Thursday, December 15, 2016

Upon Witnessing the Upside-Down-Car-Skid

{This was originally written as a post on Facebook on November 17, 2016. The year, and particularly the month of November, has left so many careening with questions, non-answers, and a sincere desire to find Hope and Truth wherever possible}.
When you suddenly see smoke and shattering in the oncoming lane up ahead and traffic careening, and you pull over and find yourself sprinting across the highway to the end of a trail of smeared glass and car parts, and from the flattened overturned vehicle you watch a young man crawl out on all fours, dazed and shocked and very very pale, and a gruff man is barking from 5 feet away, Don't move!! Stay there!! Don't get up!! you head straight for him anyway, needing to see his face and eyes to see if he okay, but now he is face down on the pavement with his knees and elbows tucked under him, and while another woman is caressing his upper back, you find the only spot of bare skin of his lower back on which you firmly place your hand and in a low voice repeat quietly, We got you, We got you, and irritating stupid cold tears are running down your face and you don't want anyone to know, because they'll incorrectly assume you're hysterical, when in fact you are very very present and aware, ready to do absolutely anything to help this man, right here, right now. 
We can see something happen right in front of us, or even out of the corner of our eye, and continue along our merry way so happy the sun is shining and casting rainbows through the new crystal hanging from the rearview mirror, or we can stop everything and run straight into the chaos, reach out to touch and feel and stare it straight in the face, to really really Know. Because the world is changing very very fast, not just by the decade, not by the year, but every freaking DAY. We are a witness to something Very Important, every. single. day.
At the park later, after you were assured that the young man was all right (really?), overwhelmed by the enormity of change and needed change, when you're madly flail-sprinting through the meadow trying to get back into your own body, and your mind is screaming as a result of weeks of catastrophes, There is so much I must do!!! - We have so much to do!!! - I have so much to do!! - and when you finally stop in the forest at the same place you seem called to every time you're there, you cry for real, and the thought that gives you the most peace without knowing at all what it means is, "I'm going in."
And when you pass the accident scene only 1.5 hours later, there is no evidence that anything occurred there at all, except a small puddle of blue glass dust at the median. We can "let it go" and forget it happened, or we can hold steady to the Big Experiences we are rapidly accumulating, even be haunted by them, and let them lead us straight into Next, facing Fu*@ing Forward, eyes wide open and hands and arms extended, stupid tears and all.

Trista Hill is a professional harpist and fine artist, creativity coach, educator in the arts, and Board-Certified Music Therapist. What her formal degrees in music and art gave her pale in comparsion to the gifts she's experienced in working with creatives just like you. Visit her website — — for links to her monthly letter, blog, listening library & compositions, performances, and offerings to further you along your own glorious creative journey.  

When a Professional Musician Is Asked to Play for Free

{This was originally written as a Facebook post on October 26, 2016. As of this writing, it has received over two dozen relieved responses from other creatives, and almost one hundred "Likes". All of us who make / create are still working to improve how we and our work are perceived, in part by taking responsibility for how we present ourselves - thank you sincerely to all of you who support us in so many ways.}
Dear friends - this is a long post about creative work and money. It's atypical for me to post like this, but it's that time of year when "giving" is a focus, when many of us are asked to do what we do for a reduced fee or free. I write this not as a rant but with a very strong educational intent.
"Giving" is a noble and worthy act of expression. Of course we give our time and talents to people and institutions to whom we have a deep connection, in the name of someone we deeply cherish, because we really believe in a cause or interest and want to support it. 
And the more life experience we gather, the more meaningful certain people and causes become. Thank goodness money can exist as a tool that helps further what we believe in.
AND. If I agreed to play for free every time I was asked, these donations would far outweigh the times I receive mutually-agreed-upon compensation for my chosen profession, the way I earn a living. 
This is really hard, folks. When these situations come up, it's not out of malice or lack of respect. Anyone who asks you to provide your services for free has either been directed to do so by a higher-up or is simply acting upon what our culture has told them - the arts are non-essential, a "nice" thing to have, a piece of beauty that without question benefits society because it transcends monetary worth. And non-artists aren't the only culprits - artists do this to each other, and to themselves. Arguments-with-artist-self can sound like this: "This is something I love so much I don't or shouldn't care If I'm paid for it (wait, yes I do), and others expect me to not expect money for it (I'm not sure why and how can I keep going like this?), and I keep being asked to give this (a)way so it must be the norm (?!?)". 
And so the myth of the "starving artist" is perpetuated - that you can't earn a living as an artist (defined as anyone working in the arts), that what you do really doesn't have value in the "real" world.
Yet what would the world be without the arts? A sad, sorry, and emotionally/intellectually/spiritually desolate place. Period. 
It takes massive effort on the part of both artists and non-artists to turn this ship around. As an artist, you are afraid you will lose gigs, lose the right (???) to perform/show/play, or mightily piss someone off and send yourself into financial ruin. As a non-artist, the artistry you're specifically requesting to make your event beautiful and deeply meaningful typically does not have a line item in your budget.
Here are two things we can do to start the shift.
1) Ask. Non-artists - before you approach an artist you don't know personally to do their thing for free, ask yourself: Would I consistently do my own job - the way I earn a living - for free? Artists - before you accept any gig about which you may have doubts, ask yourself: How much do I value what I do, and how willing am I to stand behind that?
2) Educate. Below is a letter I recently sent in response to a well-meaning request for free music. (This letter is different than the one I sent in response to playing for a reduced fee, outside during twilight hours, in mid-November. But that's another story). Artists, please feel free to use a version of this when you feel caught in similar situations. And please use it, or any of the numerous better non-sniper examples on the internet, with professionalism and respect - any tone of malice or resentment helps no one, gets you nowhere, and earns you a reputation you don't want, fast.
"(Nice greeting). I so appreciate your asking me to contribute to the wonderful (event name). 
From your helpful description of what you’re planning, I know just the kind of delightful music I’d contribute to this special event!
Unfortunately, I am unable to donate my time and services - that first week of December is my busiest paid performance week of the year, and music is my chosen profession by which I earn a living.
While I love your offer of a tax exempt receipt in exchange for the donation of my services, according to the IRS, one cannot deduct the value of time and services. My accountant / tax preparer echoes this rule (I learned it the hard way).
My regular fee is (amount) and I would be happy to apply that to the 1.25 hours for which you’re requesting harp music. I would arrive about one half hour prior to set up and perhaps a little more if amplification (I bring my own system) is required.
Thank you again for reaching out and please let me know if you have any questions! I love what you’re planning, the reasons you’re doing it, and the love you’ve already all put into this special event."
And dear friends, if you've got this far, thanks for reading. The above applies to more than just the arts. It's a complicated issue with many layers and is not really about money, but about external and internal worth, value, and the importance of / necessity for what we deeply love.

Trista Hill is a professional harpist and fine artist, creativity coach, educator in the arts, and Board-Certified Music Therapist. What her formal degrees in music and art gave her pale in comparsion to the gifts she's experienced in working with creatives just like you. Visit her website — — for links to her monthly letter, blog, listening library & compositions, performances, and offerings to further you along your own glorious creative journey.  

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Same Same, But Different - An Ode to Our Changing Harp World

This story was written shortly after attending the 2015 Somerset Harp Festival, where I led workshops and represented the Jazz Harp Foundation. It's a unique perspective on a spectacular annual event that exposes those who play and love the harp to the best and brightest in the lever harp world. The 2016 Somerset Harp Festival takes place in New Jersey from July 21-24!

It’s very very cold. Huddled with my back against a windowless wall, swathed in almost all the clothing I packed for this journey, I’m waiting. In mere moments I’ll find myself in a deluge where I’m overrun by the curious, or in a desert where I’m isolated and left alone. I have no idea what to expect. Though I’ve gathered my resources, I’m not sure I’ve got what I need, or enough.

Loud and confusing is this large enclosure; paradoxically, passerby are making their way slowly and in a daze. Just a few feet away, almost-chaos breaks out as supplies are yanked from crates and quickly pieced together - is that a quiet-yell of excitement or irritation? We’re surrounded by both very familiar and foreign sounds, a constant din that foretells Something Big is Going Down.

What did I get myself into? Here I am, locked up for the next three days with so many situational unknowns, chronically chilled, incredulous, apprehensive, and hyperaware.

And then, the first of many approaches, hesitant. We look at each other cautiously, eyes wide with hope. “Do you…?” she trails off. I smile encouragingly. “I don’t know exactly what I need right now,” she continues in almost a whisper. “But I know I want something different. Can you help?”

Oh yes I can.

Outside is hot July summer; inside is winterish under the ceiling vent expelling steady chronic air-conditioned blasts. Before me are two tables piled with flyers, CDs, DVDs, sheet music, and books. To the side are two sets of headphones, my laptop for processing payments / exchanging panicked digital messages, several carefully-laid cables linked to a nearby mixer, a freestanding iPad, and an impressive shiny black 32-string electric harp on tripod-legs. Behind me are boxes of backup supplies, folders of paperwork and hastily-scratched instructions, tee shirts in brown and black, tote bags in bright orange, hidden extra cash, bags of teaching materials for the upcoming workshops I will lead, and the snacks - er, dark chocolate - that given the situation I can’t believe I remembered to bring. 

We’re in the Exhibitor’s Hall at the 2015 Somerset Harp Festival, and I’m overseeing the booth for the Jazz Harp Foundation (JHF). I’m amidst an amalgam of harps - lap, medium and full sized, fashioned from precious multi-wood and indestructible carbon fiber, robust acoustic and sleek electric, bare-unfinished and gloss-shellacked. Milling about are both men and women of all ages - admirers, players, professors, private teachers, composers, therapists, artisan-makers, dealers and manufacturers. Here we witness firsthand just how much, in the past few decades alone, the interest in - and love for! - the harp has exponentially grown.

Somerset attendance increases every year. While the JHF has been a part of Somerset for several of those years, chances are what the JHF offers is still new to many and unlike what most harp players typically see, hear, and play. Launched in 2007 by Brenda Dor-Groot and Sabine Meijers of the Netherlands to “strengthen the position of the harp in jazz”, JHF’s presence at Somerset and its creation of events - the July 2016 Brazilian Jazz Harp Immersion is happening now! - embody their mission of putting “jazz harp on the map, to increase its reputation and quality, link jazz harpists around the globe, and inspire harpists, peer musicians and audiences alike.” 

Sabine Meijers (left) and Brenda Dor-Groot (right)

As the U.S. representative for the JHF, and as a teacher and music coach advocating creativity, I’m at Somerset to also help spread the word that we all have a choice in our harp journey; we’re living in an exciting time when we have more diverse and prolific options and opportunities available to us than ever before.

“I’m sorry, Trista,” a favorite rep from the Virginia Harp Center says as she approaches the borrowed DHC electric harp we set up for the free online JHF jazz harp lessons offered via the iPad. “We just sold this instrument plus all its accessories - he’s taking it to a workshop that starts in ten minutes.” She gestures to a gentleman who, with wife at his side, is grinning broadly.

I smile back - his purchase is a perfect example of how, in response to the harp world’s rapid growth and increased interest in all things harp, makers are meeting our needs by producing high-quality harps at a variety of price points. Harp gatherings now feature “harp tastings” where we can literally sit behind the very instrument we just saw online. And these instruments can’t help but entice us to discover and explore new ways to play.

“Show me what’s new and good!” a repeat customer booms as he grabs a pair of headphones. “I bought a lot of jazz harp recordings from you last time, and my friends loved them so much they took them home. They can listen to what I buy today, but now I’m gonna hide the CDs where my friends can’t find them.”

Those outside the harp world are drawn in, allured by its magic. Those of us who live in the harp world see it broadening, changing. Our opportunities are changing. We are changing. The answers to where do I start? how do I continue? are now a whole lot more interesting.

Those answers are in the birth and propagation of programs and offerings designed to help us find our own voice in the growing harp world. Along with the emergence of the JHF, we’ve seen top performers like Deborah Henson-Conant offer a smattering of extensive online courses and grow a community around new ways of playing. New online groups and forums are forming every day to discuss and share both old and new music. Podcast-programs like Harpestry ( and Harp Talk ( highlight players and cultures around the world, blurring lines between lever and pedal harp music while showcasing similarities and differences among other stringed instruments birthed from divergent lineage in distant eras.


The lines between lever and pedal harp, and the type of music played on each, are no longer straight and solid. At best, they are dissolving into dots and dashes and even melting into flexible curlicues that happily intersect at random points throughout harp time and space.

This phenomenon is brought to life in the evening performances at Somerset. There’s Jakez Francois, the President/CEO of Camac Harps, performing on a lever harp his own company made with as much ease and grace as he brings to pedal harp. And Alfredo Rolando-Ortiz, drawing upon his own rich heritage, bringing butterflies to life on a Paraguayan harp before our very eyes. And there’s Edmar Castaneda, playing with such intensity and passion that we can’t help but lean forward and stare while collectively thinking,“OHHHH  $*%#@!!! It CAN be different!”  There’s Deborah Henson-Conant, through an instrument made just for her, giving it her all - as always! - and encouraging us to do the same.

In a workshop I led at Somerset called Songs Without Words, in which we explored composing music that relays a feeling or message without lyrics, participants almost whispered, “I just want to… “ or “How can I get to….” or “I don’t feel I’m creative enough to…” Our discussion gently circled and dipped into our innate ability and desire to create, where and how we find personal meaning, and how our instrument is a portal to our soul in ways we both already know and are as yet undiscovered.

We are all just trying to find our way.

Many harp lovers initially find themselves adapting to and accepting what’s believed to be the right way to play the harp and what makes a good player. This is how we learn - we’re very busy earning our proverbial wings, looking for affirmation and confirmation in an external stamped seal of approval. We may remain here for a short or long while before we ask, what else?

As a pedal harpist who never started on lever harp, who doesn’t subscribe to the idea that the harp world starts with the small lever harp and ends with the gigantic pedal harp, and who doesn’t hold the pedal harp as the pedestal-penultimate, I firmly believe we find our music and just-right instruments - or our instruments find us! - that best meet us where we are, as we are, on our very personal harp journey. There is no one Right Harp, no one Best Player, no Perfect Way.

And by the looks of all things Somerset, I’m in good company.


Back in the Exhibitor’s Hall, an accomplished player leans in close over the JHF table. Like the others, she is barely whispering. “I’m bored with what I am doing. How do I not fall asleep on my classical gigs? How do I start learning / hearing / playing jazz?”

“I’m so tired of Celtic / Irish music!” another woman declares loudly as her stack of new music lands in front of me with a thud. “Haven’t I endured enough suffering in my own life to not have to play yet another tune about someone else’s wayward Daddy and the horrors of the potato famine?!?”

Clearly no one I encounter here at Somerset is denouncing their instrument, its heritage,  anyone who plays in a specific style, nor the way they’ve played themselves for most of their lives. Underneath each swift and offhand comment is this: I’m changing. I’m ready. NOW. 

Listening to and experiencing other harp voices reminds or clarifies for us what we love, where we want to go, who we really are. We’ve been given permission to lean deeper into our ongoing journey toward what resonates more clear and true, what is more uniquely us. There are those that help preserve our past, and those who help shape the future. Traditions are important to uphold and maintain, and boundaries are meant to be pushed and reshaped. 

Same same, but different. 

The development and popularity of entities like Somerset, Camac, the JHF, and our most admired performers are already demonstrating there is more to the harp than we thought or assumed, that this instrument can transport us to worlds that were previously out of reach, that our dreams are actually possible, tangible, and real. 

Everywhere there are tools and resources that help us edge ever closer to the Unknown where our own voice rings powerful and true. Look for us, your Personal Advocates, huddled in the cold, behind the strings, offering a slow smile at your admission that you want more.

Here we are, ready and willing to place in your hands, heart, mind, and soul all that helps you see, touch, feel, hear, and play in ways you haven’t before. Here we are, in this luminous and diverse harp-tuning din, now, together. Welcome.


‘Same Same, But Different’ is a loving reference to a recording title by jazz and world music harper Rudiger Oppermann. Learn more about the Somerset Harp Festival at and the Jazz Harp Foundation at

Another imperfect post, accompanied by:
Paul Simon - Wristband and Werewolf
Related posts:
Sparks of July

Inviting the Yeti
Trista Hill is a professional harpist and fine artist, creativity coach, educator in the arts, and Board-Certified Music Therapist. What her formal degrees in music and art gave her pale in comparsion to the gifts she's experienced in working with creatives just like you. Visit her website — — for links to her monthly letter, blog, listening library & compositions, performances, and offerings to further you along your own glorious creative journey.