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So last Sunday…

… after a ridiculously early Sunday morning flight, jazz harpist Susan Ottzen picked me up at the Atlanta airport and brought me to the Atlanta Harp Center, where I immediately took a nap on the floor of the Harp Storage Room (it was like bedding down in a forest of towering harps – really).

Then I spent a rollicking afternoon with 13 intrepid harp players, singing and playing the Blues.

This was a workshop that mixed four things: passion, Blues, adult beginners and professional musicians. And here’s what I love about that:

As adult beginners, the adult part of us has a choice:

We can use our adult mind to strategize a path for the beginner … or we can revert to being a tantrum-throwing juvenile. Both are fun. But if you go for the first, as a musician, you can use your strategic adult mind to simplify music so that you can enjoy playing with others even if they’re “way beyond you.”

Unlike running with people beyond your ability. Trust me, I know.

If you’re a slow runner, like me, you can’t really run “with” a fast runner and both of you be challenged,  engaged and comfortable. Even if you start off at the same time, they’ll be ahead of you within a few steps (did I mention my husband is a marathon trainer?).

But music moves at the same rate no matter who’s playing.

So if you’re a beginner who knows the secrets of simplifying, then you can decide to play fewer notes and still play music together with people of far greater technical ability. Sure, they may be playing 10 times more notes than you (or 20 or 30 times) — but you’re still playing the music together.  The strategy comes in knowing which ones to leave out.

And, by the way, I learned this many times in my life, once from the great bass-player, Rufus Reid.

So I was really excited to have players with a huge range of skills – from Susan Ottzen, who teaches jazz harp – to a student who’d only just had her first 3 harp lessons. So how did this all happen?

I’m working on two education-type projects right now:
One’s called “Blues by the Dozen” and the other is called “Strings of Passion:”

The Blues project is about creating simple, immediately playable structures and the Passion project is about revealing underlying principles.

So one is about learning through doing, and the other is about deconstructing an idea — the idea of passion in performance — so we can find it, practice it and explore it everywhere in our lives.

In “Strings of Passion,” the point is to create an “Enhancement Loop” (I just made that up, so don’t bother Googling it),  where exploring the expression of passion in life gives us insight and connection to performing with passion as performing artists – and exploring passion in performing arts enhances how we live with passion.

In the Blues project, the point is to just get your fingers on the notes, sing, play and have a rollicking good time.  You learn a ‘technique’ and immediately put it into practice.

‘Til now I’ve always thought of “technique” workshops and “concept” workshops as – well, basically as opposites — even though I use a lot of physicalizing in concept workshops.

I wanted to see what would happen if I put these two ideas together in a workshop: I wanted to combine a simple playable structure with concepts of passion and performance — within a fairly short amount of time.

And, judging by the experience of 12 harpists belting out the Blues on harp and voice, the experiment was a success!   

What I discovered was that by describing principles of impassioned performance before we even started learning notes, and by telling just a few stories to put the principles into context, the level of performance in people’s playing was so much freer right off the bat, in terms of physical investment and energy. (And remember, this was a mixed group of professionals and adult-beginners – each of whom have different issues when it comes to freely expressing themselves through music).

So I’m excited to continue exploring this in future workshops and I’ll keep you posted!

It turns out I’ll be doing a lot of this in March at the “Beginning in the Middle” retreat near Richmond, VA.  This is an entire learning retreat just for adult beginners on harp.

I’ve heard about this festival for years, loved the idea and always wanted to give my workshops at it — and 2012 is the first time it’s worked out with my schedule.  So if you know an adult-beginner harpist or a harpist wannabe, tell them about “Beginning in the Middle” – or, heck! Buy them a registration for Christmas!

Me, I’m off to begin in the middle of dinner …

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The "Pluck U" T-Shirt Design

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (Nov. 6, 2011 Event)

Electric Harp Pioneer Trains a new Generation of Rockin’ Harpists – whether you play harp or not!

“I think of it like a cross between test-driving a new Ferrari and bungee-jumping …” (Deborah Henson-Conant)

LINK TO MORE INFO & REGISTRATION HERE


On Sun. Nov. 6 at 6pm, GRAMMY®-Nominated Deborah Henson-Conant: composer, performer, singer, songwriter and electric harpist joins with the Regent Theatre in Arlington, MA to launch the pilot project of her “Pluck University” electric harp training.

Sound esoteric?  Well, it is … and it isn’t. Deborah Henson-Conant is ‘THE’ “DHC” behind the world’s fastest-selling electric harp.    Henson-Conant has collaborated with the CAMAC Harp company in France for nearly two decades to develop revolutionary harness-style harps, and now CAMAC has come out with it’s newest carbon-fibre model, and named it after this Boston-area electric harp pioneer, calling it the “DHC Light” the elite racing-bike of the harp world.

In fact, the CAMAC company used racing-bike technology to craft the carbon fibre body of this unusual instrument.

Weighing in at 11 pounds, it’s about a 7th of the size and weight of the 6-foot tall, 75-pound concert harp Henson-Conant played when she got her start as a jazz harpist in the Boston area in the late ’80’s. She went on to sign with one of the counry’s top jazz labels, GRP, and later received a Grammy Nomination for her independent CD, “Invention & Alchemy,” but has continued to make the Boston-area her home.

Now she’s developing a training program for electric harp and is collaborating with the Regent Theatre and the Ultra-Sonic Rock Orchestra to present the first pilot project for that training on Sun. Nov. 6th, in an event called “Pluck University.”

“Hey, I strap this thing on every day and create sounds that make people’s jaws drop, on an instrument that’s like nothing they’ve never seen before,” says Henson-Conant.  “To me it’s an everyday thing. But it’s truly an incredible experience – and I want to give other people the chance to experience that too, because they can!   Unlike the violin or the clarinet, you can actually make great sounds on a harp from the first pluck — and that experience is liberating and inspiring, whether you’re a musician or not. I think of it like a cross between test-driving a new Ferrari and bungee-jumping — you know, both scary and elating — a fantasy-experience to shift you into a new sense of what’s possible”

This unusual training is open to musicians and non-musicians alike and is a chance for people to literally strap on her unique instrument and see what it’s like to strut across the stage with it, bend notes, and give a try at the kind of signature harp ‘wailing’ that has made Henson-Conant a pioneer player. She’s currently the only person in the world to own 3 of these instruments – and all 3 will be with her at the Regent Theatre at the launch of “Pluck U” on Sun. Nov. 6.

The Sunday evening event kicks off a week of open rehearsals that culminate in Henson-Conant’s birthday concert celebration on her birthday, “11-11-11,” Friday Nov. 11th at 8pm.

Line drawing of DHC playing harp (artist name: "Friday")

Line drawing of DHC by audience/artist "Friday"

I got a set of questions from Betsy Chapman, who hosts “The Morning Show” on WPAZ, a tiny station (“with a big heart!”) in Pennsylvania. WPAZ is co-sponsoring my “Fireworks for the Creative Spirit” next week, so Betsy interviewed me on air. But first she sent her questions, starting with the question I most dread and am most often asked.  So I started writing to find out what my  answer would be this time:


Q: So … why the HARP?

A: This is a question I ask myself over and over.  Did I play the harp as avoidance for writing musical theater, which is my first love?  Because it was an incredible physical challenge, a way I could be both an athlete and a musician at the same time?  Is it because it was an underdog instrument?  Is it because it was so identified with women, and so marginalized in the music world, that I felt like I wanted to liberate it in some way?

If someone had told me it is THE traditional storytelling instrument through history, that might have made me choose it.  But I did NOT know that.

If someone had told me it’s the missing link between the piano and the guitar, with all the double-handed dexterity of the piano but the ability to get right in on the strings and bend them and snap them like a guitar – that might have done it.  But I didn’t know that either.

So I honestly don’t know why I STARTED.  But I kept going for many reasons.  First, the challenge.  Practicing the harp completely enveloped my mind.  The dexterity between hands and feet, it calmed my mind and focused me in a way that nothing else did.  I think that my brain and my body needed something to connect them in that way: something complex and intricate, that required huge physical coordination and physical strength.  I found that very satisfying.

I also loved the excuse to get dressed up in long gowns,  high-heels, rhinestones and red-red lipstick, and I loved that I could pay my way through school by playing in dining rooms — PLUS I got free food.

When I started focusing on jazz, then again was the physical challenge I loved, and the understanding that by practicing a structure, I could eventually have huge musical freedom.

Then, later on, I fell in love with the international community of harp builders and players.  Which is good because a few years after that, I developed this idee fixe: the idea that it must be possible to strap on the harp, play it like an electric guitar.  And that was something I couldn’t make happen on my own.

NEXT BLOG:  “WHY ELECTRIC HARP?

The harp, the artist & the company that made it happen.

PARIS, FRANCE – Nov. 4, 2010 – From CAMAC Harp’s harp log:

The “DHC Blue Light” is Camac Harp’s  latest collaboration with strap-on-harp-legend Deborah Henson-Conant. Made of super-light, mega-strong carbon fibre, it weighs just 11lbs, boasts a new lever design, and comes in 34- or 36-string models. Even Deborah herself can’t get a back-up model right now because of the length of the waiting list.

Ingeniously, Camac collaborated with bicycle manufacturers to make it happen,

Deborah began working with Joel Garnier in the early 1990’s , while she was on the hunt for a lever harp she could harness to her body and move about on stage with.

DEBORAH’S STORY:

“I had wanted a harness harp for years. Some harp makers built quick prototypes (such as John Hoare of Pilgrim), but finally, I got a small Rubarth lap harp, covered it with red-and-silver contact paper, put a pickup in it, made a rudimentary harness for it, took it on tour and played it for Joel.  He said, “Ah, Deborah, now I see what you mean,” and the next time I saw him (it seemed like 4-6 months later, but was maybe more), he handed me the prototype of the Baby Blue. I still have that very first prototype!

I built a new harness (the prototype for what we’re all using now), a friend modified the harp (which was wood, so fairly easy to modify) it so it could attach to a bogen camera-tripod as a stand, and I started touring with it, wrote orchestral pieces for it, and learned about amplification.   For awhile I always shipped the harp in a bicycle box, as It fit perfectly and I could often get it on a plane free that way.

The culmination of the Baby Blue was “Invention & Alchemy,” when I got to really show what the instrument could do both as a solo instrument as a feature with orchestra.  The end of the era came soon after at the Arles harp festival about 3-4 years ago, when I came without my Baby Blue and played a modern model.

Technical improvements had made the model so heavy that it was too much to wear, even for me, someone pretty big and used to it. It was painfully (literally) clear that that model had no future commercially as a harness harp.  It was that ‘failure’ that forced Jakez and me to sit down and talk about the future of the instrument.  It seemed like the idea was either going to die and I’d be one of a few people left in the world playing the original model, or the next model needed to be revolutionarily different.

Jakez decided to go ahead with the expense and time investment of a completely new model, and asked me for input on what changes we needed.  That investment was huge on many levels:  there was no way to know that this investment would pay off financially; I don’t think there was a huge interest in harnessable harps at that point — something which seems to have changed — but he would know more about than I.  In retrospect, I’m awed at the leap he took, both financially and creatively.

Jakez tells me that I had been going on at him for so long to work with bicycle manufacturers to develop a harp with a truly light carbon-fibre frame, that finally he did. It wasn’t as simple as copying their manufacturing processes, however. The main problem in designing a lighter harness harp was the cost of producing a mould for the body of the harp. This was prohibitive, because it is a technology which is designed either for companies who don’t care about costs (competition bicycles), or who count on big quantities (mass production). As a harp maker, Camac was neither of these. Another technical problem we faced was that the harp needed wooden parts (for the tuning pins and levers, for example) inserted inside the carbon fibre skin of the body, which does not happen with bicycles because they only have foam.

In the end, the idea of a mold was dropped entirely, and Camac chose to produce the harps the same way cycle manufacturers produce their prototypes – by hand, one by one. The inside parts are produced in the Camac workshops, the foam parts and wooden inserts are cut out, the bodies are assembled and then the harps are sent to the bike company, who has the knowledge to cover them with the carbon fiber skin with a special “bag” and a vacuum system.

My First Concert wtih First Version "DHC Blue-Light"

The new carbon fibre harp was a huge success for me from the moment I put it on. I remember that moment – all of us:  Jakez, Jonathan (my husband/producer) and I – noticed that it was as if my body and my hands had just been waiting for this instrument.  The low C string (just 2 more strings than I’d had before) was revolutionary in terms of my playing — it suddenly gave me a range and heft I hadn’t realized was missing — suddenly this was a hugely viable solo instrument.

That was a magical moment. Not because something “unusual” happened, but because, after years of working with Joel and Jakez on the harp, and with Jonathan on how to project that sound best in both concert and recording situations — suddenly everything clicked into place.  We’d reached – not the end – but the true beginning of this instrument.

About a year after that, at Jonathan’s suggestion, I  started experimenting with a looper pedal — and with the convergence of those two technological changes: the expanded, improved instrument and the addition of the looper, suddenly my shows and my way of composing expanded.  I’m still right at the beginning of that development, so I feel like a hungry gourmand whose just sat down to a splendid table.

The DHC Blue-Light trumps the Baby Blue in pretty much every way. The sound is more even, it’s nearly half the weight, with more strings, better levers*, visually it seems to really capture the imagination of the harp-playing audience.  Everything just seems to have ‘clicked’ with this model, from what I can tell.  And now it’s a matter of improving little things (like an anchor pin for the harness; a better, lighter stand that allows for removing the harp more easily; a simple holding stand for touring, etc.), which are often the responsibility of the user to develop, but the fundamental instrument is IT — the instrument I dreamed of, what I see as the crossover instrument of the 21st century.”

Off to explore the world, harp on my back!

And Jakez Francois, CEO of CAMAC Harps adds: “I think there is an additional reason why more people want a DHC Blue-Light: it is more than 10 years that harpists see what Deborah does with that harp, most of the younger generation don’t even know that there was a time when portable harps did not exist, and they find just normal to have one if they want to play non conventional music. Step by step, the harp made a big step.”

Wired for Love

This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

(Please join my mailing list for monthly updates & live show info)

NOTE: This blog includes an audio file related to the story – if you want to listen while you’re reading, you can find the file at the end of the post.



When I was 13, my friend Melinda Johnson in Pfafftown, NC would save a seat for me on the bus.  She was the shortest kid in the class.  Smart like crazy.  She taught me to hunt crawdads.  Her family had an entire pipe organ dismantled in their basement. And she would tell me stories about boys.  Long drawn out stories about closets and shadows and whispering hands and eyes, and every story would end with  “And then …” followed by a long pause, “and then … he kissed me.”

It was the same punchline every time and it surprised and scandalized me every time she said it.

When I was in my 30’s I signed with the GRP jazz label, and recorded three albums with some of the greatest contemporary jazz players of the time.  I always felt awkward and out of place, because that group of players was like a boy’s club of amazing musicians – and here I was, the girl with the harp.So even though I was the ‘artist’ and they were theoretically supporting my album, I always felt like I was the kid sister trying to hang around with the big guys.

Sometimes I never even got to meet the incredible players who ‘backed me up’ on my own albums, but by the third album, I was allowed into the clubhouse a little more.  And on that album, was a great percussionist, among others,  whose name I think was “Cafe” – and forgive me if I have the wrong guy, but I was like a deer in the headlights during these recording sessions – it’s amazing I remember anything.

So, we were recording a kind of Bluesy tune of mine called “And then he kissed me…” in memory of Melinda Johnson, and while we were listening back to the take, this percussionist and I started joking around in the sound booth, talking as if we’d just been on a date, only he was speaking French, which I didn’t understand – and I was responding in English and clearly misunderstanding everything he said.  And he had the most gorgeous voice and the most beautiful …

But now … here, you have to understand that I’m a huge – I mean HUGE – fan of Ken Nordine, who is the original “Word Jazz” creator, mixing jazz and spoken word.  So I’m listening to this French-English thing mixing with this Bluesy music and I suddenly think, “This is GREAT!!! This is so… so Nordine! We have to record this!” And in my one moment of courage I said, “Please can we get this on tape?  We can always erase it later if the company doesn’t like it.”

So we did.  He and I walked into the studio and got onto two mics – which was when I noticed how absolutely gorgeous he was — and as I realized we were really going to do what I wanted … I froze. I couldn’t think of a thing to say, even though I’d been being so brilliant in the sound booth.   I was so dazzled by this guy that after awhile I just sort of sighed and giggled.  Forgive me, oh strong in-control woman I wish I were…

And the upshot is that the company agreed to release the album with this wacked-out conversation on it.

And that was great.  It was fun.  And the tune had a little notariety, which was cool.

So fast forward 5 or 10 years and I’m in France. I’m in an interview with a French journalist, and he starts rattling off the speech from this cut and nearly falling on the floor laughing.  And I look at him, and I realize that it had never occurred to me that people in France would be listening to this cut and how funny people who actually understood what the guy was saying might think it was.

And the moral of the story is … well … there is no moral.  It’s just a story.  So here’s to Melinda Johnson and the romance of the French language … which is just as beautiful whether you understand it or not.

The international Jazz-Harp organization in Holland sent me a questionnaire  as part of research to find out if harpists and jazz musicians support the idea of a formal Bachelor program for Jazz Harp at a conservatory somewhere in the world. The article will be published in several harp and jazz magazines.

Following are my answers to the questions. 

Seasoned Blog Writers & Readers: This seems like an unreadably long post – if you can suggest ways I might break it down into separate posts or make it more readable, I’d love those suggestions or to be pointed to examples that might help me see how better to do that.  Thanks!

Readers: If you have follow-up questions or comments, please include them in the “Comments” so I can include them along with my answers in the questionnaire – I’d love your feedback. Thanks!  – Deborah

Questionnaire for research concerning the role of the harp in jazz music

Jazz and classical

What do you regard as “jazz”?

If someone says “jazz” to me, I usually expect a musical structure based strictly or loosely on standard jazz arrangement form (intro, head, blowing, head, coda).

I expect that the ‘head’ harmony & melody will be clearly presented and that the  “blowing” will consist of  melodic improvisation over some kind of repeated/consistent harmonic structure or over a series of different harmonically structured “chunks”.

I expect that once the rhythm begins, it will be basically maintained throughout the piece (i.e. it won’t drift slower and faster like a symphonic piece);

I expect a certain harmonic sophistication.

But there are SO many different kinds of jazz and so many different ways to improvise musically that I think of jazz as a concept rather than a specific genre.

I rarely call myself a jazz-harpist these days because I generally don’t play straight-ahead jazz, though many people consider me (and call me) a jazz-harpist, in part because I was earlier known that way, because I still do play some standards, and because all my instrumental work, and some of my vocal-instrument work, involves improvisation  (specifically melodic improvisation over harmonic changes).

But I’m always using jazz concepts, structures and techniques in my writing and performing. I wouldn’t advertise myself as a jazzer simply because the general public has a fairly strict idea of the jazz genre and I don’t want people coming to my show expecting to hear a standard type of jazz – whether it’s Bebop, Swing, Latin, Contemporary or whatever – because I’m just no longer that type of player.

And that’s the main problem with ‘declaring’ genre as an artist. I made a name for myself as a jazz-harpist in the 80’s and 90’s and it can be hard to move away from that. If you’re committed to carrying on the tradition of a specific musical genre, then I think it makes sense to declare yourself as that genre.  If you’re not (as I’m not) committed to perpetuating a specific musical genre, then declaring yourself in that genre will eventually become a problem.

What do you regard as “classical”?

That’s really tough – “classical’ can be a stylistic idea or a structural one, and I guess, for me, it has to do with the intention of the composer. Wow.  This is a huge subject.  I was going to say that ‘classical’ music avoids genre-specific references – but I know that Debussy, among others, absolutely embraced Spanish/Latin musical styles (“Iberia” for example).

This is really tough because the little I know of Classical music points out that it developed from dance music in the Baroque Period, and those forms became more ‘developed’ and less ‘dancable’ during the classical period.  Similarly, a lot of jazz evolved from dance tunes.

So, I guess, for me “classical music” is any music that’s composed note-for-note and requires it being played note-for-note in order for the music to feel authentic.

What qualities must an instrument have to be eligible for use in a jazz combo?

It needs to be audible.  And I don’t even hold tight to that idea, since I can imagine a ‘deaf’ jazz ensemble with inaudible instruments.

Honestly I don’t think it has anything to do with the instruments – and everything to do with the players.

Do you think it is possible for musicians with a classical background to play with musicians with a jazz background? Why (not)?

Absolutely.  But they need to think differently.  One of the most profound lessons I got in this came from my experience in the mid-90’s when I started trying to combine jazz forms with classical music ensembles.  I wrote several pieces for chamber ensemble and had the opportunity to perform them with the percussionist from my jazz ensemble.  I rehearsed with the classical ensemble for about a week, then brought my percussionist in for the last rehearsal, thinking he was already very familiar with my music so the real issue was the classical players learning the notes.   The result was a disaster with different parts of the ensemble literally “listening to a different drummer.”

The rhythm was completely dissonant and it undermined the piece.  This was for three reasons:

1.     The classical musicians were used to listening to each other in a different way from the way jazz ensembles traditionally listen – the classical musicians were listening and responding in a more breathing, phrased way.  They were also much more used to WATCHING each other for the rhythm.   The jazz percussionist was used to setting up a groove that would form the backbone of the ensemble.  The classical musicians weren’t used to listening to that for their downbeats. So the two mindsets: jazz and classical, were fighting over the beat, even though they were each playing wonderfully.  The fault was mine as a composer/arranger – I didn’t have the experience to understand that integrating these two elements would take a lot more time and effort.

2.     The classical instruments (particularly the strings) had their own built-in percussion (the attack).  Rehearsing without the percussionist, we’d developed that percussive element in the strings and once the percussionist came in these two kinds of percussion conflicted.

3.     Percussion is primarily used in orchestral and chamber music for color and accent – and it’s used in jazz as a fundamental tactus.  In a way, the “rhythm section” of a jazz ensemble provides a similar function to the conductor of a classical ensemble.  So what I had was a battle-of-the-bands.

If I were to do exactly the same project again, I would include the percussionist from the beginning of the rehearsal process and I would plan to segment the pieces, so that he was playing ‘rhythm-section-type playing’ in certain segments of the piece, and ‘classical-type coloristic/accent” playing when the ensemble had the lead.

What I learned in that first project – and continue to work on in writing the arrangements/compositions for electric harp and classical ensembles is:

1.     Separate improvisatory sections from “composed” sections, either by doing one at a time – or by having the orchestra/ensemble in a very focused comping role during the soloist’s improvisation.

2.     The use of percussion and the choice of whether to use it in a rhythm-section style or a color/accent style is essential to think about at every moment.  This is true for any jazz instrument playing in a rhythm section style with a classical ensemble.  In other words, if you have a rhythm section bass player, you need to think constantly about what orchestral/ensemble instruments might be conflicting with the bass player – either by conflicting with his/her rhythm, or even just by being in his/her range (which could simply muddy the power and clarity of the bass-players bassline)

The instrument

How would you describe the image of the harp (and harpists)? Would you like to see this image change, and if yes, how?

This is a huge question..

Of course it depends on what culture you’re in, but in almost every world culture, the harp seems to break down along gender lines.  It appears that in most all Western-Europe cultures or their colonies, it’s perceived as a woman’s instrument, though many of the most famous harpists are men.    In all other cultures and especially all those colonized by Spain, the harp is primarily seen as a man’s instrument (how many female Paraguayan harpists have you ever heard of??).  I’m not a historian, so this is just my observation.  I’d love to see a study about this.

This is another reason why I think that jazz-harpists have a unique and important role. When I was on the GRP jazz label I was one of the very few women jazz instrumentalists who were signed to any label at the time – so I see jazz-harp as having a surprisingly unique role in music, vis-a-vis gender: it connects a male-dominated genre with a female-dominated instrument, so you end up with a fairly equal gender mix – which is unusual.

I think it’s simply up to us as harpists to change the image by each redefining the instrument to fit our personal musical image – instead of refitting ourselves to fit the image of a ‘harpist.’  It may be harder to do that with an instrument as imposing as the harp, but builders are helping us by creating new electric instruments that are both more powerful and less frilly.

Forgive me for this, but it’s hard to take yourself seriously when you’re playing an instrument that looks like an ornate piece of furniture.

In a jazz combo, which role(s) could the harp play (eg. accompanying, soloing)

One of the incredible things about the harp in jazz is that it can play EVERY role.  For years I played in a duo with harp & bass.  My bass player was interested in developing his skills as a soloist on bass with bow, so I got a chance to comp and solo, as you’d expect — but I also got to play basslines for him, and experiment with percussion.

One of the essentials is breaking the mindset that you have to play the whole harp at once.  Once you break away from that idea, you realize that the harp can play a purely melodic function (like a sax, trumpet, flute, clarinet), can comp (like guitar, piano or organ), and can play bass.

I feel pretty confident it could play a drumset function as well, something that will surely become even more possible with midi harps.  If you have any question about the feasibility of this, check out “Future Man,” the ‘drummer’ with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

Here are some of the roles the harp can be very effective at:

MELODIC IMPROVISATION using single notes (or octaves, or double octaves) is hugely effective, and soloing this way gives harpists a lot more chromatic fluidity.  To do this, you’d focus primarily on the strings above middle C (although single-note solos below middle C, especially using fingernails is very effective and beautiful – particularly in blues)

COMPING: focusing on the mid-range of the harp (from about G-below middle C to the C above middle C),  keeping chords dry (no breaking chords!) and often an almost instantaneous muffle – the harp is very effective in a comping role

BASS: The first thing I had to learn playing jazz on the harp was to never break bass octaves upward.  When my bass player soloed he said he couldn’t tell where the downbeat was – but by breaking an octave downward, I could play the upper note as a downbeat, put the lower note on the beat, and my harmonic rhythm became clear to him.  When Lori Andrews showed me how to do “Slap Bass” in the 80’s at some point, that completely revolutionized my playing.  I’d put the slap on the 4, the upper bass-note on the upbeat (“4-and”) and the lower note on the downbeat – by doing that it became completely clear where I was, and, in a sense, I was performing a drumset-type function.

The other thing to remember is to stay out of the way of the other players.  Don’t play bass when there’s a bass player playing.  If someone else is comping, either switch off, avoid comping (and focus on coloristic/accent playing) or keep your comping profoundly simple (open fifths) and keep your eyes glued to the primary comp-player. (“Hey! You’re stepping all over me!!!” – I heard this a lot until I learned to get out of the way)

One of the ways I learned some of this was that I spent years, when I was a lobby-and-restaurant harpist, literally looking over the shoulders of the lounge pianists during my breaks.  They were all great jazz players and happy to answer my probing questions about how they segmented the ranges of the piano to be able to perform all three functions (melody/comping/bass), and then I watched how they changed their style when they’d play with other players (bass, drums, soloists, etc.)

Do you see the role of harp in a jazz ensemble as (please elaborate): overlapping with or equal to the role of other instruments like piano and guitar; in conflict with other instruments like piano and guitar; unique and renewing?

Great question!  ‘Til now I’ve generally seen the harp as very similar to piano and guitar.  I’ve avoided playing with pianists for that reason – though I love playing with guitarists for the same reason (I can’t explain that contradiction).  I really see the harp as the missing-link between piano and guitar:  it has the range of a piano, but the coloristic capabilities of a guitar.

Guitarists seem a little more able to simplify their roles when playing with other musicians – pianists seem to have the same trouble that harpists do of only playing part of their instrument.  I might call this soloist-itis.

As usual, I think it comes down to ‘roles,’ not instrument.  If the roles are clear at any particular moment, or if the players are sensitive enough to be able to integrate their roles, then guitar-harp can be great – I mean, REALLY great.

Which instruments do you think can best be combined with harp?

For me it’s not about the instrument, but about the players, their awareness of how to switch roles at any point in the playing and their jazz vocabulary.  I think we really need to stop thinking this way – about specific instruments.  For example, I recently played with a jazz recorder player who blew the roof off the house (er … well, we were playing an out-door concert so there was no roof, but she really rocked!), and I’ve played with Tuba as a substitute for electric bass.  Jazz Bassoon, for example, could be a great jazz collaborator for harp because it can play both a bass and a soloistic function.

The only instruments I prefer not to play with are those who focus on ONE specific function – like a trumpeter who plays their solo and then hangs back and does nothing while I’m playing a solo – that’s just not interesting to me.  I love jazz improvisation for the interplay, including the interplay of roles.

Which type of harp do you think is best suitable for jazz and why?

If you want to play standard jazz (“tunes”)  and be able to function in all 3 roles (solo, comping, bass) you’ll have a lot more flexibility with a pedal harp.  I don’t try to play standard tunes on a lever harp – though I can think of some players who I could well imagine doing that.  When I play standard jazz, I think harmonically, and I just shift the instrument through the harmonic changes – in other words, my hands think melodically and my feet think harmonically when I’m playing standard jazz, so when I do, I play on pedal harp.

Blues, however, which I consider a huge subset of jazz – I find much more effective on the lever harp, where I have a lot more control over the sound of individual strings.

Do you think the harp has its shortcomings as a jazz instrument? If so, which? Do you see possible solutions or alternatives for these shortcomings?

Of course it does.  Every instrument has shortcomings and limitations.  Just try to get a trumpet to play a convincing bassline.

One of the things that jumped out at me when I started studying orchestration is that each and every instrument has limitations and strengths, and to write effectively for each instrument you need to know both.

I personally think that the harp has far fewer limitations in jazz than other instruments.  The 3 things the harp can’t easily achieve are:

1.     Fast chromatic lines (and some players can do this)

2.     Fast ½ step chordal shifts (though some shifts are easy – also some players can do this fairly effortlessly throughout the instrument)

3.     Sustained notes (and you can do that to some extent using distortion)

Somewhere I have a list of all the things the harp can do that other jazz instruments can’t — I’ll try to find that.  But the point is that any time we’re trying to convincingly be something we’re not (like when a harp tries to be a piano), we’re at a disadvantage.

One of the main reasons we harpists are perceived as having more limitations than other instruments is that there aren’t more jazz-harpist composers (or harp composers in general).  When an instrumentalist writes for their OWN instrument, the compositional questions are never about limitation, but simply about expression.  But anytime you write for an instrument that is not your native instrument, you become very aware of what it can’t do – so when jazz composers or players approach a harp, they often see it as a finicky, limited naked piano.

As we develop a true jazz-harp vocabulary, the harp’s ‘shortcomings’ will become less and less an issue.  The work the Jazz-Harp organization is doing will help us create this jazz-harp vocabulary, creating a form where those of us who have spent a lifetime exploring the harp in jazz can compare notes, skills and tricks so that we, as a community, end up with a much richer vocabulary.  In the meantime, find me any other instrument that can bend a note in 4 octaves simultaneously

Musical training

What was most inspiring for you in your musical training?

I’m not sure how to answer this, but if you’re asking what my own training consisted of, I learned ukulele when I was 7 – this was essential in understanding the function of chords in music, and the concept that music isn’t structured from notes, but from harmonies that have simple names (D,  A minor).  When I was 10, my mother taught me to read simple chord charts on the piano, which was just a further development of the idea of music as harmonic structure.  Since I was always playing music I knew (show tunes), I never learned to read notes, just learned to read chord charts, to create arrangements as I felt at the moment, and to sing the melodies or improvise vocally.

I began to learn to read music when I was 19, because I was starting to compose larger forms of music and realized I’d need to write them down.  So I went back to school to learn to read and write music. While there, I began studying harp.  I was quickly offered jobs playing background music.  My repertoire was very limited (I could only play about 4 songs on the harp) so I had to improvise to make those tunes longer, and to fill in the rest of the time I simply improvised on melodies I knew or ones I made up on the spot. This was in no way “jazzy” but it was a chance to play with compositional structure, harmonic movement and melodic improv – so it was a great foundation for jazz, though I didn’t know it at the time.

A few years later, when I was better at playing harp, I heard Keith Jarrett.  I asked my jazz-aficionado boyfriend of the time if he thought I could play that kind of music on the harp.  He said, flatly, no way.  Thus the die was cast: I had to do it.

I’d played a lot of jazz standards on piano as a kid (Girl from Ipanema, Misty, Favorite Things, etc.), though I didn’t realize they were jazz standards, so I tried to simply transfer them to the harp.  It was harder than I thought.  I had no idea that certain tunes would be much harder on the harp than others.  Now, of course, I have a whole list of standards and usually have students start with the simpler ones.

Jack Nebergal, who played at the Hyatt Regency with a strolling strings group, offered me his off-nights, and along with the job, I got his tutoring.  He insisted I memorize all my tunes, showed me how to play a stride-bass, and from that job I learned the basic repertoire of standard jazz tunes.  I also got fired because I didn’t realize that every standard jazz tune is played in a standard key.  Because I came from a background with singers (where music often gets transposed as needed to fit the tessitura of the singer), the concept of a ‘standard key’ was completely foreign.

By then, I was committed to playing jazz.  I quit my harp-playing hotel jobs, joined up with a bass player to form a duo called “Classic Swing” and started playing … hotel lobbies and restaurants.  Not much different except it was a huge difference in that I was learning by leaps and bounds on the job.  We played half-classical repertoire and half-jazz.  He tutored me on how to play jazz, and since we played the same tunes 4-10 times a week, I was able to learn on the job.

When we started shifting from background to concert performances, we hired a drummer, to form the “Jazz Harp Trio.”   A few years after that, the band broke up and I was offered a record contract by the Contemporary Jazz Label, GRP.

I didn’t learn a lot on my first album (I was pretty shell-shocked), but on my 2nd, I teamed up with producer/guitarist Chieli Minucci and his percussionist-partner George Jinda (their band was called “Special EFX”).  They were master players and Geroge was a “time” Nazi.  He insisted I go back and work for hours and hours with a metronome, which I did.  We made 3 albums together, each better than the previous – but each less commercially successful than the previous.  Even after my contract with GRP ended, George and Chieli and I made one last album, in Budapest, that was unquestionably the most beautiful studio album I ever made.  It was never officially released (OK, a brief unsupported release by a small company).

I toured for years in Germany with my band (harp, bass, drums, percussion and sometimes guitar), but then three things happened that shifted me away from a purely jazz career:

  • I became very interested in developing a repertoire as soloist with orchestra
  • I wanted to focus more on my first love, which is music-theater.
  • I got really sick of the expense and stress of touring with a pedal-harp and started working with both CAMAC and Lyon & Healy to develop viable harness-harps

So those are the areas I’ve focused more in for the past 10-15 years.  Now my jazz training and understanding are more an integrated part of my work, I train harpists in the curriculum I learned and developed myself – but I don’t overtly call myself a jazz-harpist.  It’s not like I’m “beyond” it in any way, it’s just integrated into a more personal whole that defines my personal style.

What have you missed in your musical training? Were you able to obtain this otherwise, and if so, where and how?

My greatest regret is not having better ear-training.  I keep meaning to address this in my life and I keep not doing it so, no, I haven’t obtained it.  However, I’ve become very proficient with Finale software and that’s allowed me to compensate, at least on paper, for the lack of this skill – but it’s not really a compensation.

Do you think colleges should offer a program for jazz harp? If so, what should this program consist of? If not, why not?

Maybe not every school, but any school with a strong jazz program certainly.  I have my own jazz curriculum, based on the way I learned, but I’m sure that each jazz harpist could create their own – and probably each very different – curriculum.

I personally like to get people playing, both solo and ensemble, immediately; get them able to actually play and improvise using simple jazz charts and avoiding substitutions and altered chords at first.  I want to make sure that their time (rhythm) is strong, that they can play in some basic rhythm time-feels (Swing, Latin: Samba & Bossa, Ballad, Jazz Waltz, Bebop and 5/4) and that they have completely internalized the harmonic structures/forms, understand the structural roles (soloing, comping/rhythm-section playing, bass function), and can spontaneously create a basic jazz arrangement (intro/head/blowing/head/coda) on a simple tune as a soloist, can provide a simple comp & bass function for themselves with Left Hand while improvising with Right Hand.

I want to make sure they’ve completely internalized the basic ‘guidelines’ of standard jazz, know the standard kinds of intros and codas, understand where and how the exchange of the “blowing” soloist takes place, where the form of the tune starts (i.e. if there’s a pickup, the blowing form starts on the downbeat and generally doesn’t include the pickup).  Most of these guidelines are so ingrained in jazz players that they don’t even know they exist, but especially when you come from a different musical culture, having them made clear is essential.

Once players are fluent on that level, I like to start adding alterations and substitutions one at a time (like: for the next month, every time you encounter a dominant 7 chord, add a flat nine) so that they can coordinate and integrate chromaticism with playing that’s already fluid instead of having to constantly calculate harmonies in their heads while trying to play.

Actually, I like to have students experimenting with more harmonically complex charts early on, but I like to keep that kind of exploration separate from actual playing because I want them to be able to concentrate on listening, time and form when they’re playing.

The point of this type of curriculum is that they are playing real music from the beginning; the forms, structures and roles become ingrained from the beginning, using the simplest harmonic forms possible.  That gives them a foundation and on that foundation, they can spend the rest of their lives exploring, adding, substituting, altering, chromaticizing, etc.

What do you think of the study materials that are available for jazz harp?

I haven’t taken a good look at what’s out there – I do feel remiss that my own curriculum and materials aren’t more readily available.

What do you think of the way harp is taught in music schools?

I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but regarding jazz-harp, I’m generally frustrated when harpists (or any musicians) are taught to value chromaticism over time (rhythmic clarity), harmonic structure, arrangement and an understanding of how to play with other players.  But I’m not sure if that’s what you’re asking.

Improvisation

How did you learn to improvise?

Another big question!  Musically, I learned music via reading chord charts (not by reading music) and I started composing as a kid, and was writing musical theater from about the age of 12. I don’t consider that kind of writing ‘improvising’ but it gave me a foundation in compositional structure, which was invaluable in internalizing ideas about jazz arrangement.

The first structured teaching in improv I had was in movement improv in highschool, and when I was 17 I basically ran away from home and joined a dance-and-theater collective, so I was doing dance and theater improv daily.

Once I started playing jazz, it took me a long time to understand that standard jazz generally focuses on melodic improv.  Meaning: you’re not changing the form of the tune, you’re just improvising ‘over’ it.

I mostly learned by watching other people – getting as physically close as I could – and this includes pianists, harpists, guitarists mostly.  I also learned a LOT from the people I played with.  I would just ask them for help or …well, some of them were pretty grumpy so I got feedback whether I wanted it or not.

All of that was helpful.

Having a background in theater and movement improv was both helpful and confusing.  I often expected a much more expansive idea of improv (something between standard jazz improv and Free-Jazz), like I’d find myself saying things like: “OK, for this chorus, let’s BOTH improvise melodically, together” and I’d get these strange looks.

So I basically pieced the guidelines together through a series of weird looks.  The few times I asked for information on the fundamentals of how jazz actually ‘works’ I got negative feedback like, “Hey man – there aren’t any shortcuts! You gotta live the music.”  Now I realize the guidelines were so ingrained they had no idea they were following them, so they couldn’t explain them.

In what context(s) do you improvise (eg. jazz jams, folk jams, free impro)?

I like improvising in any context including some very interesting improvisational concerts my husband and I produced a few years ago, called “Inviting Invetion” where I improvised with a chemist and a journalist. I love theater improv, dance improv – and musically, I like improvising in straight-ahead jazz, classical and free-improvisation so long as it’s truly interactive.

What do you consider to be the most important rules in improvisation? Is there a rule that you would like to change, and if so, how?

My most important rules are:

  • Listen & watch
  • Never say no (to an idea) – always say yes and move forward from there
  • Understand what role you are playing at any moment
  • Fully embrace your new role if there’s a role-switch
  • If you lose the time or the form look forward to where you can rejoin the form. Don’t try to ‘fix’ the mistake

Who were your musical examples when you learned how to improvise?

The musicians I was playing with

Geography and heritage

Do you consider it important to be aware of the heritage and historical development of the music you play? If so, in what way does this affect your experience of the music? If not, why not?

Heritage and history are certainly interesting, but only if they help inform or liberate my playing, not if they confines it.  But I think that jazz as a musical structure and jazz as a ‘musical genre’ are two different thingsThe concepts that jazz structure and improv are built on can be used for anything from a business model to a party game; but jazz is also a cultural movement and a musical genre. You can play “jazzy” melodies, rhythms or chords without being able to improvise a note; you can be a great melodic improvisor without understanding the harmonic structure of a jazz piece.

Heritage/History/Tradition can both expand one’s experience of improvising, or can make you feel like you have to fit into a specific musical box.  So you just have to be conscious of making sure that whatever you learn increases your freedom of expression both as a soloist and as an ensemble,  rather than boxing you in.

Do you think that a musician’s nationality and/or personal background are of any importance when he’s playing jazz? Why (not)?

Our nationality and personal background effect everything in our lives, but nothing should affect whether or not someone should feel the have the right to play a certain type of music.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Sometimes when I’m playing jazz on an ornate concert harp I think of a cartoon I once saw in the “New Yorker”: a wealthy woman sits at the piano, playing and emoting.  Her husband sits nearby, the evening paper open in front of him.  He’s saying, “No, Martha, you do NOT have a right to sing the Blues.”

It’s definitely harder to reach authenticity when the culture or the way you’ve grown up seems opposed to the artform you’re working in.  But you’ve got to work with what you have.

Do you think the history of jazz and the history of harp are related? Why (not)?

Sure.  They’re probably related in hundreds of ways – I only know a few.  As I understand it, John Coltrane asked his wife, Alice to learn the harp; jazz harp tunes have been recorded since Jack Teagarten; Dorothy Ashby and Corky Hale were both important jazz names in the 50’s and 60’s.  Andreas Vollenweider, while not considered a jazz player, was very important in the contemporary jazz movement from a sonic standpoint if not from an improvisatory one.

Which country do you think offers the most chances for the development of harp as a jazz instrument? Why?

That’s a really tough question.  I mean, jazz is generally considered an American (U.S.) art form, but the swing rhythm likely comes from Celtic music, the African influence is fundamental to Jazz and so on – meaning that the fundaments of jazz are spread throughout the world, so what’s most important is finding people willing and able to teach it in an environment in which you can learn.

Thus said, any environment where there are a lot of other students studying jazz is probably the best environment for harpists to learn in.

Repertoire

How would you describe your repertoire (eg. standards, classical, world music)?

Originals mixing of jazz, world, Blues, Flamenco and music-theater.

How would you date your repertoire (eg. mostly 1700’s, mostly 1950’s, or mostly new compositions)?

Mostly original compositions written in the past 30 years.

What you think of the repertoire that is available for jazz harp? How could this repertoire be improved or expanded?

I personally feel very guilty that I haven’t published a curriculum, and that have have so little sheet music published.  I am dreadfully guilty of not providing more jazz harp repertoire.  Probably the easiest way for this to change for me would be if I were commissioned to make my own arrangements public.  Without that kind of support, it’s very difficult for me to find time to put down on paper what’s so easy for me to improvise.

I haven’t made lead-sheets of my music public, in part, because the few times that I’ve made available music that isn’t written note-for-note, I’m deluged with questions and confusion about it.  So at the moment I just avoid doing it – but it’s probably something I should reconsider.

What advice would you give to a composer who want to write a jazz piece for harp?

I’d have a lot of suggestions, but here are a few:

1.     Spend some time alone with a harp, just exploring how it works, including exploring how the pedals work

2.     Do NOT try to write for it like your would for piano. If you want an instrumental equivalent to think about during the composition process, it’s better to think about vibes or xylophone instead of piano or guitar.

3.     Seriously consider using electric harp unless you’re writing a solo piece

4.     Except in completely solo sections, consider focusing the harpist on single-line melodies (like you would any other soloist – flute, clarinet, trumpet, bass, violin, etc.), but double the melody at the octave or double-octave to bring it out above the ensemble, especially if you’re working with fast tempos – in other words, don’t have the harp playing bass, comp and melodic-solo at the same time unless they’re playing absolutely solo

5.     Give the harpist at least one rubato section (for example – a solo rubato intro) where you can explore rich, extended, altered harmonies and glory in the fact that technically the harp is a pitched-percussion instrument with an exquisite sustain and decay – but try to avoid using it harmonically when the rest of the ensemble is playing unless it’s comping for a solo instrument

6.     Once the audience has seen how rich the harp is (for example, in a rubato intro), then show them how percussively melodic it can be.  In other words, explore the instrument by approaching it as it it were a variety of different instruments:  first a richly harmonic harp sound, then like steel drums, then like guitar strums – then create a “bass solo” for harp that lets the incredible bass range of the harp shine — but whatever you do, don’t treat it like a piano.  I can’t say that enough.

What is your background?

  • Name? Deborah Henson-Conant
  • Education? UC Berkeley – BA
  • Current occupation? Performer/Composer
  • Accomplishments? Grammy Nominated recording artist; multiple releases (DVDs / CDs / Books / Sheet Music) including straight-ahead jazz, contemporary jazz, spoken word, world, children’s; Arts Grants from Meet the Composer, NEA, Massachusetts Arts Council
  • Since when active as a musician, and on which instruments? Since 7 years old – began on ukulele, then piano & guitar, then harp
  • Since when and in what way active in jazz or any style other than classical? When starting harp seriously in late 70’s, I improvised on pop music and musical theater (in background music situations);  in early 80’s I shifted to straight-ahead jazz , first with harp & bass and later with harp, bass & drums; in the late 80’s I had a contract with GRP records and focused on Contemporary Jazz with various ensembles, but particularly with members of the group “Special EFX”  (guitar & percussion); began including spoken word & vocals in the early ‘90’s; in mid- and late 90’s began arranging original material for orchestra and chamber ensemble and performing as a soloist; also around the mid-90’s reconnected with my first love, musical-theater and began creating and performing one-woman-musical theater (and in some cases one-woman backed by orchestra).  I continue to use improvisation and jazz forms (especially Blues) in my shows, regardless of format, genre or style.


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