, it interesting to note that no one from my spiritual direction peer group (although, some held the event in prayer), nor meditation group, nor Friends meeting showed up. Instead, the women who showed up are spiritual friends with whom there are deeply personal connections. Somehow, this was as it was supposed to be.

I had no set agenda. Just that the three harps, named Grace, Gloria and Agnes, would be blessed as instruments of healing, in service to Love.

Preparation amounted to this: I cleaned house; Partner did yard work; I made cookies for the potluck. We reflected on the teachings I had learned about the harp, music, healing and the sacred.

Friends brought a dish to share. A friend, who grows flowers, brought a beautiful vase of flowers for the room.

My youngest daughter happened to be around and took pictures of the harps. Photography is a gift of hers and I was overjoyed that she would stick around to do so.

At the appointed time, we began to gather. Pictures of the group were taken. Daughter left the room to attend to her art and we settled into our circle.

The singing bell was rung to start the worship/blessing.

Two ordained Interfaith ministers brought their stoles and one of them smudged the harps and each participant with sage. This would have never occurred to me, but was a lovely start. Another person added their opening blessing and gave a precious gift of three 2-cent coins from Ireland - the ones with the national symbol of the harp on it. (Ireland is the only nation with a musical instrument  - a harp at that - as its national symbol.) Later we taped a coin to the bottom of each harp.

Stories of music as truthtelling, of ritual and community building, and healing were shared. Singing. Blessings. Heart-felt connections, weavings of that mystical place that uses words and sounds and silence to evoke something deeper. Love. All present.

A little way into the sacred circle time, there was a pull for me to introduce the harps and let everyone hear each harp's own voice/sound.

Grace is the little lever harp I got started on with the simple tunes. She is a friend's harp on "permanent loan," in need of care at the time I got her. Grace was given to me with the prophesy that: You are going to have a mid-life crisis and need her. She got put back together in playable condition once the crisis hit and launched me into harp playing when words no longer helped for what I was experiencing in life.

Gloria is a petite pedal harp that I got second hand on consignment with no intention of buying one. I thought I was buying a better lever harp to take while getting trained in trauma work. During warm-up before the blessing of the harps, I played around and came upon the pedal settings for that Calgon-bath sound - a pentatonic scale where there are no wrong combinations of notes. It all sounds good together. So I "riffed" on her for a little while during the sharing. Later a friend said she felt transported to her mountain home with creeks and streams running nearby. I would later reflect on how this little powerhouse is often neglected. I need to let her out more.

Agnes. Lamb. What is there to say about the concert grand pedal harp with the big sound box? Agnes named herself. Several mornings I woke up to the name Agnes. "Really, Agnes?" I thought. But she wouldn't let it go. From what I knew of the name Agnes, it come from a celebrated prepubescent girl in the third century A.D. who was martyred for her Christian faith. I could see a bit of Agnes in myself. My mother wrote "strong-willed" in my baby book when I was less than a year old. I can relate to those youthful characteristics of tenderness and rawness of unadulterated youth and the steeliness of strong moral beliefs - a certain kind of innocence. What I really heard in Agnes was "pure tones" of something timeless, beautiful and powerful that belies the outward label of youth. She is my workhorse - of immense intelligence in that big body. Agnes sang Sarajane Williams' music, a contemporary and gifted healer and musician, during the blessing.

During the service, each harp wore a stole over their post. Each had significance. One stole was woven as a clergy stole for me years ago. Another cloth was hand stitched to read, "The road to a friend's house is never far." The third cloth came from a friend's trip to India with family. When I played a harp, I took off the cloth and wore it, returning it to the harp when finished.

Harps go back to some of the earliest times. There are cave paintings with a lyre-style harp. In the Old Testament, David was called to play to sooth Saul's soul/mind/misery. Pythagoras used music tones to heal. The Celts believed harpers needed to be able to evoke three emotional states: laughter, tears and slumber.

The Celts have a pretty extensive relationship with the harp. Their tradition views harps are living, made from wood and gut. It would take up to one-hundred years to make a harp. The community looked for the harper to play that particular harp and they would be joined for life, with the harp being buried with the harper.

Modern concert harps have so much tension on their soundbox (roughly, one ton of pull), that they don't last much longer than 100 years - as they are only able to take three rebuilds before not being functional. They aren't like other string instruments with a much longer livability time. Yet, a concert harp takes at least a year to break in, and warms in sound over time. Harps live about as long as a long-lived person.

For the Celts, harps are sacred. The harper's job was to play the songs the harp witnessed. In the role of war, harpers would hold up the harp to witness what took place and return to play the harp's story. It was believed that the song would reveal the truth in the hearts of those who could hear.

As the circle deepened in sharing, personal losses and joys and the state of the world were included in our stories. Earlier this spring, a friend in the circle shared with me the story of the Iranian cellist who played at bombing sites to help us all remember our humanity in the face of inhumanity.

How do we attend to each other?

As the timeless time of the blessing of the harps wound down, a song of blessing  and completion was sung. The Nepalese singing bowl sounded. We rose and gathered in the kitchen for food and talking and lots of laughter.

The basic framework of showing up, sharing stories in an honest way, and communing afterwards sounds like a basic formula for tending to the sacred. But it is what we bring to it. And, that cannot be predicted. The tenderness of the Blessing of the Harps blew my mind.

May Grace, Gloria and Agnes sing their songs in a way that attends to the needs of the world with mirth, tenderness, and calming in truth. Blessings.