Talking about work, school, our professions? It’s hard. We do it a lot, especially in the complaining department. Unless there’s someone who’s in our field who we can talk to at length about a project or an idea, there are times when the glazed-over look on our friends’ faces is a sign that we’re either starting to speak gibberish or we’re just whining. Getting through to someone about life at the harp bench can sometimes feels especially tricky, as most people think your life looks like this 24/7.
There are a number of scenarios involving talking about the harp, but the most common is that of people kindly asking me about how I keep my fingers in shape. It took me long time to learn that describing the following processes tend to shut down a conversation:
(1) Short fingernails. Conversations usually start here for me, such as when I have to ask a friend to open a can of soda for me. Or remove keys from keyrings. Or take out my debit card from my wallet. (Sigh).
(2) Building up calluses, allowing your fingers to morph into sausage-like eagle talons, complete with a thick layer of skin capable of building resistance not only the tension of harp strings, but also extremely high temperatures. Party tricks include the ability to remove cookie sheets from the oven with no mittens, holding hot mugs of tea with just my fingertips, having no discernible fingerprints (raising eyebrows at banks and airport immigration checks) and making my friends shiver by rubbing my thumb against the skin of their forearm.
(3) Excising finger blisters by sterilizing needles, poking holes onto the opposite side of the finger which first comes into the harp strings (to avoid peeling skin – see #4), and squeezing out all the glissando-wrought watery finger snot before soaking it in hydrogen peroxide.
(4) Carefully looking after peeling skin, not for the sake of the pain or any cosmetic aesthetics, but because dead skin on a harp string sounds like someone playing a mandolin with a spork (foon?). Casual chat about emery boards, pumice stones, hand crème designed for cow udders (not even kidding) is all thrown around.
(5) Traumatized cuticles (my favorite), whereby the backs of your fingers run into adjacent strings so frequently that the protective layer of skin starts to get beaten, bruised and bloody.
It’s usually at this point that my acquaintance becomes wide-eyed and is visibly queasy, as I’ve just described with surgical detail my forays into self-inflicted dermatitis. It essentially amounts to a personal problem and confirms the stereotype that all harpists are utterly masochistic. I think I’ve gotten better about talking about such things, and I’ve even stopped filing my calluses in public (turns out that little flying flaky flecks of snowy skin tend people out. It also makes you look like you trousers are covered in cocaine).
Last week, my friend R asked me about how the harp was going and how my fingers were holding up. I told him it that my fingers were fine (read: my third finger is bleeding) but that I’m getting to play a pretty fun piece in orchestra at Juilliard. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is this amazing piece, one of the first major orchestral pieces ever to use the harp (in fact, the piece uses two). When asked what was amazing about it, my initial goal was to run through the highlights and not scare him off or bore him.
I casually informed him that it was about tripping on drugs. “What?” he asked, with an understandably puzzled look. After all, one doesn’t exactly correlate Juilliard’s pristine image with psychedelics and needles (unless you’re a harpist, of course). I continued, trying to convince him that the piece is both enjoyable and surreal, as it’s the story about the composer taking opium and dreaming about a woman he’s supposedly in love with, kind of like the Beatle’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
“Ok, I could see where this is going.”
Awesome, my friend is not bored, I can continue. “Berlioz starts plunging deeper and he winds up at this HUGE party where there’s waltzing and harps. He’s totally tripping. But then he gets tired of the party apparently and decides to look at some sheep that the girl is looking after.” At this point, my friend is clearly exerting some patience, as so far the images I’ve talked about are exactly what you might expect from an outdated, antiquated relic of nineteenth-century culture.
Fortunately, this is where things get weird for Berlioz.
“Weirder than a nineteenth-century trip involving sheep and waltzing?”
I should have taken the hint, and yet I continued. “He dreams he’s about to get executed, and the brass section of the orchestra starts playing mariachi-esque music to imitate the pep-band warming up the crowd. He gets his head chopped off, but it doesn’t end there! The orchestra plays four really short notes from the top down to the lowest string instruments to describe his head bouncing down the steps of the scaffold.”
R’s eyes are a little concerned. “That’s kind of dark…”
“But for some reason he hasn’t died yet… He’s all the sudden hiding in a thicket of bushes watching an orgy involving some new-age-y goth types copulating to blaring heavy metal.”
“You want a ticket to the concert?”
“I’ll think about it.”
As I said, talking about work can be hard sometimes.