Anyone have guidance on how to teach adults to play the harp? I
haven’t had much success with them.
Posted In: Teaching the Harp
I’m not a harp teacher, not yet anyway. But I’ve been teaching piano for over 20 years and have some observations about adult piano students that are probably applicable to adult students of other instruments as well. First, the drop-out rate for adult students is very high. I don’t think that reflects on the ability of the teacher although some of us definitely have gifts of communication that function best with certain age groups. I personally have difficulty starting children younger than 8. (Obviously, I don’t have any Suzuki training.) I’ve had a couple students that started at around 5 and did well but they were truly gifted. Many children who wait and start at 8 catch up to their peers who started at 5 in less than a year. So the youngest ones progress very slowly and the expense and wear and tear on the parents who supervise practice time and lessons is considerable and, in most cases, unnecessary. (That’s just my opinion…not based on any credible research.) To the parents of young children I recommend Kindermusik programs, group music experiences and/or dance classes. Years of fun musical experiences with other kids will help give a child the positive attitude they need to approach the lonely discipline of studying a solo instrument. If the child is begging the parent for lessons, by all means, give them a chance…but usually it is the parent that is anxious to begin developing their child’s musical talents. And it is usually the parent that keeps the child coming to lessons, monitors practice time and sets a routine that demands attention to the instrument. Without parents…most of us would never have become decent musicians. We needed the structure and accountibility to keep us going. I can remember standing crying in the kitchen…begging not to have to practice or go to my piano lesson and hearing my mother say, “Someday you’ll thank me for this.” Our adult students do not have a “parent” to make them practice and keep them going. They come to their instrument with a life already full (and possibly overfull.) They also have spent years in a “fast food” culture where the finished product is delivered in an expedient and effortless manner. But there aren’t shortcuts to good musicianship and after about 6 or 8 lessons… when reality of that sets in…many adults decide the cost is too high.
Adult students, particularly in mid-life, are often searching for new avenues of experience and self-expression. Some of them may try many things before they find a medium that both challenges and satisfies. They may even try a round of music lessons at your studio. By adulthood, some have become hardened Performance-Orientated Perfectionists. They can hardly bear the thought of making a mistake, or taking years to perfect a skill, or having anyone notice how insecure they really are. So they are nervous wrecks at their lessons, full of apologies and self-loathing at their incompetance. They need a light touch, a lot of love and constant reassurance. If you can teach them to relax, laugh, and find some joy in the “process” of learning rather than the “goal” of a perfect performance, you can count that a victory even if they never learn to play their instrument well.
I agree that an exploration of musical goals is imperative with adult students. Adult students usually know what kind of music they enjoy and what they would hope to do with their music and their instrument. I have started several adults that were not really even interested in learning to read music but wanted to just be able to sit down and improvise off a lead sheet or fake book and sing along. Often, that goal can be realized in a few months (or weeks) with a motivated individual (and they will have learned basic note reading as well).
It is imperative with adults that they are learning music they enjoy playing. Even if you use standard curriculum you can often substitute other material and give choices. With piano curriculum…pieces are included because they introduce a new concept, fingering pattern, or technical challenge. I have a huge music library, mostly books purchased used from Goodwill and Salvation Army for dimes and quarters. So I can give my students a choice of several pieces, rather then limiting them to one selection. Young students don’t seem as fussy, but teenagers and adults will simply NOT make good progress playing music they aren’t excited about. Give them an arrangement of their favorite song off the current Top 10 chart and they will often amaze you, playing well above their grade level to master a piece that they and their friends love.
Adults often take up new hobbies (including music) for a diversion during a period of crisis or stress. Music becomes therapy and the music teacher may become a therapist. My own harp journey started at a difficult point in my life. There were a few months when the only relief I felt was when I was seated at my harp, completely concentrated on the instrument (or in prayer). I don’t think I shared much with my harp teacher about those things but I have adult students who have shared parts of their journeys with me, often at the expense of musically-focused lessons but hopefully meeting a greater need in their life, even if it is simply being a listening ear.
A couple suggestions for adult students:
Always suggest renting an instrument and investing as little as possible for a trial period. Having thousands of dollars invested in an instrument can be dangerous to financial and emotional health if it doesn’t prove to be a rewarding experience for the student. I remember having a mother call me about lessons for her 2 boys, ages 7 and 9. I suggested renting to her but when she showed up with the boys for their first lesson she had bought an $18,000 grand piano for them. She left them at my door with the comment that they were going to have to take lessons forever now…she had spent a lot of money on that piano. I’m not sure guilt provides healthy motivation for anyone and adults are no exception.
Have a peliminary meeting with the perspective student to discuss their needs, ambitions, your policies and expectations. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to a student that you don’t think will be a good fit for you.
Be willing to consider the non-traditional. Many piano teachers in my area will not even consider accepting students who do not own an acoustic piano. I use a digital piano in my studio, have many students with electronic keyboards or portable keyboards. I’ll start with whatever they have. If the student progresses well, I can usually convince them of the need for an appropriate instrument and help them find or rent one they can afford.
With my teens and adults, I am using more of the CD/Midi curriculums Some of my students love to learn pieces to play along with the orchestral CD accompaniments. Most of these have the pieces played twice on the CD; once with the piano part played so you can either play along or listen, and once with just the orchestral parts. By the way, some of these are excellent for the harp as well, just rewrite the fingerings. You and your students can be orchestral harpists in your own living room.
Sandwich your adult students between your younger ones so you don’t end up having talk and “therapy” time stretch out your time committment beyond your lesson fee.
Consider flexible lessons for some adult students. I have a couple students who call me when they are ready for a lesson. They cannot commit to a weekly lesson. I do not keep a regular time slot open for them, I’ll fit them in when I can. Sometimes I see them for three weeks in a row and then they will skip three. Not the best way to make steady progress but they can’t handle coming to a lesson when they are not prepared and they have difficult schedules to manage. As a teacher, I couldn’t budget a living if all my students were like these, but I can manage a few.
At least one of the responses to this question about adult students mentioned past musical injuries as a difficulty for some adults. I’ve had many adult students who started piano lessons as children and quit with horrible memories of teachers with yardsticks who rapped knuckles and other sort of abuse. Later in life such students may chose to revisit their past and bring their “baggage” with them to your bench. You may deal with posture, muscle problems and breathing difficulties before you master one page of new music. Such is the task of the teacher who works with adults.
I have an adult piano student that began taking lessons again after a 25 year stint as wife and parent. She had progressed to a Grade Four level as a teenager. Even after her years of inactivity, she proved a competent student and a good sight reader. But playing the piano was a terrible stress for her. Even though we are good friends she would come to her lessons shaking, sweating bullets and generally exhibiting all the symptoms of a stroke about to happen. A strong perfectionist, she spent more time apologizing for every mistake than she did actually playing. After a few agonizing weeks, she showed interest in one of the harps in my studio and I offered to rent it to her for a month. “What could I do with it?” she questioned. “Take it home and let it sit in your living room.” I answered “When you walk by it, sit down and pluck a few notes.” “Will you give me lessons?” she wanted to know. “No lessons,” I said “I’m not teaching harp yet, but I’ll show you enough to get you started.” We had a 30 minutes orientation on basic posture, hand position, tuning and harp care. It was a different instrument, a different bench. She seemed relaxed and happy. Then she asked about music books. In a moment of inspiration I told her I absolutely wouldn’t give her any music books for a few weeks. I wanted her to just sit down at the harp and pluck stings…any strings…make up her own stuff. If she didn’t have any music, she couldn’t make any mistakes, there wouldn’t be any wrong notes. A week later she called me and told me she was in love. She’s been paying her harp rent and playing the harp for about 5 months. She owns a music book now…and she is joyfully plucking along on her own. She went to a harp circle group with me and laughed at her mistakes and heard others laugh at theirs. She hasn’t showed up for a single piano lesson since the harp left my studio and I don’t expect she will ever sit on a piano teacher’s bench again. And…in my opinion (no valid research to support it)…who would want to play the piano if you could play the harp??? Melanie
Although I have taught one adult the basics of playing the harp, I do not consider myself a teacher in any respect. But as someone who learned to play the harp in my 20s I can tell what it was about my teacher that made it easy for me to learn.
The primary thing is that my lessons were about me. You see, as an adult laying out, what to me was, a sizable amount of money for lessons, I had no desire to fit my goals in to someone else?s curriculum. I know many teachers have their own way of doing things, but the adult is less inclined to go along with a teacher’s idea of what is best than a child is (for better or worse).
My teacher would introduce me to music, but let me decide if I wanted to play that piece or try something else. Someone mentioned a student interested in only Celtic music. That was me as well. I wanted to play Celtic harp, but my teacher was a classical harpist. It didn’t deter her. She was honest about what she could teach me, but was willing to try. She let me pick most of the music I was to learn and encouraged me to develop my own style. I would, of course, try to be open to her suggestions for pieces she felt would challenge me and make me a better musician. I can play some very nice classical pieces that I enjoy very much thanks to her. But ultimately the decision to learn those pieces was left to me.
The most important thing was that she did not treat me like a child. As an adult I had responsibilities and commitments that sometimes had to take precedence over my practice. That was fine. My teacher never reprimanded me if I did not have time to practice as much as I should have one week. She knew I was learning for my own enjoyment, and so focused on keeping the lessons enjoyable, even if it was at the expense of learning a little more slowly. If she complained that I was not practicing enough, or that I did not show proper enthusiasm for her musical selections, or that I was just not serious enough about my lessons, I would not have continued to take lessons with her. As it turned out, I continued taking lessons with her until I moved across the country and had to stop. I have basically taught myself since because I have not been able to find another teacher that was as open, and easy going, and good as she was.
I have checked out a few teachers, but most of them were very into controlling the whole learning process for the student. With adults you need to allow the student a lot more input into the learning process because adults have the experience to know what works for them and what does not. I would think that being a teacher for adults requires much more flexibility and openness then teaching children.
Just my observations as an adult student.
I have been teaching one student in particular for a year who
also, surprise surprise, finds it very difficult commit to practising.
She is lucky to get cramming time in the night before her lesson!
I was very frustrated by this at first, but I have come to realise that
harp lessons for her are a form of therapy.
Well, I think this has been said indirectly already, but anyway, in my experience the key is making it a student-directed experience. That is, let the student’s goals and level of committment determine the music learned, the speed of progression, etc. However, this does not have to be contrary to the goal of teaching solid technique and musicianship. I drew this conclusion from a workshop I watched this summer with Irish harpist Maire ni Chathasaigh and have been trying to apply the ideas I got to my teaching of adults. The workshop consisted mostly of adults who had begun three to four years ago at most, some of whom are performing in some capacity or another. there was a general lack of fluidity and musicality to their playing as a result of obvious technical problems which it appeared their regular teachers decided to “let slide” for some reason because the students were not “serious” or ever going to be “real harpists.” Maire patiently spent time with each one of them correcting these problems; most of the students’ reaction was something along the lines of “Wow, that’s how it’s supposed to be! Now I can actually improve instead of just stagnating!” The lesson I learned was that while technique can’t be conquered all at once, it is well worth teaching it steadily and insisting on in the end because of what it will mean to the student in the long run: they are not stuck at one level marvelling at what other people can do and not knowing why it is so hard for them. To tell them why certain technical things are the way they are can be a great help: when you cross under with 4th finger it is replaced at low on the strings as it was before so that your thumb has room to play its note, for example. When there is a reason that makes sense it becomes more easy and natural to do it–not just
yelling “keep your thumbs up!!!!!” over and over again. Helping the student notice the why and how of what they might be doing as opposed to the correct way, and that the correct way is actually more efficient and is the correct way for a reason, is helpful to an adult who is already uncomfortable in the position of the student. To explain that something so seemingly mysterious and inscrutable makes sense after all and is possible for them to handle can go a long way towards putting them at ease. Then, how hard the student wants to practice is up to them and they should never be made to feel that they are not working enough if their goal is not to be a professional. But they should not be shortchanged by having faulty techniques ignored either, as clearly seemed to be the case with the workshop participants.This is just in addition to what everyone else has very intelligently said, hopefully it will be useful to
How enjoyable to read these posts!! I am a harp teacher at the beginner to intermediate level. I started as an adult harp student when I was 50 (I am now 69). I have a college degree in music, so I acquired music theory which is an invaluable tool for teaching at any age or level, but especially to adults who want “immediate gratification and satisfaction”. I start teaching without music…basically getting to know how to get around the harp, even if the student doesn’t read music. I can weave theory into simple songs, and the student becomes interested from the start, and also confident they can really make music on this instrument. Enjoyment is the key ingredient! Typically I have found that my adult students are very ready to take on the harp…not having so many commitments as when they were younger (i.e., demanding jobs — some are retired; children; etc.). So they seem to have enough time to practice. Also, I never let them cancel a lesson because they aren’t prepared, because we can always sit down together and learn something! They are happy to do this. I have become friends with all of my adult students. Such a joy to be their teacher AND often ending up becoming friends. It’s awesome to find that we discuss something that touches on an emotional level with the music or the harp, because they are now able to connect with the music that way. So rewarding to be able to have all this during a music lesson. It’s important to recognize what they want from playing the harp, and why they chose it. I think the biggest “plus” is that I learn from THEM more than they could ever imagine. I teach at their homes, which allows a comfortable feeling for them with their own harp. And when I go home it is amazing how inspired I am with my own playing and ambitions because of them 🙂