Sight-Reading Skills and Music Theory at the Harp

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

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    Manijeh Rene Pickard on #194089


    I am a music educator and would like to know how you approach teaching sight-reading at the harp and why you teach sight-reading the way you do to students.

    In addition, I think it is important to teach music theory skills to students. Do you teach music theory in your lessons? If so, how much and how often do you teach music theory? Do you have a favorite theory book you teach from? When teaching theory, what do you teach besides note-reading and rhythm? Terms and symbols, key signatures, chords and intervals, etc?

    When teaching sight-reading at the harp, do you teach by shape recognition? Do you teach students to read every note from top/top to bottom, or look at the bottom/top note then look at the shape? Or do you teach with chords and inversions?

    I remember when I was a student in high school, my harp teachers would suggest looking at the shape of the chord or intervals. Looking at the shape of what was written was how I was primarily taught to sight-read at the harp. Was this the same for you? Do you teach students to look for shapes such as octaves, fifths, thirds?

    Thank you for sharing your time and opinions with me. I look forward to hearing your approach to teaching sight-reading and music theory knowledge at the harp!

    patricia-jaeger on #194134

    All harp students are unique, as are teachers. According to age, musical experiences before harp lessons, and other factors, all of us who play and teach will have different answers for you, and we are not used to so many questions you have asked in your post. Why do you expect so many freely given answers when we are so busy, doing our best to teach so well that our students may benefit? Meant in a friendly way to you rather than a critical one, perhaps if you re-post asking less, others will respond here. Best wishes to you.

    Dani Bash on #194151

    Hi Manijeh!

    I think your questions are valid and I am happy to share my thoughts. Re: how to teach sight reading, the processes you described are all great tips, and are ones that I have used. I think you should share every little device you can with your students – you never know what’s going to click with them! For example, I was doing note flashcards with a piano student yesterday, and I’ve shared every mnemonic device I know for reading line and space notes in treble and bass clef. She got stuck on one note, so I reminded her of a saying and it wasn’t clicking. She’s quite good at sight reading and note naming, so I asked her how she remembers the note names. She shrugged, and I didn’t question it! Whatever it is, it’s working for her! I know one teacher that never asks his students to name the notes. He thinks the relation between the symbol and where it is on the keyboard is more important – who cares if you know it’s an “A”, as long as you know what note to play on the keyboard. Not my style, but to each their own!

    Sight reading, in my opinion, is an accumulative skill and music theory is an important part of developing that skill. I like to do theory and technique away from repertoire, and usually free of any music. These exercises are usually made up and taught by rote, sometimes relevant to the current repertoire (ie same key) which serves as a warm up at the beginning of every lesson. For my harp students, I focus on teaching inversions, arpeggios, and common LH patterns (ie arpeggiated triads) and doing these exercises in every key (teaching circle of 5ths/key signatures). Both piano and harp students learn how to name chords using roman numerals and common cadences. Then we can see how this theory is applied in their music. For example, when we look at the Nutcracker cadenza, they already know what’s going on – chord inversions!

    Teaching theory to beginner harp students takes more effort and creativity than piano students, due to the lack of progressive lesson books out there that teach these concepts on the harp. Does anyone know of a beginner harp lesson book that doesn’t slap notes on a staff with a time signature for the first music reading experience? Harp Olympics has a great comprehensive approach, integrating theory very thoroughly even in the first book. Some exercises are specifically for sight reading.

    Keep asking and keep sharing, that’s how we all learn!

    Biagio on #194153

    Dani, I don’t know if this is what you have in mind but may I suggest Ray Pool’s “Three’s a chord” for theory? Add his melodic training book “1-2-3 Play” and you have a nice progressive and intensive set. Steffie Curcio’s “Student Harpist” series is also great and very sparse – what we need to know and nothing else!


    Dani Bash on #194154

    Hi Biagio,

    Thanks for the book suggestions! I love Ray Pool’s arrangements, so I will check out his theory books. Great to find new materials.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #194340

    My best idea so far is to use a vocal collection of sight-singing music, as it is hard for a young harpist to sight-read both hands at once. After going through such a book and encountering all sorts of music ideas, then it would make sense to move into two-hand music. Hymns are good for that, as well as much easier harp music.

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