Practice Trophy Display

The students earned a medal for 500 minutes of practice in the month of May and a trophy for 1000 minutes of practice, with larger trophies for 1500, 2000, or 2500 minutes.

This entry was posted on June 10, 2015.

Master Classes with French harpist, Isabelle Frouvelle, April 24, 2015

Last October I met Isabelle Frouvelle during her visit to Washington, D.C. She shared her beginning teaching materials, “Play the Harp with Charlie the Kitten” and “Les amis de Gribouille.” These materials are carefully put together and match my teaching sequence. They have been a big hit in my studio!

Isabelle returned to D.C. in April and I invited her to present a master class for my students. We had two sessions. The advanced students played prepared solos. Isabelle gave thoughtful and constructive critique to each student.

• An-Ya Olson — Fantasie by Saint Saëns
• Kai-Lan Olson — Jazz Band by Marcel Tournier
• Mary Duplantier — Danses sacrée et profane by Debussy

The younger students attended the second hour, playing excerpts from “Play the Harp with Charlie the Kitten” and “Les Amis de Gribouille.” Isabelle congratulated each student on her progress at the harp and explained the thoughts behind the pieces. She finished the class by autographing their books.

This entry was posted on April 25, 2015.

Belt Exams March 2015

I have struggled throughout my teaching career with the question of the best way to develop excellent technique in my students. Like most teachers, I started by teaching the way I was taught. But I had a myriad of teachers as my father was in the Army and we moved a lot, requiring frequent change of instructor, method and so on. Most of my early teachers used the Grossi Method, followed by the Pozzoli and Bochsa Etudes. Some of my teachers, including Marjorie Tyre, with whom I studied in college, felt exercises and etudes were a waste of time and students could develop technique strictly through their repertoire.

I began with that approach: no etudes or exercises, but simply well-chosen repertoire. I felt this was only moderately successful so I went back to Grossi, Pozzoli, and Bochsa op. 318. For a time I had the students who progressed past these etudes do the more advanced Bochsa Etudes op. 34, but came to the conclusion that these etudes were not as productive as the earlier ones. At that point it was preferable for students to spend their practice hours on repertoire.

To encourage students to actually practice the etudes, for a number of years I devoted the March studio recital to etudes. I tried to “sell” it by telling students they would not have to memorize the etudes (I require memory of all repertoire on studio recitals), and could also play a duet or other chamber piece on the program. I had good success with this, but many students only practiced the one etude a year.

Last year the scheduling simply didn’t work. Too many students were doing competitions or other high-stakes performances in March and didn’t have time to polish an etude, so I dropped the etude recital, but told them I would still require some sort of technique exam.

Although I am a firm supporter of the ASTA-CAP program, chaired the committee which wrote the harp curriculum, and am currently the harp representative on the committee, I have not had my studio do the exams in recent years. This has been mostly a problem of logistics and scheduling. But I thought I would simply take the technical requirements out of the ASTA-CAP curriculum and have my students play those scales and arpeggios for an examiner.

As I began preparing, I expanded the concept considerably and decided to award belts for harp technique, as in martial arts, with white belt corresponding to the preliminary level and black belt to the highest level. I took the ASTA-CAP technical requirements and expanded them considerably, adding snippets of exercises on slides, muffles, pedals, harmonics and so on. The upper levels required standard orchestra excerpts.

The first set of exams, in May 2014, was a great success. I hired Adriana Horne, principal harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra, to evaluate about 25 of my students. She took time with each one, turning the event into a series of mini-master classes. I scheduled the students in groups by the hour, so that all could participate regardless of other commitments during the day. Each group had to remain for the hour to benefit from the instruction given to the other students. The levels were mixed in each hour.

In the fall I asked the students if they preferred the belt exams for technical development or the etude recital. The response was unanimous. They preferred the belts. So this year I continued the program, making some adjustments in the requirements after the trial run last year. Nadia Pessoa, harpist with the Army Band, evaluated the students and it was a good experience for everyone. They are all eager to begin the next belt, which is very encouraging!

I am not yet ready to publish the materials, as they still need some tweaking. Also I had an 11th grader complete the black belt so I need to come up with a second degree black belt! Basically each level increases the metronome marking for the scales and adds more complex chords and arpeggios. The white belts do not use the metronome, but beginning with the yellow belt they must use the metronome with the scales. The yellow belt requires the eighth note subdivision with the scale. This is tough for the 7 and 8 year olds, but it is a wonderful way to get them accustomed to the metronome before applying it to their pieces.

The orange belt also requires subdivisions in triplets and many of them find this difficult as well. The purple belt requires the 16th note subdivision. At this point they can easily subdivide and the skill transfers easily to their repertoire. Then it is just a matter of moving the fingers faster at each level, and in a greater variety of keys. The upper belts require scales of 2 against 3 and 3 against 4. Again, tough skills, but once these skills are mastered in the scales there is no stumbling block when the complex rhythms show up in the repertoire.

In the six weeks leading up to the belt exams, a good third to half of each lesson was devoted to mastering the required technical skills. Now I am only spending five or ten minutes on one or two elements of their previous belt, or the next one, and devoting more lesson time to the repertoire.

So, have Grossi, Bochsa, and Pozzoli been discontinued? Of course not! I still think the Grossi exercises are terrific for developing standard finger patterns and reinforcing reading skills. And all of the intermediate technique is covered in Bochsa and Pozzoli. But, I have more success getting the students to master the belts than their etudes, and there has been a gain in the technical mastery of my students which is apparent in performances of their repertoire. The belts are here to stay!

This entry was posted on April 11, 2015.

Working with My Students Through YouTube While on Tour

While traveling with the NSO on their 2013 European tour I worried about my students continued progress. Knowing that distance learning is under experimentation in all fields, not just music, I considered Skype lessons, but decided this would be too complicated with coordinating schedules
and limitations on technology. In the end I decided to require my college students to post a video of their lesson materials on YouTube about half-way through the tour. I encouraged my younger students to do the same, but did not require it.

There were some technical challenges: some of the students had trouble posting their videos to YouTube, and I didn’t always have a reliable internet connection. But I did receive videos from all of my college students and many of the younger ones. I studied the videos and emailed a detailed
critique to each student.


1. Those students who did prepare the video had put in much more practice time than those who had not. Just the exercise of making the video required multiple takes (they wanted to send me their best playing).

2. The students are now much more at ease with the technology and have told me how much easier it will be to post to YouTube the next time I am out of town for several weeks.

3. Between the video and the following lesson many of the students had made more progress than I had anticipated. This was true especially of the middle school students (ages 11-14). I am not sure why, but I think it is a combination of the formality of the notes in an email (rather
than my simply saying the same thing verbally in a lesson); the chance to view the video repeatedly (I usually referenced the video by time-stamp so they could see that yes, the thumb needed to be higher in that passage); and the involvement of the parents, who normally don’t sit in on the lessons but probably watched the video and read my comments.


1. I think this sort of instruction is valuable as an
adjunct to regular lessons, but should not replace the lessons. Because of the well-established
student/teacher relationships, the students understood my comments clearly, but
my written comments might not have been as helpful to them without that

2. There are limitations to the information which can be communicated through a video. While I could evaluate basic hand position, I could not identify and correct for tension as I can when the student is in my studio. I could critique basic sound quality and phrasing, but not the nuances.

I think the experiment was very successful and I intend to repeat the process the next time I am traveling for more than a week or so!

This entry was posted on February 23, 2013.

Music Journal iPhone application

Last May I mentioned an iPhone application called Music Journal. At the time I was not overly impressed with the application. Basically it is a timer which allows you to record the time you spend practicing specific pieces. The application will give you statistics over a period of time.

This morning I received an upgrade to the application and there is now the ability to record notes for each day of practice. This allows for setting goals for each practice session and makes the application infinitely more useful!

Now, if the developers would make a version for the iPad…

This entry was posted on September 28, 2010.

Motivation and practicing

Sometimes, in practicing, you hit a wall and no matter what you do nothing seems to get any better. At times like these don't stop practicing but rather take a different approach.

Approach #1: Goal setting–do this on a very small level. Make a goal to fix the fingering or placing on these two measures, or perhaps play the entire piece without error at 1/4 tempo. Pick a goal that is achievable and measurable. Accomplish that and then set another goal. Don't think about how much time it is taking, or how surely other people don't have to start with such basic goals. I can assure you they do, but it doesn't matter anyway, set goals appropriate for yourself.

Approach #2: Forget technique for a bit and work just on musicality. Experiment with pointing the phrases in different places. Exaggerate the dynamics and then tone them down. Change the shape of the crescendi or accelerandi. Experiment with color by changing the amount of fingerpad on the string and the placement on the string. Try different articulations. Forget for awhile if the fingers are working properly and focus on the sounds you are creating.

Approach #3: Work on tempo. Try playing one piece very slowly, at dirge speed, making sure every finger is working very correctly and evenly. Then double (or triple or quadruple) the tempo and play very fast and light. Don't worry if it is a bit sloppy. Then go back to a slow repetition, then fast. After awhile you will be able to play the passage fast and accurately. This approach is often a welcome relief from simply notching up the metronome with each repetition.

Approach #4: Take a day off from your regular practice routine and spend the session sightreading or improvising. The following day your practice session will seem more fresh.

This entry was posted on July 23, 2010.

The harp in Jane Austen

I once had a student tell me that she chose the harp because it is featured in the novels of Jane Austen. I am not a great fan of Jane Austen, but I found the comment interesting.

Recently I was sent an article titled The Harp as Status Symbol. The article opens with this quote from Mansfield Park:

A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man's heart.

This entry was posted on July 16, 2010.

Teaching tip: Swap places with the student!

One thing I love to do with my younger students is to swap places. I will have the student sit in my chair and teach me a passage. The students love this game so much that I often can use it as an incentive to get them to concentrate well in the lesson so that there is enough time!

This can be approached on many levels.

Have the student correct your hand position or technique. In doing this you can be certain that the student understands exactly what to do, and also pays close attention to your hands when you do it properly. This has worked like a charm for student not quite mastering a cross-under or open-hand octave. Once they have to articulate to me just how to do it, and also correct my position, they seem to have no further problems mastering the technique.

Have the student play detective and find your note or rhythm mistakes. This is effective if you parrot back their mistakes, and since they have to discover the mistake, they will remember the trouble spot a lot better than if you simply correct their playing. You can also do this with a piece they have never seen nor heard, to reinforce the connection between the notation and execution of a passage.

Have the student identify unevenness of tone or unsteadiness in rhythm. It is easier for them to hear this as you play and hopefully they will then listen just as critically to their own playing.

This entry was posted on May 26, 2010.

Motivation: The Deadline

Tomorrow many of my students will perform an etude and two or three solos for a judge at the Virginia ASTA-CAP exams. I have been amazed at the amount of effort some of my less diligent students have put into the preparation. I suppose that in music, as in many things in life, most of us need the pressure of a deadline. I wish I could figure out a way to extend this motivation past the deadline, but I'm stumped. I'm sure these same students will slack off after the conclusion of the event.

The only solution I have come up with is to schedule quite a few events over the year. In addition to these evaluations I schedule three or four studio recitals a year. Most of the beginners play each recital. The more advanced students, with longer pieces, will often do just two recitals. I also schedule master classes with harpists visiting the area as often as possible, but at least once a year. A master class is sort of a "mini-lesson" in front of an audience. This is a little more pressure than a studio recital, or even the evaluations taking place tomorrow.

I find that by scheduling a number of deadlines like these my students will have the incentive to maintain their practice habits through the year.

This entry was posted on May 7, 2010.

Why did you choose the harp?


One of the most frequent questions I get is "Why did you choose to play the harp?" And in fact, that is the first question I ask when I interview a prospective student. The answer I am looking for is, "because I love the sound," because that is what we do: create beauty through sound. Often I will get the response that the instrument looks beautiful, or simply the practical one: someone else in the home plays the harp, so the instrument is available. One teenager told me she chose the harp because a heroine in a Jane Austin novel played it!

My personal answer? I loved the sound, of course, but there is more to it. My family was a military family and we moved frequently. When I was about ten we moved to Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama. A neighbor, Virginia Pettit, had an old Erard harp and I would go over to her house after school every day to practice. Eventually my parents bought me a harp of my own. Later that year Marjorie Tyre played the harp with the Huntsville Symphony, performing Ravel's Introduction et allegro. I had a lesson with her and she took an interest in me and invited me to join her summer class in Sewanee, Tennessee. I later studied with her at Auburn University.

But why was I so fascinated with the harp to begin with? As a child I was a bit of a romantic daydreamer. I read all the time, living in my books. My grandmother had been a middle school English teacher and she used to give me books to read. She introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay. I became fascinated with "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," which tells the story of a poor widow who freezes to death as she weaves clothes for her son through the harp strings. I just loved that poem, memorized it, and can still recite most of it. The images of the poem are haunting:

The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver by Edna St. Vincent Millay

"Son," said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
"you've need of clothes to cover you,
and not a rag have I.
"There's nothing in the house
To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with,
Nor thread to take stitches.
"There's nothing in the house
But a loaf-end of rye,
And a harp with a woman's head
Nobody will buy,"
And she began to cry.
That was in the early fall.
When came the late fall,
"Son," she said, "the sight of you
Makes your mother's blood crawl,—
"Little skinny shoulder-blades
Sticking through your clothes!
And where you'll get a jacket from
God above knows.
"It's lucky for me, lad,
Your daddy's in the ground,
And can't see the way I let
His son go around!"
And she made a queer sound.
That was in the late fall.
When the winter came,
I'd not a pair of breeches
Nor a shirt to my name.
I couldn't go to school,
Or out of doors to play.
And all the other little boys
Passed our way.
"Son," said my mother,
"Come, climb into my lap,
And I'll chafe your little bones
While you take a nap."
And, oh, but we were silly
For half and hour or more,
Me with my long legs,
Dragging on the floor,
To a mother-goose rhyme!
Oh, but we were happy
For half an hour's time!
But there was I, a great boy,
And what would folks say
To hear my mother singing me
To sleep all day,
In such a daft way?
Men say the winter
Was bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
And food was dear.
A wind with a wolf's head
Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
And sat upon the floor.
All that was left us
Was a chair we couldn't break,
And the harp with a woman's head
Nobody would take,
For song or pity's sake.
The night before Christmas
I cried with cold,
I cried myself to sleep
Like a two-year old.
And in the deep night
I felt my mother rise,
And stare down upon me
With love in her eyes.
I saw my mother sitting
On the one good chair,
A light falling on her
From I couldn't tell where.
Looking nineteen,
And not a day older,
And the harp with a woman's head
Leaned against her shoulder.
Her thin fingers, moving
In the thin, tall strings,
Were weav-weav-weaving
Wonderful things.
Many bright threads,
From where I couldn't see,
Were running through the harp-strings
And gold threads whistling
Through my mother's hand.
I saw the web grow,
And the pattern expand.
She wove a child's jacket,
And when it was done
She laid it on the floor
And wove another one.
She wove a red cloak
So regal to see,
"She's made it for a king's son,"
I said, "and not for me."
But I knew it was for me.
She wove a pair of breeches
Quicker than that!
She wove a pair of boots
And a little cocked hat.
She wove a pair of mittens,
Shw wove a little blouse,
She wove all night
In the still, cold house.
She sang as she worked,
And the harp-strings spoke;
Her voice never faltered,
And the thread never broke,
And when I awoke,—
There sat my mother
With the harp against her shoulder,
Looking nineteeen,
And not a day older,
A smile about her lips,
And a light about her head,
And her hands in the harp-strings
Frozen dead.
And piled beside her
And toppling to the skies,
Were the clothes of a king's son,
Just my size.

This entry was posted on May 1, 2010.


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