Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Calling Non Majors for Harp Study!

Recently a colleague asked me if I would ever consider accepting a harp student at the college level who did not want to major in harp.

My answer was a resounding "Yes!!"

I enjoy working with harp majors - it is always great to help harpists who are super serious about their instrument to further their career path. But I also feel that there are only so many job opportunities out there for those who choose to major in harp performance.

During my teaching career of over 30 years I have coached hundreds of harpists who went on to major in things like law, medicine, business, pharmacy studies, language, etc. but still wanted to keep playing harp. Some of them went on to be part-time professional harpists, as an addition to their other careers, and some only played for fun, but they all wanted not only to keep playing, but to continue to grow. Both as harpists and as overall musicians.

Now that I have grand concert pedal harps in place at both The University of Wisconsin Parkside and Carthage College, I am in a better position than ever to serve this population of harp students. Both schools have ample opportunities for ensemble playing - any student who consents to play in ensemble is eligible for applied harp lessons, even if they are not a music major. At Carthage there are also opportunities for study without the ensemble requirement.

I also teach my students, majors or non,  to make their own arrangements, improvise, and play for music therapy purposes. I offer full coaching for all aspects of using harp as a business whether it be weddings or any other professional playing.

Click here for more information on studying harp at the University of Wisconsin Parkside

Click here for more information on studying harp at Carthage College

Or if you just want to chat about your college harp options email me at or visit me on facebook  or twitter or Linkedin.

A New Harp For Carthage College!

I am pleased to announce that Walter Krasicki of Venus Harps donated a brand spanking new Grand Concert harp to Carthage College this Spring!

I have been teaching harp at Carthage for over 8 years now and our two biggest headaches have been the lack of a school owned instrument and the limited space in which to store a personal harp owned by a student. With this donation I can now serve the population of harp students who do not wish to bring a harp to campus!

Thank you, thank you thank you!!

For a full article on the new harp and the donation click here.

Update: We will be giving the new harp at Carthage its official debut on a faculty harp recital Tuesday, November 12, 7:30 pm in the Johnson Recital Hall. Works by Francisque, Roush, and PiernĂ© as well as original jazz and celtic compositions and arrangements by Anne Morse Hambrock.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Recordings Store Fixed for My CD Round and Round!

Recently it came to my attention that my recordings page was no longer functioning as a store and no one could purchase my music! Worse, I have no idea how long this has been the case!!

But, all is now well. The problem has been fixed and folks can once again purchase my CD "Round and Round". You can either download the entire collection of tunes for $10 or else download individual songs for $0.99 each.

You can click here to go directly to the recordings page.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Teacher's Corner: Teaching Blind Students to Play Harp

Recently a colleague asked for tips to help teach a blind harp student. When I first began teaching harp at Carthage College, there was a blind student who owned a lever harp but had only taken about 3 harp lessons before I met her. She had been doing the best she could on her own and was very frustrated. We got right down to it and, after four years of hard work together, she was able to give a senior recital split between harp and piano. She and I were very proud.

But the journey was not easy. The first difficulty we found was the lack of good sheet music for the blind harpist. There were very few pieces to choose from. Not only that, the pieces we found did not seem to have been vetted at all. It felt as though a publisher made an arbitrary decision "This music is popular, let's also publish it in braille!". So we took another approach.

Step one was to make sure she was sitting at the right height and to always sit in exactly the same position at the instrument. This is vital. When your only guide to the instrument is how far your arms are extended, middle C must feel as though it has a permanent location.

Try the following experiment with a friend and a tape measure. Close your eyes and hold your hand, palm facing you, exactly 7 inches in front of your face. Have your friend measure to assess the accuracy of your guess. Chances are you missed by at least an inch. Gauging your distance in a vertical plane without the benefit of vision or gravity to aid you is very challenging. This is why sobriety tests involve touching your nose while your eyes are closed.

Step two was to have her focus on playing exercises that were completely linked. By this I mean scale and arpeggio patterns that cross over or under or change direction ascending and descending. We spent at least a year focusing on every kind of connecting finger passage we could find. The kiss of death when you cannot see your strings is playing passages, especially in the left hand, that jump. The right hand has the benefit of using the edge of the soundboard for guidance - no Salzedo fear of touching the board allowed when teaching the blind - using the board as a fulcrum for the right hand is crucial to navigate the strings without sight. But the left hand, more often than not, will not have this advantage. Using the board in the left hand will mean a position so low on the strings as to almost sound pres de la table.

This problem of jumping passages in the left hand is what made so many of the braille editions of sheet music too challenging for my student. I'm not saying they were too challenging for any student, but probably not a good idea for the average student.

So the next step, after establishing good hand position, good body position, and good technique, was to start making our own arrangements of music she would like to play as well as teaching her how to make up her own compositions.

Her greatest love was church music so we started with hymns and folk tunes. We treated these tunes exactly as one would when using a jazz "fake book". We looked for melody lines that were at least 75% "connectable" in the right hand, memorized and perfected them. Then we created bass lines that could be equally connected. She had a braille translator so sometimes I would say the notes aloud and she would enter them into her translator, sometimes I would have her learn the melody by ear and by feel directly onto the instrument.

When it came to teaching her how to compose, we started with basic music theory and I just turned her loose. For those not quite up to that challenge, I play a simple bass line in a minor key using only the tonic and subtonic chords (in the key of D minor that would be D chords and C chords, for example) and let my students freely improvise on a second harp. For optimum results, play the bass line for at least 7 minutes. It generally takes at least 2 minutes of noodling for a student to stop worrying about whether or not they are doing it right to really relax and get into the groove of improvising. I use a minor key because there is almost no chance of a truly horrific dissonance that will scare off the novice improvisor.

My blind harp student had the added advantage of being able to sing while she played so, over the course of the 4 years she made wonderful progress.

I hope this post has been hopeful to any aspiring blind harpists and those who plan to teach them. If you need further tips, contact me on my facebook page:

Monday, March 4, 2013

Noon Concert to Introduce Parkside's New Harp!

This Wednesday, March 6, at noon in the new Bedford Concert Hall at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, I will be playing a concert to formally introduce the new Venus harp the University purchased!

Admission is free and the program length is roughly 45 minutes.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Harp Teacher's Corner - Hand Position Part 2

In Hand Postion Part 1 I addressed the fact that there are a number of different harp techniques and hand positions used around the world.

To briefly recap - a harp with a very loose tension, such as a paraguayan harp, will use an entirely different hand position from a harp with tight tension, such as a concert pedal harp. If you are searching the internet for videos and other tutorial materials related to hand position be sure you know what kind of harp you plan to be playing and what type of tone you prefer. If the harp in the video is not the type you will be playing - or does not have the tone you are looking for - skip that video and find one that matches your ideals.

I teach both pedal and lever harp students, many of my lever harp students being adults. Many of these adults are hoping to play harp in a spiritual setting of some kind - either in church or in the sick room. The most important thing to keep in mind when you are pursuing this type of playing is that you want a smooth, non-jarring tone and technique. The experience you create for the listener should be as calm and healing as possible. This will not happen if your movements are jerky, your hands are tight or stiff, or your touch is too strident. It is also not possible to play with a healing energy if you are completely stressed out about your own ability on the instrument. For this reason you must find a competent teacher near you to help you tame your hands into a good position to enhance tone and facility. I have worked with many students who are impatient to begin playing "a lot of notes" with no regard to tone or technique. In my experience "short cuts make long delays". Ignoring your teacher's advice regarding hand position, refusing to stabilize your technique, will only frustrate you and delay your ability to play the harp with the tone you enjoy hearing from others.

My technical background is rooted in both the Salzedo and Grandjany techniques. I find the Salzedo technique most useful for flashy concert playing as well as orchestral playing that requires the harp to project through an entire orchestra. However, it is my Grandjany training upon which I call for any piece of music in which the desired goal is a beautiful tone and nuanced phrasing.

In my over 30 years of teaching I have found that the "squeezing" technique advocated by Marcel Grandjany and his students produces a tone suitable for both pedal and lever harp. (Although it is helpful not to squeeze too much when playing a lightly strung lever harp such as a Triplett or a Yoder).

The most important facets of this technique are:

1) An "oppositional" relationship between the index finger and the thumb.

By this I mean that the thumb and index finger must be pointing in opposite directions (thumb up, finger down) so that the hand can truly squeeze the strings. You should never think you are plucking or strumming the strings. Rather, you are "pushing" them. The thumb pushes the string toward the column and the finger pushes the string toward your sternum or other part of your core. This will allow both the thumb and the finger to push their way through the strings to their ultimate destination. The finger will close entirely into the palm and the thumb will close over the hand touching the index finger between its knuckle joint and the  joint immediately adjacent. This closing is imperative for a deep tone. Peeling your fingers backwards off of the strings in a plucking motion will create a superficial, and often tinny, sound. It will also guarantee that the listener will hear your fingernails unless you have trimmed them all the way down to the quick.

2) A loose, relaxed extension of the arm with an elbow neither too high or too low and a wrist that does not stick out but is, instead, tucked in.

If you imagine yourself sitting on a horse and holding the saddle pommel you will understand what your goals are for your arm, elbow and wrist position. On this horse, if you do not want to fall off, you cannot raise your elbows too high or stick your wrist out. Doing so will eliminate the use of all the muscles on the inside of your arms. You will be reduced to the strength of your outer arm muscles only and it will be a very unstable feeling. Likewise, if you clamp your elbows into your body and flex your wrists at an extreme angle, you will short circuit the signals to your outer arm muscles. Good harp position, as with good riding position, requires your arms to be balanced so that your movements are both strong and flexible - creating security and stability. Probably the most frequent problem I see in beginning students is a wrist that sticks out. This lowers the thumb and raises the index finger so that they are almost parallel, making the relationship I outlined in section 1 almost impossible.

3a) Fingers that open and close properly as a unit.

Harp often requires that you place several fingers on the string at once. Many passages are simply not playable when one attempts to "load" the fingers onto the instrument one at a time. To accomplish the act of placing more than one finger at a time your fingers must learn to function as a unit. Everyone opens, everyone closes. Beware of the "trigger finger" syndrome where the thumb and index finger are on the string but the other fingers are held back in the palm like a child shooting an imaginary gun. If the index finger is on the string, the other fingers should be open as well but just slightly. They should not be open past parallel with the index finger.

3b) Avoid "over opening".

This is when you open your hand to play the next sequence of notes -let's say it is a four fingered chord - and, instead of opening your hand to the precise amount needed to hit your target strings, you open to a random "wide open" shape. Imagine you wish to pick up a pencil from the table. You open your hand to the precise amount needed and grasp the pencil. You do not open your hand twice as wide as you need to and then shrink down to grip the pencil. It is just as unnecessary to make this extra motion when placing more than one finger on harp strings. Think of your strings as a target you are trying to hit and be as efficient about it as possible. Over opening also causes problems when playing a one handed descending scale. After the thumb crosses over (maintaining a high position above the index finger,) the rest of the fingers should only open enough to find their next target. If they open above the desired target and have to be adjusted downward, you lose speed and evenness.

4) Fluid and controlled hand wrist, arm and finger movements.

Sharp movements will produce a sharp or harsh sound. If your goal is a smooth, rich tone, you need smooth rich movements. Go to the ballet (or watch some online) and examine the way the dancers use their arms. Professional dancers will use their arms to fully telegraph the emotion of the dance in question. A ballerina performing in Swan Lake will have a very distinctive pace and grace of arm movement that will match the emotion and tempo of the music. A fine harpist will do this as well. It is astonishing the amount of effect follow through of the fingers, hand, wrist, and arms will have on the tone you produce on your harp.