I went back to being an amateur, in the sense of somebody who loves what she is doing. If a professional loses the love of work, routine sets in, and that's the death of work and life. Ada Bethune
It being the time for New Year Resolutions, maybe there are one or two of you out there reading Harpblog because you always wanted to learn the harp, and you think you might begin in 2013. It's struck us that there are plenty of good resources available for young students, whether they want to become professional harpists or not. Perhaps there aren't so many for adult amateurs, but you are a group that many of us really enjoy teaching, so - time for a blog on the subject.
Professionalism in music is both admirable and artistically essential, but nothing is perfect. If you need to earn money with your music, you can be so busy concentrating on not falling off the hamster wheel that you forget, or begin to lose the energy for why you are doing it in the first place. Who goes into music because they want to be rich? Most go professional because they love it. Working with amateurs can remind you of this in the happiest ways. It can also open your eyes to facets of music perhaps you never thought of before, or had forgotten.
Professional artistry can be tiring sometimes (image: Michele Bock)
I called Marta Power Luce, who has a large teaching studio in Paris, including many adult students. “I really like teaching adults”, she explained. “They come with different goals and you have to respect these, not impose your own goals on them. It’s still your job to get them to progress, and you need to find a way that fits their life, and tailor both your and their expectations to that. It’s a very interesting pedagogical challenge that you don’t experience when teaching children.
“Many adults fear they are too old to learn, but that’s not true. Children may be quicker motorically, but adults of all ages can too. The main issue is not a technical one, but rather getting the adults to practise enough. It’s always around lesson three that this starts to go downhill…learning to play a musical instrument takes a long time. If the adult student has studied something that requires a certain amount of daily graft before, they usually already know how to work. It’s brilliant proof that genius is 99% perspiration. An arthritic lady in her seventies will play better than a fit young man of thirty if she works hard enough, and he doesn’t.
“It’s also brilliant proof that the harder you work on something, the more fun it is. A motivated adult student is not putting the hours in because they are at music college and have no other option, or because they are fiercely ambitious but somewhere along the road have forgotten how to smile. I find it inspiring when I see an adult making a real project out of their hobby, and seeing how much they get out of it and their relationship with music develop.
“I also find I learn a lot from my adult students. There’s often more psychology involved, but this is one of music’s roles. For example, if a child has trouble performing, they may feel nervous, but usually it’s mostly due to under-preparation. Usually, as a teacher, you can make a child a confident performer by ensuring they are always so well prepared that they almost never have a bad experience on stage. An adult could be under-prepared as well, but equally they might know their piece backwards, and their anxiety have more to do with a fear of being judged, or of expressing themselves to others. When they get over this I feel a music helped them more widely in some way.”
Two of Marta’s adult students also kindly agreed to talk to Harpblog about their experiences. They reiterated that learning music should be a source of joy, and also highlighted how the study of music can enrich you generally.
Yannick, an actuary in Paris, points out what should, but isn’t always, be obvious: “I started studying music because I liked to listen to it.”
“I did assume you had to be young to learn an instrument, but a friend showed me that an adult can do it too – not to a virtuoso level, of course, but definitely good enough to become a real pleasure. I found myself learning in a way I hadn’t done since university, training your hands and brain to do something they previously couldn’t, and experiencing genuine results thanks to the work I put in.
It’s also a very rounded experience. My job isn’t manual, and to find myself able to do something with my hands is a very nice feeling. Also, to find yourself able to play music you love to hear, but never dreamed would be within your own reach, is a constant motivation to continue to explore the harp and its repertoire. I don’t particularly like playing in public, but I’m very proud to be able, after a lot of effort, to play pieces thanks to my work and collaboration with Marta.
I’ve learnt that I can always learn and improve myself. More specifically – and this is something that surely applies more to adults than to children – my music studies help develop my self-knowledge, which is the key to improving my playing and how I work. You study methods and pieces and learn physical and musical techniques, but you have to come to understand them and make them part of you. In its entirety, to learn about music is to learn about yourself. And, my harp lesson, like my harp practice, is a special time in my week. It is at once a moment of particular effort, and a moment of repose.”
Anaïs, another of Marta’s students, is currently working on a PhD in neuroscience. “I haven’t found the process of learning and putting in daily practice to be particularly surprising, as I’m used to studying”, she says. “Of course, I am doing my harp studies for fun. I always wanted to play the harp, but initially I learnt the piano. My parents were working in Africa and there just weren’t any harp teachers! In any case, I can’t imagine music not being part of my life.
“I appreciate the balance Marta strikes between ensuring that we learn a proper technique, and making sure that we have enough pieces as well as exercises so that we still enjoy it. I have had lessons with teachers who I could see were not making the effort to correct technical faults I knew I must have been making. That doesn’t make me feel that I am being taken seriously; the point of technique, after all, is to enable you to play the music you love. You can’t do the second without learning the first.
As a neuroscientist, I also find it interesting to practice something in reality that I’ve studied in the library. It’s well-known that music significantly influences the brain, and also slows down its ageing, although it isn’t yet fully understood how. Another interesting effect has been observed from the patterns of frequencies you hear in the sound waves coming from the music. In some of Mozart’s works – especially in one sonata, although I’ve forgotten which – it would seem that their frequencies allow the neuronal connections to resonate in a way that allows the individual to concentrate more easily on a given task. The same phenomenon can heighten their spatial learning capability, or even reduce the intensity of epileptic fits.
Nobody has yet truly identified the processes involved, but the effect of music on the brain looks similar to that of language acquisition. Bilingualism, for example, reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Music seems to stimulates the brain’s cognitive functions: that is, all the brain functions that allow us to live a “normal” life, such as aspects of memory, language, concentration, executive functions that are responsible for decision-making, and so on.”
Anaïs is currently working in Stockholm, and so has experience of a logistical issue harp students old and young often come up against: proximity to a teacher. “I didn’t want to break off my lessons with Marta, so we tried skype lessons”, she explains. “They work surprisingly well. You need to have real lessons as well as it is difficult otherwise for the teacher to see your whole body, but they are an excellent solution if you cannot manage to be at a face-to-face lesson every week”.
Interested in learning to play the harp?
How to learn the harp
There are some good DVDs available for auto-didacts on the lever harp, such as the one by Enzo Vacca and Françoise Le Visage. These DVDs are aimed at those who are just starting and want to see how they go before committing to regular lessons, or those who cannot travel frequently to a teacher.
That said, in order to continue to make progress, you need a real live teacher. You will also need to practice regularly. It is a bit like learning a language: you can learn some basics from a teach-yourself book, but if you really want to speak that language to any degree of fluency you have to take regular lessons and do regular homework.
To find a harp teacher, a good source of phone numbers is always your nearest harp dealer. Some keep organised teacher lists, and all will know professionals in their area. If you live in Uttar Pradesh, you should still call your nearest harp outlet, even if it is not near. You might be able to work out a good solution with a mixture of skype and less frequent face-to-face lessons.
If you are not using a beginner’s DVD especially for auto-didacts, get the methods your teacher recommends. It is tempting to buy methods and music you pick up in a music shop, and you are free to spend your money on what you like. But it is usually cheaper to ask your teacher first.
How to buy a harp
Please do not, DO NOT buy a harp on ebay before you have organized a teacher for yourself. This is like choosing your own method books, but with more noughts on the end of the cost to you: unless you are lucky, you may as well make paper aeroplanes out of your bank notes and fly them out of the window. A bad harp is also much harder to resell than a good one. The most important thing is to buy your long-term instrument from a professional, recognised maker. There are many around the world who make beautiful harps – us, for example: Les Harpes Camac, La Richerais, BP 15, 44850 Mouzeil, France…
You may come across courses where you build your own small harp, quite cheaply. If you like making things, these courses are great fun. After about a year on an own-made harp you will have to move up to a professional-quality one, but if you don’t mind this, they can be a really nice introduction to the harp in convivial surroundings.
The best thing to do is to get a teacher first, and then buy or rent what they recommend. If you have no teacher, phone up a teacher and ask for a consultation one-off lesson to help you with this issue – you need, for example, the right sort of harp for the sort of music you are interested in.
GOOD LUCK AND HAPPY HARPING!