Question for Harp Teachers about a certain kind of Student Frustration

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

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    Aria on #190276

    Do you normally have students come to you for a lesson on your personal harps? Or do you travel to students so they can play their own harp? Have you noticed a big difference in how well (or poorly) the lesson goes either way?

    I’m asking because I took lessons for 7 years at my teacher’s homes on their harps. I got a lot out of my lessons and progressed as a harpist BUT, I dreaded every single second of having to show my teachers what I can do on a harp I hadn’t practiced on. Their harps were always significantly different in size, feeling of the pedals, string tension, string spacing, and even the tone was different. Every lesson was horrible in terms of my performance. I couldn’t adjust to the different harps within the span of the lesson time. Neither of my teachers ever saw what I can really do on my own harp.

    Recently, I quit my lessons out of complete frustration. I got tired of investing so many hours of time and hard work developing beautiful sound on my own harp, only to find it could not be reproduced on the teachers harps! Also the different size/proportion of instruments threw off my kinesthetic memory so badly that it was as though I had not practiced at all! As you can imagine, MOST of my lessons were wasted “correcting” a lot of problems that may or may not have actually been occurring for me at home. Both teachers were Music-Degree Professional Harpists. But neither believed in routine string changes. They both kept old, dull, shredding strings on their harps which sounded a bit “thud-like” to me. So I also felt very disoriented by the different sound. It didn’t match the articulate tones and string responsiveness I was getting at home on my routinely maintained harp.

    It seems like adjusting to different harps is a skill all it’s own? I’m thinking my next plan should be “skype lessons” since I can’t find a teacher who can travel to me.

    Any thoughts? Is this a normal problem for students?

    Biagio on #190278

    Speaking as a student and a harp maker….my teacher insists that students bring their own harps if at all possible. The exceptions are: if these are early lessons on basic technique and theory; if the student’s harp is out of commission for some reason; or if it is a very large harp that would be difficult to transport. If a beginning student does not yet have their own she will arrange to rent them one and help them find the model that best suits their style and desires. Her reasons are the same that you have given.

    Hope that helps.


    carl-swanson on #190279

    The problem is a classic one: you only play one instrument. Your harp. The solution is to play as many different instruments as you can get your hands on, on a regular basis. You will arrive at a point, quickly, where you can change from one harp to another without any problem.

    Harp students at music schools are usually good at this, because they have to play different instruments that belong to the school. I don’t know if you are talking about lever or pedal harp. But you need to make a big effort to play different makes and models of instruments whenever you can so that you can adjust quickly. Years ago, Lyon & Healy made standard and wide spaced instruments. The wide spacing was only in the 4th and 5th octaves. But if you weren’t used to it it felt like the Grand Canyon. But harpists who regularly changed back and forth between wide and standard got so they could make the adjustment instantaneously.

    balfour-knight on #190282

    I will add to these fine posts that harpists have it great compared to pianists and organists! Being proficient in harp, organ and piano, I can say that practicing on one organ and going to have a lesson on another one is one of the most difficult things a musician can do! Pianos vary a great deal too, in size, touch, tone and volume. Pianists and organists can never take their own instruments to their lessons, as can harpists, and they are at the mercy of the tuner who last tuned them! Also, much practice time is required on the organ or piano one is having to play on for a concert. The harpist can just take his/her own dependable harp, thank goodness!

    That is why I usually only do harp concerts presently; I have had my fill of bad pianos and organs that I have had to perform on over the years.

    I do sympathize, Aria, but maybe you can do like Carl said and play several different harps. I own three, and play several others at different venues. They are all incredibly different, so it keeps me “on my toes,” ha, ha!

    Best regards to all of you,

    angie-kelly–2 on #190283

    My first harp teacher was very concerned that when students purchased their first harp they get one with standard spacing so that it wouldn’t be an issue. For lessons she had a celtic harp and one or two pedal harps to play on I started with a Troubador IV. I don’t remember any major difficulties switching between home harp and lesson harp – maybe changing levers but it wasn’t so much of an issue that I remember it now.
    I have run into this somewhat when it comes to piano. My family’s piano growing up, I liked the way the sound was with the sustain pedal. In college piano class for an exam the teacher made a comment on how I used the pedal too much, but did note that perhaps it was due to the less-than-perfect piano or the fact that we usually used electronic keyboards in class. Looking back, perhaps I had just become so used to pedals from the harp that my foot felt funny if it wasn’t hovering over a pedal. I’ve also experienced difficulty sometimes playing someone else’s guitar – I use nylon strings on my acoustic guitar (folk guitars regularly have nylon strings, but I have an acoustic not folk guitar) – and once in an emergency I even used a harp string as a replacement string. My guitar is also a 3/4 size. So when it comes to playing on a full sized guitar with steel strings-it definitely takes some adapting.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #190286

    For reasons of wear and tear, teachers may not let students play on their best harps. But if you are finding this detrimental, you should bring your own harp to a lesson. Sure it is frustrating, but you should also be used to the difference and develop the ability to adjust. But I certainly would criticize any teacher who is not changing their strings annually, particularly if they are making money from teaching. That is just plain rude, and sub-standard. I would not blame you for looking for another teacher, one who has a decent harp to teach on. Skype is no substitute for hands-on learning. But if those teachers never touch you to guide you, then I would be happy to give you video lessons.

    Tacye on #190288

    I think that it is a good idea to have some lessons on your own harp. Work on tone colour and posture in particular benefit and also polishing before a performance. It is also good to be able to play on different harps and part of the reason for starting with warm ups and exercises is getting used to the instrument you are playing today.

    Why not ask your teacher if you could bring your own harp sometimes? If you aren’t yet used to a fast in-out with a pedal harp you could also ask about trying a longer lesson time when you bring yours.

    Sylvia on #190289

    If you’ve had lessons for 7 years, and you play well on your own harp, why do you want to take lessons? Sounds like you are wasting your energies and emotions (and money) on lessons, when you could be putting those energies and emotions into practicing.
    I suppose if you are planning on giving grand concerts somewhere, maybe…
    But if you are doing gigs, you are ready to go.

    Aria on #190291

    To answer your question Sylvia: I started Harp (and music) as an adult. I have a full time career in another field. The reason I desire lessons is because it has taken me 7 years to progress to intermediate level playing. I don’t go to school to study music, and never will. I don’t perform professionally. I don’t sight read sheet music well. It takes me months to learn a single piece. This is just where I’m at. My fingers can not yet play certain kinds of advanced passages with fluency and speed. I have no natural gift for interpreting certain things about dynamics of music. And basically I find that having advanced teachers is valuable so I can look through their eyes and understand how / why they see music a certain way. The process is deep and endless. I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

    I thank everyone for all the helpful replies. I can see from the responses that my issue is not necessarily unusual, just another reality of the harp to work with. And I appreciate all the suggestions that have been given. While I’m taking a break from private lessons, I’m doing a lot of online self-study in various forms. Probably what I need most at this point is better technical understanding of how to interpret certain things about sheet music in general, and translating that into expressing in on the harp…. Not so easy for me. I’m not sure how else to get this kind of help, except through good a harp teacher?

    Sylvia on #190292

    I may be on the wrong track again, but I’m wondering why your teachers let you work on music that is too difficult. Easier pieces would increase your skills better, and you could gradually move into harder things. When I was out of college, I had no harp for four years. By the time I saved up (the down payment) to buy one, I couldn’t play at all. I actually started over with Betty Paret’s First Harp Book and worked my way up again …teacherless…and enjoyed every minute.

    And it sounds as tho they didn’t give you practice techniques…such as making exercises out of the hard sections by playing long, short, long…and then short, long, short. Someone on the forum called it something else, (I don’t remember what) but that’s what my teacher called it.

    You can practice hands separate, then hands together.

    I like to use the metronome….not just steadily increasing speed as I was taught, but going back and forth…slow, faster, slow faster, and gradually moving up both the slow level and the fast level to go increasingly faster. Also, I like to just race thru it faster than I can play it…because I have to see it faster, and when I go back to tempo, it seems easier.

    I’m sure others on the forum know lots of practice techniques. I remember when I was a student, one day it occurred to me…he’s teaching me how to practice!
    I think it is wrong to view a lesson as a performance.

    I also wonder if you shared your frustrations with those teachers. It sounds like they didn’t know how different your own harp was from theirs and what a challenge it was to try to play theirs. I certainly would have told them! …except about the strings. I’m the Queen of Old Strings…they cost money, so they have to do their job as long as possible.
    Sorry I rattled on so long here. I hope you can find your way and enjoy your harp.

    Aria on #190293

    Yes they gave me plenty of practice techniques. When I said “performance” I am only referring to how badly the lessons feel for me in that situation compared to playing my own harp. Yes I do work on music appropriate to my level. When I explained what I can’t do, it was to illustrate one reason why I would continue lessons, since you asked why I still need them after 7 years. My teachers are aware of my difficulty in switching harps. But they don’t think it’s that big of a deal. So ….. I’m giving myself a break now.

    Gretchen Cover on #190294

    Aria, while you are taking your break, you may want to check out Josh Layne’s Harp Tuesday. He breaks down a number of the classic harp pieces and also works on specific techniques or topics. You can find the clips on youtube or his website,

    Anne Sullivan’s Harp Mastery course would be very helpful for you, too. Go to A fresh approach may be what you need right now to keep you motivated.

    Also, I would encourage you to record yourself when you practice a piece. Hearing yourself may help you with your phrasing and musical expression. In addition, I often put on a headset and play through my recorder. That way I hear what I sound like in front of the harp as though I am in the audience.

    Alyson Webber on #190296

    I have a couple of thoughts, they could be useful or not.

    How much do you play your harp in different places of the house? outside? I ask because as I move my own personal instrument around it becomes foreign to me because of the background, the resonance of the room, lighting, etc. I would encourage you to move your own harp to different places regularly in order to begin to get accustomed to the feeling of something being not quite right.

    Secondly, as you are relatively new to music in general, I want to be sure that you know that virtually EVERYONE does worse in lessons than they do at home. There is a degree of performance in each lesson, a desire to PROVE that you worked hard all week. This, for me, often translates into issues I have never experienced at home coming out in my lessons. My harp teacher is very aware of this and will ask me (trusting me to be honest) if certain things happen regularly at home or if it was a nervous issue. Her understanding has helped me to become more relaxed about mistakes and I therefore make less now!

    Also, if and when you return to lessons, make sure that you are positioned the same way at the harp. I moved my bench back about 2 inches last night and I had to do some mental adjustments. Try to come up with some ways to quickly ascertain whether you are in the right spot.

    I agree that recording yourself is useful, but if you are focusing in tone color and dynamics, you may be disappointed with what you hear if you’re just using your phone or ipad. Mine cannot pick up on nuance. If, however, you need to check tempo, hear awkward moments when you’re searching for a chord or performance anxiety, recording is wonderful!

    Gretchen Cover on #190297

    Alyson – you are correct about the sound quality of a smartphone or iPad by themselves. I generally use an iPad for quick recordings in daily practice but have external speakers which definitely makes a world of difference in sound quality. Using a fairly decent set of headphones that you would use for your computer or listening to music on a smartphone works well, too.

    Alyson Webber on #190298

    Huh. I’ll have to try that, thanks Gretchen!

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