Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A New Harp For Parkside!

I am thrilled to announce that The University of Wisconsin at Parkside has just purchased a brand new Grand Concert harp. The Ebony Venus Diplomat was delivered on Monday and she is a beauty! (Here she is with my blue Diplomat.)

For those of you looking at prospective Colleges, this means you can now consider UW Parkside for harp study without having to bring a harp to campus.

The acquisition of a harp is just one of the exciting things happening over at Parkside - I have a beautiful new spacious studio that is just a small part of a beautiful new Arts Center. (Read about the new Rita Tallent Picken Regional Center for Arts and Humanities here.)

To everyone who made the harp purchase possible  - THANK YOU!!!!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Teacher's Corner With Anne Morse Hambrock: How To Pick A College

Tis the season to apply to college!

About this time every year I get emails from students inquiring about studying harp with me at the college level - either at Carthage College or at the University of Wisconsin Parkside.

Here are some of the most common questions I receive:

1) Can I major in Harp Performance at your school?
2) Can I minor in Harp at your school?
3) Can I major in Music Education ?
4) Does your school offer a degree in Music Therapy?
5) Can I play on the school harp or do I have to bring my own?
6) Is there a harp ensemble?

These are all excellent questions but there are several more you should ask or at least be thinking about.

1) Are there other harp students at your school and how many?

Some colleges have very small harp programs - 1-3 students, some have a mid range of as many as 9 and some have a very large program of 20 or more. If you wish to have the opportunity to play in as many ensembles as possible and a high level of visibility, a small or mid sized program may be a good fit for you. A small program may also have more scholarship money to offer. If you wish to be part of a large community of harpists with the cache of a prominently named teacher, you may feel that a big program is your best fit. One caution about a large program - depending on your skill level and dedication, you may find yourself studying with a graduate assistant rather than the primary harp teacher.

2) What ensembles are available and what level of harp parts will I encounter?

Just because a college has a music program does not mean they have a full orchestra. Some colleges may only have a small chamber orchestra. Although, you should not rule out the possibility of playing with bands and wind orchestras and also accompanying choirs. If you wish to play in an orchestra after graduation, you should be trying to get as much ensemble experience as possible while you are in college.

3) If I bring my own harp to campus, where will it be kept?

This is a very important question. While not every college can promise you your own practice room in which to keep your harp, they should at least be able to guarantee the security of your instrument.

4) Will I play only classical music or do you teach jazz and other modern approaches?

One of the realities of today's world is that becoming a concert performer of classical music or playing in an orchestra are not the only ways to use your harp skills after graduation. Many harpists find a majority of their income is tied to weddings and parties. Knowing how to successfully market yourself in this field is important. It is also wise to understand how to quickly make your own arrangements of piano parts to music your clients may request on short notice. Many college teachers cover this area but some do not and assume you will find your own way when the time comes.

5) Do you teach harp pedagogy?

Another very important question. If you are planning to teach harp after graduation there is a lot to know! While most teachers will at least address the subject of harp pedagogy while you are studying with them, not all colleges offer a harp pedagogy class for credit. This often has nothing to do with the harp teacher and everything to do with college budgets and bureaucracy. If the college you are interested in does not offer a pedagogy class for credit but you are passionate about learning to teach, you may need to ask the college to let you do an independent study with an emphasis on pedagogy instead.

6) Are there opportunities to play freelance while I am studying at your college?

First of all, if you wish to freelance while you are in college you need to assume that you will have to have your own harp and transportation with you. Do not assume the college will let you take a school instrument off school property. Also, do not assume you will be able to have a car on campus your freshman year. Some colleges have strict rules about living in the dorms freshman year as well as rules about bringing cars to campus. Secondly, you need to respect the market around the college and not expect to take work from your teacher if there are not many harp jobs available in the area. Encroaching on your teacher's livelihood will put a strain on the student/teacher relationship and interfere with the mentoring process.

7) Do you teach a particular harp method?

The three most commonly taught harp techniques taught at the college level in the United States today are: Salzedo, Grandjany and Renie. All three of these techniques are associated with famous harpists - Carlos Salzedo,  Marcel Grandjany, and Henriette Renie. For the answer to this question to be useful to you, you must first know what technique you are already using. (Your current teacher will be able to answer this question for you.) While there is often a mention of "French Technique" that is a vague and slightly problematic term as all three of the aforementioned harpists were a product of the Paris Conservatory. This means that, technically, all three of these methods qualify as "French". Currently, however, the Grandjany and Renie techniques are more commonly associated with this term of "French Technique" and Salzedo has come to mean a technique specific to the students of Carlos Salzedo.

Each technique does have a hallmark hand position and tone quality. Also, the farther away from the original teacher one gets, the more the technique can also take on the tone of the other harpists in the chain. For example: my Salzedo teacher was Lilian Phillips who studied directly from Carlos Salzedo in the 1940's. This puts me one step away from Salzedo and my students two steps away. My Grandjany teacher was Dr. Ruth Inglefield who studied directly with Marcel Grandjany in New York as well as Pierre Jamet in Paris. I also studied briefly with Pierre Jamet. This puts me one step away from Grandjany, with my students two steps away and then I have a direct contact to Jamet which puts my students one step away from him. This sort of harp pedigree can be confusing but knowing a potential teacher's stylistic background can help you achieve a good match.

8) How do I audition for you?

There are two main types of auditions - scholarship and non scholarship. Generally, scholarship auditions will take place on dates fixed by the college and will be in front of an audition committee. You are typically auditioning, not against other harpists but against all other instruments. A non scholarship audition can be as simple as contacting a prospective teacher and asking if you can come and have a sample lesson from them. I strongly recommend this if you are planning to major in harp performance. It is less important if you will only be minoring. You should be prepared to pay for this lesson; be sure to find out the usual fee for each teacher in advance of the lesson. If a teacher is particularly interested in having you as a future student, he/she will often then advise you to also give a scholarship audition.

9) What kind of music should I play at the audition?

If it is a scholarship audition, you should present your very best playing. While concertos are impressive and I do recommend playing at least an excerpt of one at your audition if possible, a really top notch performance of a lesser work will do more for your chances than a poor performance of a piece that may be over your skill level. Poor preparation on a major work will significantly reduce your chances of a scholarship. There are no brownie points for the attempt. Also, be prepared to sight read.

As far as the repertoire at a sample lesson, you should have at least one piece which you consider "finished" that you are proud of, and another that is "in progress" so that you and the prospective teacher truly have the opportunity for a teaching moment. If your hands are cold, do not be afraid to take a minute to do some warm up exercises. Just keep your warm up time to under 3 minutes.

In closing, probably the most important questions are not for the harp teacher but for yourself.

"What do I want to do with harp? 
Do I want a full time career as a harpist? 
Do I want a career in something else with some harp on the side? 
If I want to play harp on the side, do I want to play strictly for my own enjoyment or do I want to pick up occasional freelance work? 
Do I want to teach harp?"

To properly choose a college at which to study harp, you must first know what you expect to gain from the experience and where you wish to go with the instrument. It may seem like an obvious point that does not bear mentioning but you would be surprised at the number harp playing high school seniors I have encountered who have never given these questions any thought at all!

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Be sure to follow up with a thank you note any time you receive answers from a prospective teacher or have a trial lesson with them!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Teacher's Corner With Anne Morse Hambrock: Hand Position; Why does it matter?

I would like to begin my Teacher's Corner segments with hand position because, of all the challenges involved in playing harp, it is the one most likely to make or break your playing experience. The appropriate hand position will not only lead you to greater success musically, it will minimize tension and promote a longer playing career. This segment will not focus on specific hand positions (that will be in segment two) but will focus on why hand position matters and what it contributes to your playing.

To properly address hand position we will need to break it into two parts:

A) Tone and B) Facility. Let's start with tone.

One of the nice things about the harp is that, once it is properly tuned, it naturally sounds good almost any way you play it. To clarify my meaning, it is not at all like the sound of a violin or clarinet in the hands of a beginner - no squeaking and squawking. That said, some sounds on the harp are more pleasing than others. The tone you get from the instrument relies on the displacement, or movement of the harp strings. How the harp string moves and vibrates to produce sound is controlled mainly by three things:

1) The type of harp 
2) The type of strings 
3) The hand position and touch of the fingers.

1) Harp Types:

Harps come in a variety of sizes and string tensions. How tightly a harp is strung and the construction of the sound chamber, along with your hand position, will seriously affect the tone produced when you play. The tighter the tension, the more energy it takes to displace the strings and create sound so the more important it is to choose a hand position that can really squeeze the strings rather than simply brushing them.

Pedal harps generally range from the smaller 40 string harp with a straight soundboard to the 47 string Concert Grand harp with an extended soundboard.  Add to that the fact that different harp companies are known to produce harps with different tones - some brighter, some deeper. Sting tension tends to be uniform within a harp company but can vary slightly from company to company. And, in general, a new pedal harp will be tighter in tension but will loosen up over time depending on the frequency and strength with which it is played. When you are in possession of a new pedal harp, a good hand position and a strong tone will help you 'break the instrument in' and contribute to the development of its sound.

Non-pedal harps* also come in a variety of sizes - from as few as 13 strings to as many as 42- and have a broad range of string tension. Some non-pedal harps will say in their advertisements "Pedal Harp Tension". These harps are primarily for those who switch back and forth from pedal to non-pedal harp and desire the same tension or those folks who are only playing a non-pedal harp until they can afford a pedal harp. If you plan to transition from a non-pedal harp to a pedal harp, the hand position you use should be one that produces the best results on pedal harp.

Non-pedal harps that do not use pedal harp tension have a tremendous range of string tension.
A string with less tension will require less energy to displace.  For this reason, hand positions that would be considered unorthodox for pedal harp can still be effective on a certain non-pedal harp when it comes to tone.

2) String Types:

There are 5 main types of strings for harps: gut, nylon, wrapped bass wire, wrapped nylon, and brass wire. Nylon, and wrapped nylon strings are generally more springy so they require less energy for displacement than gut and wrapped bass wire.

The type of harp will often determine the type of string. Brass wire strings are only used on a specific type of non pedal harp and require a unique playing style with fingernails. The hand position used on a brass wire strung harp is unique to that instrument and is not consistent with pedal harp hand position. I am not schooled in this method of playing so I cannot address proper technique on such an instrument. But, I mention it here to illustrate the point that there is more than one proper hand position for playing harp.

The three types of strings found on most pedal and many non pedal harps are: Wrapped wire starting at the bass G string (10 strings below middle C) and descending to the bottom of the harp, Gut or Nylon or a combination of the two. Nylon strings tend to be slightly stretchier with more give to the string. As a result, they are easier to "overplay" when used in the lower octaves. For this reason, most professional pedal harpists choose to limit the use of nylon strings to the upper registers of the instrument. Whether to use nylon or gut on your harp tends to be a personal choice based on the tone you desire and how much you can afford to spend on strings. It is not at all unusual to have all nylon strings on a non-pedal harp but it does produce a different tone than gut strings.

Again, the type of string you have on your harp, combined with the hand position you choose will have a direct effect on the tone you get out of the instrument. The more rich the tone you are seeking to produce, the more finicky you will need to be about the strings you use.

3) The hand position and touch of the fingers:

There are a variety of hand positions used around the world. The position you choose to embrace will depend largely on the type of tone you wish to produce. Some hand positions yield a bright, almost tinny sound. There are cultures that value this type of tone and so a hand position that produces it cannot be considered "wrong" if that brightness is the desired tone. Certain Irish, Chinese and Paraguayan music (among others) use a hand position that would be considered suitable for their genre but unsuitable for pedal harp performance. The success of such hand positions depends greatly on the tension of the instrument being fairly loose. Paraguayan harps are very, very loose so all sorts of hand techniques are used that would not translate well to a pedal harp. Again, I am not schooled in this particular technique - a good resource is Alfredo Ortiz.

If you play a harp with pedal harp tension and desire a deep, rich tone in your playing, you must pay particular attention to hand position because you must displace the strings deeply and carefully. A deep tone can only be produced with certain types of hand position. This means that you cannot be cavalier with your hand mechanics and so must focus intensely on hand position.

B) Facility and Speed.

The other main reason hand position matters has to do with facility  and speed. A hand position that allows you to "pick at " the strings one at a time can actually work if you don't mind a thinner sound and if you are playing a passage that goes slowly and rings for a long time. 

But, any passage that runs through several strings quickly, such as an arpeggio or a scale, must have two components. Firstly, to play a fast four fingered arpeggio, you must place all your fingers on the strings at once and then execute them one at a time. (I call this "plant and peel") A good hand position will make this easy, a bad hand position will lead to frustration - especially when it comes to landing on several strings at once. Secondly, to change direction, cross over, or cross under, requires a hand position that supports moving in more than one direction.

These are the main reasons hand position matters and why, although it may seem time consuming to take the time to use your hand a certain way, the work you put into a good hand position will yield a better overall result and improve your playing.

Note: - If you are cruising the internet for videos on proper hand position, re-read the above information and be sure to pay attention to the type of harp the instructor is playing. If it is not similar to the type of harp you will be playing, it may not be of great value to you and you should probably continue searching until you find a harp and tone similar to your goals.

Next installment: Hand Mechanics and how to use your fingers to produce a deep, rich tone and smooth, fluid phrasing.

*I have used the term "Non-pedal harp" because it encompasses all types of harps that do not have pedals - paraguayan harp, triple strung harp, cross strung harp, double strung harp, and lever harp. I realize that not everyone likes to refer to their non-pedal harp this way but I use the term in the interest of clarity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

NEW! Teachers Corner With Anne Morse Hambrock

I am starting a new feature on the news page related to teaching.

I have been teaching harp for over 30 years and, in that time, have encountered so many different student hands, personalities, and goals for harp playing that I feel I have learned as much from my students as they have learned from me. Over the course of the years I have also formed many opinions on the music available for harp study and the various approaches to harp technique which I plan to share in this segment.

With more and more people taking up the harp in the privacy of their own homes and using the internet or self teaching books rather than a private teacher, I hope to outline some information that will help such students as they wade through the teaching tools they encounter online. I also plan to address typical problems that arise through self study.

I hope this information will be useful to students and teachers alike.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Clean Up Time and A Video

I regret to say that I have neglected this site for over a year. Firstly, I had a very busy 12 months in the cartooning world (see my cartooning blogs here and here) and secondly, I forgot all my password and account info for this blog :-)

But it's time to get things back on track and, within the next month, you'll see a little more activity here. I have some performances I'm excited about this year and will post details later. In the meantime, here is my youtube video for "Bossa Nova Casanova" a tune I wrote years ago but never performed live until 2009 the the Jean's Jazz Concert series at the Racine Theater Guild. There is a full explanation of how the piece came to be at the beginning of the video. Enjoy!