I suspect that most musicians, at some point or another, have been asked to sing in a lesson. The point being, that we should sometimes put aside the technical nuts and bolts of playing our instruments, and focus more on the music itself.

For whatever reason, I always found singing in front of my teacher to be an incredibly embarrassing experience, and even though I understood the idea on an intellectual level, I don’t know that I ever really understood the point of this, and certainly never embraced this exercise to the point that I would do it on my own in the practice room.

But this month’s chat opened my eyes a bit, and helped me see this from a slightly different angle – one that involves breathing.

There were of course a number of other things that came up in the course of our chat, but if you’ve ever had questions about why exactly singing is so important, or struggled to coordinate your breathing with your playing, I hope this month’s conversation will provide you with some more clarity in these areas, and provide some additional insights on how to approach learning new repertoire a little differently too.

Meet Lynne Aspnes

Harpist Lynne Aspnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as performer, teacher, and administrator. In addition to many solo appearances and recordings for various labels, Lynne is professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, where she taught for over 20 years, and also served as Associate Dean, Chair of the String Department, and Director of the Center for Career Development. Lynne subsequently joined the faculty at Arizona State University for several years, where she also held the role of Associate Dean. She is currently serving as President of the American Harp Society.

In this month’s episode, we’ll explore:

  • Why a harpist’s hand and arm movements are important not just from a technical perspective, but in terms of phrasing and communicating musical intention as well. (2:25)
  • The importance of breathing while playing – and how to make breathing a natural, organic, automatic part of your playing, instead of something you have to consciously think about. (8:21)
  • How singing influences Lynne’s approach to harp playing – both in practice, and in performance. (10:10)
  • Why it’s so important to have a sound (or image) in mind first, about what it is you are trying to say or communicate, rather than “ticking off” all the technical tasks, and then trying to add the music in later. (14:16)
  • Where Lynne’s harp influences came from – and an argument for why it might be particularly important for harpists to “cross-train” or develop a sense of “musical context” through non-harp repertoire. (25:29)
  • Lynne also shares a thing that her dad did when she was learning new repertoire that drove her “a little crazy” at the time, but which ultimately turned out to be a really helpful exercise. (28:48)
  • Lynne’s thoughts on the pros and cons of early specialization vs. later specialization. (32:17)
  • Lynne’s perfectionism and fierce independence from the time she was a child. And how that led to a type of procrastination earlier in her career. As well as a spectacularly public failure, that not only changed how she prepared, but how she worked with students. (37:12)
  • Where Lynne’s teaching influences and inspiration have come from. (48:38)
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Noa:
I wanted to start to start by asking you about this “beautiful hands” phrase that I often hear you use in regards to different harpists. I don’t know if it’s always the case, but it often seems to be like the first thing that comes up, it’s like, oh, beautiful hands. And then you go on to talk about other things. But it sort of reminds me of how people talk in golf or tennis or in basketball sometimes about a beautiful looking stroke, and so forth. Obviously, there’s more to it than the aesthetics I’m assuming, but I wonder if you could just say a little bit about what that is and what that means and why it’s important.

Lynne:
I think the first thing is if you’ve heard me say that and for example and maybe it’s with a student that I haven’t worked with before, or someone who I’ve just watched play, in a sense, I’m doing what I can to put them at ease. If they are moving around the harp fluidly, I’ll say that because they kind of relax and go, “Okay, technically I’m going to be all right.” And then instead of having to focus in their minds on did I put my fingers in exactly the right places, we can come at that from another angle.

Lynne:
But I thought about this and I thought about it a lot and I think the interesting thing for the harp is like the piano and the organ, you have to remain so static when you play. This instrument is leaning on your body and it’s big. It’s heavy. And so, you don’t have necessarily the same kind of ability to move with the phrase. And for me, way beyond the technical completion that is shown by a hand that moves fluidly, it’s about the only place where the harpist can demonstrate aesthetically what’s in their mind.

Lynne:
So, to me a hand that finishes a phrase by coming away from the harp slowly or quickly sustains that note in the way that you would normally see someone perhaps with a bow or with their instrument to raise the instrument up to give this sense of length. And I think when harpists do that and when the motions are integrated into their technique, it’s really beautiful. And it means it’s happening organically from their internal phrasing.

Lynne:
I think we see a lot of musicians sometimes who simply move because somebody … They read in a book somewhere that they need to move when they play, but the movement isn’t directly related to what’s in their head musically. So, yeah, it’s really fascinating to me when I see a harpist whose hands express what they are feeling the music is saying.

Noa:
You mentioned the ending and this is how harpist is great, but it’s not just the plucking of the strings, but it’s also the follow-through that sounds like it’s also really important not just to communicate visually the musical ideas they have but is there also kind of a technical function that’s important about how you follow through with the strokes?

Lynne:
I do think there is because it’s how you set up the follow-through that makes the sound. So, in harp playing, the articulation is going to dictate your follow-through. So, if you see a musician, we can take a harpist. So, if you go in for a note because you’re in contact with the strings for so little of the time that you’re creating the note, how you come in, how you articulate and how you leave actually affects the sound. Because you’re either going to come in and really lightly just tap the string and come off, just going to be a very dry, very short, very articulate sound.

Lynne:
But if you go in and you press and you stay there and then you have a long follow-through, what you’ve done is you’ve created a more sustained sound through the playing. And I do think that it’s completely related to dancing and to breathing. It’s how we breathe. We prepare. We execute and then we follow-through. And you can tell in young kids who are playing that they don’t do it. They just put their hands on and they go, and they haven’t really thought about what they want to have that sound like.

Noa:
I was listening to an occupational therapist talk yesterday actually and she was talking about how from an injury prevention perspective as well I think it had something to do with rebound, right?

Lynne:
Yeah.

Noa:
So, like at the end of the particular stroke, you don’t want to be holding tension, but you actually want to be releasing tension through the end of whatever movement you’re making. It sounds like that might relate as well to this idea of both…

Lynne:
Absolutely. And at the harp, we call it a gesture or a completion or something. And people have different approaches to how they create that gesture going in and then the execution and how it follows through. For me, gesture is the umbrella term, but there are so many nuances to how you do it. And it relates back to this idea of having a sound in mind before you play.

Lynne:
Because it’s true that if you just abruptly change what you’re doing, whatever it is, you’re putting stress on your muscles. If you prepare for what that muscle is going to do, you have a much better chance of a supple kind of follow-through and longevity, a sustainable technique and in this case, it translates to really terrific musicianship I think.

Noa:
This person was also talking about the benefits of videotaping, but without sound…

Lynne:
Yes.

Noa:
So, you videotape to look at what you’re doing and not so much confuse yourself by hearing the sound, because sometimes they can sound great, but not look great, and I don’t mean aesthetically again. Is that something that’s maybe particularly useful for harpist or maybe it’s useful for musicians across the board and we just don’t do it very much.

Lynne:
Yeah. I think we don’t do it. I’ve never thought of that. It’s a great idea. For myself, to play something and not hear it, we almost always, don’t we record a practice session and then start listening and immediately forget about anything but the negative things we’re hearing. Yeah. And to do it without the sound, that would be great.

Noa:
There are a couple things actually that came up that I wanted to follow up on before I totally forget about them.

Lynne:
Oh yeah, sure.

Noa:
When we’re talking about hands. One had to do with breathing. The other one had to do with the sound in mind first and maybe we’ll get to that in a second. But with breathing, I think we think about breathing in the context of giving a cue like in an ensemble or a chamber situation. But at least personally, I would totally fumble everything if I actively started thinking about breathing and I just couldn’t figure out how to breathe and when to breathe and it what to do and kind of throw everything off.

Noa:
But when you talked about breathing a second ago, it sounded like it ought to be a very organic thing that’s tied into phrasing and to singing and to playing. How do you work on it? How do you make it so that it’s not something that then suddenly makes you start thinking about breathing and you can’t remember how to do it and when to do it?

Lynne:
Well, first of all, I’m sure you wouldn’t fumble anything. Secondly, I do think about that. And I think of it from the standpoint for my instrument of the fact that I don’t have any way to sustain sound other than in my head. And so, if I’m not singing it, if I’m not singing that phrase and actively shaping the phrase by taking a breath or on a fermata not taking a breath, maybe holding it and continuing without breathing, I’m not going to make phrases, I’m going to make bar lines. I’m just going to continually make bar lines.

Lynne:
So, from that standpoint, I’m breathing through phrases while I’m playing. Whereas, I think I don’t know, would a string player be able to … Their breathing could be in a different rate than their bow rate and they would still be phrasing because the bow is taking care of it.

Noa:
Yeah.

Lynne:
Is that possible?

Noa:
Yeah, certainly.

Lynne:
But a singer couldn’t.

Noa:
Right.

Lynne:
A singer has to be breathing for that phrase. Who was it who just recently passed away? Oh, a tenor, I think it was a tenor, 24, no, was it 24 seconds they went on a phrase, 24 or 34 seconds and they played the recording clip of this. It was an elderly singer, so a generation or two ago, but you listen to it and you try holding your breath for that long. And that’s a long time. And here this person just used it to spin out this phrase. It was just amazing. And for me, at the harp, it’s the only way I think I can do it.

Lynne:
The other thing is that I’m singing things away from the instrument all time. So, by the time I sit down to play them, in any context, I’m already breathing where I think my phrases are. People can disagree but they may put the phrase somewhere else, but that’s kind of, you can hum, you hum around the house.

Noa:
That’s interesting. I was never a very vocal person. The teachers always told me to sing in lessons and I was embarrassed and I would just go through the motions of doing it. Even though I actually took voice lessons as a kid. My aspiration was to be able to sing the chipmunks Christmas song. That’s all I wanted to be able to do. So, that wasn’t particularly helpful, but it’s interesting. It’s interesting because it makes me think that, so if you’re humming around the house, if you’re thinking vocally, I wonder if it means that you’re actually thinking of phrases in vocally meaningful chunks.

Lynne:
I do.

Noa:
And then if it means that not just as it affect phrasing, but maybe it means that your own breathing is replaying maybe naturally just kind of goes with it.

Lynne:
Yeah. I think it’s been a long time since I felt that I wasn’t naturally breathing in the phrases that I wanted to play in my practicing. So, yes, I would say that that’s true. And I think that influence is just humming what you want to do, I’m not a trained singer in that sense. I did a lot of singing as a young person and all the way through school and things, but it’s just having in my mind that I’m making long vocal lines and that’s kind of where it comes from for me. I should learn the chipmunk song.

Noa:
Well, it’s interesting like I’m just trying to sing the opening of the Tchaikovsky concerto in my head now to see how it would change if I actually had to sing that instead of thinking just sort of technically on the realm of how I would play it. And I think it would be different. This is maybe what like all my teachers were saying to me all those years and what they meant and I’m just now getting it.

Noa:
So, you’ve kind of set it up so that you’ve been doing the humming and singing as practicing and thinking about it in those terms. When you’re actually been playing it or performing it, are you then also singing in your head as you go or are you thinking something different as you’re playing.

Lynne:
I think it comes and goes. I know when I am really focused on singing the phrasing. And I can tell when I drift out of that that I’m sort of losing focus, so I try to close that door and come back in. I may be singing the names pedal changes, but I’m still singing something.

Lynne:
Because I know that when I stop, that’s when I go for myself into this kind of analytical brain, okay, well that was note wasn’t very on. What’s the next thing? And I go, “No, you got to come back to it.” And so, I try to start bringing it back into playing. That’s almost always too where I find that I’ve been holding my breath and have stopped organically kind of breathing with the phrase.

Noa:
So, that might actually be a good place to transition into this other question about having the sound in mind first. So, I was stalking you online, and looking at videos of you, and there was one in which you were talking about how important it was to understand how to create a beautiful sound first and foremost.

Noa:
And then even from the very beginning to train your ear first perhaps and to be able to really hear the sound that you want in your head and then try to create it through the mechanism of the harp, which seems like it would be really important combined with the singing thing that you were just describing. How does one do that? I mean, how do you get there?

Lynne:
Well, if I knew I’d be some sort of teaching guru on a hill somewhere. Well, for me, the idea of integrating it early on is … I mean, I thought about this too and I think any creative person who has an image in their mind of what they’re going to do, they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. They may choose a subject for a painting or they may start with some paint on a canvas and then it leads them somewhere. But they have this sense in their brain that there’s an image there. There is something happening.

Lynne:
To me, it’s just something as a teacher we have to tap into early on and find out what that is. For some people, it’s going to be something they heard. For some, it’s going to be visual. For others, it’s going to be something they read that they’re trying to recreate. If I can do an anecdotal story, there’s this wonderful little program that harpists participate in that’s kind of evaluation of their playing where they come and they play a piece and then six weeks later, they come back and play it again and they get feedback.

Lynne:
And one time, I went and adjudicated a group of young players and there was one eight-year-old I think. And she was playing this piece called Moonlight. And she came in and she sat down and without her music, she hammered right through it. It was great. She had all the notes and it was in rhythm and it was so analytical. She had just ticked off all the boxes and done everything.

Lynne:
And so, we talked a little bit and I said, “What do you see when you play this piece?” And she just kind of stopped and she didn’t expect that. And I said, “When you come back six weeks from now, would you paint me a picture of moonlight?”

Lynne:
And so, I went back six weeks later and in came this girl just charged into the room and she had not on an eight and a half by 11 inch piece of paper, but she opened up this huge piece of tagboard that was folded in half, on which she had painted like a starry sky with the moon and there was glitter in the stars and there was the earth underneath. And then she sat down and played, and of course, it was night and day, literally night and day from what she had done.

Lynne:
And so, she didn’t have something that she heard, but she saw even the chance to say what do you see in this piece, her imagination went wild and it translated to a different sound on the harp and she moved differently and she kind of bent over the instruments sort of drew out these round sounds and then the little kinky stars came out. And I was astonished, that it was kind of that easy to just give her that chance to be that creative.

Lynne:
So, I think it can be a visual thing. I think it can be an aural thing. I think we just have to find a way to get context to help the students get all kinds of context for what they do, try to say what did you have for lunch today or play this piece as if you’re really frustrated with somebody. Play this piece as if you were just as happy as can be. And they begin to even in that way at younger ages, they begin to bring in their experiences.

Lynne:
And of course, the older they get, you want them to have aural context, not copying another harpist but often understanding where the repertoire came from and the original, what it sounded like when it was played out or orchestrate your piece. You have a whole orchestra in front of you who was playing that part, who’s playing this part. Find those sounds. And that’s what I mean about integrating the aural in the training. It isn’t really aural skills or anything else, it’s just getting into their heads that all these sounds are there. And how are they going to bring those out through their harp playing. Does that make sense?

Noa:
Yeah. So, it’s not classroom type of work or it’s not anything formal. It’s just having a target to shoot for visually or aurally.

Lynne:
Yeah. And I didn’t come from a strong aural tradition of harp training or any other instrument. I always sat down with a book of music and forced to look at those notes and figure them out, and I wept and screamed and yelled, and cried and got big stickers when I got it right. But I didn’t start from a position of singing that song and then play it on the harp. And I think if I had, it just would have kicked in sooner, maybe. I don’t know.

Noa:
Can you say more about what you mean by kicked in? Like for me, I was at it for 20 years before I felt like I finally got it, all the things that my teachers have been trying to get me to finally grasp and they were saying it over and over and I never really heard them. Until finally I was like, oh, I think I get it now. I’m wondering if it’s a similar thing, but can you tell me more what you mean by that?

Lynne:
My training, my early training happened in an era when it was very much the student had the book and you work through the book. And my mother was my teacher. So, part of the frustration, I am positive, is that I wouldn’t do what she wanted me to do. And so, she stuck me on the bench and just said, “Do this over and over again.”

Lynne:
And yet on the other side, I sang in choir. We sang songs all the time. I listened to my dad used to put on reel to reel tapes of musicals and I would sing along with all the songs. Now, if those two sides somehow my mother had said, “Well, why don’t you sit down and try to play, Oh, What A Beautiful Morning, without any music or just hum it and then pick it out on the harp.” I would’ve integrated those two sides earlier on.

Lynne:
But I just think that for me, it took a knock on the head in undergrad from my voice teacher for me to realize that I wasn’t singing when I played the harp, but I went to voice lessons and I sang and I sang in choir and I sang my arias and did all that. Then I would go play the harp, kind of fast, kind of straight through. He’s the one who mentioned it. He said, “I’ve heard you do both and it’s not the same thing.” And it probably took just like you, it took another couple of years. The trickledown theory for me to realize that what he meant was that I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t taking time in my instrumental music the way that I did in vocal music.

Lynne:
And I just wonder if I could have learned that earlier. I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t ready to hear it, which could definitely be it. I bear some responsibility here. But I think when he said that, it really was like getting hit over the head a little bit. And then it took a few years to do what you said about integrating the breathing at the harp.

Lynne:
I went and heard a great, really interesting duo the other night, a Celtic harpist and a folk dancer. They were doing things together and it was a really interesting genre, but he could do the dance steps and talk while I was doing them. And so, the Celtic harpist, who was absolutely adorable and terrific player, started to introduce a piece while she was playing and then she stopped and she said, “I can’t do it.” She said, “I can sing and play,” but she said, “I thought because he could do that, I could just talk through these introductions and I can’t do it.” And so, she stopped, did the speaking and then went back to playing.

Lynne:
So, I just think sometimes we have to try a lot and fail a lot until it becomes something that’s natural. I think as a teenager I didn’t want to fail, so I wasn’t going to try.

Noa:
So, it seems like you had a number of influences earlier on that didn’t really kind of come together until later. Do you feel like that is kind of how it played out, that eventually they converged at a later point even though they seemed separate or unrelated to the first?

Noa:
Or because I’m sort of fascinated by this story of Pete Sampras that I read in Andre Agassi’s book about how Sampras was not a very remarkable junior player because he was looking to the future and changing his game, which meant making lots of short-term sacrifices in terms of wins and losses. But all of a sudden, I think when he was like 18 or 19, he won the US Open. And they all kind of came together and convert all at one point. I guess I’m just curious about having more fun or being immersed in technique and how those things kind of balanced out.

Lynne:
I like your optimism that they balance out. That’s really nice. I think it’s really interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I always thought about it in the context of my own career and my playing. Because when we’re growing up, I think we’re in the environment we’re in and we work within that environment and we may not step back when we’re 14 or 15 or 16 and say, what’s my contribution to this environment.

Lynne:
But from a distance, I can look back on my teenage years and realize that I was so stubborn that no matter what my mother, who was still my teacher all the way through undergrad, no matter what she said I wasn’t going to do it. So maybe, she wanted me to take space in my playing. I don’t know. But if she said black, I had to be white. And if she said, “The sky is yellow,” I’d say, “No, it’s pink.” I wasn’t going to do what she says, poor thing.

Lynne:
I don’t exactly know why she kept me when I think about it now. But I do know that for me, the outside influences were all vocal influences. So ultimately, I think it’s like making a big pot of really savory stew or something that you can put it on the back of the stove and you keep adding ingredients and at some point, they all blend.

Lynne:
And I think it just that took longer for me than I think for some people because I was stubborn and I’m not have been paying attention and doing what was being asked of me. So, I take some responsibility for that. I don’t know if that’s what you’re thinking. But technically, I got what I needed to move around the instrument, but musically it all came from other places.

Noa:
Do you think your mom was pleased about that or do you think it stressed her out that you weren’t getting enough harp influences?

Lynne:
I think it was just the way it was, Noa. When I was growing up, we lived in the Midwest and there were not a lot of harpists and there weren’t a lot of … I mean, my dad had recordings. He was crazy, crazy LP man and he would record things on tape off the air. He loved music.

Lynne:
And he would go down to work after dinner to the basement. He would turn the radio on or the broadcast or whatever was on. And when he heard something he liked, he would just hit the reel to reel tape recorder and he record it. And then he’d come running up the stairs and say, “You got to listen to this. You got to hear this or I pulled this off the air.” And it made us all little nuts.

Lynne:
But I think the assimilation effect has been overwhelming for me and that’s really where it came from. And I think harpists are in a unique position because we don’t get the span of music stylistically in our repertoire. There were no real solo works for the harp until the early 19th century. The 18th century works are all adapted from keyboard pieces. There’s some, but they’re treating the harp as just another keyboard instrument at that point, which it was. It hadn’t evolved into what it was.

Lynne:
So, we have no Beethoven. We have one Mozart concerto, which was written under duress and is not good because Mozart, he didn’t want to do it, so he just tossed it off and he never got paid for it, I don’t think. We have no original Bach. We have a sonata by CPE Bach, one, we have one. Whereas you think about these other instruments and they have volumes of music and orchestral music. We have nothing until 1828 until Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

Lynne:
So, a harpist doesn’t learn her musical context by being a harpist. You can only get that I think by playing viola in your high school orchestra, or doing something where you’re in the repertoire a lot more than you are as a harpist. And for me, it wasn’t that. It was singing. And so, I think that made the difference and it was my father bounding up the stairs with recordings and say, “Hey, listen to this.”

Noa:
That makes me think of people downloading stuff from YouTube nowadays. That’s like the early version of doing it.

Lynne:
It is. It was totally. It was the 1960s version of YouTube was my dad coming up the stairs. “You won’t believe what I just heard on the air.” And he did something else for me that was again the equivalent, not the equivalent but parallel to what you said about videotaping yourself and just watching yourself play. When it came time for me to work on some of the big repertoire, he would make me a tape of five different performances, but wouldn’t say who they were. It drove me mad because all I wanted was to be told who I should listen to and how I should play it. Just tell me who’s right and I’ll do that.

Lynne:
And he would say, “Listen to these and tell me what’s different, what you like, why.” And it made me crazy, but I would do it because I was competitive enough that I wanted to play something really well. And it was his way of taking away the hierarchy of who it was or where they were or what country they were from, or whether they were playing with a good orchestra or maybe not the greatest orchestra in the world. And it was just, “Just listen to this and tell me what you think.”

Lynne:
And I wonder how many people have that option in their training of this parent who would just say, there are lots of ways to think about this. Hear five. Take a listen and see what you think.

Noa:
Is there any insights on how he picked them? Did he purposely pick varying approaches to it?

Lynne:
He would.

Noa:
Or something that were … Yeah, I’m curious as to what his thinking was behind the selections made.

Lynne:
Well, he collected music as I said from all these different sources. So, for example, I remember the one that he made for me of the Debussy Danses, where he consciously picked an Italian harpist, a French harpist, an American harpist and somebody I didn’t know they were young, but it was something he pulled off the air, a live broadcast and I can’t remember the fifth one.

Lynne:
But he did intentionally try to put in things that varied in some way based on their background. Ironically, many of the performances were very close in interpretive. Tempos were similar. Phrasing was similar. Sound was the big thing because the harp sounded really different.

Lynne:
And I remember that one from the standpoint of the one that really appeal to me was the one that was clean as a whistle. It was so clean. It was such a precise performance. And it turned out to be an American. The European recordings had more freedom. They had more joie de vivre, but they weren’t so clean and they weren’t so pristine. And I don’t know whether it was just when I was doing it or my stage of learning, but man, I love that. And that’s the one I picked. And then afterwards, he would tell me who they were. But yes, I think he made a conscious choice to try to get as wide a variety of harpists as he could.

Noa:
I like that it was blind too.

Lynne:
Yeah.

Noa:
Because otherwise I think it would change how you listen to it.

Lynne:
Yeah.

Noa:
And this is going to take us back a little bit to something you had said a minute ago. I don’t think it’s for sure, but my sense is that whether we’re talking about kids in school or in sports or in music, there’s a trend towards earlier specialization and there’s some research on it, which we don’t have to get into necessarily, but it sounds like your experience was that of not specializing quite so narrowly on the early going. And I’m curious if you have thoughts on whether that is still a useful way to approach harp playing now or music in general now or things changed, where specialization makes sense or I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?

Lynne:
Yeah. I think it’s a pendulum in every field. And I think that I grew up in an era when the general practitioner, the GP, the family doctor I kind of grew up in that musical environment. You did a little bit of everything. You were good at a lot of different things and you didn’t really specialize early on. And then in medicine for example, when people started defining specialties earlier, we ended up with a dearth of doctors who could serve rural communities and be a general practitioner and then it swung back the other direction.

Lynne:
And so, I think useful, I don’t know whether how I learned or how I grew up or how somebody who specialized earlier. I don’t know whether it was useful. All I know is that I think it becomes the context for our life and that my sort of general education happened earlier and my specialized education later, but some people specialize earlier and then later in life they go, wow, I really want to read all of the works of Descartes. I’ve never had a chance. I think I’ll go read. Or I’d like to learn languages because when I was specializing over here, I didn’t get that chance.

Lynne:
And I think it’s more a question when we do it or that we do it at some point before we die that we do both, that we are generalist and a specialist in some way because it makes us a complete human being, but I’m not sure timing wise, I was definitely not funneled into being a specialist early on

Lynne:
And I remember there were two musicians in Minneapolis when I was growing up who were. And I was insanely jealous that they were doing things that I thought I could do, but I wasn’t being encouraged to do. On the other hand, I think I didn’t have the internal discipline to do them on my own.

Noa:
Do you mean like repertoire or?

Lynne:
I do remember competitions. I would never complete a competition repertoire because there was always something, invariably something that I didn’t like, in a division or in a set of competition repertoire. So, I wouldn’t really do it. If it was a single thing like a concerto competition or something, I would enter those and usually did pretty well, up against other instrumentalist.

Lynne:
But if it is a harp competition and it had a set of repertoire, I would say, well, I’d start everything and I’d go, “Oh, these are great pieces but this is terrible.” So, I would never finish. And I think if my mother had insisted that I finish, pushed me, I would have just said, “No. I don’t want to do it.” I think she was doing the high wire act that now I appreciate.

Noa:
Well, I was going to say, it sounded like there’s a really fine line that somehow you guys both managed to navigate, especially continued to play the harp.

Lynne:
Yeah. And I think there was, and I do think it was a real high wire act for both of us. I think every artist, every musician in this case grows up in some kind of environment, where there is that tension between all the practice and all the preparation and the time then that can’t be devoted to doing other things.

Lynne:
And for any parent of any child who’s going to do something and you think about elite athletes, it’s the same. We never talked about the sacrifices. Maybe we should have, but it just wasn’t an era when people talked about that stuff. You just kind of did what you were working on and went and did it. And maybe we should have had conversation about, “Okay, we’re going to do this and we can make the sacrifice. But it means that these things over here can’t happen.”

Noa:
I remember hearing you say in one of those videos that something like if I couldn’t do it right the first time, I didn’t want to do it at all, is I think what you said.

Lynne:
Yes.

Noa:
I’m curious how that evolved into but what that evolved into that became more presumably functional and useful to and how that happened.

Lynne:
Let me think about that sec. And I think you need to contextualize the videos. I mean, I like that you know, “I watched your videos…” This is a public education channel, folks, this is nothing bad.

Lynne:
I was apparently even as a really young child fiercely independent and I wouldn’t let anybody do anything for me, period. My father used to always say when I was a four-year-old, a three-year-old, I would say, “I do it mine self,” and I did. I just would push people away. And I still do that. I bought this house last week ago, 10 days ago. And I thought, “Oh great, there’s only one step up the front porch.” And I went out, got the harp, pulled it in and I twisted my back for the first time in my life.

Lynne:
And I thought five hours later lying on the floor, I thought, “Lynne, you idiot. The neighbor was in the driveway. All you had to do was ask him to help.” But I have trouble doing that and I always have. So, there are pitfalls in that because if you try to do everything on your own, it’s a form of procrastination in a sense because if you can’t do it perfectly, you get tied up with not doing it all.

Lynne:
So, as a very young person, I was supercritical, supercritical of myself. If I couldn’t get it, wasn’t going to do it. And I think that my father’s approach to me was to cajole me. My mother’s was to say, “Go do something else and come back.” And I think hers was the better approach because she as a teacher instead of sitting there and trying to make me feel that it was okay to be so dismissive and stubborn and perfectionistic in that way, she would say, “Go do something else, come back in 10 minutes.” And I would and of course then I could it.

Lynne:
I think your question how has that manifested itself …

Noa:
Well, I guess I’m curious how you’ve managed to … because a lot of times what will happen is if people are stuck in that sort of place and that’s sort of relationship with perfectionism, they end up just not doing things and so it’s really an article where they said, there’s not a lot of super highly perfectionistic perfectionists at the highest levels of things because they tend to burnout and don’t get there. And so, I was wondering how you got a little better and how you managed to handle it.

Lynne:
Well, I think it’s been a stumbling block for me for almost my entire career, until I finally came up against a wall where I failed, I mean, big time and came to understand that that kind of rigid perfectionism isn’t realistic and isn’t sustainable. And it was, not recently, but it certainly wasn’t in my 20s that this happened. But I failed spectacularly well and in public.

Lynne:
And I think a lot of people would say, “Ugh, couldn’t she have done that in the practice room.” But I think for me, I had to do it in front of people to understand that I was just setting staggeringly unrealistic expectations for myself and then as a result, possibly passing those along to other people.

Lynne:
And so, that failure when it happened really helped me to understand that there are a lot of different ways to measure success and to measure accomplishment and to measure satisfaction. It’s kind of a Zen thing, just took me a long time to get there, longer than you would think, but I think that’s what made the difference.

Lynne:
And at that point you’d go, “Well, that was so bad. Nothing else I do could be any worse. So, let’s try being a little bit more creative or a little bit more nurturing, kind to ourselves, better to ourselves in who we are.” And this is nothing you’re going to find on YouTube or in the newspaper or anything. It was just one of those nadirs that I think people have to have. And I think a lot of people have them, but they don’t admit it, and they do come out the other side a different person. And I’m more than happy to say, “Yeah, I blew it big time.” And I think in the end it did change my approach.

Lynne:
But for years and as a young student, I mean young up to 25, 26, if I couldn’t do it the first time, I just thought there was no point in doing it.

Noa:
You were talking about playing related disaster?

Lynne:
Oh yes. Oh, it was a stunner. It was a real stunner.

Noa:
Did you know that was going to happen going into it or did it just totally caught you by surprise?

Lynne:
No, totally caught me by surprise. I read the Peter C. Brown, Make It Stick at your recommendation and I thought it’s a brilliant collection and compendium of ways of thinking. And he uses the phrase, the illusion of knowing. That was me. That was me and I went into a performance going, “Oh, I got this. I’m going to be great.” And it was a recital. It wasn’t like one piece. It was like the first piece went badly and then I had to stay on stage and I had to keep going and it just went from bad to worse in front of all these people.

Lynne:
And I got my comeuppance and I realized that it was my responsibility. I hadn’t prepared right properly. I had relied on that admission of knowing as he refers to it. I can do this. I don’t need to practice that. I can always get that part. Yeah. And I didn’t. And so, it did change me and it changed how I thought. This was before my teaching career started that this happened, but it changed how I work with students.

Lynne:
Because I think at that time, the teacher I had had sort of bought into it too. She said, “Oh, you’ll be great. Everything’s fine.” And everything was so far from being fine. And I had nothing to fall back on when it all started to fall in on itself. Had it been one piece on a recital where you could walk off stage and go, “Well, that was not my best effort.” That would be one thing, but it was really a full program where you had to keep going.

Lynne:
I think it changes us. It is literally a ring of fire when something like that happens. And it was what I had to do to learn that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. Like I said, for some people, it would be much less catastrophic, nuclear. It would be much less nuclear and they would realize, oh wait, I need to change how I’m thinking about my preparation or my context or my anything. And for me, it had to be in public and it had to be in front of a lot of people and it had to be a big moment.

Noa:
There’s two kind of quick things I want to do to make sure I understand if it’s okay. I’m trying to connect the dots between what you said you were doing that wasn’t sustainable that you couldn’t continue to do and the perfectionism. Could you kind of connect those for me? Like how does this relate to the perfectionism?

Lynne:
Well, I think in me, being a perfectionist manifests itself in not wanting to do something at which you think you might fail, that you don’t know. Does that make sense?

Noa:
Yeah.

Lynne:
That if somebody asked me to do something that I need to do and I think I can’t do it, I put off doing it. And then when I do it, it’s like, “Oh, well, I could do that all along. Why did I wait?” So, in that sense, I think that … I don’t know, I hate to talk about myself. This is hard. But I think at the time that I made this spectacular deep dive into failure, it was in part because I have always had an incredibly facile technique. I could just blaze my way around the harp. And I thought that that meant I knew what I was doing.

Lynne:
So, here I could. I could play fast. I could play all these notes. I could do all these things. And I was in this environment and I had these pieces and I played them all before. And I was going to play this recital. And so, I figured that I knew how to do it even though I was in Newtown. I was nervous about the audience. I understood that I was going to be on display. I didn’t acknowledge those things.

Lynne:
So, the perfectionism manifested itself by saying, “Oh, you’re just in your same environment. You’re fine. You’re going to be okay.” And I never dealt with the fear that would’ve helped me to sort of lit a fire under me to be more prepared in more ways. So, I fell back on, “I’ve got this.”

Noa:
So, it’s almost like the perfectionism kind of led you to put this armor on to not acknowledge the preparation that might’ve actually been necessary because it was a different situation, et cetera, et cetera.

Lynne:
Yeah, yes, exactly. And I think that having done that, I realized, and so took probably another 10 years for me to understand that my learning process was not very healthy, not healthy. It wasn’t durable. And I don’t need technical learning, it was the musical learning. And so, I kind of changed how I approach overtime, took a lot of time. But you kind of change how you learn things.

Lynne:
And so, I started to learn things with a lot of safety mechanisms, a lot more safety mechanisms. Where am I going? When am I going? How is this happening? What are my ways to get there? If my finger doesn’t go where it’s supposed to go, that’s okay because my brain knows it. So, then you start to do the you write your music out. You start and stop at … All those things that I’ve never done, never done because I could play fast and everybody thought that was great. I just couldn’t run off that stage fast enough.

Noa:
And the other thing that I was really intrigued by you said, you run the risk of passing it on to other people. I’m assuming you mean through teaching somehow but how does that play out?

Lynne:
Well, take it at face value. I knew all my life that I wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. I love the idea of it and I love doing it. And I pull how I teach the harp from everybody but my major harp teachers. I have this ongoing tussle with my mother, so I knew I never wanted to be in that kind of teaching relationship where that sort of manifested itself.

Lynne:
And my other two major teachers, one was extremely hands-off and dismissive. And so, all I learned was to be afraid of whether I was going to fail. Had I practiced enough, not smart, not strategically, not knowingly, but had I just done enough? And then the third one was this was a phrase that I found reading years ago. I was reading a medical journal and they were talking about the role of the toxic mentor and how students choose residencies and choose specialties. And I think I had one of those.

Lynne:
And so, I knew when I started to teach that I really didn’t. I wanted to teach all the things I have learned about the instrument and about the technical delivery of the harp, but not in the way that I had been taught.

Lynne:
And so, I pulled all of my teaching from other influences, from other musicians, from reading instrumental biographies, from working with other musicians and seeing how they performed and seeing how they treated me in performance situations. And that’s what I did with my students or I hope that I did with my students. And I never pulled from my own instrumental educational background. But it was much more from other people. That’s kind of weird.

Noa:
It sounds like it mirrors a little bit your growing up with different influences that lets you be the kind of harpist that you became, except in teaching also.

Lynne:
Teaching is a real intimate act when you get right down to it. There’s a level of trust that has to be established and sometimes, it’s difficult to do that on either side. And sometimes when you break through that, it’s almost too much. It’s too emotional. It’s too visceral. And so, then you back off and you go, “Okay, we’re going to go back to just doing what we were doing.” But you hope that down the road that student grows into their own potential, emotional potential. But you know that it’s not the right time when they’re in your room.

Lynne:
You hit that button, that nerve, it’s a real nerve. You hit it and then you just got to back away from it. So, I don’t know. I just tried to draw inspiration from other musicians who were more joyful than I ever was, more patient, kind, thorough, I don’t know, all kinds of stuff.

Lynne:
I think that teacher-student relationship and learning is just everything. It’s everything. And no matter what we’re doing, whether we’re in a book club or learning something new as an adult or nurturing a kid, it’s fantastic.

Notes

  • I mentioned taking voice lessons as a kid because I wanted to be able to sing the Chipmunks’ Christmas song (11:33). So…um…here’s the kind of singer I was aspiring to be: Alvin and The Chipmunks - Christmas Don’t Be Late
  • I alluded to Lynne’s videos a couple times (14:24 & 37:14). Here’s what I was referring to: Lynne Aspnes’s Studio @Harp Column Academy
  • Lynne noted that her non-harp influences as a child were all vocal (25:31). See below for a few specific examples.
  • Lynne referenced the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which is one of my favorite books, as it gets into all the research on effective learning, in a really engaging, easy-to-digest sort of way. (42:51)

* * *

A few additional notes from Lynne

A few specific examples of my early musical influences

This is Mary Martin, in the 1960 remake of Peter Pan, broadcast live (I think?) on TV.  My grandmother who lived next door to us had a color TV, so we always went over there to watch the special shows: Mary Martin as Peter Pan

Jussi Bjorling was a personal favorite of my father’s. This recording was on one of my dad’s favorite LPs so we heard a lot of Jussi Bjorling when I was young: Jussi Bjorling - Nessun Dorma

Bidu Sayao was another favorite in our household. I remember being mesmerized by this LP cover because I couldn’t get over how exotic she looked and how different this music sounded from anything I had experienced. I was probably 15 or 16 at the time and had no idea what I was hearing. But it stayed with me, for sure: Bidu Sayao - Bachiana Brasileira n. 5

Life-altering musical experiences

I had a few musically life altering opportunities late in high school that served to shape my interests and perspective in big ways. I sang in a choir conducted by Aaron Copland  and he came to my house after the concert! My house! Talk about a geeky moment: no one at school the next day could understand why I was riding high when I said AARON COPLAND had come to my house after a concert I sang in that he conducted, and I got to talk with him!

In the spring of 1970 I got to usher for the Metropolitan Opera tour. The Met came to Minneapolis for one week in May each year, and in those early years, the Met tour was live opera in Minneapolis. I remember it was a huge deal musically, and socially. If you agreed to be an usher you could stand in the back after the first intermission and hear the opera for free. That year I heard Tosca, La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana, & I Pagliacci in a double bill, and Die Zauberflote. My parents wouldn’t let me usher every night, so I chose the operas I wanted to hear very carefully.

Tosca was amazing, a tenor I had never heard of named Placido Domingo sang the role of Cavaradosi. Strange how strong my memory is of him on the stage.

The Traviata cast has stayed with me all these years, in ways I never could have imagined. I performed with Robert Merrill a few times, when he would join the Riverside Church Christmas Eve services. George Shirley ended up being a revered and supportive colleague at the University of Michigan, and Frederica von Stade, well, all I can say there is that her performance hit me the hardest of all. Her technique was seemingly effortless. Effortless. She never seemed to be acting, but rather she just became the character. It was transforming for me. Every single note she sang was infused with life: with color, nuance, direction, and meaning. And all of it without artifice. Hearing her sing live that first time, I realize now, was the culmination of everything I had listened to, everything that seemed to matter to my father and his intuitive understanding of natural artistry, performers who embodied effortless technique and genuine bel canto delivery, whether it was singing or instrumental performing.

Jussi Bjorling, Bidu Sayao, Frederica von Stade, James Ehnes , Glenn Gould, these artists are the vessels, the delivery mechanisms for the music. Oh I could name more, but these are the people whose artistry has informed me, guided me, evolved my thinking, and stayed with me for longer than most listeners of this podcast have been alive. These artists represent the pinnacle of achievement when it comes to making music, literally – to breathe life into music, and then to let the music speak in its own voice.

This Mozart  excerpt exemplifies everything I have aspired to in my own musical career: to breathe life into notes, and then step aside and let them live as they should, in their own right.

A sampling of books that light my fire

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather

My Young Life, by Arthur Rubinstein

The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer

The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust your Musical Self, by William Westney

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel

Anything and everything written by Willa Cather, Will and Ariel Durant, Leif Enger, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Carson McCullers, and May Sarton. If there’s time after that, look into the Greeks and the Romans. Oh, and definitely The Velveteen Rabbit. Start with The Velveteen Rabbit.