Not long ago, I played a contemporary cantata at a church. The piece had an uncomplicated harp part, and I settled myself comfortably for an easy rehearsal. My first entrance was a simple glissando upsweep, and as I played it, I got the little electric thrill I always get when I play a glissando. It’s the thrill that says, “Listen to this, everybody. It’s the harp!”
My first harp piece was “The Purple Bamboo.” It was a fun first harp piece, and the glissandos made it an immediate favorite. From the very first, I fell in love with glissandos. And I never get tired of playing them.
Of course, my fingers have suffered from too many glissandos at times, but every time I play one, whether in a solo piece or in orchestra, I enjoy the moment. It is a sonority unique to the harp, and one of the easiest to play. In fact, nothing other than perhaps chocolate, is as simple and satisfying.
Glissandos are colorful. They can express any mood, evoke any atmosphere, lead the music forward, or bring a piece to a graceful close. Playing a glissando is like painting music with a broad brush stroke. And just as a painter chooses his paints from his palette, you need to have a palette of “glissando colors.”
First, you need to choose the color you want. That means choosing the adjective that best describes how you want the glissando to sound.
Whether the glissando is a splash up to a high note, or creates an ethereal atmosphere, in order to play the glissando well from a musical perspective, you need to assign it an appropriate adjective. Here are some adjectives describing some of my favorite glissandos: magical, graceful, majestic, glorious, warm, rhythmic, expansive, flashy, glamorous, eerie. (No, I won’t tell you which adjectives go with which glissando; you need to make your own choices.)
After you have the adjective in mind, you use the three “primary colors” on your palette. There are the three qualities of every glissando which, in different combinations, create its color.
1. Tone. A rich warm sound or a light airy touch denote very different musical atmospheres. Which is right for the glissando you are playing? What other tone options do you have?
2. Speed. Some glissandos are slow, blossoming gradually like a flower. Others are rapid fire. Many times a glissando will either speed up or slow down over its course. Naturally, you must coordinate the speed with the…
3. …Dynamics. Is the glissando soft or loud? Should it crescendo or diminuendo?
Experiment by mixing different colors from these three primary colors, and see how beautiful and thrilling your glissandos can be!
Ps. One of my all-time favorite glissandos is featured in this video (4:32).