Transitions: Working in the Spaces

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Transitions make the difference.

In life, we admire those who appear to glide easily from one phase of life to the next.

In music, we applaud artists whose seamless performances create a musical momentum that carries us along its path.

How we handle the transitions we face is the difference between success and stress, flying through the notes or flubbing them.

Whether we are trying to smooth out a transition in our music or figure out what comes next for us in life, the best practices for success are remarkably similar.
Consider the types of musical transitions we musicians struggle with daily. Perhaps one of the first transitions we encounter is the transition from the end of one line of music to the beginning of the next. Once we have been playing for even a short while, we no longer have difficulty with this, but it is a big hurdle for many beginning musicians.

Other types of transitions are tempo changes, key changes, and meter changes. There are transitions between techniques and between sections or movements of a piece. Even a concert program is planned with attention to the transition between works.

You may have noticed the commonality in these transitions; the word between. The transition is the between space. The moment when one thing is over and the next thing hasn’t yet happened. It can be a long moment; some transitions in symphonies can last for minutes. Or it can be as short as the transition from one sixteenth note to the next, as we craft a crescendo or a rallentando or a legato phrase.

Each of these transitions must be considered, planned and practiced. Some develop more naturally than others; some always feel slightly awkward. But in order to keep the forward energy of the music, it is vital that we work our way through the between moments and come out on the other side.

Transitions in life are frequently less easy to handle. We can’t practice them over and over, the way we would a musical one. Sometimes even when we know that a life change is coming, it can be difficult to anticipate all the details. We are surprised by our emotions or unexpected consequences.

So how do you successfully negotiate the between space?

First, you must take notice of where you are starting. Are you on a solid footing? Musically, check the notes, fingering and all the other important details in the measures that happen before the transition. For a life transition, are there areas where you need some growth or support? Do you best to fill in the gaps before you move on.

Next, consider where you are going. What is on the other side of the transition? We musicians have a standard procedure for this part; all we need to do is practice the music that comes after the transition. However, it may help to spend a moment thinking about how the music (or phase of life) after the transition is different from what has come before. Is there a common thread? What are the most striking differences?

When you are clear on where you are starting and where you are going, the next step is to imagine the transition. What happens in the between space? How does the transition create a connection between the two parts?

This is step many people miss in working through any type of transition. When you can imagine the link between here and there, you can create a mental picture of the bridge that will take you across the between. Musically, it could be a change in dynamic or tempo or tone, or perhaps it is just mental preparation for what comes next.

In a life transition, imagine what change will be likely to occur and how it may feel. Trying to anticipate these changes will help you adapt more quickly and feel less anxious.

Lastly, plan and take action. Decide on the steps you need to create the type of transition that will get you across the between safely. Will it take a specific type of practice? A certain amount of time spent working through it? Some patience with yourself or others? Some expert guidance from someone who has been there before?

One final thought. Keep in mind that the journey, the transition, may lead to a different destination than the one you expected. Enjoy the journey; there’s a lot of music, and a lot of life, that happens between the notes.

In the words of Claude Debussy, (with similar thoughts attributed to other composers), “Music is the space between the notes.” The emphasis is mine.

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  • Lee Stewart

    Thank you for this perspective. As a person who has recently retired, I am going through the between moment right now and am surprised at the things that have come up- most unexpectedly! It has been more complicated than I thought. I love the bridge metaphor- I realize that I didn’t know where my bridge was going. Something that is important to know. Your wisdom really speaks to me. thank you Anne.


  • Anne Knights

    My recent transition problem was with a piece I chose because I thought it was reasonably simple but when I came to putting it all together it was so difficult for me to play without hesitations because the left hand notation kept changing from bass to treble then back. I nearly gave up on it but by using a colour to remind me to change I think it sounds ok now. The test will come when I try to play it for someone! I love reading your words of wisdom Anne. There is always something helpful – a reminder or a new light bulb moment!


  • Rob Stone

    Structure is a theme in life worthy of exploring-one often refers to a house, that if not built properly, will collapse- even if one doesn’t have a full time job but “freelances”, is retired, semi or full, or is a student, one needs structure to organize the time required to accomplish your goals-Even if you said, I’m just going to enjoy myself every day, for the rest of my life, you would still need some planning!

    With study of the harp, as an adult, trying to blend the study of it with all my other interests and obligations, has been a challenge-the more you get into it’s “depths”, the more you realize all the facets that make up a good harpist-being a good reader, being able to play faster tempos, having a good tone, knowing all of the unique harp “techniques”, good body and hand position, memorizing, knowing the harmony of a piece, having a substantial repertoire- enough for several lifetimes! Couple all of this with the transitions that one faces in life as well, can be a daunting task. So many distractions too-TV, sports, exercise, the internet, social obligations, family, friends, making a living-wow! how do we do it? When you have a goal like being a good harpist, keep at it, it will take years, but don’t get discouraged, but enjoy the progress you’re making, no matter how slow or fast, as you navigate the transitions in your life and in the music! Don’t give up! I “resumed” studying after a 30 year hiatus and am loving it more than ever, but sure the more you learn, the greater the challenge becomes, as you go on to newer heights! But the satisfaction, along the way, should give you the “fuel” to continue!


  • Gretchen Cover

    Alice Giles talks about this at length in her presentation for the Virtual Harp Summit. The execution of a note is just a tiny part of harp playing. It is what happens before and after the pluck that makes the music


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