To Edit or Not to Edit


Two harpists debate the shortcut versus the long road

—by Lynne Aspnes and Heidi Surniolo

Ed.—Just after the New Year, I received a text message from a harp friend and college classmate, Heidi Sturniolo. She texted our former teacher, Lynne Aspnes, and me to tell us how much she was loving Gayle Barrington’s edition of Tournier’s Vers la source dans le bois, a piece Heidi had played when we were undergrads at the University of Michigan. She sent a photo of both her original part and her newly downloaded edition from Harp Column Music, side by side on her music stand. “The best money I ever spent buying music I already own,” she wrote. “Yes. I paid you $16.95 for music I already owned. It’s a thousand times easier to read. The enharmonics are such a nightmare in the original.” What followed was an impassioned debate between former student and teacher, which illustrates the decisions harpists increasingly face between the ways we have always learned how to do things and shortcuts that modern advances afford us. Where do you come down on this debate? Go online to and let us know.

Lynne Aspnes is the president of the American Harp Society and professor emeritus of the University of Michigan.

Lynne: Sure it’s easier to read, but there’s a learning trade off that we have to take into account along the way. Traditional theoretical notation may look daunting on the page, and having to translate terms from their original language might seem an exercise in futility, but for me, this is an important stage in the learning process, one that informs students of the history of our discipline. Scientific studies support the concept that learning made easy can be learning made impermanent. My old-school approach definitely defends the idea that learning made a challenge may contribute to deeper learning of the entire process. Learning made simple might get you there faster, but possibly with fewer long term benefits. And then there’s the age old trope of taking the high road  versus embracing shortcuts. We are in an age of evolution in music notation, to be sure. But are we prepared to dismiss the frequent complexity of the traditional, in favor of the expedient?

Heidi Sturniolo is a professional harpist in metro Washington, D.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Heidi: I almost left you out of this thread for that exact reason, I know. Ethically I had an issue, but seriously, I just played the first several pages at a nice clip because I didn’t have to convert every other red circled note. The eye scramble is the biggest reason I haven’t returned to this baby in 20-plus years.

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  1. I can see some valid arguments in both approaches. However, ever being a pragmatic harpist with a TON of orchestral music to learn year round, I fall on the side of edits for harp parts. Learning off the original score is fine for lessons, etudes, theory, and technique. I’ve certainly done that. But in real world situations, when you have 6 days to prep Britten’s RAPE OF LUCRECIA (instead of the 6 weeks promised–than you, Boosey & Hawkes) I will take the edits any day. The real world exigencies often require a quick solution for a host of problems not of our making! In real world commercial situations, conductors and ensembles (or even non-academic solo recitals) could care less if you are playing off the original. The ultimate judgement comes from: did you play well? Were the notes and rhythms correct? Dic you make your entrances correctly? Were you a good fit with the ensemble?

    The vast bulk of my own professional playing (not counting weddings, parties, funerals, the usual gigs) is orchestral and ensemble playing. One of the best pieces of real world advice I ever got was from our own late, great Dorothy Remsen: “You don’t play the notes, you play the INTENT.” Sound advice for playing insanely difficult (and poorly written) ensemble parts. ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, anyone?

    I frequently do edits and typeset things using Sibelius software–in many cases, I don’t drop a single note. But I do correct sloppy clef placement, fix wrong pedals and glisses, create sane page turns, and clean up manuscipt parts that were scrunched up to the point of comedic absurdity. I will get rid of a zillion ledger lines and write it as “8va” and just make things readable. There is enough performance pressure in playing CEREMONY OF CAROLS before a crowd of 1000! Simply enlarging the harp “ossia” via Sibelius for THERE IS NO ROSE simply makes good sense and offers a basic performance insurance where you don’t have time to remember each trick for every bar. I’ve never had a single performer, conductor, or audience member every come up to me and say, “You cheated! You didn’t play off the original!”

    In closing, I would recommend a viewing of the classic Laurel & Hardy comedy THE MUSIC BOX. (It was their only film to win an Academy Award in 1932.) Stan and Ollie have the task of delivering a piano….up the longest flight of exterior steps you’ve ever seen. The steps are real, and you can still walk them if you visit Los Angeles. Anyway, after several misadventures (all resulting in the poor piano crashing down hundreds of concrete steps) the boys finally get to the top. A postman looks at them in disbelief–and asks them why they didn’t just drive up the hill to the house? And with that, Stan and Ollie grimly take the piano back DOWN the steps–so they can re-load the piano onto their delivery cart and then PROPERLY drive up the hill to deliver it. And believe it or not, there is a harp in the first shot! There are several YouTube links, but here is a good one. The sound effects for that poor piano always make me laugh!

    Yes, it’s great exercise to haul a piano up hundreds of steps a half dozen times–but ultimately, isn’t it easier, quicker, and safer for the instrument (or instramentalist) to just drive up the hill?

  2. balfour-knight on

    Very well-put, David! I wanted to add also that when one plays the harp almost exclusively by memory like I do in my performances, the easiest way to learn the music is the way I memorize it! There is NO WAY I am going to remember the “long way” to get there; I will indeed drive up the hill instead of going the long, difficult way up the steps, ha, ha! Thanks everyone for your articles and comments.
    Harp Hugs to all of you,

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