Seeking teachers that have experience teaching older students

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

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    Stephanie on #185054

    Hello Everyone,
    I am looking to chat with fellow harp teachers that have older students (ages 60+) in their studio. I am curious as to how you all tackle student fatigue, hand and arm placement (NOT a Salzedo vs. Grandjany debate please!!), what teaching materials you use and teaching techniques that work for you all. Please feel free to send me a message or e-mail me at BanbaFodh @

    I really look forward to all your thoughts and experiences!!!!!



    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #185127

    Keep it simple. They can develop strength if not disabled, and probably have enough already. A simply explained and demonstrated technical approach should work best. How much they can improve is debatable. I had a student who could sight-read beautifully, but was incapable of progress through practice.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #185135

    Between 60 and 90 years old, a lot can change, but even in the same age group, there are variations in physical and mental ability. If your students are getting fatigued, they should develop a workout routine to improve strength and endurance. With all new students, I put my hand on the strings an octave lower and ask them to copy what I am doing. At the same time, I talk them through it and correct things. Usually, they have already bought some music before their first lesson, so I work with whatever they have. I make sure that their elbows are out from the body. In 4-note chords or placements, they place the middle fingers first, not from the bottom note up. I recommend using a mirror or making videos of themselves, so that they can monitor their hand and arm placement. Damase’s 10 Etudes for lever harp are good, though not well known. Deborah Friou’s Exercises for Agility and Speed work well to build lever harp technique. Susann McDonald’s Harp Olympics, Renie’s Method for the Harp and Salzedo’s Method for the Harp are great for beginning pedal harp students. Lariviere’s Exercises et Etudes are wonderful. Yolanda Kondonassis’s On Playing the Harp is another very thorough book. There are many choices. For a good list for lever harpists:

    Julietta Anne Rabens on #186610

    I am happy to find this thread because I was going to look for feedback about dealing with finger joints affected by arthritis. I have some very focused older students who make a wonderful effort to apply correct technique. There have been some issues with thumb joints, including the tip of the thumb which limits its ability to curve, so it cannot produce as much strength plucking the string.

    So far the best helps I have found including suggesting using warm water soak to loosen up the soft tissue in the hands before practicing, and advising the use of the lighter tension harps with the best tone, so that if they cannot get that strong fingertip pluck and complete closure into the hand, they can still produce a good sound with less effort. There can also be some occasional issues throughout the body, so correct posture at the harp with periodic breaks is even more important for older students.

    I don’t consider these to be all possible solutions, so I look forward to continuing to read more input from others. The issues I’ve noticed are irregular joints due to arthritis and some stiffness in the range of motion in the fingers that can limit full closure into the palm.

    Barbara on #191286

    One of the great things about older adult students is that they are usually taking lessons because they want to, which leads to a motivation to practice! I think a lot of how to deal with it depends on the student’s goals. If you periodically talk to your student about his/her goals, you can tailor their lessons to those. I usually use Sylvia Woods’ Teach Yourself To Play the Folk Harp for a technique book. One idea is to use the fake books with the big notes (like these), which can be easier to see as well….plus they’re really fun to play out of! 🙂 You can also use these to work on theory, as a break for fatigue. Remember to encourage your student to have fun!

    elinor-niemisto on #191352

    I have taught several older students with stiff joints and have finally let go of my need to instill great technique. These folks, above all, want to produce nice tunes. If the goal is not to perform in public or make money, just make it possible to play some lovely music. Who cares if the tone is soft or uneven? If the melody is recognizable and smooth, help them feel good about using their brains and time to make music.

    carl-swanson on #191353

    Elinor- What great advice! I think that if I were to teach any adult who was just starting out, my first question would be “What do you want to play?” In other words, do they want to play folk tunes, pop tunes, religious music, classical? Once I had a picture of what they liked musically, and what motivated them to start harp lessons, my goal would be to help them achieve that. I would not use the standard classic technical approach on them. It would just be way too frustrating, for them and for me.

    Deette Bunn on #192180

    My older students are such fun and are generally quite motivated and disciplined. That said, they also tend to be a little self-conscious, which translates into tension. Consequently, the thing I focus on the most initially is relaxation. I also try to study their hands carefully (what’s stiff, what’s not, etc) and create a set of unique exercises for them. I have also found that pretty exercises are more fun and faithfully practiced. Good technique, with careful editing, is essential in order to avoid injury in these older students. The other thing I have my older students do is get a large, inexpensive Tupperware type of bowl and fill it with clean playground sand. As part of their warmup, they warm it up in the microwave and dig in and pick up a handful and hold it for a few seconds (like grabbing a handful of MMs) and then release it. It teaches them to close their hands while the warmth helps get rid of any stiffness and is very relaxing.

    carol-kappus on #192674

    Deette: What a great idea! I’m going to try that with my student who has pretty bad arthritis. Thanks!

    Barbara on #201387

    Deete, what a fun idea! I feel like that could be adapted for many ages! Thank you for sharing!

    Elettaria on #201451

    Does it help to give you the point of view of the student?  I’m not elderly, but I’m severely disabled at a level where people in their eighties can usually run rings around me. Fatigue is the main symptom (I’m mostly bedbound), followed by muscle weakness and pain, amongst various others including a mild visual impairment, cognitive dysfunction, memory loss.

    Keeping your elbows in the air gets to be utterly exhausting when you’re at this level.  You need to be able to adapt the technique you’re teaching to the student.  If you try to force them to do something that’s painful, they are likely to leave and not return.  I had a teacher do that, and worse still, she kept on grabbing my hands and forcing them into really painful positions. It was horribly invasive.  Somewhat oddly, she was trying to force pedal harp technique on me for a lever harp lesson, even though she supposedly taught both.  Teachers I’ve met since then have been far more flexible in their approach, and far kinder and more patient.

    Circulation is likely to be another issue.  If they have problems with perpetually cold hands, it can help to wear wrist warmers/fingerless gloves through the day.  I can’t play when my fingers are cold, as it hurts.

    Bear in mind that people with health problems may be shy about bringing them up, so it’s worth asking about fatigue, pain, cold hands, visual problems.

    They may need to practise in shorter bursts.

    Getting the harp and the chair at exactly the right height for me has been absolutely crucial, because it doesn’t take much for playing the harp to set off a fibro pain episode that will last days.  The next problem was making sure I was not sitting too rigidly.  That made the pain worse, and being in pain made me more likely to tense up and sit stiffly.  I found that I had to concentrate on moving around with the harp (34 string lever harp) as I played, which felt a bit silly and exaggerated at first, but did the trick.

    <span style=”font-size: 16px;”>Doing shoulder shrugs, and if need be getting up and doing some basic stretches, also helps.  Something that’s recommended in a book about ergonomics for quilters is that loading and unloading the dishwasher, if you have one, is a great task to do as a break from quilting, as it makes you bend and reach, stretching out the muscles you’ve been holding more tensely.  I reckon it’d apply to harp as well, as we’re basically talking about arms and back here.</span>

    Elderly people tend to be shorter than the younger generations.  As someone of 4’11, I’m the height of many a little old lady, and it’s a height that will affect harp playing, especially if your movement is more restricted.  I’ve briefly tried pedal harps at the Edinburgh Harp Festival and found they were OK, but with lever harps I have to bring my own stool to be at the right height, and pick harps that aren’t too tall for me.  If they’re on the tall side, I can’t reach the bass levers comfortably enough to flip them during a piece; I’d probably have been OK when I was younger, but not now I have shoulder problems. I would have hated it if someone had assumed that I was always going to be a beginner who would never need to change levers during a piece and told me it didn’t matter if I couldn’t reach them while playing, as I got to the stage of doing multiple quick lever changes fairly quickly.  After all, some beginners at the harp have decades of experience with other instruments under their belt (piano in my case), and you learn a lot faster with that head start.

    Visual problems – start with good lighting.  Make sure it’s good where you’re teaching and good where they’re practising.  Fluorescent light is harsh and difficult to see by.  LED lighting is pretty good these days, though I’d avoid cool white bulbs.  Incandescent and halogen are fine, and sunlight is excellent.  You need both the music and the harp well-lit, obviously. I generally play the wire harp from memory, and even so I feel more confident when it’s in better lighting.  I have a clip-on spotlight near my harp so it’s really well lit.  They’re pretty easy to get hold of.  It makes you more confident and it makes everything easier to do, as it’s easier to concentrate when you can see more clearly.

    For gut harps, there are Concedo strings which are more visible than the ordinary ones, and that may be useful.  Also make sure that whatever is in their sightline behind the harp isn’t going to be confusing, such as a strongly patterned rug.

    Do not under any circumstances greet questions about visual difficulties with, “Well, there were all those famous blind harpers and they were fine.”  I am going to growl very fiercely at the next person who says that to me.

    Astigmatism combined with fatigue can make me see two rows of strings.  It was a hell of a shock when I went to the festival the other year, having not touched a harp in twenty-five years, sat down – still in my wheelchair, so too high, though I didn’t realise that until afterwards – and saw two rows of strings.  Now I have good seating and lighting, it happens a lot less, and is generally a sign that I should rest and try again later.  This is also the kind of problem that tends to arrive with old age, I understand.

    I expected that I’d need really low tension because of my very low hand strength, but to my surprise, I don’t.  That will probably vary enormously, of course.  Wider spacing, on the other hand, becomes tiring when playing lots of octaves and such.  When I switched from a lever harp with pedal spacing to a harp with lever spacing (Camac Hermine to Starfish Student), it was noticeably much less tiring for my hands, even though the string tension was higher. I’m still having difficulty getting the harp and seat heights right with the Starfish, however, so I keep having to stop playing due to shoulder pain kicking off.

    With cognitive problems and fatigue, firstly I think it makes us much more likely to make mistakes during lessons, as the lesson itself is exhausting, and that can be embarrassing.  Secondly, it’s hard to concentrate on my playing and on what the teacher is saying.  Keeping notes helps.  I have my Android tablet with a little keyboard, but that’s because I can no longer write with a pen.  It does mean I don’t lose the notes and can read them, though.  I take in much less than other people do of what the teacher is saying, don’t remember it as well, and may need to have it explained in different ways.  By the end of the lesson I am exhausted, pretty much nothing is going in, and I am playing badly.  I find that if I was shown an exercise at the end of a lesson and couldn’t make sense of it, it’s much easier when I start fresh another day and tackle it then.  As long as I have enough in the way of notes to know what I’m meant to be doing.

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