Sink or Swim

Alison Reese is Editor of Harp Column.

Alison Reese is Editor of Harp Column.

Great teachers prepare you to swim, even if you don’t think you’re ready.

I loved my harp lessons when I was a kid. I had the same teacher from fourth grade through high school. She was warm and nurturing, and learning about music and the harp from her was both fascinating and fun. Her house was jam-packed with harps of every size, along with hammered dulcimers, pump organs, and some instruments I still don’t know the names of.

At first, my 30-minute lessons would turn into 60-minute lessons, and as I got older, my hour lessons would turn into two-and-a-half-hour marathon sessions. I played, she taught, I listened, we played together, she would accompany me, we listened to recordings on old LPs. Every lesson flew by in what felt like 10 minutes.

One thing my teacher always said to me during my lessons was, “I’m trying to prepare you for the day when you don’t have a teacher.” That statement always made me uncomfortable. As far as I was concerned, I was going to keep spending my Saturday mornings in my harp teacher’s cozy nest indefinitely. Why would there ever need to be a day when I
wouldn’t need my teacher’s weekly dose of nurturing words and wisdom?

The truth is that this day comes for nearly every student and teacher. Whether it’s two years or two decades, a teacher prepares her students along the way for the day they must sink or swim in the deep end on their own. Every teacher knows her students will swim because she has taught them everything they need to know. It’s up to the student to find the confidence and the right stroke.

Harpist Angela Schwarzkopf takes a good look at this process in “Leave the Nest” on pg. 24. Schwarzkopf, herself lovingly booted from her teacher’s nest as she tells it, taps some veteran teachers and other recently-evicted students to give readers some practical advice for becoming your own teacher.

Of course our teachers don’t just send us packing and tell us to write when we get work. That student-teacher relationship runs deep. Though regular lessons may come to an end, a teacher is your teacher for life. No one knows this better than Paula Page. Page, who recently retired from the Houston Symphony, continues to teach at three Houston-area colleges. In our interview with her (see “Turning the Page” pg. 16), Page reflects on the profound influence her primary teacher. Alice Chalifoux. had on her. Page’s relationship with her teacher continued long after weekly lessons ended. Page made time to see Chalifoux regularly, whether for coaching on her own playing or to observe Chalifoux teaching, or just to visit.

Now Page has cultivated her own flock of students who are leaving the nest and building successful careers of their own. Because that’s what great teachers do—they don’t just teach you how to play the harp and play it well—great teachers instill in their students the confidence and wisdom to successfully use the skills they were taught. But it’s still nice knowing they’ll leave a light on in the nest for you. •

Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan. Email her at


About Author

Editor of Harp Column, freelance harpist, private teacher, hot yoga lover, and grammar geek.

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