(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!