(Written on a gloriously wi-fi free Thursday)
This afternoon finds me in Leiden in the Netherlands. A quick tot up on the plane revealed that this is my most visited country which both surprised me and made me happy.
I’ve been here before, on a school trip some 20+ years ago. I can’t remember why we came to Leiden, I think it was on the way to somewhere else. We didn’t see much anyway, other than a slightly strange artistic installation of wedding dresses in one of the canal basins.
This time I’m here for a rather different reason. This is my second visit to the Jazz Harp Academy. It’s a full-circle thing – the first time I came in 2010, it was in a bid to do something that scared me silly during one of the lowest points in my life.
It worked, and led to many wonderful things, including my move to Glasgow. I met a very dear friend and we have supported each other on our own individual musical adventures.
We are very similar and yet very different. Someone asked how they would recognise us to collect us from the airport once. I said we are both very small with big smiles and we will probably be the noisiest people there as we will be laughing so much.
My friend arrives this evening so I made the most of an afternoon in a different place. For all intents and purposes it’s a new place, as I don’t really recognise any of it.
It was raining heavily when I got off the train from Amsterdam. The windmill count was up to 2 within 15 minutes. I saw a museum and wondered about going in, but at 11 euros I decided against it. Not a huge sum but I figured I could make better use of the time and money.
I had a map but only used it to make sure I was heading in the right direction from the station to check out the venue for the next few days. Other than that, I just strolled, taking whichever street or canal I fancied.
It is so quiet here. It’s a mixture of old and new and they sit comfortably with each other.
The reason for the peace is the humble bicycle. This is Holland, where the bike is king. Near the station, bikes are all you can see wherever you look. There is an occasional car in the town but they are conspicuous by their sound.
I found a gorgeous cafe to have lunch in. I settled down with a book and enjoyed seeing the world going past outside. The cafe was quiet too – unusually in a world of piped music, there was no soundtrack at all, not even a radio. I enjoyed this. I’m a musician but there are times where silence is just what’s needed.
I’m reading Miles Davis’s autobiography and have just read about the first time he heard Thelonious Monk play. He was struck by the spaces left in between the notes as much as the notes themselves.
My harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals. As a classical harpist, when I’m improvising I often feel obliged to use as many of these as possible. (With some orchestral parts it is not so much expected as compulsory to use all of them at once!)
This often adds unnecessary pressure and complexity, and leaves no space for breathing (for me or the music) or thinking about what comes next.
My first time at the jazz academy taught me the importance of listening to what was going on around me, and thinking about bass, rhythm and lead. Now when I create music of my own, I try to use as few notes as possible, to leave room.
It’s hard to find space in everyday life, and today has been a great opportunity to sit, to breathe and to think before the next few days of full-on learning and bashing against my comfort zone in an attempt to push myself forwards som more.
My afternoon cost me considerably less than 11 euros, but was worth much, much more and I’ve probably learnt more than I would have done in the museum. It did have an awesome totem pole outside, though, so I’m off for a proper look at that tomorrow.