Changing techniques

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

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    carl-swanson on #87820

    Saul’s thread about both stealing students(reprehensible) and changing technique(leading to muscle damage) made me want to start a new thread on this subject.

    Any technique, no matter how hairbrained it is, due to bad teaching or no teaching, will feel natural and comfortable to the player simply because he/she has been doing it over and over again. Any change to that(hairbrained) technique is going to feel uncomfortable and may even cause pain initially. But this will subside as the new muscle memory is established and the old one fades.

    Years ago a very good professional harpist came to me and asked me to overhaul her technique. She had studied harp for a relatively short time and it had been over 20 years since her training had ended. Her technique had devolved into an awful mess. She herself told me that she felt that she was on the edge of calamity every time she performed.

    Skipping many details here, I basically started her over teaching the French technique that I learned. I told her at the first lesson that for the coming 2 to 3 weeks this would all feel very uncomfortable and would hurt after a short time and for that reason she was absolutely forbidden to practice more than 5 minutes at any one sitting until it all started to feel comfortable.

    When she came back the next week, I asked her what hurt. “Everything” she said. “My neck, my shoulders, my back, my arm…” We stuck to very slow, very easy things for another week or so and the discomfort that she initially had quickly went away. We were then able to really start building technique.

    The reason for the discomfort was the ‘war’ going on between what she was used to doing, and the new technique she was learning. As the old muscle memory faded, so did the discomfort. By the way, I went through the exact same thing myself in the first months of studying with Pierre Jamet.

    The point of this is, if you make significant changes to your technique, hand, arm, or finger position, it will initially feel uncomfortable. Do not under any circumstances practice with pain or discomfort. The second it starts, stop and rest. Come back a half hour later and practice some more, but stop the second there is any discomfort. In about 1 to 3 weeks, the changes will feel completely comfortable and natural.

    carl-swanson on #87821

    I just wanted to add here that I’m talking about big changes, not the smaller(but equally important) things your teacher tells you each week about technique.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #87822

    Interesting thread! I would add that every aspiring harpist (or musician of any type) should know something about how their muscles and tendons work, and try to work with their body, not against it. If something feels painful, uncomfortable or tight, even after they have been playing that way long enough to be “used to it”, then they should really analyze what is happening in their hands, shoulders, neck, jaw, back, everywhere. I have seen harpists with their necks strained forward, their shoulders hunched up, their elbows way too high or way too low, fingers coming up and over, detouring far away from the note they’re approaching, every tortuous inefficiency there is. Athletes have coaches who watch and analyze every move they make, but we are often so absorbed with the music (which of course we should be!) hat we forget about our poor bodies until it’s too late and we’re injured.

    carl-swanson on #87823

    Elizabeth- You’re absolutely right. I should have said that there is pain and discomfort sometimes simply from playing the wrong way, and that can lead to serious injury. But there can be temporary discomfort and pain from making big changes to ones technique. That kind of discomfort should be temporary and disappear quickly. That’s what happened to my student and to me when I worked initially with Pierre jamet. He had made some changes to my left hand, and initially I had some pain on the top of the left forearm. When I mentioned it to him he said that it didn’t mean I was doing anything wrong, just different, and that in a short time that would disappear. He was right.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #87824

    I don’t think I agree with the thought that any technique will feel natural and comfortable. My students who have come with poor technique feel that it is wrong, but don’t know how to fix it. They haven’t had pain from adjusting. Pain is likely from playing too much while adjusting. I have seen many “techniques” that are so full of tension and distortion, it shocks me, seeing a harpist in her debut recital (I typed degut-a Freudian slip) wringing her hands between pieces to stretch out her hands, which were visibly swollen, red and irritated. You’d be shocked at who I mean. Some have gone on to be more relaxed and very successful, and some had to stop playing due to injury.

    carl-swanson on #87825

    When I said that any technique will feel natural and comfortable, I simply meant that by repeating a movement often enough, muscle memory sets in, and that makes the movement feel ‘right.’ When I get a student with what I perceive as a bad habit or movement, it’s bad because it will hinder the student as he/she tries to move into more difficult repertoire. The question I always ask myself as I teach someone is; is anything they are doing now going to get in the way in more difficult repertoire.

    Changing technique, especially any big change, takes time and cannot be forced because of this issue of muscle memory. The old muscle memory has to fade before a new muscle memory can replace it.

    David Ice on #87826

    About 13 years ago I changed techniques totally, as I felt like I was always just on the edge of disaster when I played, and nothing could get me over that feeling.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #87827

    That is the same advice Miss Lawrence would have given you. But you do have to re-learn old pieces, lest you slip back into old habits.

    David Ice on #87828

    I did have to re-learn the old pieces, but I found that the transferrence to the new technique was so complete that once I got to the point of concentrating on the new technique while playing old pieces, it was almost redundant.

    unknown-user on #87829

    It sounds like you found a technique (and/or a teacher) that was right for you, and I’m sure you are very relieved.

    unknown-user on #87830

    In my own experience, the biggest technical change I experienced what going from one “french” technique to another “french” technique. I have to say, that there is a huge variety of methods and styles that seem to sometimes surprisingly fall under the same banner as “french”. And some of them are as different from each other as say “Salzedo” is from “Grandjany”.

    My first

    unknown-user on #87831

    An additional layer of complexity is the fact that any technique must be adapted to fit the natural functioning of an individual’s hand and body. That is one of the primary challenges to teaching effectively. The length of fingers, flexibility of joints, and many more subtle factors all play a role in both the way the path is set to train them, and what the eventual ideal goal will look like in that student’s hands. In the study of any technique it is so important to focus on the underlying principles of what is being achieved, rather than a dogmatic reiteration of details. Ultimately any technique is attempting to achieve the best tone using the healthiest means. When that principle is solid, then making modifications should be at least somewhat more graceful. It is important to be able to explain to any student precisely ‘why’ a particular physical movement aids in achieving the best sound through the healthiest means.

    carl-swanson on #87832

    Julienne and Rosemary- Bravo to you both. You’ve both articulated exactly the complexity of teaching technique. Dogma really has no place in teaching and can tie the student into knots.

    One of my harpist friends was an army brat. Her father was a career military man and so she moved from base to base 5 or 6 times during her childhood. She started harp with Salzedo method, and every time the family moved, her parents made sure that she found another Salzedo teacher. “The problem I had,” she told me,” was that no one could agree on what Salzedo method was. So every time I changed teachers, I was starting over. The first teacher who was able and willing to work with what I was doing was Grandjany.” The point is, there is no single approach to either Salzedo method or “French method.” Because of the way each persons hand works, there are variations within each approach to fit the individual harpist. The burden is then on that harp teacher to see the big picture and contour the instruction that he/she gives to the individual student. But there are many teachers who are absolutely adamant about the tiny details, and this does not help the student.

    When I teach, I constantly ask my self as I watch the student play, if they are doing anything that is ineficient and which will get in the way as they advance to harder repertoire. I also listen of course for such fundamental things as evenness of tone and dynamic control in each finger. Most of the time, I simply have to point out the problem(weak second finger in that passage, etc.) and the student fixes it without my having to go into a didactic explanation of what he/she is doing wrong or how to fix it my way. When a student transfers over to me, which is the only type of student I now take, I ask them to play something very easy at the beginning of the first lesson so I can see what their hands are doing. I’m not looking to see how their technique differs from mine. I’m looking to see if their hands are working easily and efficiently and what kind of control they have over the sound. I’m also making a mental list of problem areas. Then my instruction is tailored to that list.

    I know that some ‘French’ harp teachers play with the first knuckle flattened. Grandjany did and encouraged his students to do it, but he didn’t insist. Marie-Claire Jamet, my own teacher’s daughter, plays that way and said her father did too. This is unbelievable to me, but I have no recollection of that. He never once mentioned it to me or even suggested that I do it. Maybe I didn’t even notice it when he demonstrated at the harp because I had never heard of it before and since he didn’t bring it up I didn’t ask about it. Marie-Claire told me she does it exclusively to avoid buzzing. Susan Jolles, who also plays with flattened fingers, told me it warms the sound, but I think that depends on the fleshiness of the individual harpists fingers. The point is, teachers have to be flexible and be able to tailor their teaching to the needs of each student.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #87833

    Please do not use a label like dogma. It is inaccurate and misleading.

    unknown-user on #87834

    Yes, I’ve been thinking about this as an issue too. Last night after my last post – the line between dogma, and just being particular about making sure that the student gets the correct instruction in technique.

    There are certain aspects of technique that I am dogmatic about – I have a pathological hatred of “tension” and will not allow a student to keep playing if they are riddled with tension. I do alot of work with them to ease them off. I also am pedantic about posture….

    Most of this is to avoid injuries in the long term – and I do always explain why I focus so much on these elements, and am never cross or punitive about how I get this information across.

    But I have found that some students do not understand the import of this – especially if they have come from other

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