Home Forums Teaching the Harp GOOD AND BAD STUDENTS

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    I think it is


    I agree with most of your criteria for good students, though I am happy if they pay per lesson (as long as they remember to pay). I also don’t mind if they occasionally consult another teacher, as long as they are up front about it and the other teacher’s ideas aren’t diametrically opposite to mine. Of course, this only works if both teachers are on good terms and respectful of each other’s ideas. A good student listens well and absorbs the information, so that progress is made at every lesson. It helps if there is natural talent, but a strong work ethic and a sense of respect and appreciation go a long way. A love of music goes without saying.


    I have to ask, why is it wrong to see more than one teacher?


    Heide- I think it depends on the stage of development of the student. If the student is very advanced technically and wants to see another teacher, particularly one whose speciality is polishing difficult repertoire, then a student might occasionally go to another teacher to get a different viewpoint of a piece. But if the student is at the lower levels and has a good teacher who he is working well with, then it makes no sense to see another teacher. Each teacher at those lower levels is going to have their own ideas about how to develope the student’s technique, or even what form that technique should take. There is a very high risk in that case of two different teachers giving contradictory information to the student.


    Responsibility is important as you mention in terms of showing up, practicing, paying, etc. For me I value the simple desire to learn above all else. There is a kind of arrogance some students are nurtured to have that limits their ability to learn. There are instances in which a student has X amount of perception in music, and can produce at the same level they perceive. This often results in the student presuming they have nothing left to learn, and to have an inflated sense of their ability. I am still working out in my mind how to reach such a student. On the surface it can be frustrating, even annoying, but underneath that it is primarily unfortunate because it means they cannot grow. A couple of years ago i encountered a young, gifted student who was groomed somehow to have this attitude. I felt so disappointed because she had some honest to goodness talent, but it was clear that her ability to grow was grossly stunted by this arrogance. She was creative and could compose, but played things too fast hampering the expression. She was too focused on how she was appearing and forgot what she was communicating. Her attitude towards authority, her mother in particular, was negative and unhealthy.

    I don’t want to use “good” and “bad” terminology because those words are too highly charged, but there is little in this world more disappointing than encountering a student with potential who simply refuses to learn and grow.


    Thank you for those insights. Yes, I think that kind of arrogance is bad, and I think it has to do with ego and personality formation. That is where the old masters would simply break down the student’s resistance either by telling them how much they don’t know, or giving them something they can’t play and making them go all the way through it, like the first harp part to Symphonie Fantastique. Then, once the resistance is down, they would gently lead the student into improvement with information and a little praise, and earn their trust. It has to do with establishing authority and leadership, and the older the student, perhaps the harder it is. I don’t know that much of child psychology and development, but more can be found in that field. This response is based on observation and experience as a student, and a recent discussion with a friend who works with children in crisis. There are very specific ways to handle children who are “acting out”, and part of it has to do with establishing authority. We must also remember the “olden days” of the 1960s when teachers naturally maintained authority at all times, even when playing with children, it was always as a teacher, not a grown-up kid, so there was no awkward need to re-establish authority when called upon.

    It is not so different in teaching interpretation either, the adolescent ego wants “self-expression” and thinks that is the purpose of art, and therefore might run rough-shod over the music, not understanding the need for a learning process in interpretation. Blending freedom and authoritarian teaching is probably difficult, but I would venture to say you can’t have one without the other and get very good results. Except for rare individuals, complete freedom will allow the student to display ignorance of the music, and complete authoritarianism may


    Julie- Your mention of student arrogance really touched a nerve. I’ve never had to deal with that kind of student, but over the many years that I have been involved with the harp world I have seen several enormously gifted male harpists(all American) who ultimately were undone by their very self-centered and arrogant attitudes. Each one should have had a major career but did not, partly because they stopped studying too early and partly I think because they were each difficult to deal with, and that came across very quickly.

    It can happen on any instrument. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, a harpsichord student went to compete in the Brugge Competition. He was very talented but undisciplined, with erratic tempos, unconventional approaches to the music etc. He went to Brugge absolutely convinced that he was going to win first prize. He was eliminated in the first round and literally had a nervous breakdown. Talent does not mean that the student is always right, and talent by itself is no shortcut to hard work and humility.


    I wanted to continue on this point. This kind of teaching may strike some as harsh or cruel, but it is ultimately deeply loving. It is aimed at getting to the deepest levels of the student, rather than skating along the surface, happy-go-lucky-like. It does not require abuse, but toughness. It can be done with great kindness, and a perceptive student will know that. Perhaps there is another way of reaching them through praise alone, but that doesn’t work with everyone, and which way to use may just depend on how that student is built. Music is a tough world, though, and we do need to be strong enough to deal with tough situations, as Carl describes. And I hope he was not including me in his list of male performers, which is probably not likely anyway. Is there a gender difference in those situations? An interesting question.


    I had just touched on the notion of talent not mattering very much in a conversation last night, and this is a good opportunity to flesh that out.

    I think any situation for a musician: studying with a teacher capable of developing a solid foundation, being accepted into a conservatory, playing at a relative’s wedding, playing with a community orchestra, sustaining a freelance career in a large city, touring as a world class solist, etc.. is like entering an amusement park ride.


    There are a number of very good points in your last post, Saul. It is reasonable to see that not every teacher and student are an ideal match. Students with the combination of talent who struggle with arrogance could thrive in what would be perceived as a ‘harsh’ environment. There are other students for whom a more dramatic dialog would interrupt the natural flow of their progress. Stubborn arrogance can certainly not be broken through with gentleness and praise, I agree. However, i can see that a naturally proud mindset has its strengths in our competative, public scrutiny driven


    Hello, your doctorate is showing. I think you were saying the same thing as giving them music too difficult if they are thinking they are so terrific. I think what is tricky is sensing whether it is true arrogance or petulance, or merely the normal egotism of adolescence (which does not end at 18). I have one practical solution, posting on the wall of the practice room a reminder or two: “Your teacher may be listening”, or “Your teacher may not be listening, but HE is”: I am trying to convince my sister to make them into calligraphy posters. If people actually want to order them, she could probably do it if there are at least 20 or so willing to purchase them. I have a lot of other axioms like that, but I can’t find them lately.

    What is a tougher question I would like your opinion on is arrogant or otherwise difficult adult students and how to teach them.


    You’ve come up with a great topic for a new thread: good practice axioms!


    Saul- I was not including you in that mention of male harpists. I think it is safe to mention one of the people I had in mind, because he died a few years ago, at the age of 43 I believe. That was Conrad Nelson. I met Conrad at the 1975 AHS Conference in Minneapolis. He was 14, had been studying the harp for one year at that point, and he dragged me into a practice room one day and played the whole Introduction and Allegro, from memory! I nearly fell on the floor. He was unbelievably talented. Mildred Dilling took him under her wing and taught him, for free, any time she could. The family didn’t have a lot of money and so Jack Nebergal bought him a harp. He got into Curtis and studied with Marilyn Costello for several years, although I don’t believe he graduated. As he moved into adulthood, he developed severe problems with alcohol and drug addiction. He became very difficult and arrogant to several of his teachers, particularly Costello. He did get into the Utah Symphony, but was very unpredictable and undependable. Almost every year he had to go into rehab, but they put up with him for 10 years or so. Eventually he was fired. He made a feeble attempt to get an orchestra job in Europe, but thought he could skip the audition process, because, as he told my friend Catherine Michel, he was so much better than anybody else. Catherine tried to explain to him, several times, that things didn’t work like that in Europe. Everyone, no matter how good their references and resume, had to audition.

    Conrad returned to the U.S. and a short time later died. I’m not sure what the cause of death was.

    I’m telling his story here because it is a tragic example of enormous talent gone to waste. He should have been one of the major harpists and teachers in this country. But his personal demons and arrogance sabotaged his career. Let me add here that Conrad and I were good friends. He had enormous respect for me and I had absolutely no personal beef with him. I don’t want anyone reading this to think that I have some sort of ax to grind.

    David Ice

    Hi Carl,

    Believe it or not, Conrad Nelson was THE FIRST harpist I ever met in the flesh, when I was working on the Grizzly Adams TV show up in Salt Lake City, Utah.


    Thanks, Carl. Yes, I have heard some tales about Conrad, and I believe he was asked to leave Curtis because he came to a rehearsal and either hadn’t tuned or talked back to the guest conductor, something like that, but I think they may still consider it graduation, as people used to stay as long as they could until finally they were told, ‘you’re done.’

    I remember another guy whose mother and grandmother were both harpists, and they put a lot of expectations on him to be a big star, and he played very very well, but wasn’t, or wasn’t yet a star, and I think he quit the harp altogether soon after that.

    I think men have often very high expectations that are easily let down by the lack of ready positions in the musical world for them. Miss Lawrence had one she was very excited about, but he was disappointed by the lack of opportunity for him. Maybe it has to do with the dynamic of male students-female teachers-that it’s too maternal, and the problem with a paternal teacher is when he is threatened by his students or too stingy with help, etc. Our biggest problem, all of us, is the lack of teaching positions and 2d harp positions in all the major orchestras, and we should try to do something about it. Everyone who wants to teach should be able to have plenty of students, with all the interest there is in the harp, these days, don’t you think?

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