Choosing Your Harp Teacher

If you own a folk harp, should your teacher be a pedal harpist, a lever harpist, or a combination of both? The following ramblings are thoughts that came to me upon hearing this question.

In our experience, some pedal harp teachers do not know how to string a folk harp. Some will insist on putting a pedal bass wire on a Dusty string harp, for instance. Or – if they put a string on a folk harp, they put it on incorrectly and it breaks. At this point they insist the harp is poorly built and something is wrong with it. Some will insist on pulling very hard into the palm, thus distorting the sound. Also, we have had experience with pedal harp teachers who try to teach their adult folk harp students pedal repertoire, as if they were in training for orchestral work. They are not aware of the repertoire available for the older beginner.

And now that I start thinking about this question, I have memories of customers calling and being near tears because they want to quit. Harp is not fun. Why – because they bought a beautiful folk harp and their teacher is a strict pedal harp instructor with no knowledge of the folk harp world in terms of repertoire, tension, manufactures of harps, types of wood, and they teach, as I said before, as if their students are destined to be an orchestral harpist. Additionally, many pedal-only teachers insist their older students keep their elbows very high, because they have no experience with the older human body and its changes, and these students express pain which is ignored. The hand position and arms are not adjusted accordingly.

Going back to stringing a harp, in one instance, a pedal harp instructor at a college did not know how to order strings for the college pedal harp at all. It was very frustrating for us, because we have seen many a recent graduate with a master’s degree become a college instructor just because they have a master’s degree, and they have no concept of how to teach, order strings, or deal with beginners. Experience is so very important, and makes all the difference in the world as to whether or not the student, no matter what age, continues with joy or quits because of frustration.

I teach my students the typical hand position of keeping the thumbs high, relaxing the fingers (not holding fingers 3 and 4 tightly into the palm while playing 1 and 2); and pulling into the palm, and the thumbs goes over the second finger. This creates a warm tone. I also have them squeeze the strings, because to me, that is the way to get the best tone and also makes a connection to the brain.

It took me three years to comfortably make the transition from pedal harp to lever harp. I had to learn that less is better. At first I was very self conscious because I wasn’t playing as many notes as when I played pedal harp, and I didn’t seem to be working as hard. But with folk harp, because the instrument is so resonant, I finally became comfortable with letting the beauty of the timbre speak for itself. I think the folk harp has more of an ability to sing, and we must adapt to that, work with the instrument and not get in its way.

That being said, I still feel that knowing pedal harp technique is important. I have seen many folk harpers playing with technique that shows a lack of knowledge about tone and phrasing. Since the folk harp has a voice of its own, knowing how to bring that out is important. Playing with poor hand position can sometimes bypass the importance of tone and phrasing, and to play without that is to me, to play without spirit and life. It’s just a shame. And on a very subtle vein, it can be irritating to the listener. Playing without preparing for the next phase is a thoughtless way to come to any instrument. I believe that every student benefits when taught to prepare, or place, in advance for the next phrase or group of notes. At our store we have received hundreds (many hundreds) of CDs that were sent to us in hopes we would add them to our inventory. When you take a listen to CDs, you can always tell who is playing with thought as to phrasing and tone, and who is not. It is subtle and hard to explain, but the mind of the listener discerns a well taught player from someone who is not mindfully approaching the strings.

The above refers to nylon or gut strung harps. Placing and squeezing the strings would not apply to wire harp. –Mary Radspinner

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