international harp competition winners

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    I was doing some research for a paper I have to write for my class and I started to notice a trend in the international harp competitions. Namely that there is a noticeable lack of American trained harpists winning these competitions. Why aren’t they doing well in international harp competitions for the past 10 years or so? (I’m thinking of the international U.S. harp competition and the Israeli one off the top of my head). Is it a matter of atmosphere, repertoire, and judges, or a matter of technique and teaching style? If the latter, what is being neglected?

    I do not want to get into a debate between either the Salzedo or French method, both have produced outstanding harpists, but are both methods leaving something out that is being taught in other countries where the harpists are doing rather better in these contests?

    Jerusha Amado


    I believe that Carl Swanson has addressed this issue in a previous post.


    Thank you! I thought it might have been something like that. I haven’t been on this site in a long time and thought there had at one time been a search button for old threads, but when I couldn’t find one I thought I was misremembering. I hope the search option returns. It makes looking up my questions to see if they had previously been answered (like this one), very challenging.


    To search harp column (and any website) type in what you are searching for in google and then follow it with For instance searching “Salzedo site:harpcolumn” will find any page in that has the word Salzedo in it. If you forget the exact format, just go to “advanced search” on google.


    Jerusha Amado


    I think that I found the link, finally!

    Misty Harrison

    Julie Bunzel is American trained. She didn’t win in the Israel International Competition but she did do well. Didn’t Julie Smith also place highly in the USA International Competition? She is also American trained.


    I can’t say for Julie Bunzel, but Julie Smith has been awarded both the bronze and silver medals at the UIHC.



    Thank you very much Jerushu for finding that thread, that has been very helpful to read. And thanks, Sam, for the Google tip!


    I wasn’t able to find what I wrote about this before, but I thought it would not hurt to repeat my thoughts here.

    Firstly, it has nothing to do with Salzedo or Grandjany technique per se, which is just a matter of hand position, finger articulation, etc. The real problem is the process, over years, that is used to train harpists and to get the ones with the most natural talent to play well at the most advanced level. The countries that consistently produce grand prize winners(1st, 2nd, or 3rd prize) have a rigorous and very systematic format for teaching technique. And by technique, I mean the ability to play fast and accurately, and to play any note or passage at any dynamic level. I don’t know of anyone in the United States who does that.

    The teaching(and learning) of technique has to be focused on as a part of each lesson from beginner on up, and repertoire is never used to advance technique. That is done with etudes and exercises. Let me give you an example.

    If you are going to teach a student to play scales, then the ultimate goal should be up and down 4 octaves, hands separately, 4 notes to the beat, at approximately 126-132 to the beat. You start by teaching a low level beginner to play scales up and down three or 4 octaves, and work with them on endless variations to get the scale smooth and even, get all 8 fingers to produce the same sound, completely stabilize the hand position, and then over time speed the whole scale up until you have reached the goal of the previous paragraph. If the student can do that, then playing something like the Handel B flat Concerto, with running 16th notes at 88 to the quarter is a piece of cake. If the student can’t do that, then he/she is going to struggle to get the same piece up to tempo.

    By the same token, if the student over several years, plays through sets of etudes and plays them fast and accurately, then any piece of music he/she encounters will, again, be easy to master, because the student will have a whole encyclopedia of muscle memory patters at his/her disposal.

    But that’s not the way most American harp students are trained. They simply work on pieces, and more often than not, pieces that are way beyond them technically. Even if they can manage to play all of the notes, they don’t have the technical control to play with total evenness, with technical ease, with two or three dynamic levels simultaneously, or even with total control over crescendos and decrescendos, ritards and accelerandos. And the result translates directly into the results you mentioned in your original posts.

    It wasn’t always like this. In the first 20 years of the Israel competition for example, plenty of Americans took grand prizes. Susan McDonald, Nancy Allen, Barbara Allen, Lynn Turner, Emily Mitchell, Grace Wong to name a few. Many of them studied with Grandjany, or in Europe with Marissa Robles or Pierre Jamet. Those teachers are gone now. In the realm of orchestra auditions, students of McDonald, Nancy Allen, Kathy Bride, and Sarah Bullen have had success.


    I will weigh in with my two cents worth. I think that winning competitions probably has much to do with the degree of control one has, and the extent of one’s performing experience and performing the repertoire of that competition. As an American, I have found it unbelievably difficult to get even the most basic experience of practice-performing a program. I was recently questioned, why would I ever want to perform for free or even at cost, rather than be paid a measly $100 or so. The need for experience was unfathomable to this person. Living in a big city like New York did not make it easier. It is slightly easier in school, because you have juries, various people available to listen to you, and maybe a placement office to provide some playing opportunities.

    Would anyone enter the Olympics without specific training and experience? Would a horse be entered in a race without having done other races leading up to it?

    I think what is different is that European harpists, I assume, if they don’t start younger, they are in a different educational system that makes preparation easier, and if it is not that, everything is closer together, more cities, more places to play. So, my assumption is that they have had more performing practice. Or, perhaps that is only those who win.

    Not to stir things up, but I have been thinking about this. I looked at some European harpists on YouTube, and realized that some of them are playing with their fingertips and really nothing else. They are not thinking about position, posture, anything else visibly, only the notes their fingertips are playing. It made me realize that I have perhaps focused too much on my arms and other aspects of playing that should be secondary to what the fingertips are doing. That simple shift of focus changes the result. So, perhaps that has helped these performers through their repertoire. It is something to consider. I haven’t changed my position, but my focus is different.

    Is it also a question of numbers of harpists, or the availability of funds to support their travel and expenses? I could never afford to go to Israel or any other competition not local. Many American harpists have started later in their life, as teens or older, and all the harp competitions I can see make no accomodation for that. You are supposed to magically catch up in six or seven years to those who have been playing for more than fourteen. It is wrong, I think, to regulate all categories in contests by age, and not take into account length of study. It is just fine for those students who start before the age of ten and have or get to excellent teacher right away or very soon. Those students tend to win the AHS competitions, seems to me. There again, we actually have very few competitions here. We have AHS, local and national (that used to be the only one), ASTA, and USA International. Are there any others? There used to be the Hobin competition in New Jersey, but no more. We should probably have several more in this country (and Canada, Mexico), if we want to produce more international winners.


    I would like very much to start a competition in conjunction with my festival, but I am very much constrained by available funds and personnel.


    Dearest Saul- I don’t think that any of your post explains why European trained harpists consistently play better than American harpists and win competitions more often. You’re confusing two issues: preparing for a competition, and, learning to play the harp well(very well). They are completely separate issues.

    The system that I touched on in my post is the standard way of teaching in France and Russia and perhaps other European countries as well. It’s a very nuts-and-bolts approach to teaching the technical aspects of the harp, and raising the technical standard of the student to the highest possible level. Does it turn every student into a world class virtuoso? Of course not. But for the talented and dedicated student who is willing to put in the time and make the effort, it does produce better results overall than the current way of teaching harp in the United States. And while you can argue endlessly with me over the truth of my statement, you cannot argue with the competition results.


    Two things:

    A) Don’t forget about Emily Levin, who was just a finalist in Israel at 18!

    B) I don’t think its possible to separate the issues of playing the harp very well and preparing for a competition successfully when talking about



    A) And also Julie Smith, Liz Hainen, and Jessica Zhaou. They all took grand prizes at recent competitions. And there may be other names we haven’t mentioned.

    B) Preparing for a competition is certainly as important as being a very good harpist. It’s a bit like the difference between learning a piece, and learning to perform a piece. My article, The Big Day, published in the Harp Column several years ago, goes into that.

    It would certainly be possible, and in fact has happened, that a slightly lesser harpist who was a better performer and competitor could win a competition over a more musical and highly skilled harpist who got a bad case of the nerves. But harp competitions have been around long enough to be able to see trends and patterns. The Israel competition started 51 years ago, and the USA I think 24. There will always be bickering about individual competitions and competitors. But it’s hard to argue with a pattern of one nationality or method consistently producing winners. Competition juries provide professional, unbiased reviews of the players.



    Thats a good point – that the competitions have been around long enough to see overall trends. Perhaps, then, the interest in large competitions is waning in America? And because of the waning interest more and more teachers do not know or forget how to prepare students for a big competitions, so the American harpists who do go out to the competitions are not properly prepared. Look at the list of competitors of these competitions, the Americans are few and most seem to be eliminated early…

    Also, I think you’d be playing with fire by saying that juries provide unbiased reviews. That is the complete opposite of anything anyone has ever told me! For instance, look at the AHS competitions – in all categories except the Young Professional screens are put up so that the judges don’t take a particular technique into account! The screens would never have been erected if the competition thought that the jury could be unbiased. The only reason why screens cannot be put up for a large international competitions is that the judges need to see a performer’s stage presence. And not to mention issues of race, gender, previous experience (of the performer – crowd favorite) and the countless other factors that could sway a judge subconciously.

    Anyway, the fact of the matter is that a jury simply cannot be assumed to be unbiased and is, therefore, not a sure fire way to indicate a harpist’s talent. Albeit, it

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