Put a fresh twist on the old standbys.Have you ever had that déjà vu experience of teaching a student the same piece that you taught the hour or day before, except, unlike déjà vu, it’s really happening, and it becomes difficult to remember which concepts you’ve covered with which student? Sitting in my harp studio at the University of North Texas, I am surrounded by six harp practice rooms, so I sometimes feel as if I am practicing alongside my students throughout the semester, even when I am doing office work. The spring semester happened to be a “Hindemith semester,” with three students (a third of the studio) preparing this sonata at the same time for various recitals and competitions.
On one hand, this can be truly beneficial for students. They hear each other preparing and are able to give valuable feedback to one another, as someone walking (or practicing) in the same shoes. On the other hand, you run the risk of “Hindemith burnout” when you and your students are continually hearing performances of the same piece every day of every week.
Like the Hindemith Sonata, there are dozens of pieces in our classical repertoire that are considered standard. Yep, you know which ones they are, the pieces that always seem to surface on harp recitals, YouTube clips, and newly-released CDs. Make no mistake: these pieces have stood the test of time and become standards for many valid reasons. They are pleasing to hear and are often technically beneficial for the performer and idiomatic for the harp.
For many years, I’ve pondered the mystery of pieces that are en vogue for a time and then disappear from our repertoire, only to be “rediscovered” many years later. The Handel Concerto in B-Flat is a prime example—it has enjoyed even more popularity among harpists today than it did during Handel’s lifetime. But for every Handel Concerto that enjoys the good fortune of a second life, there are many more fine compositions doomed to retreat into the shadows of dusty music shelves and drawers instead of sitting on our music stands. Why is this? The answer is simple: we are programmed to favor things that are familiar to us. In musical terms, this means that students will often request to play pieces that their friends have played or that they have heard on the newest CD, and teachers tend to recommend the pieces that their teachers favored. So we are all essentially hard-wired to return to the same pieces over, and over, and over, and over, and over…
If you find yourself in this cycle and want to break it, there is good news. Discovering new repertoire (whether it is truly new—as in just published—or simply new to you) is much easier than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. With the explosion of accessible information on the Internet, you can just type “Spanish harp music” into a Google search, and voilà, 20 or 30 choices pop up with everything from Albénz to Zabaleta! Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly. You still have to figure out which of those meets your needs.