The joys (and stresses) of teaching
04 May 2021
As a harp teacher as well as performer I spend a lot of time preparing students for exams. It takes a long time for a student to be ready for all parts of an exam, as to do well requires skill in many different areas: performing pieces to a high level, being able to play technical exercises such as scales and arpeggios, being able to sight read, and also listening skills. All of these areas also require a good understanding of what goes on behind the music (harmony and rhythm, the style of a particular composer and genre, knowledge of the musical period in history, and even basics such as the key and time signature) - this is something that takes time and patience both to learn and to teach!
This term I am preparing students for ABRSM harp grades 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8. All with different challenges and new things to learn. At grade 2 level most harp students will be playing on a lever harp (as a lever harp is smaller and cheaper, most harpists begin learning on this before deciding whether to switch to pedal harp at about grade 4 level ,or continue learning on the lever harp). The scales and arpeggios for grade 2 are much more demanding than at grade 1 and take quite a lot of practise to get right. Similarly at grade 3 level there is a huge amount of new musical information to absorb as well as techniques to learn. One of the other challenges at this level is adjusting to playing longer pieces and being able to concentrate right to the last note.
My grade 5 exam student this year is a lever harp player – I have to say that I think the choice of repertoire for lever harp at this level is much less inspiring than the pedal harp repertoire. Whilst there are some lovely pieces, the choice is not as varied and also (in my opinion) not as challenging to play.
All my current grade 7 and 8 students play on pedal harp which has its own challenges: moving pedals whilst playing harp strings requires a lot of coordination and diligent practise. At this level, students are performing pieces that you could find in a professional concert programme. As such, the exams are demanding both technically and musically. This is the stage that really allows a student to open up and ‘feel’ the music – they need to really understand what it is they are playing, how it is constructed, where the ebb and flow of the music is. I really enjoy teaching at this level due to being able to work in this deeper way and show students how to get the most out of their playing.
I have been teaching exclusively online since March 2020, so all students have been preparing for their exams with me via the iPad. This has added its own challenges which they have more than met. Whilst some things don’t work as well over zoom (time delay), one thing I have noticed is that my students have become more independent learners, better able to work through the music by themselves. We are very much looking forward to meeting again face to face though and I can’t wait to be able to play duets with them in real time!