by Heather on March 5, 2014

Filed in: Exams, Music Theory Lessons, Musical Education

In the words of Granny Weatherwax, “I aten’t dead.” I have, though, been rather neglectful of dragonharp.com. That said, I have news!

Shortly after my last post here (in October 2012!), I made the decision to step away from the harp for a while. I was feeling frustrated that every time I came to practice, or go for a lesson, I’d become befuddled by all the dots and lines on the page. Any progress I made on the instrument itself was hampered by my growing irritation at not being able to read music. I was finding it harder and harder each time. And so, I decided to separate the two and see if that made any difference.

Concentrating solely on music theory, I attended regular lessons with Denise, and slowly things began to click — so much so that in November 2013, I did something I never thought I would be able to do: I sat my ABRSM Grade 1 Music Theory exam. It lasted 90 minutes, and I remember feeling so out of place in the room, as I was one of only three adults there and the other two were sitting for Grade 6 and above. Everyone else was under 16. Eeep.

That said, I took the paper, and answered it to the best of my ability. It wasn’t as scary as I had thought and I was fairly certain I’d passed, just not sure how well. Cue an anxious wait of four weeks or so, and then the results were published (first online, and then, a few weeks later, in print).

ABRSM Music Theory Grade 1 PassYes! I passed — and, as shown in the photo to the right, I passed with Distinction. I couldn’t believe it, and I was thrilled. I was so thankful to Denise and to my husband, Andrew, both of whom had kept me on the calm side beforehand. Once the exam was over, only then did I feel I could tell others that I had taken it and was officially on the ABRSM exam pathway — I was so nervous before this first exam, I didn’t want to jinx it! Obviously, I needn’t have worried.

Since then, my studies have continued avidly and I have been working my way though the ABRSM Grade 2 Music Theory workbook and related reference material. Where Grade 1 is all about basic notation, major keys (specifically those of C, G, D and F) and the time signatures of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, Grade 2 takes this deeper and we expand out into 2/2, 3/2, 4/2 and 3/8. More major keys are introduced (A, B-flat, E-flat) and both harmonic and melodic minors (just A, E, and D) are begun. Triplets provide all kinds of fun and there’s yet more Italian performance directions to learn.

ABRSM Music Theory Grade 2 PrepAnd so, this (left) is where I am at the moment — in the latter stages of revising for my Grade 2 Music Theory exam, which is later today. I’m a little more nervous about this one, but for different reasons to the first — while I know what to expect now, and how the paper will look and the sorts of questions asked, there’s so much more to remember! Especially all the Italian terms, with all their subtleties; I can’t seem to keep them all straight in my head…

That said, I am looking forward to it, though, in some odd way; after all, it’s another step forwards in making a dream come true.

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For the first time since the end of the May, last week I had a harp lesson with Lauren. In all honesty, I was a bit apprehensive because the summer had passed me by in a bit of a blur — a blur of hospitals and illness, tests, an operation, and then recovery. I’m still not 100% (or what passes for that, in my case), but I am improving all the time. Even so, I was too much “in my head” about my lack of recent harp practice or lessons when I saw Lauren, and thus was a tad nervous.

I need not have worried; Lauren calmly took me back under her wing, so to speak, and soon I was back at Dragonharp, working away at two new pieces from Skaila Kanga’s Minstrel’s Gallery. And feeling Dragonharp’s strings beneath my fingers again was bliss.

I have also re-started my theory lessons with Denise, who is being equally calming and encouraging. I am currently wrestling with time signatures and trying to get the notation to “stick” in my head. Something must be working because I am noticing more and more layers about the music I listen to these days, which surely must be a good thing no matter how terribly I feel I’m progressing…

Why is it that I feel like I can’t do this when I am away from the harps? And yet the moment I work my confidence up to sitting down with one, and touching the strings, I feel like I can conquer the world… How do I find the way to move more easily from the former to the latter, without getting too much enveloped in my fears and low esteem?

Hopefully the answers will come in time… For now, it’s practice, practice, practice…

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I’ve not posted for a while because I had an unfortunate and somewhat emergency trip to the hospital about a month ago, with crippling back pain. Now, I have never had any chronic issues with my back and, while intimately familiar with pain (I do have some chronic illness conditions), this pain was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It resulted in three days as a guest of the NHS, and a varying cocktail of drugs whilst there.

The upshot is, they don’t know what’s wrong with my back — at first they suspected kidneys, but now it’s looking more and more like it’s a spinal problem. That means a multitude of tests, more drug cocktails to keep me functioning in the meanwhile, and bed rest. Which means — yup, you guessed it — very, very little harp practice. In fact, none at all. And while I did manage one music theory lesson, the next one had to be postponed as I was just sick with pain to move. Lauren and Denise are exceedingly supportive, sympathetic and understanding, and I feel very blessed to have such wonderful teachers.

All this is, of course, “very bad, not good” (to steal a phrase from a favourite television show). It not only means I am behind on learning, but also that my old friends Fear and Low Self Confidence can step in for a party. It all makes me very despondent at times, but I have hopes that things will change for the better, and hopefully soon…

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Harps That Aren’t Harps

by Heather on June 8, 2012

Filed in: Backstory, Humour

I just recalled something funny that happened to me last year, and I thought I’d share it here as the memory made me giggle all over again.

Music booksOne breezy summer day in 2011, I decided I’d go into Manchester and check out some of the music shops there, to see if they had any harp music. It also meant I could meet my husband for lunch and, if I hung around in the city centre for long enough, we could travel home together once he’d finished at work. And so, off I went.

The first music store I came to had nothing to do with harps. The second, however, reaped some joy — upon my question, “Do you have anything connected with harps please?” the sales assistant gladly told me there were some to the rear of the store and showed me the way. With something of a flourish, he presented me with a display cabinet that contained a series of small, palm-sized instruments. “Harps!” he told me.

Well, these were harps that weren’t harps — as in, they were harps, but not the harps I was looking for. These were blues harmonicas, colloquially known as “harps”. Easy mistake to make, I guess — but I don’t think a thirty-something redhead in floaty skirt and strappy summer top is typical of a blues musician…

When I explained that this wasn’t quite what I had in mind, the assistant looked confused. I explained, “Harps. Big things. Lots of strings. Or, music for them.” At which point a little light bulb must have clicked on somewhere, for I was told, “Not in here, luv.” And so I thanked him, and headed for music shop number three.

When I stepped inside this store, I headed straight to the sheet music section, intent on figuring this out myself this time. But after several minutes of hunting I couldn’t find a harp section — and so, I asked one of the sales assistants as to where I could find it.

“Lever or pedal?” he asked, without hesitating.

I was so shocked I blurted, “Oh my Gods, you know what they are!” and promptly went the same shade as my hair. He took it in good humour though, and lead me to the shelves where I could find the sheet music I was after. He also provided me with a copy of the latest ABRSM syllabus for harp, and showed me where I could also find the specimen aural test guides and the music theory books. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a happy haze, enjoying browsing and selecting some books to take home with me.

Victory at last — but at least the events of the afternoon made me smile!

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Danses sacrée et profane

by Heather on June 4, 2012

Filed in: Inspiration, Videos

This is one of my current favourite YouTube videos that feature the harp — Yale graduate Kristan Toczko’s rendition of Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane.


This is a wonderfully relaxing and inspiring video, one which I can watch transfixed over and over — or just chill out and listen to, eyes closed, whenever I need a break at work. I hope you all enjoy it too! :)

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