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.

Benefits:

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.

Limitations:

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
relationship.

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.

Performing at Wolf Trap in Extreme Heat

The National Symphony Orchestra performs three times a year at the West Lawn of the Capitol: Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day. Memorial Day and July 4 are televised, Labor Day is not. In addition, throughout the month of July, the National Symphony performs about ten concerts at Wolf Trap, pictured to the left.

For all of these concerts there is a risk of bad weather, and none of the venues have air conditioning on the stage. To keep comfortable we have fans, but that is the extent. The dressing rooms at Wolf Trap are air-conditioned, but the stage is not.

People often ask me if I get nervous about performing at the Capitol. I don't get nervous about playing the harp, but I do get stressed over the tuning. Harps do not do well in hot and humid weather.

We have had several concerts this summer where, even at 8:30 in the evening, the temperature has been over 100 degrees. My worst experience was a concert of all John Williams music. In the afternoon rehearsal I had three strings break, and another three broke during the concert. This was on top of two broken strings the day before. I was a wreck! In John Williams' music there are many exposed harp parts, and the harp is played constantly–there is very little time to change a string or tune. But, that is what is required of my job and so I did it.

Here is some advice:

1. Keep as comfortable as you can.

a. Be sure you are well-rested and in top physical shape as a concert in that weather can feel like running a marathon

b. Keep hydrated: The NSO provides sports drinks backstage. At the very least drink lots of water

c. Keep as cool as you can: dress as appropriately as possible, and use a chilling sports towel, at least for rehearsals. You can purchase one at a sporting goods store or online at FroggToggs.

2. Keep your harp in performance condition

a. If at all possible, use a second harp for outdoor performances. The conditions will be brutal for any harp, and you are miked anyway, so don't worry too much about sound quality.

b. Use nylon strings in the upper two octaves if you possibly can (I hate the sound of the nylon strings so this is a hard guideline for me…)

c. Have your string bag on stage beside you, well-organized so that you can grab any string and string brace in seconds. (A tip: if you can't find a string brace quickly, tear off a corner of the program or cue sheet, roll it into a tight tube and use that–it works just fine.)

d. Be very quick at changing strings. When you are in the practice room, do timed drills every time a string breaks.

e. When you change a string, leave the string end a little on the long side until the pitch has stabilized–this way you know in an instant which strings to spot-check. This is also important if you have more than one harp. I'm constantly forgetting which strings recently broke on which harp.

f. Keep your electronic tuner on and your pickup mike attached to the harp at all times so that you can spot check the tuning of new strings.

My worst moment in the John Williams concert occurred when one of my third-octave strings broke six measures before the end of the Superman March. The next selection was Schindler's List, which uses that string in the opening solo arpeggio. I had the string changed within those six measures and was grateful that the soloist had to walk out on stage so I had a few seconds to bring the string to pitch and stretch it and spot check the other new strings.

At the end of the first half the principal trumpet player commented that I had played beautifully, and the harp was so well in tune in spite of the heat. I was grateful for the compliment but I felt like I had run a marathon and it was over 24 hours before my adrenalin level had dropped to where I could sleep. When I vented to another friend about the broken strings and tuning problems, she made the comment, "Well, that is why you are paid the big bucks–because you can handle it!" She was absolutely correct of course, and I consoled myself with the thought that surely the trumpet player had had a worse time of it! I can't imagine playing a trumpet on a code red day with a heat index of 110!

This entry was posted on July 28, 2012.

National Gallery Orchestra with the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra

On Sunday evening, October 9, I had the pleasure of participating in a joint effort with the National Gallery Orchestra and the Saint Petersburg (Russia) Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alexander Titov. The program included the Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein and Pictures at an Exhibition by Moussorgsky. This is a wonderful program for harp and I was thrilled to be able to play.

We had one rehearsal for the concert, which took place in the East Wing of the National Gallery. The space is beautiful, but an acoustical nightmare. There were so many echoes that it was very difficult to discern which beat was which! Still, the orchestra was very fine and the conductor a superlative musician so it was a good experience.

Above there is a photograph of the rehearsal. The sculpture on the ledge above the orchestra is appropriately named:

During the rehearsal and concert I had the pleasure of viewing the Calder mobile for which the East Wing is so well known, in many different lightings as the afternoon turned into evening. That more than made up for the frustrations of playing in such a live space!

The review, which appeared in today's Washington Post, confirmed my opinion: a wonderful concert in an acoustically challenging space!

This is the view of the Calder mobile from my seat in the orchestra!


A few comments about the harp part in the Moussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. When I coach this piece there are a two questions that always come up.

The first is how to play the solo octaves right before rehearsal number 10 in the Gnomes. My answer to that question has changed over the years. There have been times when I have played the first one as a slide in the right hand and then split the second one between the hands. Now I just use fingers 2-3 in each hand on each one and jump. Leonard Slatkin always took that measure in three and did it quite slowly, so it was easy to play. Most conductors keep it in tempo. This conductor asked me to play it just a tiny bit slower than the previous tempo and not to muffle quickly.
The second is the chord in harmonics at the end of the Catacombs. A three-note chord in harmonics in the second octave is difficult and risky, however I think it is preferable to simply play it as written. If that seems uncomfortable, I think it is acceptable to play the chord in harmonics an octave lower. The flutes double the chord and I think the color of the harmonics is what is essential, not the pitches, so I do not advocate playing the chord without harmonics up an octave, at sounding pitch.

This entry was posted on October 11, 2011.

Teaching Rolled Chords

Every harpist needs to be able to play chords well. They are such an important building block in music that even the seasoned professional needs to include some work on chords in the daily warm-up.

Chords are best introduced after intervals, scales, and connecting patterns, beginning with three-finger chords in each hand, first hands separately, then hands together (each finger in unison) and finally one hand after the other. Once the student is comfortable with all inversions of the triad, the technique can be extended to four-finger chords, beginning with seventh chords and expanding to larger chords where the hands are not on the same notes.

To develop chord technique I find it useful from the beginning to practice in four ways.

Play the chord as a slow arpeggio in quarter notes; then eighth notes, doubling the speed; then triplets; then sixteenth notes and so on until the student can play a simple rolled chord.

“Add-a-note”: place all the fingers needed for the chord and play first the bottom note, then the bottom two notes quickly, one after the other; then the bottom three notes, and so on, until the full chord is played.

“Held thumbs”: place all the fingers and play a rolled chord, but leaving the thumbs on the strings. This helps stabilize the hand.

Play each note of the chord, beginning at the bottom, accenting every other note. Then reversing the accent (every other note accented beginning with the second note). This seems to “wake up” fingers which seem “lazy.”

I find that, in the lesson, after a student practices a given chord in all four ways there is immediate improvement and a sense of accomplishment. I suggest the student choose a different chord each day to practice in this manner.

For the more advanced students there are some other considerations in playing chords.

Voicing the chord: play an eight-note chord bringing out a different note each time, first the bottom note, then the second note and so on. Most students find this difficult, but with some practice can do this, and then they are ready for more advanced repertoire, such as the Debussy Danses sacrée et profane.

Change the speed of the roll: practice the chord with a very slow roll and progressively tighten the chord with each repetition. Unfortunately, in the notation there are only two symbols: a bracket to indicate that the chord should not be broken at all, and the symbol to arpeggiate the chord. For dynamics we have six symbols between pp and ff, and the composer can even indicate dynamics outside that range. Unfortunately the harpist has to make a musical decision about the speed of the roll with each chord.

Change the acceleration or deceleration in the roll of the chord: most chords are rolled evenly from bottom to top, but often it produces more excitement to speed up the roll towards the top of the chord. Other times, especially at the end of a piece, it adds to the musical effect to slow down towards the end of the chord. These nuances are not notated and are at the discretion of the performer.

Some useful materials for studying rolled chords include Charade #8 by Bernard Andrès, the anonymous 16th Century Pavane edited by Carlos Salzedo, and Prière by Delmas.

This entry was posted on October 8, 2011.

Teaching: trying to cover everything in a lesson

I find it very hard to cover everything in a lesson. I spend about a third of each lesson on technical work: scales and arpeggios, finger exercises, and études; and the remainder of the lesson on repertoire. I try to fit in sight-reading, ensemble skills, improvisation, some ear training, theory, and maintenance of previously studied repertoire, but there is never enough time to cover everything. Now and then I get a student who is also studying piano and so I can relax, as I know the piano teacher will integrate theory and ear training into the lesson. But for most of my students I am their only music teacher. A huge responsibility!

What I have decided to do this year is have a "plan." This week I am focusing on maintaining repertoire and having each student set a goal for the year to prepare a memorized program of 10-30 minutes, depending on age and level, to have ready at any given moment. As new pieces are learned, older ones can be rotated out. I have warned them all that in four weeks I will ask to hear whatever they can play for me, and we set goals for that as well. Next week I will be sure to touch on theory in every single lesson. The following week I will make a point of evaluating each student's sight reading skills. The week after will focus on improvisation.

I am hoping by having a plan which I can implement across my studio, regardless of age, level, or goals, I can be sure to touch on all the ancillary skills needed to be a fine musician.

This entry was posted on September 14, 2010.

Youth Orchestra Auditions

Although most youth orchestra auditions are held in June, several of my students have auditions coming up this week. Usually these auditions have a set list of required excerpts, but sometimes the student can simply choose a piece or two to play.

What sort of piece should be selected? What are conductors listening for when they choose a harpist?

I advise my students to:

1. Walk in with confidence and a smile

We are "performers" and that involves a bit of acting. I don't expect them to be totally confident and without nerves. They are not robots. But they should not communicate the slightest insecurity. So act confident!

2. Volume

Conductors want to be able to hear the harp, and often youth orchestra conductors especially, have had harpists who played well but were not able to project. In the audition be too loud rather than too soft. It is good to have something soft to play as well, just to show a range of dynamics, but be sure to demonstrate your most powerful sound.

3. Rhythm

If you have the option of choosing a solo to demonstrate your skills, choose one that has a lot of rhythmic intensity and hopefully complexity. Don't choose a piece with a lot of rubato, unless you also have something with a driving pulse. A big complaint about inexperienced harpists is that they have weak rhythm. Make it clear that you can maintain a steady pulse and can handle rhythmic subdivisions with ease.

4. Technical facility

Usually students want to play their hardest piece, but it is best to play a piece that is very comfortable. Try to display technical facility, but consider sound and rhythm before difficultly when choosing the audition selection.

This entry was posted on September 7, 2010.

August: a time to plan for the coming year

I haven't posted very much this month because it is the quietest month of the year for me. The NSO is on vacation. I don't play weddings any more (though I have played for hundreds over my lifetime). Students are mostly on vacation. So my days have been filled with family, household projects and such.

I am also thinking very much about the coming year for my studio. I generally have three studio recitals, the middle one being ensembles and études and the outer recitals consisting of memorized solos. To keep the recitals interesting, and because I find it easier for myself, I make every effort to have each student learning different repertoire. Many of my students are at the same level so this takes a lot of planning. I have been spending an hour or so a day reviewing teaching repertoire which is new to me, and making decisions about what pieces will best enhance the growth of each student.

These are the things I consider for each student (though I do it mentally for the most part):

1. Level of student and anticipated progress

Progress depends on aptitude and industry. If an extremely talented student has little time to practice, not much progress will be made. The converse is also true: a student with little aptitude who works very hard will still not make great strides.

2. Age and musical maturity of the student

A ten-year-old student will be attracted to different repertoire than a sixteen-year-old, regardless of level. A student who has had some musical study outside the harp–piano or another instrument, or even dance–is going to be able to handle more sophisticated music than another student whose experience is limited to the harp.

3. Strengths and weaknesses of the student

Each student has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. I find it is best to devote about 2/3 of the repertoire to developing the weaker aspects of the student's playing to ensure growth. But it is also important to assign a piece or two that the student will play really well with little guidance. This develops confidence.

4. Anticipated performances or auditions for the coming year

If the student is planning to enter a local concerto competition, then an appropriate piece needs to be chosen. If the student is in a youth orchestra which demands a lot of time and effort, the solo works should be shorter and perhaps less demanding. If the high school choir is going to perform "A Ceremony of Carols" by Benjamin Britten, the student will be consumed with the preparation of that work for the fall semester and probably do no solo work other than the "Interlude." Most of my students participate in the ASTA-CAP evaluations in the spring, so I make a mental note of appropriate pieces from that repertoire list. Auditions for all-Virginia 2011 require the Dussek Sonata in c minor and Pozzoli Etude #13, so any of my high schools students considering that audition will need to be learning the Dussek.

5. Balance between music written by harpist-composers and music written by non-harpists

After the elementary study I think it is important to equally balance music written by harpists (such as Salzedo, Tournier, Grandjany, etc.) with music written by people who did not play the instrument (Bach, Natra, Debussy, etc.).

6. Balance within my studio

I have quite a few students at the level of the Renié "Esquisse" but, much as I love teaching that piece, I want to only have one student learning it at any given moment. This makes for more interesting studio recitals and keeps my teaching fresh.

Regarding études…all of my students work on études. Many of them play the little Pozzoli studies at the end of the Grossi Method. Quite a few of my lever harp students learn the Andrès "Charades" or the two sets of études by Challan. Once they have pedal harps I have them work through the Bochsa 40 Easy Studies, op 318, and the Pozzoli Studies of Medium Difficulty, in no particular order (some do the Pozzoli first, some the Bochsa, some do them simultaneously). Those who complete those intermediate études move on to the Bochsa 50 Etudes, which are more substantial.

This entry was posted on August 22, 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.

Footstool for young harp students

071

This seven-year old student at the troubadour harp is a very lively young lady! Her feet would be swinging every which way if I didn't have a footstool. For most young children the footstool is absolutely essential to maintain posture and position at the harp.

As the children get a little older they begin to regard the footstool as "babyish." When the resistance gets strong I will let them off the hook if they can maintain position and keep their feet still and so on, even if the feet don't quite reach the floor.

I purchased this bench from www.pianofootrest.com. It is adjustable and works very well. The students remember their settings and enjoy placing the shelf properly at the beginning of the lesson.

This entry was posted on July 21, 2010.

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