Some Thoughts on Playing the Harp, Playing Jazz and Composing 

by Deborah Henson-Conant 


This article originally appeared in The American Harp Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, Winter 2007. Used with permission. 


I had several bouts of harp playing as a child, the first at twelve, then again at seventeen and nineteen, but it didn’t become a serious passion until I was twenty-two and entered Marin Junior College in Northern California. They had a harp tucked away in the percussion closet, they needed a harpist, and because of my vast experience – maybe a dozen lessons over ten years – I was elected. The school paid for my lessons with Linda Wood Rollo and it was her musicality and savvy as a teacher, not the harp itself, that finally snagged me. 


With Linda challenging me, I made it through the Dittersdorf, the Ravel and the Debussy Dances, and I covered my harp payments by playing background music. To develop a repertoire quickly, I relied on my ability to read simple chord charts and to improvise on basic classical forms. I didn't know anything about jazz improvisation except that jazz players often growled when they improvised, something I learned from my stepfather's Erroll Garner recordings. 


My college boyfriend fancied himself a jazz singer. He and his friends traded jazz-player statistics the way I heard guys in the park trade baseball stats. But nothing he listened to moved me much until I heard Keith Jarrett. I was blown away. I jumped up and said, "Hey! Hey! Could I learn to play like that on the harp?" 


"Whadaya mean?" he said. 


"You know, improvise, play jazz. Could I learn how to do it on the harp?" 


He listened for a second, then looked at me and shook his head. "No," he said, "no, you couldn't learn to do that on the harp." 


Thus was the die cast. I had to do it. 


Once begun, I loved the challenge of playing jazz on the harp – a challenge of mechanics and coordination. Unlike harpists who are drawn to the sound of the harp, I’m fascinated by the mechanics – the pedals, gears and rods – and the coordination, the integrated schizophrenia a harp player develops, feet defining the harmony and fingers threading out the melody. 


I love that the harp is a physical metaphor for modulation, physically shifting character, as it shifts from key to key – and I love the pedal configuration! It’s such a beautifully engineered integration of the human body (two feet, one on left, one on right) and the harmonic dance of the circle of fifths. 


Jazz is the perfect embodiment of that coordination: melodic improvisation over a highly structured harmonic sequence. Feet grounding the harmony, giving hands absolute melodic freedom. 


But those same pedals, designed to shift tonal center, can create spectacular tone colors: by playing the note and THEN shifting the pedal, you can create the bends or “Blues notes” that are so simple, beautiful and evocative on the harp – and so impractical on other highly mechanized instruments, like the piano. 


It’s jazz that made me love playing the harp. And I’ve now incorporated much of what I love about jazz-harp into my own style, a mixture of Jazz, Blues, Classical, Folk, Music Theater, Flamenco, Latin, Symphonic and many other styles. I no longer call myself a “jazz player,” any more than I call myself a “classical player,” an “actress” or a “comedian.” Each of these skills are essential to how I express myself as a performer and composer, part of what I continue to study, and part of what I want to pass on. 


Some differences between jazz and classical music 


One big difference I noticed about classical versus jazz ethics are that many classical players seem to value the idea of "widening" their repertoire by learning new pieces, whereas jazz players seem committed to "deepening" their understanding of each piece. For jazz players, the "piece" is just a blueprint for invention: once you "have" the notes, that's just the beginning of a life-long journey through that piece. 


I can’t say one mind-set is better than the other, but I love knowing that even the simplest pieces contain riches which are revealed the more we play them. Jazz helped me learn that the “notes” are not the music – they're just the thread that music dances on, just the beginning. To truly play a piece we need to get deep inside it – beyond the notes. 


I took a month-long Shakespeare Intensive some years ago, as part of my lifelong quest to learn how to "go beyond." Six days a week, fourteen-hours a day, for a month, about sixty of us lived in a snow-bound campus in Vermont and studied from 8am to 10pm with some of the greatest Shakespeare teachers in the U.S. By the end, we'd each learned a single sonnet and a single scene, a total of maybe 400 words. If you break it down by the word, we spent more than an hour learning each word. 


Imagine spending an hour learning a single note. Yet we would spend an hour understanding the resonance of a single word: its physical resonance and its emotional resonance, and then how its resonance affected the rest of the words. Jazz is one way to do the same thing with music. 


There are many ways to learn jazz. Because I began performing immediately, it wasn't realistic for me to approach it academically. I simply had to find a way to jump in and keep up, because from the beginning I had to make money from what I was learning. To that end, I’m grateful to all my "background music" jobs! They’re a rich resource we, as harpists, have for learning and practicing performance. 


At jobs, I developed a way to integrate material I was comfortable with less familiar material, creating a kind of musical "home free" either within a piece or between pieces. That made it safer to take musical risks, since I had a safety position I could return to. I'd do this a lot with simple classical pieces, particularly the rich set of pieces in one of Samuel Milligan’s Medieval to Modern books. I'd play the written melodies, then develop a chord progression to improvise on, and alternate between the written page and my improvisation. I created a repertoire of little Rondos or Themes-and-Variations using the melodies in that book or other classical themes I knew. Without knowing it, I was engaging in a fundamental art of jazz playing called “faking it.” This isn’t a derogatory term – in fact, books of jazz charts are traditionally called “Fake Books.” 


Later, I used similar arrangements to convince a jazz bassist to work with me, offering him the chance to develop his classical technique on my pieces in exchange for suffering through me learning jazz technique. We formed a harp/bass duo called “Classic Swing,” and played night after night in dining rooms, alternating classical and jazz pieces, an experience that was invaluable in developing my jazz vocabulary. We later added a drummer, evolved into the “Jazz Harp Trio” and started recording and touring. 


My ignorance of jazz conventions was so profound when I started, that other players were often speechless at my questions or mistakes. On the other hand, my ignorance about convention led me to be much freer than they were, when it came to structure. For example, I would invent alternate forms and improvisation sections, add classical gestures like cadenzas, or suggest unorthodox ideas like, "Hey, why don't we both solo at the same time?" 


When I first started playing jazz, I thought "improvising" meant complete freeform departure from the tune. I didn't understand that traditional jazz is highly structured, each solo a variation on a strict set of measures and harmonies; or that harmonic variation follows specific guidelines. It’s the very strictness of the structures and assumptions that allow jazz to be as free as it is, that allow players to improvise with minimal or no discussion. 


I was delighted to discover similarities between classical and jazz forms – like that the "turnaround" at the end of a jazz arrangement is much like a coda, or that "Chord Symbols" are roughly equivalent to "Figured Bass.” But many of the conventions that are self-evident to a jazz player mystified me until I figured them out. For example: 


When you’re improvising, neither the pickup nor the coda are considered part of the tune. During improvs (also called “solos” or “blowing”), the "tune" doesn't mean the "melody." It means the 32 bar harmonic sequence that supports the melody. One time through that sequence is called a "chorus," and players "take" one or more chorus when they "solo." (Of course, not every tune is 32 bars long, but it’s a standard length for jazz tunes, except for Blues which are generally twelve bars long.) 


Jazz improvisation is more strict in many ways than classical improvisation. Each "chorus" or variation (i.e. one time through the "tune") is the same length, the same tempo and the same mode – unlike a classical theme-and-variations where any of those elements might change. For example, in a classical theme-and-variations, one variation might be minor; in another, the note values might be twice as long and so the duration of one variation might be twice that of another. That won't typically happen in jazz. 


Each player's "solo" may span several "choruses," but the point at which players pass the musical baton from one player's solo to another is normally at the beginning of the harmonic sequence and most improvised solos are melodic extemporizations. You don’t improvise a new form or harmony in standard jazz. 


Each "standard" or jazz tune is associated with a key. The Girl from Ipanema is "always" played in F; I Got Rhythm is "always" played in B-flat. Coming from a musical theatre background, this was a foreign concept to me. Players would say, "Let's play Stella by Starlight," I'd say, "OK, what key?" and they'd look at me like I was asking which way was up. I was even fired from a job once because the leader thought I was being a smart-aleck when I’d ask what keys the tunes were in. It was so obvious to everyone that no one even thought to take me aside and explain that each tune was associated with a key. 


These assumptions and conventions are so strong and ingrained that most jazz players can't separate them from the music. So when I'd ask questions about jazz structure, often my bass player thought I was looking for shortcuts and say, "Listen man, you can't take shortcuts to jazz, you just have to live it to understand it." 


“Ok, OK!” I’d say, “But how do you know when the chorus is over??” And he’d growl at me. 


When I'd finally figure out the answer and say, "Oh, I get it – the form is 32 bars long," he’d just shake his head and if he said anything, it was likely, "Sure, everyone knows that." But it was everything that "goes without saying" that baffled me. We grow so familiar with our own musical conventions, that we don't see them anymore! 


As a composer, it was hard for me to understand that jazz players weren't bored with the fact that tunes are generally 32 bars long. Later I understood that this kind of predictability is helpful, since creativity comes once the tune is learned by heart. The point of jazz writing is not about writing complex compositions, but finding ideas that are rich for improvisation. 


About the time I started feeling comfortable with that, I took a left turn and started writing jazz-influenced pieces for symphony orchestra – and discovered a new and unfamiliar land. 


I’d gotten used to jazz players who expected to freely interpret everything from phrasing to dynamics and tempo based, in part, on listening to each other. My greatest surprise writing for classical players was that they felt most free when everything was written out for them; when they knew exactly what I, the composer, wanted. 


For the past 15 years, I’ve been focused primarily on composing, orchestrating and performing with orchestra, part of my long-term dream to expand the repertoire of solo orchestral works (concertos, suites, etc.) for both lever and pedal harp. The chance to record many of these pieces for both DVD and television was an incredible opportunity and invaluable for passing on my own vision of the harp as an orchestral solo instrument. Needles to say, it was also thrilling to receive a Grammy nomination for the CD and to see and edit of the DVD on PBS. 


People are often surprised to hear that my long-term goal as a harpist-composer is to see other harpists performing my pieces. The biggest roadblock in passing these pieces on has been in writing out the featured harp parts – the parts I play myself! I’m now experimenting with video-taping my own versions of the solo parts for my orchestral harp pieces, thinking that a combination of written manuscript and video may be the best way to make them available to other harpists to play. (For harpists not familiar with that project, there are clips at or 


My Life as a Composer 


I began composing for harp as soon as I began to play seriously. I wrote my first harp composition, Nataliana, when I was 23 or 24, inspired by my friend Natalie Cox, who had a beautiful lever harp, as well as being a serious classical player. I wished there were a dramatic, romantic, virtuosic piece equally playable on lever and pedal harp, and since I couldn’t find one, I wrote one myself. (It’s filmed as the final sequence of the “Invention & Alchemy” DVD.) 


I love both these instruments – the pedal and lever harps – for different reasons, and I feel passionately that they both deserve wider understanding and appreciation. The road from writing that single piece, Nataliana, to composing a full program of orchestral music for harp soloist, filming it in hi-definition, and getting it on PBS is – in retrospect – a straight line. I always envisioned the harp as a hero – I just wasn’t always sure how to make it actually happen. 


I’ve discovered again and again, along this 30-year path, that something can exist solidly in the reality of my imagination and still take years to develop physically. There were so many missing pieces: skills I needed to develop; instruments and technology that needed to be invented; guidance I needed from coaches and teachers; financial support. And most importantly, I needed and still need collaboration: collaboration with builders willing to invest in designing new instruments; with players willing to go beyond their comfort zone to bring my ideas alive; with sponsors, funders, conductors, orchestras – and collaboration with a producer whose idea of artistic success is that the work will represent me, the composer/performer, most deeply. 


I got to experience the power of that collaboration repeatedly, during the years we developed, rehearsed, filmed and edited Invention & Alchemy. During the first rehearsal with conductor David Lockington, I showed him the idea I had for bringing the story of the 1001 Arabian Nights alive: He would be the sultan and I, the storyteller, Sheherezade. We'd play out the story of their relationship as if the two had been musicians – he with his cello and me with my harp. I was nervous telling him my idea, afraid he’d balk or laugh at the idea of acting at the same time he was playing cello, but instead, as soon as he understood what I was asking, he was on fire. "Wait! Wait! I could stand while I play, then I could really dig in to this passage! I could wear this sash! I could walk on stage with an assistant, holding the cello like a sword!" When he left the room for a minute, the producer and I looked at each other and whispered, "This … is incredible." 


I love theatricality, so I love it when players are willing to be theatrical. But I also love it anytime someone is willing to make a piece or even just a passage their own, musically. While it’s important to me that players respect the basic structure and rhythm of a piece, I find that many worry about offending me by taking artistic liberties. But when someone maintains the integrity of the piece, understands its character, respects the musical through-line and doesn’t cheat the rhythm, it’s a delight and a revelation to hear other people play my music. When they’re passionate, committed – and maybe even over-the-top sometimes, I’m absolutely thrilled. 


Manuscript is inexact – so as composer and player, the page is simply where we first meet. From there it is a collaboration. When a player makes my music their own, I inevitably discover something in it I had no idea was there. That is the thrilling partnership – and it is truly a partnership – of composer and player. And to me it is the profound beauty of the collaboration between composer and players that together we give the music life. 

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