The Natural Order

He wasn’t trying to embarrass me. We had only just met. But I couldn’t help being a bit unnerved by what he was doing before our whole group. If I had known what was really going on, I wouldn’t have been surprised. However, when things happen before your eyes have been opened …

“Are you sure he hasn’t done this before?” my daughter Rachel innocently asked me.

Though I truly could not say, I told her I didn’t think so.

It was Christmas Day, circa 1997. My parents had come down to visit us and other relatives all at once. While the morning was ours to command, they would come to our house for a long visit later.

After our own presents were opened, little mouths fed, messes cleaned, and food prepared for later, my dad and I set about preparing and wrapping a few last-minute gifts before the rest of our party arrived.

I had been practicing Gabriella, my little 22-string walnut folk harp, preparing the best I had to share. And initially everyone was impressed.

Before “he” took center stage.

These days I don’t even remember his name, only that my dad had said that my step sister’s husband had a cousin and some friends with the evening free and could they please come along? Later my dad also confided that “he” played the guitar “and he and a few friends have formed a band. They’re currently working on producing a recording.”

Which should have explained some things. Yet didn’t immediately.

The long and short was that after eagerly accepting my invitation to “try” my harp, and, being the only person courageous enough to even act upon this interest, having been welcomed to enjoy an instrument he was unlikely to see up close again any time soon, he surprised us all. Indulgently, we smiled as he fumbled through a few simple scales, followed by some chords.

Suddenly, faster than I could choke out, “Give me that harp back!” he crossed a line: in just a few short minutes, this young man was already playing my harp better than I was on my best day of practice, coaxing out simple melodies and accompaniments none of us were expecting. To make a small embarrassment monumental, he did the whole thing without even looking at the strings, meandering through several beautiful songs simply by feel. How was this even possible?

I had told myself I was a generous soul who loved sharing good things. Was that still true? Or had it never been true in the first place?

Fast forward to mid-August 2011, when I tentatively stepped out in faith to play music from memory for a little musical theater group putting on monthly productions of Bible stories. So far, I had participated in one production as a musician, and another as backstage crew. It was somehow (by the enormous grace of God) a bit less scary than I had expected.

This time was different, though: instead of the easy-to-transport 22-stringed Gabriella, I was hauling out Johann of the 29-strings. Whereas I could comfortably leave Gabriella resting in her case unattended on the floor with a minimum of anxious supervision, the 29-stringed top-heavy Johann had to be carefully babysat. I dared not leave him alone unattended for even a minute with all the kids running around the auditorium.

Enter my volunteer harp sitters. These were any willing souls I could commandeer into sitting behind the harp while I ran “down the hall”. Loving my water always, and depending on it even more during times of extreme stress, I needed someone on the hour every hour that the harp and I were away from the safety of home. Then once the night’s production had concluded, a number of young people were given the opportunity to sit behind my harp and strum away at their leisure while the rest of us visited theater attendees, or carefully broke down and stored materials back stage.

The harp sitters that always stood out were the ones who had already invested 5000 hours or more on the guitar. Initially embarrassed by their lack of skill, they persevered through awkwardness for about ten minutes, then started seeing and translating the string patterns for a few less-difficult moments. Until suddenly, as if some unknown switch were thrown, they were suddenly, like my old Christmas visitor, playing the harp better than I had on my best day of practice.

At one point, as I was carrying things backstage, I looked toward the harp, expecting to see it abandoned, replaced by music from a CD. Not a chance. And I realized that what I was seeing was not at all coincidental. A seasoned guitarist’s quick transition to the harp was not just predictable. It should have been completely expected. The unusual thing would be for it not to happen.

Many of us who are musically schizophrenic and unfocused have started to learn that one musical instrument always builds into the next one the student is acquiring.

But this sequence works easier in a certain direction. The reason that my guitar-playing comrades were having such easy transitioning to the harp was that the string spacing was not only logical, but also was wider and more comfortable than the constricted spacing found on a guitar fret. (That’s because I am playing non-Peruvian harps. With their almost microscopic string spacing, Peruvian harps are a whole other scary ball game that I don’t even want to think about. Much less discuss here.)

On the other hand, moving the other way is not so great. Already accustomed to the easy, wide spacing of my harp strings, I find myself balking at even the idea of trying to move backward to work on the guitar. Of course, in the unlikely event of an immediate long-term harp and piano shortage, I might force myself to make do. Reluctantly. But the job would rub painfully against the grain of all the years of my previous conditioning, and it is not something I ever plan to do if any other musical instrument options are available.

These days, if I know someone wants to invest his talents in several stringed instruments, I tell him to please start with a small instrument (ukulele or mandolin, perhaps) with very tiny, constricted string spacing. He should invest in 5000-10,000 hours of dedicated practice, concerning himself with no other stringed instruments until his mastery of this first one is complete. After that, he will be ready for either the banjo or the guitar, to which I hope he will add at least another 5000 hours of practice. Having passed this milestone, he should be ready for the harp. Which should require another 35 minutes before he is concert-ready.

And that, my friends, is my opinion (well-justified, I think) of how special creation works in the world of musical instruments. But don’t just take my word for it. Try it yourself. Oh, the joy that awaits you! I can’t begin to describe that.

Gwennon
December 30, 2016

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