Teaching Myself (?!)

Posted In: How To Play

  • Participant
    snoopy lee on #215452

    Most of this is pointless rambling, so feel free to skip to the last two paragraphs. You don’t actually need to know my life story to answer the question.

    So I have been wanting to play harp since I was fifteen, and now I have a basic harpsicle. I’ve had it since last June – but I’ll be honest, I didn’t start playing right away. I was kind of scared. I’ve been watching videos of harpists for years, studying the way they move their hands, but I felt so embarrassed just trying to do it on my own, especially since my family was being nosy about it. Kind of silly to be self-conscious about something I haven’t learned yet! But eventually, I let go of my fears and just went for it.

    I would say I practice only a couple hours every week. I usually get in 10-20 minutes at night, sometimes more. But I cannot read sheet music. I know nothing about music theory. And without a teacher, I’m stuck trying to “teach myself” which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. They say experience is the greatest teacher, but I don’t have a disciplined schedule to optimize my learning, nor do I have the knowledge of a real harpist nearby to help me. YouTube videos are all I have!

    So far I’ve discovered what sounds good and what doesn’t (I think), and most of my time spent playing is improvisation. I love it. So far I’ve only “learned to play” Amazing Grace, As The Deer, River Flows In You, Yuna’s Theme, and Abide With Me, most of which follow a similar pattern and were therefore easier to learn. Generally I improvise music, with periods of picking out tunes that I know just for fun.

    Even if you skipped the rest of this post, PLEASE give me your advice on this: is improvisational learning bad? Should I be going by a certain book and getting serious about reading music? It’s extremely difficult for me to understand sheet music (I’m not very smart). I wanted to be able to dive in right away and start building skills, perfecting my technique. I am very careful about my posture and hand position, but I’m not even sure I do that right!

    Am I learning things backwards, and is that going to mess me up later? Did this post make any sense at all? I’m kind of desperate and feeling alone here, sorry! I just can’t help but wonder if I’m making a mistake by trying to teach myself to play. It’s kind of depressing me and I don’t have anyone to turn to.

    Participant
    catherine-rogers on #215454

    Getting started is half the battle (and acquiring a harp!), and that you have done. The only downside to trying to teach yourself is that your progress will be limited due to lack of technique, and the chance you might develop some physical problems from improper technique, although you’re not playing that much so not really a concern now. Improvisational learning isn’t bad, per se; that’s how Harpo Marx started! But even he turned to teachers (Mildred Dilling) for help with things beyond his experience. You have resources he didn’t: internet videos, books like Sylvia Woods “Teach Yourself,” etc. Consider finding a sympathetic teacher who can do Skype lessons.
    Re: reading music, it’s not rocket science. Think of it as a secret code like kids use to pass notes in class (do they still do that?). If you really want to, you can learn it. Take it slow and easy; the only deadline you have is self-imposed. Lots of info online. Start with a very simple arrangement of a tune you know. A piano teacher can help you, or any friend who knows how to read bass and treble clefs. Mark the letter names of the notes on your music or whatever it takes to make sense to you.
    You can do this! Learning to play by ear (which is what you’re doing) is very useful and many of us wish we could do both. Keep playing! Good luck!

    Participant
    charles-nix on #215455

    What are your goals for learning to play? If for yourself–have fun. But, if you progress, and continue without a teacher, you _will_ learn habits that will sooner and later impede your further progress. Then you will have to start over, unlearn, and relearn.

    I also have to say, I’m not sure why you say you think you are not smart: your command of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure is excellent.

    Learning to improvise is not bad; not reading music is not bad. But if you ever want to be able to play something you have not heard you will need to read music. If you want to play anything from classical harp repertoire, you will need to read music. For anyone who can write English as well as you do, reading music should come along fine with some instruction, work, and practice. It is far easier than the grammar of any spoken language. Also, it should be said that at every level of study, there is available music which is more complex than one can read and play. Reading music is all relative.

    Can you find a teacher? There are lists available on Harp Column, and American Harp Society, and several other places.

    So, back to the beginning: What are your goals? Where do you want to go with harp playing? What kind of harp music are you interested in playing? For what audience? Those questions may help.

    Participant
    snoopy lee on #215457

    Thank you for replying! That was fast.

    Concerning my goals: I guess I would like to learn how to play and sing. I mean, I can kind of do that already, but I’d like my musical arrangements to be more complex. I enjoy hymns and folk songs that don’t strain my weak voice. And I think this is more of a personal endeavor than anything, because I’m too shy to play in front of anyone. No audiences. I would also like to have music to go with the song lyrics I’ve already written.

    Concerning teachers: I have never used Skype or anything like that before, so I didn’t even think it was an option for lessons! There are no teachers close to me IRL and even if there were, I’m sure I couldn’t afford to take them for very long. I work a minimum wage job and I’m trying to save for a “new” car, along with helping my mother pay bills.

    Concerning my brainpower (or possible lack thereof): I’ve never thought of my ability to write coherently as “smart”, but that’s very sweet of you. It’s the only thing I’m (mostly) confident in. I didn’t do well at all in school, so I tend to think of myself as below average IQ. I was even somehow in band class for all of junior high, and I sucked at reading music then — my friends always had to help me. But that’s no reason not to try again! I do have a beginner’s harp music book that I’m trying to decipher.

    Anyways, I’m sorry if I missed anything. Thanks again.

    Participant
    duckspeaks on #215467

    Congratulations for getting the instrument!

    Assuming you won’t suddenly and immediately get started in formal lessons (or else you won’t ask), please think of it a a multipronged approach. Methodical learning is one sure way. If you think you cannot get that started and you want to “cheat the system”, you will still need verification that you are actually progress and musically convincing.

    Music theory is a must if you improvise, in fact you will need to be an instant real-time “song arranger” plus “composer” to improvise.

    Harmony is especially important for harp and must be mastered eventually if you improvise. If you have attempted the guitar, the exposure to basic harmony would help a lot.

    If you don’t have an urgency to get to certain levels by certain time, things can be learnt piecemeal. However, as others have pointed out, there is high risk of going the wrong path and having to backtrack. Some people enjoys figuring things out. Some just want a bee line.

    In the pre-internet world it would be hard. Now you have a fighting chance. Lots of harpists offers basic lessons there. Music theory as well. Try to see if that is helpful.

    Don’t expect to get really started well right away. There will be false starts and unlearning, relearning. Viewing people play, after getting basic introductions, could slowly lead you to figure out what the instructions ACTUALLY mean via your trail and error experimentation.

    After all that there is still the risk of making a mess and wasting time.

    If you accept the above and enjoy the journey, why not?

    One more note, music is innate to the person and has nothing to do with being “smart”. It is more about wavelength. Even if you take formal lessions, not every instructor works for you either. Everything has a context and don’t let other expectations or standards trouble you more than as a driver for self improvement. If you have music the the blood it will come out naturally.

    Good luck for your quest!

    Participant
    wil-weten on #215468

    You may like Pamela Bruner’s self-teaching series Play the Harp Beautifully (vol. 1-3). More information at: http://pamelabrunermusic.com/harp_books.php

    As to looking at youtube clips: Have you already discovered the ‘Harp Tuesdays’ of Josh Layne? Here you will find many great instructional clips: http://www.joshlayne.com/harptuesday/

    or the very well presented teaching clips of Ray Pool at: http://www.raypool.com/video.html

    As to make your own, simple arrangements, I think Sylvia Woods’ Music Theory and Arranging Techniques for All Harps, is both fun and very good.

    Also, you make like to join the Yahoo discussion group Virtual Harpcircle at: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/virtualharpcircle/info. This is a well moderated group with lots of kind people who like to help one another with all kinds of harp questions.

    Participant
    Biagio on #215470

    People were playing by ear and using the harp to accompany voice long before notation was invented. Furthermore, the harp techniques that are taught these days are probably quite different from those used by the bards of the middle ages. So don’t worry – if and when you want to go further, there are plenty of resources. At that point technique will be much more important.

    That said, it would be useful to learn basic notation, technique and theory even if you never intend to play from a written score – it will make more tunes accessible. The books by Bruner and Woods that Wil mentioned are excellent and not at all difficult.

    The Virtual Harp Circle was organized specifically for harp beginners; although we have by now many professionals and even a few harp makers that is still our focus.

    Participant
    snoopy lee on #215503

    Yes, I definitely need to get some Sylvia Woods books. And I think I’ve heard of Harp Tuesdays but I’d forgotten about that channel. Thank you for the links and the encouragement, you all!

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #215545

    Hello, everyone! Thanks for all these great posts to Snoopy Lee. There isn’t too much I can add here, but I just wanted to say that I started playing by ear before I was five years old. My strict father loved that I had this ability, but he insisted that his son would become “musically literate,” as he put it, and learn to read music. That way, I could communicate my art with other musicians, also writing down musical notation. I owe him a lot, I must say, having achieved a Master’s degree in music, in three different instruments, piano, organ, and harp.

    It is still the most fun to “play by ear,” but I have always enjoyed learning the classics, and playing them from memory at my concerts. My dad also insisted on this, as he disliked musicians playing in public with their music sheets and stands–it was a “distraction,” ha, ha! So, Snoopy Lee, persevere in your reading of music and playing the harp by ear. They are both essential to your development as a musician!

    Best wishes and harp hugs,
    Balfour

    Participant
    goatberryfarm2010 on #219576

    Snoopy Lee, you’re an inspiration! Maybe we both can be! I’ve always wanted to play harp, but when I tried guitar, I failed, utterly. That failure kept me from trying anything else. I was 14 or 15, then.
    Now, I’m 62 & I’m having a harp made at Stoney End. I plan to use both books & Skype.
    I’m totally blown away by yr playing by ear. Keep that & add music theory & you’ll be amazed.

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #219629

    Jennifer, having tried the classical guitar at a very early age, I too failed miserably, ha, ha! I always say that the first day I had my hands on a harp, I played it better than I ever played the guitar, which I had struggled with for at least a whole year! Now I have the greatest admiration for anyone who can really play the guitar, especially the classical guitarists.

    By the way, Snoopy Lee, how have things worked out for you? All of us would love to hear how you are doing!

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