Deborah Henson-Conant

Telling stories with music at HipHarp.com

Harpist-and-writer Katya Herman recently sent me a list of interview questions to answer for her weekly interview feature – and here are my answers.

What’s your job title/profession?

I build things out of music, words and ideas.  I write stories with music, mostly I perform them on stage solo and with orchestra – singing, storytelling and playing my electric harp, and I coach other performers in how to improvise and create original shows.  But more and more now, other people are performing my work, and I love that. Officially: Composer/Performer/Coach/Innovator.

What would you love for people to know about your work?

That being on stage as a solo artist feels like the safest place in the world — because no one can say you’re taking up too much space, or being a show-off, or being too loud.  Whoever you are when you’re on stage alone, is its own definition, and not subject to comparison.   And that it opens up an incredibly rich level of intimacy and honesty. That I love exploring all the different ways you can tell stories with music – onstage and off. That I have a huge catalog of work –  from stories to symphonic works – that I could spend the rest of my life simply preparing it for publication, and I SO wish I had the time to do that. That the instrument I play is named after me, the “DHC” harp (and I’m incredibly proud of that!)  That I’ve spent the last 3 years creating an international online school to teach harp players the art of improvisation called “Hip Harp Academy” …

Oh right! Very important! That I have a show this weekend in the Boston Area that’ll be Livestreamed worldwide and you can link to both at HipHarp.com –

I almost never perform locally – like, somewhere I could actually DRIVE to, so this is very exciting.

>> Buy Tix to the LIVE Boston-Area Show Here << 

>> Livestream Worldwide – Get on the Artist’s First-Call List for Livestream Tix & Goodies <<

What do you wish people would stop asking about your work?

“How did you start the harp?” “What made you choose the harp?” “Are you still performing?”

What made you/helped you to choose what you do?  

(See “What 3 Recordings Should I Listen To this Week” question at the bottom.)   But also …

Years ago I watched my mother and aunt, both incredibly talented performers, frustrated after unsuccessful auditions.  I looked at that and thought: “I will NEVER put myself in the position of having to audition to do what I do.  NOBODY is ever going to tell me whether or not I can create and express my art.” That steeled my resolve to make my own path and maintain independence as an artist, to create my own work, and my own business and even produce my own shows if I need to.

What’s your perfect breakfast/lunch for a workday? (What do you actually have for breakfast/lunch?)

BREAKFAST: Bananas grapes granola usually. But sometimes 17 waffles with jam.

LUNCH:  Burrito, borscht or salad. Except on Wednesdays: turkey sandwich.

What’s your perfect time to wake up / go to bed? (When do you actually wake up / go to bed?)

  1. I love going to bed.
  2. I wish I went to bed at 10:30 and woke up at 4 AM
  3. I actually go to bed at all different times and get up at different times even though I know this is not helpful

What’s your alarm sound?

Old phone.  But I don’t like the sound, so I wake before it goes off so I don’t have to hear it.

Do you have a set morning routine?

Yes, a series of writing exercises, beet-juice cocktail, meditating and practicing.  Oh, right – and making my bed. And I admit that when I practice I watch TED talks. Only sometimes they’re Netflix.

Do you have a dedicated/preferred space for practicing? If so, what does it look like?

I have two adjacent attic studio rooms: a cramped one full of binders, equipment, harp and papers, with a beautiful view.  And a big spacious one with shelves, a standing desk, harp, with a skylight.  I mostly hang out in the cramped one.

What are your work hours like? Do you ever try to create a routine for yourself or is that impossible given the nature of your work?

I’m always trying to create more routine.  It doesn’t always work, but there are a few things I nearly almost do – and one is to go out for a run in the afternoon, usually at the point my brain’s reached saturation point.  I talk to myself when I run. Outloud. And record it.

Preferred tools of the trade? Essential work items?

My #1 tool:  a piece of paper and pen, which becomes a map of whatever I’m trying to do. Also earplugs, timer, computer, music keyboard, water with a fat straw, highlighters (blue and yellow), mini-postit notes, red uniball pens, heater for my feet, harp, piano.  Online I feel like a technical polyglot because of all the different apps and programs I have to use at a professional level, from graphics to video to music.

What are your must-have items when you’re on the road? What are the first 5-10 things that go in your bag?

Notebook & pen, a silk fan, reusable poncho, Book, Money, Passport, Earplugs, Kleenex, Postit Notes, Trading Cards (like business cards), Wrist thingies for flying that supposedly help with air-sickness, My ‘packs’ – bedroom pack, bathroom pack, stationery pack, etc. And a birthday card with a CD of my birthday song ‘Congratulations, You Made it This Far’ inside so when I run into someone having a birthday I can give them a card.

Do you ever work with fixed goals in mind or take it day by day depending on what comes up?

I love working with fixed goals and often feel fragmented by obligations that get in the way of those goals.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between what I DO, what I THINK and what I FEEL and trying to separate them out so they don’t undermine each other.  But I’m almost always on deadline for some project I’ve committed to.  That acts as a goal, but my real goal is to actually focus on DOING what I’m DOING.

What inspires you? (Name 1-3 things if that makes this massive question easier!)

  1. Stories – and how I can express them with music.
  2. The interplay between individual creative expression and creative collaboration.
  3. Breaking things down, taking them apart. Right now I’m creating a program called “Strings of Passion,” based on the 7 principles of creative expression. I first created it as a musical talk – like a TED talk with harp – and now I’m expanding it into a 10-Week program that explores each of the principles.  The more deeply I think about the principles, and the more I explore them, the more they inspire me.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

That it challenges me on so many different levels.  Because I’m an independent artist, and I’m running a business built on my work as an artist, even my business challenges can be relevant artistically, depending on how I approach them — and meeting them helps me enrich my relationship with my creative work.

Least favourite?

What it feels like when I get stuck.

What do you do to get through days when you just don’t feel like it?

Run.  Call my friends and family and ask for help.

Do you have a go-to treat to get you out of a slump?

Frozen Fudge Bar but it doesn’t help.  I pretty much have to go all the way in to the slump in order to come out of it.

Go-to work snack/sustenance?

Watered-up juice.  In a big jar with a big straw.

What’s your favourite part of the day?

I love going to bed.

Least favourite?

Any part when I get stuck inside my own head.

How you define a good/successful day?

When I was able to follow my routine, stay FOCUSED, get out for a long run, and actually stay focused on DOING what I’m DOING.

What’s been your favourite failure? One that you learnt a lot from, or one that you can look back and say ‘well I got through THAT, I’m unstoppable!’

I loved failing spectacularly on “America’s Got Talent.” I felt so liberated, so exhilliarated, so clear about who I am and who I am not. I was writing a musical at that time about the ultimate reality game show (to get into the Heavenly Choir) and I desperately wanted to experience it first-hand.  I couldn’t have gotten that experience any other way – and not just my own experience, but seeing everything that happened backstage – all the other contestants. That was one of the richest, most valuable experiences of my creative life, and losing was one of the most powerful affirmations of myself as an artist I’ve ever experienced.

Any hot tips for the old work-life-balance conundrum?

Use training wheels. If you can figure out what they are for whatever it is you’re doing.  I describe to the artists in my Academy as: ‘create conducive conditions’ – meaning, change the conditions instead of trying to contend with them.

Do you have any hobbies/passions outside of work?

Running, drawing, dancing in the kitchen.  And of course, writing musicals.  But that’s my greatest passion and in many ways it’s at the center of all my work. It’s hard to know what is ‘outside of work’ since everything I do seems to eventually make it into my work.

If so, how do you make time for them? Where do they fit into your day/week?

Ha!  I use the time when I’m on hold for drawing.  In fact, I created a drawing series CALLED “While I was Waiting,” that is specifically about drawings I create when I’m waiting for my computer to reboot, or the tech support folks to answer, etc.  I’ve been doing this since about 2008 – you can see the dates on some of them. I often date things with year-month-day, by the way. Because it creates a true numerical equiv… wait — you don’t really want to know that part, right?

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to do what you do?

I’m not clear exactly what I DO, but let’s say that I’m a creative entrepreneur who builds things out of music and words, and I would say: get help. Sometimes I think that the only way and the only reason I can do anything is because I know how to ask for help.

What’s the best piece of advice someone’s ever given you? (Or worst!)

Karen Montanaro always has great advice for me.  My favorite is a quote from Jerzy Grotowski: “Don’t do more, hide less.”  Recently she told me “Work like a plumber” meaning: just do the work and stop trying to make every part of it creative.

What’s your top tip for getting shit done?

Use a timer. Drink water. Ask for help. Ask someone to do it with you.

What 3 recordings should I listen to this week?

  1. Ken Nordine “Word Jazz” “What Time is It?” – this was probably the most influential recording of my childhood – listen for the part with the timpani – what he said changed my brain and what I heard made me fall totally in love with the timpani!  This album, along with a mother who told stories of the great operas and then sang the arias with a Music-Minus-One recording — these two things probably shaped what I do today as much as  anything else in my early life. If the video below won’t play, try this link, which goes to a different site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVYpCdY4Y_0

Maurice Ravel “Valse Noblis et Sentimental” – listen to the piano version and the orchestral version both

My piece “Congratulations, You Made it This Far” – I wrote it to get me out of a slump and it still works: