minstrel: Harp beginner's book

Tibicen tibicen at mixolydian.org
Sat Dec 1 18:03:37 PST 2001

You guys rock!  Thanks to all.  You mind if I forward your
recommendations directly on to my young harper friends?

Yseulte writes:
> But the technique, hand position, etc. are very
> different. It's hard to replace that live teacher ...

Amen.  Neither of these two people have the income to pay for lessons
on a regular basis.  At least here in Boston, private instruction is
Not Cheap, though often an excellent value for the dollar.

> If people check with the American Harp Society, you
> might be surprised at how many harpists you have
> living around you, many of whom teach.

Now, that's a great idea!  Someone recently asked me where to find a
folk-harp teacher, and I had no more specific advice than "Check out
the four local big music schools for starving music-grad-students".
She wound up finding a pedal harp teacher, and they're learning

Which brings up David's comment (hi David!):
> I started under a pedal harpist who puzzled along with me on wire
> harp technique- sure, eventually I had to find a wire teacher, but
> musically it still helped a great deal.  Consider the dangers of bad
> posture, if nothing else.  Tendonitis is no fun.

So I keep warning them -- and that is why this email will be brief(er
-- for me ;).

So... is there a book on "how to retool a pedal harpist for folk harp"?

Linette writes:
> I've been really surprised by the level of unenthusiasm for Sylvia's 
> book.  I learned to play on it and felt good about it, and have recommended 
> it ever since.  

In my experience, the overwhelming majority of beginners who start
with SW "fall off the wagon", as it were -- higher than the usual
attrition rate I'd expect for an instrument.  I always wondered about
that.  I noticed they wind up having similar faults in their playing:
very rhythmically *erratic* playing, a strong feeling of them not
having their instrument under even basic control (I find myself
wanting to lunge forward and catch the instrument before it falls on
the floor), nor of being "on top of" the music (looking ahead of where
they're playing, getting hand into position before it is needed), and
they are usually really terrible at reading (largely because they are
staring at their hands, and don't seem to know where the strings are,
or where they are on them, thus can't spare a glance at the page).
All these problems make it hard to play with other people, to
accompany oneself (voice) or to learn new material; and since those
are three of the most important motivators, I would guess that's why
they get discouraged and give up the instrument.

I finally got a chance to watch a beginner work from the book; it was
sort of a *doh!* moment.  SW jumps from one-hand-at-a-time-in-small-
ranges to two-hands-and-big-ranges on piece number 3; no time is spent
on developing hand independence or even just finger independence.  Add
to that trying to learn to read at the same time, and that's quite an
amazing jump.  I mentioned to this young harper that piano methods
often spend a long time getting through that stage, and a random
person sitting around butted in that the first *three years* worth of
piano method book she had studied from as a child had been such.

The exercises I wrote have the property of having a continuous stream
of quarter notes (even through cadences).  This *strongly* encourages
player to keep an even tempo and to play more smoothly; to compensate
the beginner starts anticipating better.  Also the beginner *hears*
the problem with the stop-and-replace-the-hand phenom.  SW beginners
will stop and fumble at the end of the phrase, and not hear what's
wrong with that; most of the pieces in that book (to my glance) are
very lyrical with very strong phrasing, which while attractive when
competantly played, can stand very rubato, "free" treatments -- that
fails to give the beginner feedback that they're doing something wrong
when they stop-and-fumble.

> But I already played several instruments and read music, and given the
> above comments, I'm definitely going to look at something else to
> recommend.

I think the prior experience makes a world of difference. It's the
beginners who have not played music before, who have trouble putting
it together, who don't understand what it's supposed to sound like.
Unfortunately, SW winds up being the book of choice, apparently, for a
lot of people for whom it is their first introduction to music.

> I really wish that some of the harpers I know who are working on technique 
> books would get going & publish them!  


> I would really like to see a book which would address technique and
> performance issues based on research within period, preferably
> covering earlier period as well as the better documented later Celtic
> and Welsh styles.  

What the Worlde needs is a "SCA Beginning Harp Method Book". :) A
method book which starts from the raw beginning, which teaches a
period technique and period music.  Heh.  Let me know when you publish,
Linette. ;)

> I know there's Andrew King's book, but his book bugs me on several
> levels 

Yeah?  Do tell.  I *still* haven't managed to snag a copy.

Vivien writes:
> Alternatively, Laurie Riley has a beginner's book out that is published by
> Mel Bay, and it's pretty good.  Her placement is strong, and she includes
> some early music.

As it happens the very evening I posted the question I wound up
harp-geeking with another friend (yes, I do seem to be collecting
harpers) who had a copy to hand which she lent me.  It looks like an
improvement, but I'll definitely seek out your other recomendations,

Oh, and while we're on this topic....

I noticed that neither of my two young harper friends had any
inspirational recordings of people doing great things with folk harps,
much less great period things.

Any must-buy recordings I should know about?  If some poor undergrad
were going to buy only one CD, what would you recommend?

-- Tibicen

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