The down side of a piano background

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

  • Participant
    Lisa McCann on #85947

    Hello, all!

    I’ve been thinking a bit about the down side of having a piano background. Although I am grateful for the advantages (reading music and rhythm, etc.) I was surprised to discover that there are disadvantages as well, especially the tendency to “thumb under.” Over 20 years of sticking my thumb under my hand to do a run is really messing me up! So much so, that my teacher can tell when I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the keyboard–I’m working on Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata right now.

    So, what do you think, harp columnists? Has there ever been a time when your musical background put you at a disadvantage, technically? Any teacherly advice for me?

    Lisa, Fort Collins, CO

    tony-morosco on #85948

    I have never experienced that. To me the hand position for playing harp and piano are so different that my muscle memory doesn’t get too much in the way.

    I do, however, feel odd in the right hand when I go from one to the other because the right hand plays opposite in terms of going up and down in pitch.

    If you are

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #85949

    Some pianists or organists may be a bit stiff depending on their training, and their muscles are perhaps stronger than most harpists’, which affects their movement, perhaps for the better or perhaps less flexible. I haven’t been able to investigate closely enough, but I have seen commonalities.

    Tacye on #85950

    I think it works both ways- trying to persuade my little fingers that they were to make themselves useful and play notes on the piano took quite some time!

    Bonnie Shaljean on #85951

    I have to agree with Tony & Hannah – for me it has been pretty much an unalloyed advantage (and I played piano for 20 years, including conservatory study, before taking up harp).

    sherry-lenox on #85952

    As a woeful pianist, and believe me, I’m not kidding about that, my harp lessons have improved my piano ability slightly. Previous to playing harp, my approach to piano was feverishly searching for notes like looking for a needle in a haystack, hitting or missing, and resuming the search after every note in order to find the next

    unknown-user on #85953

    Hi Lisa,

    I was first trained on piano. The strategy I took in learning the harp was to analyze which aspects were parallel, which were opposite. The physical movements and conceptual framework between the two instruments tends towards one of the other. I figured out which physical movements were harp specific and focused on practicing those in technical exercises. I didn’t worry about diving into a lot of repertoire right away. Having the knowledge to read the music, execute phrasing, and some aspects of physical control of pressure and distance, etc. were already in place, so focusing on the least developed aspects and working to make those the strongest is the shortest path to make the transition between the two instruments. These included the position and use of the thumb, strengthening the muscles at the base of the thumb and the ones that control the joints at the tips of the fingers, etc., closely deeply, and increased stability in the wrist. Now if you are learning both simultaneously, that might create a different scenario. It may be worth developing a warm-up on harp that focuses on the physical movements specific to that instrument to get into the physical and mental state before your regular practice.

    hannah-roberts on #85954

    My piano teacher taught me to keep my hands poised and alert when playing the piano (not tense, but curved and attentive), but my harp teacher wants

    patricia-jaeger on #85955

    I also teach violin and viola, and I have found that one or two students who came from several years of piano, plus a little harp, cannot seem to teach their thumbs on the violin neck and also on the bow, to have a natural bend in order to achieve the great maneuverability needed

    unknown-user on #85956

    I started piano at the age of 5, and started harp when I was a sophomore in high school, and I have to say that I also have not had any trouble with conflicting technique.

    Now, when I actually think about what my right hand is doing in terms of switching its direction of play, I’m amazed that it seems to just happen without any act of my will. Perhaps I had a harp teacher that never ever let me get away with not having my thumb high or not following through over my hands. So I never associated harp technique with piano technique.

    Perhaps your hand position may be adjusted in such a way so that your thumb has to be on top. I don’ t know. But I agree with the others in not feeling

    Mel Sandberg on #85957

    For me, in relation to harp, it has always only been an immense benefit, but completely independently from whether one plays the harp,

    holly-bowron-hainley on #85958

    Not sure if this qualifies as technical but…

    I’ve been working so hard at the harp (steep learning curve) my piano skills are suffering.

    phoebe-powell on #85959

    I’ve been playing piano for about 9 years, and it hasn’t affected my harp playing at all. It’s funny though, when I play the last chord of a piece on the piano my hands tend to go sideways as if I’ve just plucked the strings, instead of up! I tend to be a little to relaxed as well when I play piano, but that fine with me because harp is my first instrument!

    Jeralee on #85960

    I see no downside.

    Kela Walton on #85961

    In my experience as a teacher I’ve had several adult beginning harp students with long term piano backgrounds that struggle more with certain aspects of harp technique. The concept of placing in general takes much longer to sink in, and they struggle with placing and closing the thumb properly. They often have trouble switching between the instruments if they still play the piano. So rest assured you are not alone.

    My advice and tips as a teacher:

    1. Try to avoid practicing the harp right after you’ve just finished practicing the piano. Do something else in between, or better yet practice the harp first.

    2. Look at your hands. I suggest spending some time everyday doing a simple exercise that you have memorized so you can watch what your hand is doing and pay attention to how different it feels from the piano.

    3. I concur with Julie Rabens’ advice, don’t try to learn a bunch of repertoire quickly. Instead focus on developing a good technique while learning one or two pieces at a time.

    4. Avoid playing pieces that you already know on the piano later on the harp. There are lots of transcriptions of piano music for harp out there, but if you have trouble switching back and forth then I’d keep the repertoire separate.

    5. Focus on the differences rather than the sames. Yes the music looks similar, yes you need curved fingers, music is universal, etc., but the realm of technique the harp is different from the piano (and my students run into difficulties when they try to play the harp like a piano). When you sit at the harp to practice remind yourself this is a harp not a piano, and approach it differently. It sounds simple, but it helps.

    Bottom line every situation is unique and everyone learns differently. I hope you continue and enjoy your harp studies.

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