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.

Back home from the NSO European Tour 2013

I had a marvelous time with the NSO touring in Spain and Germany. The concerts were very well attended and enthusiastically received, as noted by the Washington Post.

Best thing about the tour: the opportunity to play a masterpiece (Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra) with one of the finest orchestras in the world, under the marvelous conductor, Christophe Eschenbach.

Most notable element of the tour: the acoustic was superb in every hall, but different–it was really fascinating to hear the music in a slightly different way in each performance venue.

Toughest part of the tour: keeping my fingers in shape! For the most part we didn't arrive at the hall until 30-40 minutes prior to a service, and half of that time was spent tuning. To maintain dexterity I made good use of the Salzedo Conditioning Exercises, as well as those of Marilyn Costello and Marie-Claire Jamet. But I was very envious of other musicians who were able to practice in their hotel rooms!

This entry was posted on February 17, 2013.

My practice “shelf”

A student asked me yesterday if I still had to practice. I managed to refrain from laughing at the naïveté of the question and explained that no matter how long you have been playing an instrument, you will always have to practice. I aim for three hours a day and usually do two.

So what am I practicing these days? I always begin with 30 minutes of exercises and etudes to maintain my "machine" or technical facility. I rotate through the exercise books (Holy, Renié, Salzedo, Larivière, Magistretti, Costello, etc.) and then I rotate through the etude books (Bochsa, Dizi, Damase, etc.). At the moment on my music stand are the Salzedo Conditioning Exercises, and the first book of the Bochsa Fifty Etudes.

Then I run through the repertoire I am teaching that day. Today I have mostly beginners, but one student is learning Les Follets by Hasselmans, and the Sonata in D major by John Parry, so I will review those pieces.

After the technical work and teaching preparation I work on music for upcoming concerts. Next week the NSO is playing The Dharma at Big Sur by John Adams and the Fireworks by Stravinsky. The following week for Youth Orchestra Day I am preparing Les Preludes by Liszt and Scherzo capriccioso by Dvorak. With the exception of the Fireworks by Stravinsky, I have played all of those compositions, but I still need to work them back into my fingers.

The bulk of my practice time is being spent on Procession and Carols by James Bingham, which I will be performing the West Coast première on July 3 at the AHS National Conference in Tacoma, WA, and Fantasia for organ and harp by Rachel Laurin, which I will be performing the World première in Washington, DC at the American Guild of Organists Convention on July 6.

If there is any time left (which has not been the case for months…) there are some pieces at the back of my stack which I have always wanted to learn, such as the Sonata by Houdy and the Impromptu by Roussel.

I always conclude my practice with some music which nourishes my soul. I particularly connect with the Nocturne of Hovhaness, the Fantasy of Malcolm Arnold, and a transcription I did myself of the C.P.E. Bach Twelve Variations on "La Folia." Perhaps someday I will publish my transcription.

This entry was posted on May 13, 2010.


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