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Hand position requirements for older beginners

Home Forums Teaching the Harp Hand position requirements for older beginners

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  • #89827
    elizabeth-webb
    Participant

    I am looking for advice on teaching harp to beginners who are older (retired). I have noticed with several of my older students (60’s, 70’s, 80’s) that their fingers do not have the flexibility and movement that younger players have. As I work with these students to develop good technique, should I be adjusting my expectations regarding good hand position and technique? If so, in what ways and how much?

    For example, if someone’s 4th finger does not bend all the way in anymore, or someone does not have feeling in one of their fingers due to an old injury, or someone’s knuckles are shaped such that the fingers are not able to go all the way into the palm, or the fingers do not reach because of shape. I do not want to discourage anyone by badgering them or ask them to do something they are not physically capable of doing. But I also don’t want to let them keep going with major technique problems that prevent them from playing well in the long run (or allow them to develop bad habits that have to be broken later, when it is something I saw and could have made them correct early on).

    Any advice from teachers who work with older students? What about advice from older harpists who have begun to develop difficulties in their hands? How have you adapted?

    #89828
    rosalind-beck
    Participant

    Elizabeth, yes, you do have to cut older students some slack. If they are trying their best, but still can’t achieve an ideal position or articulation, you need to accept that. There should be improvement over time as their flexibility increases from playing the instrument, but there will be limits to what they can do. My adult students will tell me when they have physical problems/conditions that prevent them from modeling textbook form. I try to work with them to advance their technique in a way that is individually possible for them.

    #89829
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    Also bear in mind that an older student may have quite different learning objectives from a younger one. A sixty-year-old is not likely to be learning with the ambition of playing in an orchestra – she will just be wanting to get some pleasure out of playing for herself or a few close friends and her learning will, therefore be all about finding out how she can make the best possible sound while allowing for physicl limitations. I suspect that many older learners are simply tackling somthing they have always wanted to do before it is too late and will just become frustrated if they have to slog away at trying to achieve hand positions that are difficult or painful for them. I have taught a lot of older students a variety of subjects, though not harp-playing, (as well as having been a ‘mature’ learner myself) and it is a group of people who can be immensely satisfying to teach and who also get real joy from learning their new subject. They are not learning because they need the skills for a job or because their parents say thy have to learn but simply because they want to, so they are usually enthusiastic and dedicated students and well worth going that extra mile for. Good luck – I hope it will be satisfying for you to know how much pleasure your lessons will bring your students.

    #89830
    ellen-beckerman
    Participant

    Hi there,
    I think this is a great question. I have several older students, and I think the technique issue is a balancing act. They have to learn enough technique to be able to play with fluidity and satisfaction, without over doing it. And I agree with what the others have said. I try to be clear about their learning goals and objectives, and to take into account any physical limitations they might have. I actually find the creativity of this process to be fun, and have been surprised by how well people can do with a little guidance and practice. Can’t close a finger to the palm? Then explore how to get the best tone quality with what you can do, and as well as looking at how to work with less flexible fingers in faster passages. Sometimes it is technique, sometimes changing fingering, whatever works. I find I just have to find new ways that fit that student, so they can make the music they want to make. I am not classically trained, so this may influence my perspective as well!

    #89831
    diana-day
    Participant

    As an “older” student myself and one who has dealt with arthritis, I can sympathize with teachers who aren’t sure how to approach the problem of how to teach correct technique. Playing the harp has helped me to greatly improve and nearly eliminate the pain in my right thumb, though. I’ve learned to play with correct technique mainly through the encouragement of a patient teacher who didn’t patronize me by making excuses for me, but who also hasn’t demanded more than I can produce at the moment. It’s a bit of a tight rope for the teacher, but please know that even older joints can become more flexible and that age doesn’t necessarily diminish the desire to learn and improve. We’re all different–but many of us appreciate teachers who don’t try to put us all into the same box of “older and lesser.”

    #89832
    lyn-boundy
    Participant

    Ellen, I love your comment that you find it fun to try and think of ways around these problems. I taught embroidery for several years and got quite excited when a student came along who had physical problems that made the process difficult for her (it was usually a her, though I did teach one man) because it allows the teacher to be really creative in finding different ways of coping with the same problem.

    It certainly isn’t about seeing older students (of which I am now one) as ‘lesser’ in any way; it’s about enabling those who have difficulties to play on a level playing field with those who don’t. Many learners will find that by adapting their technique to suit their abilities they can gradually move towards using the same techniques as everyone else – some won’t, but that’s no reason why they shouldn’t get as much enjoyment from their chosen pastime as anyone else. As Diana points out, it’s something of a balancing act but when you’re teaching humans rather than machines you have to learn to be flexible in making allowances for human problems and you have to get to know each student individually and discover what is right for each one.

    #89833
    ellen-beckerman
    Participant

    And we all run into challenges as we age! I just had hip replacement surgery, and am re-negotiating how to sit with the harp, how to access the pedals on the affected side… So how do we adapt and continue to make the music we love… seems like a metaphor for life to me. I have a friend whom I sometimes collaborate with, a guitarist, who has had a stroke. We have talked at length about how her recovery and return to her music has changed her music, and while somethings have been lost, others have opened up… Anyway, I guess I’m getting off topic here, but I think it’s all about starting wherever we are, whenever we are, and figuring out the best path for each individual. :o)

    #89834

    A few ways I have adjusted what is on a page, for older harp students: Less notes in left hand, by possibly playing on first beat only, or first and third beats in 4/4. Slower tempo than normal. Right hand smaller leaps, or changing the voicing and putting a needed accidental in the other hand. Emphasizing practice of one hand only until very well learned before joining both hands. Changing fingering from any arpeggios that are requiring the same hand to pass 1/4 upward or downward 4/1, to use the longer finger 3 instead of 4. Watching the student’s hand from both sides to determine where it is awkward for him/her and making appropriate adjustments (we are too often always teaching from another harp, as we are seated on one side: get up and watch sometimes what the hand is doing from the other side to find more clues!)

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