In my last blog, I wrote about the making of a Christmas Grotto.
Deborah Henson-Conant and I spent Christmas Eve playing carols in said Grotto, and this video was the result. Why, it’s a calypso version of Joy to the World, of course!
Although this was one of our less polished attempts, it was our favourite version, because it goes some way towards encapsulating the fun we had, playing the night away. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Just having fun?
*Gets struck by a lightning-bolt from a God/Zeus/Santa Hybrid*
Oh. I stand corrected.
Nonetheless, we did have fun, and, if that wasn’t enough, there are also certain angles in the video where Deborah’s Santa hat looks exactly like a Mozart-Style wig. Once we realised this, it couldn’t be unseen, and it brings me more mirth (as opposed to myrrh) than I know what to do with.
Merry Christmas One and All!
*Gets struck by a calendar, hurled down from the heavens, by the Spirit of New Year (embodied here as the guy who runs my gym)*
*if you’re wondering ‘does Katya hate herself for writing ‘Harpy Holidays?’, then the answer is YES, desperately so, but what can I say? I’m a slave to the beat and a glutton for punishment. Boom Boom.
Now back to business.
This year was my first Christmas away from home.
I was spending the holidays with my harp teacher Deborah Henson-Conant, a self-confessed Noel-Nonchalant, and her family were going away, so it would be just the two of us. Not doing Christmas. You may think this statement seems at odds with the picture above, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I’ll come to that shortly.
In the run up to Chrimbus herself, friends and family became increasingly concerned.
‘But Katya!’ they cried (collectively) ‘Won’t you be lonely and sad, without family or turkey to warm the cockles of your stocking, and bereft of British Christmas telly?’
I think they all pictured my wizened, grinch-like form, nose pressed against the windows of nearby family homes, with eggnog-laced tears (or perhaps even just nog) freezing on my face as they fell.
(This is how I imagine Rudolph before his great redemption scene - pre-that fateful ‘foggy Christmas Eve’ but post-never being allowed to join in any reindeer games.)
Thankfully, it was not so.
What happened instead, was that Christmas itself was blissfully unfestive. I woke up late, and Deborah made us waffles and fancy coffee, different enough from my usual breakfast regimen (Trader Joe’s Multigrain Os - you gotta love those Os - with a milky tea) to feel like a special Christmas treat. For Lunch and Dinner, however, we feasted on Bran Flakes. Well, Raisin Bran Flakes. I do have standards after all. And we spent the day working, walking, thinking and talking. The least Christmassy Christmas ever, but pretty excellent nonetheless.
On Christmas Eve, however, we embraced the holiday wholeheartedly, and on our own terms.
At around 9.30pm, Deborah announced that she wanted to make a Christmas Grotto, and spend the rest of the evening playing carols. I was surprised to say the least - this was a turnaround of Dickensian proportions.
So, like the industrious little elves that we are, we set to work.
I strapped on my headlamp (sure, I have a headlamp, and what of it?) and went forraging in the basement for decorations. Mining for JOY.
When I returned, triumphantly wielding a box of twinkly lights and baubles, we peered around, and realised that our Grotto-Making ambitions would need to be somewhat reined in (ho ho ho) due to the noticeable absence of a tree.
But this didn’t hold us back for long.
‘What could be more tree-like than a harp?!’
‘Almost nothing, Deborah.’ I replied, Igor to her Festive Dr. Frankenstein.
Behold, the first stage of Operation Grottify (oh, that sounds less jolly than I thought it would. But I will not be discouraged!):
In the background here, you can see a little scene that if you squint a bit, could almost pass for a nativity.
In fact, it is a tiny orchestra made up of chess pieces, cardboard bits, and plastic animals. Deborah made it when she was planning a show with a symphony orchestra and wanted to be able to choreograph the show, in miniature (The show was called Invention and Alchemy - and went on to be nominated for a Grammy, which makes this funny little diorama all the more wonderful). The woodwind are turkeys (this is almost getting too appropriate), the brass are plastic pigs, the strings are an array of chess pieces, the harp, a giraffe the conductor is an Elephant. Deborah herself, as the orchestral soloist at the front, is a Stegosaurus. Standard.
Behold, a manger orchestra!
I defy you not to love this little guy:
If this doesn’t say ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus!’ I don’t know WHAT does.
For those of you thinking ‘When the #*$% is Katya going to write a blog about her new practice techniques?!’ – you can now relax.
I am working with some new practice methods, and I’m going to tell you all about them! [the crowd goes wild]
Credit where credit’s due, these are not my inventions, but have been given to me as practice gifts by my teacher, and harp-goddess Deborah Henson-Conant.
URGENT DISCLAIMER: my computer keeps auto-correcting my use of practice/practise. If any incorrect usage occurs hereafter, you can assume that it is my dick-computer-dictionary making grievous grammatical errors, to try and make me look like an IDIOT.
WARNING (who knew there’d be so much pressing admin to get out of the way before nestling down for a good practice blog?!): This blog contains slightly more niche material than the universally appealing issues of adult cycling and skunk problems addressed previously.
and by ‘niche’ I mean this-is-really-my-life-don’t-judge-me—but-actually-I-don’t-mind-if-you-do-because-I-LOVE-my-new-practice-methods
but really, do get stuck in if you want the SERIOUS inside scoop on practice scheduling. Don’t pretend you’re not brain-freezingly curious.
Wow, I think I just wrote brain-freezingly because I’m drinking a delicious icy coffee as I write this. No need to thank me for keeping you in the loop.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll offer up my new systems in delicious mini-blog instalments. (Hahaha ‘mini-blog’ makes me think of those delicious little chocolate swiss-roll things. I think it’s the ‘mini’ and ‘log’ elements… Mm, I could really go for one of those right now. What was I saying? Oh right, BREVITY!)
Method #1 THE TEN COIN SYSTEM
(I know. Try to stay calm.)
Sooo the system is relatively self-explanatory. But that would be a very short and boring blog if I left it there, so I’ll power on and walk you through it.
- Put 10 coins on a chair (or, say, a table) in your practice area. In my case, that means a tall stool, within easy reaching distance from my harp.
- Easy reachability is crucial, and I’ll come back to the experiments that led me to this conclusion.
- Do a bite size section of the thing that you’re working on.
If it goes wrong, weep uncontrollably.
- If it goes wrong, try again. S L O W E R. And perhaps take a smaller chunk.
- If it goes well, sliiiiide 1 coin away from its minted friends.
- Repeat until all 10 coins have done the victory slide.
- For the hardcore (i.e. Me. … Sometimes) if the thing you’re working on goes wrong, even as far along in the game as coin #7, #8 (or even #9!!) slide em all back and start over. Frustrating though this can be, I find it helps me to be more careful, and to take things at the pace where I can really do my best. At the moment, I’m braving all kinds of co-ordination challenges (and those of you who know me well may remember that co-ordination is not my dearest friend) like rhythmic comping in Bossa/Swing/Bebop styles in one hand, with melodic improv in the other, singing and playing, speaking and playing (even harder! why??) and other such delights. I’m finding these supposedly straight forward things fist-shakingly difficult (I might even stomp on my bicycle helmet just for good measure) so it makes a world of difference to go gingerly & break things down to a manageable size rather than trying to jump ahead and impress myself. Seriously, that’s a thing.
- A confession: I use a mixed selection of English and American coins, and I slide them along in order of size, largest to smallest. I know this is ridiculous, but at the beginning, when I need some extra motivational oomph, sliding a big coin (50p coins go first, then 2ps, and so forth) makes my progress seem all the more satisfying. THEN by the time I’m starting to flag, I’ve reached the little coins – this makes me feel like ‘Pah! I only have those TINY coins left! They wouldn’t even look that comical being rolled along by a Borrower! This can’t be so hard!’
- I’m just saying that’s what works for me.
- Oh, and the things I experimented with in terms of coins locations were as follows:
- Near = very good
- Far away, so that I have to do some kind of physical exercise in between each go, either something to amuse myself like a hop, or something beneficial, like a stretch, star jump or a tiny little jog = Less good. It tickled me at first, but it makes everything that much more laborious. And in terms of motivation and effective time-management, labour intensity is NOT the name of the game (it is The Ten Coin System – in case you have suffered a boredom induced stroke and lost track of what we’re talking about. And apparently it is a Motivation and Effective Time-Management Game. The best kind. Except for Guess Who. I fucking love that game.)
And there you have it! This may seem like a paltry choice for a topic (not worth writing home about, LET ALONE blogging about) but I really have found it to be a very interesting and beneficial process.
An invaluable piece of advice that Deborah has given me:
Make your practice program as mindless as possible (this applies to technical work, as opposed to musical decisions, before you all go nuts and burn her at the stake for practice heresy) so you can just GET ON WITH WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO without ANYTHING getting in the way. If you’re not constantly having to make decisions about what to do next, how many times to do it & so on, you alleviate a huge amount of mental pressure, and efficient ways of learning can become automatic and easy.
- More AMAZING practice plans, including my adventures with a really old metronome which I now love like a brother.
- Tales from my first show with Deborah: a national whistling champion, an acoustic rock orchestra and a man juggling lawn chairs were involved.
- And much, MUCH more!
p.s. If I seem extra enthusiastic today, it might be because I went to the cinema last night and got way overexcited by American movie trailers that make everything look SO INCREDIBLE. Also, it’s just my natural zest for life.