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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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“Baroque Flamenco” is one of my most fiery & dramatic pieces that’s the dramatic finale of PBS music special “Invention & Alchemy” and the 3rd movement of my concerto “Soñando en Español.” (Read about the piece in this blog).  Now the piece is in the hands of many other harpists …

(Sign up for the next hands-on workshop)


In 2008 I arranged “Baroque Flamenco” for other harpists to play, and instead of just making a single arrangement, I created 3 arrangments: one for beginners, one for intermediate players, and the concert version I play, myself, for advanced players.  All the versions are playable on concert harp, and the beginning & intermediate versions are also playable on the lever harp (also called “Folk Harp” or “Celtic Harp.”  You can see both concerts harps and lever harps – the blue one, and the one I’m playing – in the photo below)

Workshop with DHC

Hands-On Workshop with DHC

So now harpists all over the world are playing this piece.  But to really play the piece – to bring it aliveyou need to not just play the notes, but also play the “character” of the piece — and that’s the kind of thing you can’t pass on via written notes.  

So I created a hands-on workshop specifically for learning how to express the character of the piece  — which is both the simplest, and the hardest part of the music.

To work on that, we use a simplified version of the piece, so that players on all levels, from beginning to advance, can work together at the same time. Interestingly, it’s often the less advanced players who have an easier time connecting with the ‘character’ of the piece, so working together in a multi-level environment is useful to everyone.

For that same reason, I invite any advanced players  to present a brief section of the piece during short “Master Class” interludes, so that the entire class can learn from watching these short one-on-one sessions (which are also a nice break from the playing … well, for everyone except the ones presenting!).

By  the end of the evening, everyone knows how to ‘get this piece across’ to an audience, regardless of their skill level, and they can then take that understanding and apply it to whatever level of the piece they’re working on. They also get my tips on practice techniques for Baroque Flamenco and ideas for developing their own unique performances of the piece.

I love sharing this in person because as a composer I have a limited language through just written notes – but when I can be in the same room with you, and show you exactly what I mean, musically, you’re getting all the music, not just the notes.  You get to literally look over my shoulder.  You get to experience the passion of the piece – you get the living music and then you become part of the life of that piece.

THE NEXT HANDS-ON “BAROQUE FLAMENCO” WORKSHOP:  is Fri. Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, CO.   Get more info or sign up here.

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?

ON SEPT. 30, 2011 – Denver, CO:  I’m presenting a hands-on workshop for harpists on “Baroque Flamenco” on Friday, Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, CO.


Baroque Flamenco is one of my most famous and fiery pieces. But it wasn’t always.

The first time I heard the melody, it was in a  Minuet by Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (pictured below – quite fetchingly, I think).

I found it in one of my first harp books (“Medieval to Modern, Vol. 1″ by Samuel Milligan) under the title “Minuet in A Minor.”

I fell in love with the melody and started improvising on it, first in a Baroque style, and then over time, I started adding rhythm to the variations.

Little by little the piece became a conversation of styles: the melody was Baroque, but the variations took on a Latin rhythmic character (a lot like the rhythm of Bernstein’s “America.”)

Then, one day, packing up my gear in a rock club in Berlin, and hearing Ottmar Liebert’s “Nuevo Flamenco” on the house sound system, I had a revelation: “Wait a minute!” I yelled at myself over the music, “The harp … the HARP … is just a big GUITAR!”

By which I meant: there’s a whole other instrument here, not just the strings, but the sound box as well.

I started experimenting, and created a cadenza for the piece that included my best imitation of a flamenco troupe, from strums and slaps to foot stomps – all created on the strings and soundboard of the harp.

DHC Playing Baroque Flamenco with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Me playing "Baroque Flamenco" with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Thus was born, “Baroque Flamenco,” which morphed from a sweet, haunting minuet into a fiery tour-de-force that was the dramatic finale of my PBS music special “Invention and Alchemy”, and later became the 3rd movement of my  concerto “Soñando en Español.”  You can see a video of the performance of “Baroque Flamenco” from the DVD (and GRAMMY-Nominated CD) “Invention & Alchemy” here:


SEPT. 30, 2011: I’m presenting a hands-on workshop for harpists on “Baroque Flamenco” on Friday, Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, Colorado – for all levels of harpists.



NEXT: Hand to Hand: Passing on Baroque Flamenco…




If I close my eyes right now, I can see Tony.

If you were in my mind, you might think I was looking at a short Italian guy in an orange jumpsuit. But I’m seeing a stadium of improbable beings, huge and tiny. When I imagine Tony Montanaro I see everything his mind invented, and his body described. He was the most physically creative person I’ve ever known, and he could transform in a split second from a giant to dancing flea.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah … so the guy’s a mime,” you say. “The silent type with the white-face.” But Tony spoke a lot and he didn’t paint his face. Sure – he could mime – he and Marcel Marceau studied with the same teacher. But he went beyond mime to a form he called “Physical Eloquence” – the art of physical story-telling, with voice, body – and everything.

Tony moved to Maine in the early 70’s,  bought an old barn in South Paris Maine and turned it into a theater he called the “Celebration Barn.”  He taught and performed there. He became known as the “Guru of Street Performers.” Sooner or later every non-traditional performer on the Eastern Seaboard made their way up to Tony’s barn to study with him. You know the host of “America’s Funniest Video’s” – Tom Bergeron? He studied with Tony. You know the “Mentos Guys” from the TV commercial? They came to the Barn, too. And, along with actors, jesters, jugglers, puppeteers, storytellers and dancers, I also found my way to the Barn.

Did I rush up there the minute I heard about him?  No! I didn’t have the guts!  It took me 3 years to get up the courage to actually call and ask if he’d take me for a student. I was afraid he wouldn’t accept me, afraid I wouldn’t fit in, because his workshops were for — well, for other people. People who could do things I couldn’t do. People more able than me, solo performers (which I wasn’t yet), people with exotic skills and street-smart courage. He was “the guy” and I was some weird little harp player!  When I finally got the courage to call and stuttered out a request to study with him, he said, “Sure!” — and that began a relationship that changed my life.

Tony Montanaro

Tony Montanaro

As I watched Tony use his body like an instrument — I learned how to make my own awkward instrument into a part of my body. And when I whined about the prejudices and stereotypes people have about the harp, Tony just looked at me and said, “The harp is the instrument of the storyteller. Tell your stories.”

And to this day, the shows I do after a week at the Barn, are like creative cosmic gushers — whether I’m the teacher or the student — this work liberates me in ways that change my performances for the next 12 months — but at that splendid, raw moment after a week at the Barn, I am the freest I will be all year. I do things in that show, completely spontaneously, that I’ll struggle to reconnect with for the next year.

So why am I telling you this?  It’s on my mind for sure — I’m starting to pack for the Barn again, my yearly pilgrimage to perform and teach a new generation of students alongside Tony’s partner, Karen Montanaro (you can get more info at my workshop page, tour page, or  another blog on the Barn)   But I know many of you live thousands of miles from the Celebration Barn.  You just might not make it there this year.

Tony Montanaro and Deborah Henson-Conant

Tony and Me

So why do I want you do know about it?  Well, my theory is that knowing about things is a step towards experiencing them.  I want you to know about Tony.  Even if you never get to the Barn, I want you to know that one little Italian guy with a vision and a passion could create a PLACE. A place where his vision continues, even after his death. I want you to know you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg creating “Skywalker Ranch” or Robert Redford, creating “Sundance” to create a place that can change people’s lives, even after you’re gone.

And I want you to know that you don’t have to have the resume of a genius to be invited into that place, to belong there.  You can just call and ask to come.  Well, now, you can email, too.

And if you can get to the Barn in August, to join the workshop or come to the concerts, I hope you’ll stand for a moment in the middle of the floor, and let the spirit Tony brought there change your life, too.


For more workshop details Click Here (Aug 15-20, 2011: 5-Day Intensive Workshop)

For more about the Celebration Barn and tickets to show Click here
Aug 19 (Fri): “Meet the Artists” – 8pm
Aug 20 (Sat) : DHC Solo Performance – 8pm

In two weeks I’ll be “Up at the Barn” teaching my 5-Day “Performance for Musicians” Intensive.  There’s only two slots left, so if you’re on the fence, come on over!   Here’s a video I made about the workshop.  And I’ve asked former students to add comments to this post about their own experience at the Barn, so read on!

Once a year, I pack my van with five harps and drive to a big old Barn in Maine where I hold a 5-Day Intensive Workshop for performers. The group is small – never more than 16 – and the students are all ages, all levels and many play different instruments – though there are always many harpists. Students come from all over the US and Europe, and many come back year after year. The co-teacher is my long-time colleague, award-winning dancer Karen Montanaro.

Together, Karen and take this group on a learning adventure that we, ourselves, came to this very barn for 20 years ago, the basic concepts we each still use today to find the authentic performer inside of each of us. We both came to study with – and eventually to love – Tony Montanaro, the man who turned this barn into a study/performance place, who taught us how to look to ourselves and our bodies as the foundation of our performance — and the man who Karen eventually married.

Now, each summer, Karen and I pass along these concepts that changed our lives – and continue to change them – to this small group. We only have 2 slots left for 2011, and we invite you to join. I was always one of those students who waited until the last minute to sign-up, so if you’re like me in that – grab one of these last 2 slots by going direct to the registration page or you can  learn more about the workshop here.

Students at "Performance for Musicians" 5-Day Intensive in 2010

Students at "Performance for Musicians" 5-Day Intensive in 2010

The work we do at the Barn is fundamental – but hard to explain – so I’ve asked former students to add comments below, telling others what they might expect at “Performance for Musicians” to describe their own experience, so that others can get an idea what to expect.

So former students, please add your comments below – describe your own experience at the Barn! What did you experience?  What surprised you?  What happened for you there?  And how has the experience impacted your own life?   


To register right now Click Here

For more workshop details Click Here
Aug 15-20: 5-Day Intensive Workshop

For more about the Celebration Barn and tickets to show Click here
Aug 19 (Fri): “Meet the Artists” – 8pm
Aug 20 (Sat) : DHC Solo Performance – 8pm


I hope I see you “Up at the Barn!”

and p.s. Here are some links to blogs about how the Barn changed my own life:
My Blog about The Workshop

My Blog about Tony & Me

A Hands-On Arrangement Workshop for all musicians by Grammy Nominated Composer, Arranger & Performer

Deborah Henson-Conant

Arrangement is about learning the building blocks of musical structure.
Once you know the basics, you can turn any melody into a ‘piece,’
or turn a piece into anything from a jazz improvisation to a meditation.”
– Deborah Henson-Conant –

DHC Hands-On Harp Workshop - Arles, France

Tue. Mar. 29  •  Shedd Institute for Arts  •  7-10pm

868 High Street – Eugene, OR 97440
Hands-On Participants: $35 / Auditors: $20
Call for Tix & Info: 541-434-7000

Whether you play classical, folk or improvisatory jazz – whether you’re performing for an audience of thousands or at the bedside of a friend – the skill and art of arrangement is one of the most important skills you can have as a musician. Once you know the basics of arrangement, you can turn any melody into a ‘piece,’ you can vary the length and even change that arrangement on the spot if needed.

In this workshop you’ll learn the basics of arrangement structure, how to use that structure at any skill level, in any style and on any instrument. You’ll learn how to simplify a piece for situations where you want to sooth your audience – or how to make it more dynamic for situations where you really want to shine. You’ll learn how to expand – or condense – a piece from the front, back or middle. You’ll also learn how to create simple bass patterns to support a melody, and how to create a simple ‘vamp’ to use for anything from jazz improvisation to meditation.

Deborah Henson-Conant is an award-winning composer and performer who specializes in the development and arrangement of music for harp, chamber ensemble, orchestra and music-theater. She’s the world’s leading electric harpist, publishes works for solo harp, piano-vocal, chamber ensemble, symphony and is well-known as an improvisor and collaborative musician, working in projects from Early-Music to Jazz.

And for musical-dessert you’ll come away at least one cool jazz lick to impress your friends.

This workshop is open all solo instrumentalist (vocalists also welcome). Musicians are encouraged to bring their instruments. Auditors are also welcome

Tue. Mar. 29  •  Shedd Institute for Arts  •  7-10pm

868 High Street – Eugene, OR 97440
Hands-On Participants: $35 / Auditors: $20
Call for Tix & Info: 541-434-7000

p.s. from Deborah: I know all these pix below are with harps, but I promise this workshop isn’t only for harpists – although there will probably be many harpists there !  These are just the only photos we had handy.

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.”

(This is from an note I just wrote to members of the Seattle-Tacoma harpist community)

Play-Date with an Orchestra

I’m excited about coming back to the Seattle-Tacoma area and thrilled to play with the Tacoma Symphony Sunday, March 27 at 2:30 pm! Seattle-Tacoma is a hotbed of harp activity in the U.S. and we’ve been in touch for years looking for just the right time and the right orchestra program — and this is it!   Details below about tickets, program, etc.  But here’s the story of how this happened…

What’s so cool about this concert is that, every time I play with a symphony, it’s the realization of a vision. Really!  A vision!  It happened one New Year’s Eve about 20 years ago:  I was sitting on my porch in Boston, shivering in my parka and I saw a vision of myself playing an electric harp in front of a full orchestra. The harp was strapped on and each string I plucked soared with the brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion of the orchestra.   I could see it all very clearly — and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

There was just one problem:  no harp like that existed, and I had no idea how to write music for orchestra.

But I had a friend who played in a string quartet, so I asked if she’d perform a concert with me, she agreed, and I played that concert on an old acoustic Wurlitzer with a little pickup to amplify it.  But it was a beginning.   Little by little, I kept learning to write scores for more instruments — by taking ‘lessons’ from other instrumentalists, and getting them to show me how to write for their instruments, and to critique the parts I’d written for them.  At the same time, I kept talking to all the harp builders I knew, trying to get them to build me the kind of harp I’d seen in my vision.

Harvey Felder, Tacoma Symphony Orchestra conductor

Harvey Felder, Tacoma Symphony Orchestra conductor

Many builder friends built me beautiful ‘harp-monsters’ trying to find a way to recreate the one I’d envisioned. And I wrote many orchestra and chamber music scores that almost worked, but that I had to rewrite many times until they started sounding the way I heard them in my head.

In the same way, CAMAC Harps kept building and rebuilding, changing and testing, investing  years of research, new technology and new models between the time they handed me the first one, made of wood, with thick plastic levers – to the streamlined, silver-levered, carbon-fiber model I play today, and that carries my own name, the “DHC Blue Light.”

This journey to simply having the ingredients for this wonderful artistic feast — the journey of learning  how to compose for orchestra, and to finally having the instrument I imagined – has been an amazing one, not always fun, and definitely not easy!  And  it’s taken over 15 years!   So when I walk out on stage now, wearing that gorgeous 11-pound electric harp that CAMAC built me — and when the conductor raises his baton and the orchestra plays their first notes — I feel like I’m finally stepping into the vision I had that New Year’s eve.  It’s like the end of a journey to where I wanted to begin … and the beginning of a huge new musical adventure.

I  hope you’ll be there to share it with me, and that while you’re in the audience,  you’ll envision yourself on the stage … because my next vision is seeing YOU up there playing these pieces.

WHAT MUSIC I’LL BE PLAYING:
Almost all the music I’m playing is original, all of it features the harp and I’m working to publish all of it so you’ll be able to – literally – get your hands on it!   That means that I’ll be very interested to hear from you all after the show about which pieces you most want me to publish first — which ones you can most see yourself playing. And all the music on this program is playable on both lever and pedal harp.

Right now the program includes Cosita Latina, Minstrel & the Wild Harp, Belinda, The Nightingale, Dance with Me, Siana’s Dream, and Way You Are Blues  — all in full-orchestra versions – as well as Nataliana as a solo.  Sometimes the program changes as the date nears. AND … it’s possible that we might even be doing a full-orchestra version of “New Blues” with not one harp, not two harps — but … well … as many as we can get on stage! (More on this as it unfolds!)

WHAT HARP I’LL BE PLAYING:
I’ll be playing my wonderful new 32-string, 11-pound carbon fibre “DHC Blue Light” which has a gorgeous sound and looks like something out of a science fiction novel.

Please make sure you’re on my mailing list and a fan of my Facebook page, because if I can, I’ll also be trying to share some solo harp versions of the music from the show ahead-of-time on line.   You can join both from my homepage: www.HipHarp.com.

TEACHING & OTHER CONNECTIONS IN THE NORTHWEST:
I’m hoping there’ll be a chance for me to connect with all of you when I’m out there, let you see the harp up close and personal and just hang out a little bit!  I’ll also try to come a day or two early to be available for lessons, so if that’s something you’re interested in, please email my office (info@HipHarp.com).

(I’ll also be in Eugene later that same week performing a solo show so Oregonians, you can chime in, too!)

So…. I’m hoping all the harpists in the Seattle-Tacoma area can come to this show because the program is harp, harp, harp and harp.  Oh, and also harp!  And because the concert’s at 2:30 on a Sunday – March 27 – you’ll miss any rush-hour traffic by a good 16 hours!  I’ll see you there!

BASIC SHOW DETAILS:
Sun. Mar. 27, 2011 – 2:30 PM
Pantages Theater – 901 Broadway – Tacoma, WA 98402
Deborah Henson-Conant, Electric Harp with The Tacoma Symphony
Harvey Felder, Music Director
Buy Tix: (253) 591-5890 / http://bit.ly/gh8d1K
Tix: $24, $42, $62, $77 – Discounts available for groups of 10 or more

More info about the show on my website

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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