Inspiring Possibilities For Teaching Beginner Harp Groups

Last year I had a rethink about how to teach the harp to beginners in groups. Over all the years I have been teaching (about 20!) the time it takes me to start a student off has reduced significantly. The key to this has been what I focus on with new students and the language I use when teaching them. My approach to music has also changed significantly over this time. My ideas about the role of music in the lives of my students and the things I value in music have either completely changed or developed. All of this has helped to make the creation of a new path for group teaching so much easier.

At the school where I teach the Music Department has shifted in the last couple of years to placing a high value on participation and inclusiveness. While I have always felt that it is possible for harp players to be active participants in just about any genre of music, I was not sure how possible this was for beginners. Given that relatively few musicians that play the harp, there has been a corresponding lack of school music teachers who are comfortable with the instrument. Sometimes this has been difficult and confronting. Many of my private students have been deliberately blocked from inclusion in ensembles in other schools, even when I have offered to support them by arranging music and speaking to their ensemble teachers. My reaction to this has been to encourage my own students to be actively involved in any musical activities they want to at the school where I teach.

We have a strong program of jazz and contemporary music as well as classical music. While my own background is in classical and folk music, having students involved in contemporary ensembles as well as more classical ones has revealed other learning possibilities. Of course, this is probably no surprise for contemporary musicians but I think it may be for the classical ones, especially for harpists. In Australia at least, it is very unusual for a harp player to learn harp through contemporary music only. The examination repertoire and basis of technique is overwhelmingly classical. There are more and more contemporary music harpists emerging on the music scene, but for teachers in schools knowing what to do with a harp player who wants to perform in a rock band is probably a bit of an issue.

Most harps in schools are lever not pedal harps. Even if a school has a pedal harp, the beginner student will not be playing it. For lever harp players the changing of levers for accidentals needs to be thought out and the highly chromatic nature of some contemporary music presents challenges for music teachers who have really no idea about the needs of harp students in this regard. The answer, however, is surprisingly straight forward.

Last year I started teaching small groups of primary age students from years 5 and 6. We started running small instrumental teaching groups as a way of getting students interested in music and allowing them to ‘try out’ instrumental music lessons without it costing too much for their parents. I started two groups of four students. Only a couple of these students had played any other instrument and had some ability to read music, the rest could not read music notation at all. This presented some issues in the group situation. I could teach them how to read music but I only had half an hour with them once a week and the focus of the lessons were on encouraging students to experience playing on their instrument as soon as possible.

In the past I tried to teach instrumental groups but found it difficult because I attempted to teach groups of students much as I would an individual student. In other words, my main focus was still on technique (hand position, placement, notation etc…). Inevitably the progress of the students was so varied that in the half hour lesson format one or two students would take up considerable amounts of my time while others received far less of my attention. I also found that students who progressed quicker had to slow down and sometimes this dampened their enthusiasm. While I have successfully taught groups of older students in much longer sessions of up to eighty minutes, the shorter lesson time and corresponding short attention span of my younger students demanded a new approach.

Coming back to teaching half an hour group lessons last year, I decided to incorporate some new ideas or at least give myself permission to try something different. The first step was to teach with more of an aural emphasis rather than using notation. To go with this, I emphasised rhythm and building rhythmic intuition and feel. I taught the group together, everybody at once and used imitation techniques regularly. I chunked the music that I wanted the students to learn, played it through so they could hear how the section went. I clapped the rhythm and they clapped it back to me. I sang the chunk with the rhythm and asked them to sing it back to me. Then I slowly took the students through the notes with the fingering using visual cues eg. Step motion, jumping up or down a few strings, using the black and red strings for orientation and looking for turnaround patterns.  If they got stuck I sang the notes to them – I did this a lot! I would ask them if the next note was higher or lower, if it was a big jump or a small jump and encouraged them to use trial and error to find the right notes themselves. I also sang the beat numbers and subdivisions with the rhythm and pitch instead of or in lieu of lyrics eg. 1 and a 2 and a 3, 4 etc.. (bit hard to explain this in writing). I encouraged the students to teach other and gave them time to work it out, to experiment, and then we did a lot of ‘I play and you copy’ in chunks until they got it. Did I mention I also tend to dance around in time with the music when I teach and generally try and keep things very upbeat and fun? I have a lap harp for that!

None of this is new for music teachers but I think it would be for most harp teachers. Often my harp students are asked to join in with the school band playing hip-hop, EDM, Soul or another equally groovy genre. Many harp players would baulk at this or say they can’t play that kind of music on the lever harp but I have found a way for my students to participate joyfully. I can usually find a couple of repetitive rifts in the music they can learn and with a bit of trickery around the issue of accidentals they can enjoy being part of large ensemble. The harp is perfect for holding down some of the bass lines. I have tried to encourage a ‘have a go’, ‘let’s see if we can find a way’ attitude that has been very successful. At the end of last year I was so proud to see two of my students playing in different contemporary bands in front of the whole school along with electric guitar players, drum kit players and singers. Without any help from me, they arranged a part for themselves and played along with everyone as if it was completely normal to see lever harp in a rock band. I made sure they were miked up so they could be heard and they just went for it. One of my students had only been learning harp for a year and was happily performing with two rap singers – I loved it!






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