Do adult amateurs have special problems learning harp?

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    Well it’s been a while since we had an explosive subject here, and a couple of comments from adult amateurs on other threads got me thinking. Is there any good reason why adult amateurs cannot progress technically as well as children or serious(young) students?

    I don’t want anyone to think I’m being mean and nasty here. I am not. I’m trying to address the issue, as a teacher, of dealing with adult amateurs who basically want to play repertoire that is beyond them technically. I’ve had limited experience teaching adults, but I have found a pattern to their approach to the harp that becomes a HUGE impediment to them learning harder repertoire. Here is what I have noticed…

    When adult amateurs come to me for a one-off lesson, they always bring me something that is beyond them technically that they want me to “teach” them. Each time, I try to explain to them that they need to work on building the technical foundation needed to play such repertoire: scales at a pretty good clip, arpeggios, etc. I also spend most of the lesson using the piece in question to show them that it is critically important to break the piece down into technical exercises so that they can build the necessary technique to play that piece. In other words, I try to teach them practice techniques. EVERY SINGLE TIME, their eyes glaze over and I can see that that’s not what they wanted to hear. They want to play the piece exactly as it’s written and no other way. I can tell they have no intention of following my advice. For this reason I find it just too frustrating trying to teach adult beginners and I’m not going to do it anymore.

    I’ve read from time to time comments from people who identify themselves as adult amateurs who wish they could play one piece or another and probably will never be able to(their comment). My feeling is: If you are willing to do the technical work that all professional harpists have done to get where they are, then you’d get to that level too. I realize that as adults your time is limited, that you have many other obligations that severely limit the amount of time you can spend practicing. Some adults I’m sure have more time than others. But if you work within your abilities and LISTEN TO YOUR TEACHER and do that work that he or she recommends and play the pieces that he or she wants you to play, you would make steady progress. Instead, I get someone asking me for a lesson on Hasselmans La Source when her playing level is barely beyond rank beginner. This really happened.

    So I’m interested in hearing from the adult amateurs themselves and listening to what they have to say on this subject, and also from the teachers who teach adult beginners.


    You make a good point Carl.


    Are you talking about all adult beginners on harp? Or are you talking about adult amateurs? I am a professional musician who plays organ/piano/harpsichord and have a bachelor’s degree in organ performance and


    I know everyone is not the same. And certainly with your extensive musical background you’re at an enormous advantage. There’s a lot that you learned as a professional musician on other instruments(music theory, practice habits, etc.) that is transferrable to your harp studies. I guess I’m talking about adults picking up the harp who have never studied music before mostly.

    When I lived in France I taught English to French businessmen at a language school in Paris. There were very clear differences in how easily each man learned to speak English. Some picked it up quite easily and others were impossible. The worst student I had was a man in his 60’s, a self-made millionaire, who had just sold his company to Kimberly-Clarke. The best student was a young moroccan probably in his late 20’s. I suspect that teaching language to children, particularly very young children, is a very different experience. So maybe there are big differences too between adults who are learning a musical instrument for the first time. But I still wonder if the basic approach of adult beginners, and their mindset, is their biggest impediment to learning an instrument.


    I think expectations can be pretty far from realitiy.


    Carl – I see what your saying and I see that some may want to hit the floor running so to speek.


    Gorman- Again, you are at a huge advantage, having been a trained musician on another instrument before coming to the harp. From the limited experiences I have had with adult beginners who have never studied an instrument before, they seem to think that you can just sit and play the piece as written over and over again and you will eventually learn it. So they struggle endlessly. it’s the total lack of interest in learning the basics, or seeing that by doing exercises, etudes, or what have you they will learn to play the repertoire that they really want to do that baffles me.


    Maybe they need to be told that when they play their pieces over and over again and call it practice that what they are practicing

    Jerusha Amado


    I was the opposite of Briggs and Gorman; I had no real musical training in my early 30’s when I started the harp.

    Denise Lockamy

    I think there are individual reasons for individuals. I am an “adult onset” harpist who will probably never progress beyond a certain ability. I had 3 years of piano as a child, and didn’t do well with that, though there was a distinct lack of motivation. The motivation is there, now, and I work hard at whatever I’m doing. I had a teacher for the better part of 10 years who was supportive, encouraging, and patient. She let me decide what I would like to work on, but directed me to versions that were on my level. As a result, I love playing. However, my fingers are not coordinated enough to excel. I can start an IV on almost anyone, but can’t open a sterile package without repeated tries. Everyone has their inborn abilities they have to work around, but lack of ablility does not necessarily negate desire. Adult learners are self-motivated, not sent by parents to take lessons. Adult learners in any field need to set their own goals. They will work hardest at something that applies directly to those goals. If their goal is to be able to play scores from musicals, it will not help to assign them all classics. Didn’t really mean to go on so long!!


    -They will work hardest at something that applies directly to those goals. If their goal is to be able to play scores from musicals, it will not help to assign them all classics.-

    Denise. I understand most of what you are saying, but those last two sentences, quoted above, are very telling. This is where adult beginners get into real trouble. Playing classics is very definitely a help in playing musicals, jazz, whatever. At Berkelee School of Music in Boston, one of the best music schools in the world for jazz, pop music, arranging, etc. the students study classical repertoire on their own instrument. Why? Because that’s how you learn to play the instrument. Your statement above is exactly what I have found in teaching adult beginners. For some reason they don’t see the connection between the technical work and playing the piece of their dreams. But there is a connection. A HUGE connection.


    Not all adult amateurs are beginners- what is wrong with the words students and beginners?


    One of the basic principles of figuring out what-is-the-case is acknowledging the personal biases that may determine one’s interpretation of evidence (maybe I have bad reasons for being inclined to interpret it as I do). I don’t dispute that someone may have had the experiences claimed, but I will say, as a university teacher of 37 years, that in my experience, the teachers who complain about whole groups of students are almost always those who are weak teachers. I’ve heard it all: girls/women are this-or-that, boys/men are this-or-that, foreign students are this-or-that, undergraduates are this-or-that, people who went to this sort of school are this-or-that, people who went to the other sort of school are this-or-that. But I’ve never heard someone whom I know to be a dedicated and effective teacher speak in those terms–really, never.

    All of us have particular students we find irritating or can’t reach. Maybe that’s the student’s fault, but it’s at least equally possible it’s mine, the teacher’s, fault. When you can’t reach a whole group of students, it becomes less likely the problem lies with all those students; that’s when a good teacher asks ‘what could I be doing differently?’

    I can’t quarrel with Mr Swanson’s claims about the students he’s had. All I can say is, as an adult learner: I didn’t start by showing my harp teacher a complicated piece and refusing to accept I couldn’t learn it right away; I didn’t refuse to learn scales, arpeggios and etudes. On the contrary, having become frustrated with the marshmallow music in the book I’d been given–tunes made up by some professional harp teacher whose compositions wouldn’t be in print if they weren’t hawked to unsuspecting beginners–I went off and bought Grossi, working through every last exercise, because at least technical exercises aren’t crap masquerading as music. I’ve never asked to learn show tunes; I’m learning harp because I’ve listened to classical music all my life (it’s people like me who buy the concert tickets and keep the classical music recording industry in business). But I have to say, as someone whose tastes run in the first instance to Palestrina, Beethoven and Stravinsky, that almost anything written by Gershwin or Cole Porter is superior to some of the rubbish in beginning harp books. If people want to learn show tunes, then it’s at least possible they could do worse (whether or not they could play those pieces is another matter, but it’s not all worthless music). Moreover a lot of the music extolled by professional harpists in these pages would be regarded with scorn by professional musicians who played anything other than harp. Scorn is cheap, though. In my experience, generosity of spirit most often goes along with breadth and depth of mind and sensibility.

    As an academic, I inhabit worlds where people can be nasty and petty. I have to say that many of the posts by professional harpists in this forum routinely beat most of what I’ve heard from academics hands-down in the mean-spiritedness department. You can spend your life heaping scorn on what you despise, or you can spend it sharing your understanding and passion for the things you love. Teaching is about inspiring understanding and passion. At the risk of inviting scorn because I’m an amateur, I’d say playing music is also about inspiring understanding and passion, in both the player and the listeners.

    Denise Lockamy

    Perhaps using classical music vs. show tunes was not the best illustration of my point. I love most classics (and a huge variety of other music) and would be happy to learn them. I was thinking of one teacher I had who had learned Grandjany’s Joyful Overture when she was a student, so insisted I learn it. I hated it, it was torture to practice, and I doubt I really learned anything I couldn’t have learned from a piece I wanted in my repertoire, or at least one I wanted to hear 10 times a practice session. What is there in that particular piece of music that could not have been taught using something I enjoyed playing? I did change teachers. While that teacher was techically a very good harpist, my other teacher played with feeling and passion the first lacked.

    Dwyn .

    “Can” and “will” are two different issues.

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