ARE YOU READY TO TEACH?
(This article originally appeared in the Harp Column as an opinion
piece in the Soundingboard forum.)
By Carl Swanson
Derek Bell, in an interview with the Harp Column
last year, made a snide but telling remark about the type of harp instruction
that too frequently passes for teaching in the United States. In it he
said; “I’m not like the average Californian that spits out
three tunes and the next thing you find, he’s harp professor in
the town. I couldn’t inflict that bluff on the public.” The
quote may overstate the case, (and also unfairly limit the blame to Californians),
but there is definitely some truth there.
The question here is: Are you really, REALLY, ready to teach? Do you have
a clear idea of what teaching the harp involves? And do you have standards
and systems at your disposal that will serve the student who wants to make
real progress in classical repertoire? Let’s define the job.
Assuming your prospective student is a rank
beginner, you will have two separate skills to teach him: 1) How to read
music, and 2) How to play the harp.
The first involves far more than simply being
able to read lines and spaces. You will have to teach him to identify
chord and rhythmic patterns, and to see and understand everything on the
page-dynamic markings, tempo changes, etc. The faster and more accurately
your student reads, the faster he will advance on the instrument.
The second- teaching him to play the harp- has
to be subdivided into two areas. These are: 1) teaching technique, and
2) teaching repertoire. These two aspects of harp playing have to be dealt
with individually. Without solid technical work, addressed separately
from repertoire, your student will struggle with every piece he plays,
and his musical expression will be severely limited.
Do you know what technique is? It has nothing to do with hand or arm position,
but is instead the mechanical skill that permits the student to play any
note, at any speed, at any volume on the instrument. Do you know how to
achieve this goal in a systematic way? And what is your means of doing
it? If your method of advancing technique is to give your student harder
and harder pieces, the result, I promise, will be that which is described
in the previous paragraph.
The greatest harpists of this century- Renie,
Grandjany, Laskine, Jamet, Zabelata, Tournier, Salzedo-all were trained
under a system that made rigorous use of études and exercises. If
you don’t understand the value of these important tools in advancing
technique, and don’t know, as a teacher, how to use them, you shouldn’t
be teaching serious students.
Your student will have to be taught a wide variety
of practice techniques if he is to advance. If your answer to every problem
is to practice loud and slow for example, then your student is in big trouble.
Practicing loud and slow will teach one thing, and one thing only, and that
is; how to play loud and slow. If your student is having trouble learning
a piece, and your advice is that it just needs more work, then one or more
of the following is true: your student is not practicing enough or is practicing
incorrectly, the piece is too difficult, or you have failed to teach the
student how to learn the piece; the last two reasons indicating that you,
the teacher, have screwed up.
You should be the one to set the standards
for lesson preparation, not your student. You should assign specific pages
to be learned for the following lesson, and those pages, one week later,
should be memorized. You obviously will have to teach your student how
to do this.
You should have specific expectations of a finished
piece. Are you more impressed with your student’s effort than with
the quality of the finished piece? If your attitude is “Well, next
year he’ll play it that much better,”- then again, you have
failed your student by assigning something that is too difficult or by
not teaching him how to learn it. A serious student should be able to
learn and memorize a minimum of two pages of music a week, and when the
piece is finished(a 12 page piece for example, ÷ 2 pages a week
= 6 weeks), the piece should be ready to record.
You should be knowledgeable about different
styles and composers. A repertoire that consists primarily of one composer
is severely limiting.
Lastly, you should encourage your student to
listen to other harpists, including harpists from some other methodology
than your own. You should encourage him to attend harp meetings, concerts,
conferences, masterclasses, and competitions, just to hear what other
people are doing.
You may feel that the standards listed in this
article are too difficult for most of your students, and you are right.
But if you are able to teach at this level for the student who wants it,
you can always back off for the others. However, if your only and best
standard is geared to that lower level, as it frequently is today, then
it is impossible to teach a higher standard for the student who needs
it. Unfortunately, many teachers are using a lower standard exclusively,
even at the college level.
Whatever level you teach, you are teaching the student’s brain,
not his fingers!