How I Found My Inner Harpist On My Smartphone


Image courtesy of wallpaper

Ah, the image: I am seated at a magnificent golden harp, my flowing blonde tresses resting on my shoulders, my tall, slender body leaning slightly forward, long fingers playing glissando after glissando. I am just warming up, but I am already enraptured.

Oh, the reality: It’s true that I’m thin and have long fingers. The rest of the description is more problematic. I’m short (slightly shorter each year) and my hair, though longer than it was pre-COVID, is definitely untresslike—closer to distresslike.

It’s also never been blonde; it’s brown, flecked with what I’m sure is more gray since the pandemic began. In fact, if the folks from the Pantone Color Institute were seeking a new description, I think “pandemic gray” would be appropriate.

But that’s the least of my worries. In fact, I never really wanted blonde hair except as part of my harp fantasy.

To round out the picture, I guess it’s worth noting that as far as I know, I have zero musical ability. I’ve never studied a musical instrument and can’t carry a tune. ( I did, however, lead the band when I was the drum majorette as a high school senior.)

But I do love music—all kinds of music—and get a special chill when I hear the elegance of a harp. I’m also fascinated by the concept of music and the brain, so I did a little research.

Note: everything about this topic is complex. Indeed, there are actually nine areas of the brain participating in our hearing and/or making music, with different parts involving rhythm, tone, tempo, and the like. I have simply tiptoed into this complicated topic. (You can click here if you’re interested in a neat graphic depicting the various areas—where they’re located, what they’re called, and what they do.)

That special chill, the critical emotional component of music, is largely created through the nucleus accumbens (NA), the pleasure and rewards center of the brain, and is intricately related to the neurotransmitter dopamine (DA), which—depending on the amount and our personal makeup—has the potential to make us happy or sad.

So music can act on us like chocolate, or sex, or cocaine. One neuroscientist, Kiminobu Sugaya, said in the article cited above that “music can be a very addictive drug because it’s also acting on the same part of the brain as illegal drugs.”

My mind immediately went to the many talented young musicians who died prematurely of drug overdoses.

That’s simply an interesting aside that most of us needn’t worry about. And it has nothing to do with why it’s suddenly become very important to me to make music.

I’ve repeatedly heard that as we age, one very good way to forestall dementia is to learn to play a musical instrument. I wasn’t surprised to learn from the research that the musician’s brain is noticeably different from the rest of ours. The differences are so noticeable, according to famed neurologist Oliver Sacks in a talk on NPR, that they are apparent with the naked eye.

Musicians, who obviously practice many hours a day, have greater development in various parts of the brain. Sacks mentioned enlargement of the corpus callosum: the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the brain’s left and right hemispheres.

One scientist found that when musicians listen to someone playing the piano, about 25% more of the auditory regions in their left hemisphere respond than is the case with nonmusicians, a phenomenon associated with musical tones.

And musicians who play the keyboard have better development of a certain area (the omega sign of the precentral gyrus) of the left hemisphere that’s associated with hand and finger movements, while that portion was found to be more prominent in the right hemisphere for string players.

There’s an increase in the gray matter nerve cells in musicians, a very good thing. And, though I’m skipping a bunch of steps, once music has been learned, it moves into the cerebellum, which coordinates voluntary motor movements. This is the part that interests me most.

When music has finally taken up residence in the cerebellum, it remains, and can be called up even when dementia or a stroke has damaged brain function. The stories are remarkable.

Sacks tells of a man whose daughter had written to him about her father and then brought him for a visit. The man had played the baritone part in an a cappella singing group for nearly 40 years. He’d begun showing signs of Alzheimer’s 13 years earlier, when he was 67.

His daughter had written:

“He has no idea what he did for a living, where he is living now, or what he did ten minutes ago. Almost every memory is gone. Except for the music. In fact, he opened for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in Detroit this past November.

“The evening he performed, he had no idea how to tie a tie…he got lost on the way to the stage—but the performance? Perfect…He performed beautifully and remembered all the parts and words.”

Music therapy has been used to enhance the lives of dementia patients even more severely afflicted than this man. It’s a wonderful field that has also improved the lives of many stricken with strokes, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and other brain-associated diseases or injuries.

I would love to write more about all this, but I fear I’ll soon be venturing too far into the reeds (!) for a blog post.

So I’ll move on to my personal musical quest, hoping you’re accompanying me.

I concluded that though I can’t fight whatever may lie ahead, and it’s probably too late to flex my corpus callosum muscles, it surely won’t hurt to try to tackle a musical instrument and put in some time each day—even if it’s just for the hell of it.

Briefly, very briefly, I considered seeking to fulfill my longheld dream and trying the harp. A nice young woman on YouTube promised that some people had become professional harpists even though they’d started in their mid-20s. Well, I’d passed that threshold quite a while ago.

But then she added kindly: “even people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s…” can learn to play the harp (under her tutelage). I listened to a few beautiful examples, considered for a nanosecond, and realized I simply didn’t have it in me to pursue that particular grandiose dream.

We have a piano sitting in our living room, once played beautifully by my older daughter. For a while, our answering machine message contained her rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the background, which never ceased to delight me.

Yet with my current musical knowledge confined to “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” I found the piano too daunting. At least for now.

Then I stumbled, truly stumbled, on GarageBand, the music composition app that had all this time been mutely residing within my iPhone. Suddenly there was a keyboard, and I could plunk away to my heart’s content.

New worlds opened up. I am actually making music—indeed, even composing a little bit. Not a harp in sight, but I have been on the keyboard and the guitar—played some minor blues last night. And GarageBand is certainly easier on my delicate fingers than real strings would be.

I’ll acknowledge that I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m faced with a page that is filled with arcane stuff. I knew this effort wouldn’t be a snap when I found YouTube video how-tos for GarageBand that were definitely not for my newbie level.

And when I saw the telltale ad for the book GarageBand for Dummies, I was reminded of the weeks when I was first thinking about starting a blog, and my techie daughter suggested Blogging for Dummies. I dutifully bought the book, eagerly opened it—and understood not a word.

But with GarageBand, I get immediate feedback because I can make sounds. Mastery is not my goal. I may not even be increasing my gray matter or strengthening my corpus callosum. But I’m making music, dammit, and that’s a joy. If some of it finds its way to my cerebellum, that’s all to the good. In the meantime, a little more dopamine is a very lovely thing!

And I can still listen to this—and dream.

Have a lovely weekend, stay safe, and wear your masks!



29 thoughts on “How I Found My Inner Harpist On My Smartphone

  1. Yes, Annie, I remember you as the drum majorette! I was cap’t of the twirlers and we marched everywhere back in the day. Glad you found your inner harpist. Never too late to teach “old ladies” new tricks. LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the story by John Holt, early homeschooling guru, about learning. He said someone he knew wanted to learn the violin at age 50. A friend said You’ll be 55 by the time you can play it decently. Yes, said the man, but in five years I’ll be 55 anyway. In other words, time will pass anyway so why not learn something that fascinates and intrigues you during that time?
    Bravo to you. I suspect the learning of the harp will reap rewards you cannot even imagine, even if those rewards do not include playing publicly:) Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Annie , I think you have inspired me to touch the piano again. What a charming, piece of writing. Thank you. Wish me luck with the piano. It really needs to be played. Even badly

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Annie,
    I took up piano approx 5-6 yrs ago after retirement. Had no previous experience- couldn’t read a note.
    And obviously have little to no talent even tho I try and enjoy practicing daily. But now when trying to learn a new piece I can occasionally kind of recognize what it’s supposed to sound like as I play. Then it’s on to the next piece.
    So keep the faith, Annie. You can do it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is great, Annie. I have longed to get back to playing the piano — which I sold when we downsized and hadn’t touched for some 15 years before that . . . I’ll check out the app you mentioned. Once upon a time, I played cello and sang in various a capella groups, as well. It all fell apart when I hit college. As much as I loved it all, it was stressful as I couldn’t (and still can’t) read music and kept that a secret as it felt, in those years, shameful. It was A LOT of work to figure out the notes on the page, but somehow I managed and progressed to the point of some achievement: scholarships, competitions, first chair . . . and hives! I think now I’ll play for the sheer love of it. How’s that for a refreshing idea? Happy weekend to you. I hope you’re well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can turn your phone volume down to whatever your good ear will tolerate—but maybe your talents will bowl her over—or her patience will surprise you! Kindly report back. In fact, I sense a new post in the precomposition stage…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It sounds like fun! I have no musical talent either although I wish I did…..I tried once as an adult but could never master reading the sheet music. It’s much easier if you’ve had some basic lessons while a child. We once had a chronic care patient with bad dementia, but sit her down in front of the piano for singalong hour and she could play every song beautifully. She had been a music teacher in her life, and the music was still buried somewhere in her brain. I once read a book called, Your Brain on Music, which discussed brain changes in musicians etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It IS fun, but it’s making me want more. To be continued…

      Yes, isn’t it astonishing how the old cerebellum just rises to the occasion? I find the topic fascinating, as you clearly do as well.!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. I have taken banjo lessons about every 10 years and usually last about a year. By they time I almost have the instrument tuned and then again realize that I can’t learn anything at 11PM. It really takes practice. My intentions were good but time just wasn’t there. O well next life there will be more time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Enjoyed this a lot. A friend’s teenage daughter plays the harp, and beautifully. But the things are expensive, sensitive to humidity, and require a very large vehicle to move them. Your solution may be best.

    I believe that music can be addictive, as I have experienced a kind of withdrawal when I reach the end of a solo car trip where my ipod has been playing favorites for awhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, JP. And I appreciate your offering the real-world reasons that I should allow my harp dream to remain just that.
      When I was writing about music and addiction, I thought about the number of times your wonderful musical posts had discussed the tragedy of so many promising young artists succumbing to drugs.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. So nice to hear of your musical endeavours, Annie!
    My Dad, who played the piano as a kid, started taking lessons again a couple of years ago and now plays for 2-3 hours everyday. He has found that his concentration and word recall has improved! It’s never too late, and certainly beneficial, to make music a part of one’s day!!

    Liked by 1 person

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