Q and A with Elinor Niemisto

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What is the most important thing for you to convey to your audience when you perform? What do you most want to pass on to your harp students as they become stronger musicians? Recently, Elinor Niemisto announced her retirement from teaching at St. Olaf College after 34 years. Also a senior lecturer at Carlton College, we knew she’d have some great tips for teachers looking to help their harp students grow.

First off, congratulations on your retirement! I’m wondering if you know how many students you have taught over the past 34 years?

I usually taught 2–6 students per semester.  St. Olaf is a liberal arts school so most of my students, although excellent musicians, were not harp majors.  Quite a few are now in medical fields, public school teaching, lawyers, business, non-profit, science.

Can you share with us a little bit about your teaching philosophy? How has it evolved over the years?

I try to give each student the tools needed to perform whatever music they may choose to play.  That means finding relaxed hands and posture, beautiful clear tone, control to shape every note in a phrase.  I try to encourage them to “listen, listen, listen.” I think I’ve become better at encouraging each harpist to explore a variety of musical styles at whatever level they reach.

What tips do you have for new teachers just starting out?

Never give up on helping all your students find their very best sound.  Don’t rush that.  Simple music played with an excellent tone is enchanting. Keep drawing their attention to listening.

That is such great advice. What will you miss most about teaching?

I enjoy watching students proudly perform their polished work.  St. Olaf has the most fabulous music faculty and students.  I live near the campus, so I can continue to attend recitals and concerts, but I’ll miss getting to know the individual harpists.  I follow quite a few on Facebook and see their families and professional successes.

What’s next for you?

I will continue to teach at Carleton College and a small studio of young and adult harpists.  I guess I’ll keep playing as long as I can get the harp in and out of the car. I also have four grandchildren who need some love and a lot of yarn in my closet.

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About Author

Stephanie Gustafson Amfahr is a harpist and teacher based in Houston, TX. Currently principal harpist with Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, she is also a co-founder of the Houston Youth Harp Ensemble, young artist with Da Camera of Houston and on faculty at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, MI. She started writing for Harp Column in September 2017.

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