Katya Herman was one of the first harpists in my “Harness Your Muse” program – before the program had a name, back when it was more like a 1-on-1 artistic apprenticeship. Katya simply flew to Boston and lived in a room off my studio for 6 months, and I taught her everything I could, and roped her into my wild schemes.
Katya now has a wonderful weekly email called “The Katch-Up” and when I discovered that this week’s story was about me, I decided it would be an excellent guest-post. Enjoy it below and subscribe to Katya’s weekly emails with stories and artist interviews HERE.
“One of the best things about having a harp named after you,” Deborah told me, as we popped our way through about eight layers of bubble-wrap, in a box the size of a small gazebo, “is that you get free stuff.”
I don’t doubt it. To me, free stuff tends to mean a complementary lollipop, a promotional biro, or a pudding at Nando’s that time I found plastic in my custard tart (what a day!) but Deborah’s ‘free stuff’ was a harp, shipped over from France.
The harp was a DHC Light, in a very handsome bronze finish. DHC is short for Deborah Henson-Conant – you might have read her interview last week in the Katch-up (If not, you can read it when you SUBSCRIBE TO THE KATCH-UP.)
She’s the world’s leading electric harpist, and when I was 22, I moved to Boston to study with her for a six month residency. I lived in the little bedroom between her assistant’s office and The Burnt Food Museum in her kitchen. I’ll have to tell you more about that another time, but the very very short version is that it’s a museum dedicated to the the joyful re-branding of failure, and I once appeared on the news in a feature about America’s strangest museums, playing the harp in a fireman’s hat.
(Yes, that’s a flame-print bustier. Neither item was the model’s own, more’s the pity.)
Deborah was getting ready to play at the Regent Theatre’s 95th birthday celebration, and the arrival of this unexpected package gave her an idea. ‘Let’s play a blues duet!’ she said, hoisting her harp around her waist and gesturing for me to do the same with the sparkling new harp. ‘We can do it in the concert tomorrow – it’ll be so fun!’
At this point I’d been learning how to play the blues for the best part of two days. So getting up on stage to play a duet with one of the best harpists in the world, in a style with which I felt barely competent, on a harp that swayed when I moved, and swung away when I moved my hands towards it. I’m not sure if fun was exactly the word I was looking for, though the first bit sounded about right.Let's do a Blues duet! We can do it in the concert tomorrow - it'll be so fun! Click To Tweet
Deborah is a big believer in learning by doing, and I think that’s how she gets so much done, this fearlessness. Or rather, her way of harnessing uncertainty into output. For her, the scarier the idea, the more it must be worth exploring. It’s an extraordinary thing to witness, but having been a disciple of the ‘learn by watching carefully and not interrupting’ school, I found it a daunting concept at first, to put it mildly. To put it less mildly, I was fucking terrified.
So that night, which bled into the next day (along with my blistered fingers), I did a lot of doing.
Four hours in, and I was an electric harp pro! By which I mean, I had just about figured out how to get the harness on and off. The harness – one of Deborah’s own creations – is made out of a collection of luggage straps stitched together, with a Flik Flak watch strap at the top.
Putting it on goes a little something like this: kneel down, clip it on the side, HOIK harp over the shoulder, so it’s pointing out like an arrow, stand up, careful, caaareful, clip it on the bottom – clippedy-clip – now do the buckle up at the top, making sure the velcro on the side is still holding — and tadaa! You are wearing that harp! (You can’t tell, but I just had to mime putting on an air harp to write out those instructions. Worth it?)
This homemade contraption is still the harness I use, and the only downside is the way it sits around my waist, because the weight of the harp then squidges my hip fat (who knew that was a thing?) in some very unexpected directions.
Anyway, ignoring my hip fat for the time being (the working title of my memoirs) once I’d mastered getting the thing on, there was the small matter of moving around. On the day of the show, I had a chilling realisation. Deborah would be doing a couple of solo numbers, then I would join her onstage for our duet. This would mean my entrance would have to be speedy, sprightly and IN FRONT OF PEOPLE.
This isn’t something I’d ever had to worry about before. Although with hindsight perhaps it should have been – in my former life as a viola player, I once walked onstage, calm and poised, with all the confidence of a person who’s yet to realise that they’d forgotten their bow. I still kind of can’t believe that happened. I got right up to the edge of the stage, but I think I must’ve repressed the actual moment when I looked down at my surprisingly empty right hand, because my next memory, one that makes me cringe to this day, is of me running backstage to find it, and on my return, holding the bow aloft (yes, as much as aloft) like I’d just pulled bloody Excalibur out of the stone.
I didn’t think it would be possible to beat that entrance. Unfortunately, it’s harder than you might imagine to shimmy onstage with the effortless grace of a musical gazelle when you have a harp strapped between your legs. Deborah makes it look utterly effortless – she can stride, she can dance, she could probably join a conga line if the mood so took her. But she generously reminded me that it has taken years of practice, as I was very much at the waddling stage.It's harder than you might imagine to shimmy onstage with a harp strapped between your legs. Click To Tweet
So much of music is making the things we spend hours, days and years working at, seem effortless. But I didn’t have years! I had approximately three hours. So, what can you do? I decided that if I took big enough steps (not figuratively – we’re talking lunges) I might just be able to make my Boston debut without looking like a I was walking with a balloon wedged between my thighs. And isn’t that all one can ever ask of a debut?
Well, it turns out I couldn’t even ask that much, because at the end, as I began to lunge offstage, I soon discovered that I’d neglected to unplug my harp, and I just came hurtling back. I managed to lasso myself with my own cable, and then had to lunge away, with both harp and tail very much between my legs.
I don’t think the concert was recorded, so sadly my dignified exit wasn’t preserved for posterity, or for the blooper reel of my life, but at least I have this picture as a keepsake:
In the top photo I appear to be buckling under the weight of the harp somewhat – either that, or the stage was very windy – but then in the second one I’ve readjusted, and we’re having a great time. And we were! Playing with Deborah was a total dream for me, and the actual music (that small detail of performing) now seemed a piece of cake in comparison to this whole waddle-lasso-lunge situation I’d somehow gotten myself into, so while we were playing, I was having an absolute ball.
That picture is a good memento for all sorts of reasons. I think my favourite thing about it is that when I look at it now, it’s hard to believe how nervous I’d been beforehand, but that’s totally what comes flooding back. And in a good way! I’m surprisingly happy to remember my sore fingers and shaky hands, my heart-thumping uncertainty and yes, even the fact that I accidentally lassoed myself onstage. Those are all useful memories to me, because then if I’m ever feeling particularly despondent or anxious about an upcoming whatever-it-might-be, and I truly can’t imagine that feeling ever dissipating, let alone giving way to giddy excitement, laughter or joy, I can simply remind myself that I know better. Or that at least it could be worse.
Editor’s note: After that first show, I roped Katya into several others including this “Lose Your Blues” show just a month or two later where I think it’s obvious Katya found her harp-legs. Not only did we vaudeville our way through numbers about dogs, cars and … I believe a version of Hendrix “Purple Haze” with Tuba … but Katya even graced the audience with her virtuosic whistling (note the photo with Katya in the pink boa below)
Thanks for this wonderful story, Katya!