Is Learning The Harp Harder Than You Thought?

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harpIs learning the harp harder than you thought?

I can imagine the moment, probably because so many of us experienced something similar. You see the harp. You hear the harp. You fall in love with the harp. You buy a harp. You start practicing the harp.

The next sentence ought to be “You play the harp.”

But that’s not usually how it happens. More often, particularly for the adult beginning harp student, the next sentence is, “This is way harder than I thought it would be.”

I am frequently contacted by adult students who are surprised at the steep learning curve for harp playing and are beginning to wonder if they chose the wrong instrument. The frustration level is even greater for students who are accomplished players of other instruments, particularly pianists.

It seems like the transfer between harp and piano should not be a difficult one considering the essential similarity between the two. However, despite their musical commonalities, the two instruments require almost opposite techniques.

Harp students who don’t have previous musical experience find themselves with a similar challenge. The simple fact is that every harpist must develop their technique.

While there is no shortcut to establishing a solid technical foundation, there are ways to circumvent frustration. The key is to speed up your technical development and keep yourself musically interested at the same time.  

Developing Your Technique

Knowing that your technique will be the limiting factor in your playing should be motivation enough to do some extra technical practice. Naturally, developing your technique is a gradual process, but doubling up on your scales, arpeggios and exercises will speed your way to developing the skill you need to play the pieces you want to play. Some factors to bear in mind:

  1. Harp technique relies on correct form AND relaxation. It takes strength to play the harp, but the strength and resulting rich tone come through relaxation, not through force. Think “releasing the sound” rather than “pulling the string.”
  2. There is a wealth of basic exercise books to choose from. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Conditioning Exercises, Carlos Salzedo
  • Exercises for Agility and Speed, Deborah Friou
  • Levers Up! Thumbs Up!, Kathy Bundock Moore
  • Metodo per Arpa, M. Grossi
  • On Playing the Harp, Yolanda Kondonassis
  1. Take regular lessons. Your best way to a solid technique is with the help and advice of an experienced harp teacher. Good harp technique is not Do It Yourself!

Explore the Harp Repertoire

You don’t have to limit yourself to “baby” pieces or transcriptions of Minuet in G when you’re learning. There is a rich repertoire of musically interesting and original pieces for harpist beginners. The collections I list below are just a few of the beginning harpist collections that are available and are not just for young people.

 

  • Little Harp Book, Grandjany
  • Minstrel’s Gallery, Skaila Kanga
  • Solos for Sonja, Ruth K. Inglefield
  • Tiny Tales, Salzedo
  • Trois Petites Pièces, Grandjany

I also like the Harp Olympics series by MacDonald and Wood. Although the books are styled for younger students, the systematic approach and the carefully graded repertoire appeal to students of all ages.

Refresh Your Practice Techniques

If you haven’t practiced an instrument since you were in high school, or if you never really learned to practice, this is the time to bring your practice skills to an adult level. You shouldn’t be practicing the same way you did in your teenage years: get your assignment from your teacher, play it over and over again, go back for your next lesson to find out how you did.

You can bring more focus, intention and direction to your practice now. You are able to take responsibility for your learning, not just for a weekly assignment. You want to develop the practice skills and techniques that will allow you to make the most effective and efficient use of your practice time.

Your teacher is an excellent resource for you, so be certain to ask for his or her advice. I also am a fan of a little but very helpful book, Scientific Practice, by Jane Weidensaul. And of course, you can check out my own book, Kaleidoscope Practice: Focus, Finish and Play the Way You’ve Always Wanted which comes in a handy PDF version.

A Healthy Dose of Patience

Lastly, don’t forget that this process will take a little time. Playing the harp is truly a “lifetime sport.” You will get there, just probably not today. But if you practice today, who knows what you might be able to do tomorrow?

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  • Nancy Saunders

    Thanks for this post, Anne, and for all your harp generosity. For myself, things got less frustrating when I changed my goal from “learning to play the harp” to “playing simple music well”. I still struggle enormously with the glacial speed with which I learn music, but now I try to keep a close match between my technical ability and the difficulty of the music, and accept the fact that simple pieces will always constitute my repertoire. I push myself outside this range only ever so slightly.

    Reply

  • William R Hull

    Thanks for your realistic but hopeful description of the difficulties. A persistent difficulty I have is slowing down at the end of a measure or phrase to place. I play almost everything grave and don’t speed up very much.

    Reply

  • Gretchen

    Please check out the harp books by Kathryn Cater. They are designed for students. Interesting pieces with technique in mind. Go to http://www.folkharp.com

    Reply

  • Rob Stone

    Hi Anne: I play several instruments. The clarinet is a difficult one in terms of fingering and so is the flute for sound production. The saxophone was designed to be easy but exploiting it’s full potential is also a challenge. The electric bass has been fun to learn, but the neck is long and the positions change, so there’s a lot to remember, every time you move your left hand. The harp is as challenging as it is beautiful and imposing. While you are able to immediately get some beautiful sounds, you soon learn there is a lot of coordination with your two hands, two feet, reading treble & bass clef, reading different rhythms in both hands, etc. Then there are techniques exclusive to harp playing. So yes, the “learning curve” can be longer on the harp than on other instruments, so you have to be physically & mentally prepared to hang in there, with this instrument, for the long haul. But along this way, there are little rewards and glimpses of greater things to keep you in the game. I’ve learned, and it always hasn’t been the hard way, that as an adult learning a musical instrument, you have to organize your time, prioritize your interests, have consistency and little by little, voila, you’ll be able to play the instrument you love. Just be patient and realistic!

    Reply

  • Tracy M Sweet

    This was great to read and re-assuring to tell myself, thanks so much Anne, I am really enjoying the course so far!
    Tracy

    Reply

  • Dru

    Thank you for this inspirational blog!

    Reply

  • Donna Ingram

    Hi Anne, thank you for the very timely article. It touches on some of the very frustrations I’ve been dealing with…”will I Ever be able to get through a piece well?!” I particularly related to Nancy’s comment as I, too, learn at a glacial speed. There is comfort in community.

    Reply

  • Karen DeBraal

    Thanks for clarifying why the harp is a challenge. It is a challenge I love, though. I grew up playing the piano and found that background helpful. But learning how to relax into positions unfamiliar and how to modulate expressiveness out of the strings, and all that you said, is far more of a challenge than I found the piano to be. Sometimes I pick up my Native American Flutes or chiming drum and find them so simple in comparison.

    Reply

    • Reuben Correa

      Learning the harp is indeed difficult at best. With 22 years of piano I thought it would be a breeze. It was not!
      It was only after I began teaching that I discovered why.
      You’re essentially taking horizontal music and music making and your brain must translate it vertically, you loose the pinky, and the harp moves every time you move your arms. But it is beautiful touching the innermost parts of soul, and brain and being.

      Reply

    • Anne Post author

      Thinking about the Native American flutes and the chiming drum – do you imagine the first primitive harps were just as simple to connect with?

      Reply

  • Lynda Bauer

    Anne! Thank you for your blog. It helps to keep me energized and centered. I DO need to practice my scales and technical exercises. I have only really started started warming up with doing exercises and finally feel that I am breaking through the barriers that have been slowing me down.

    Reply

  • Roberta

    Hi Anne and other contributors!
    The blog and the responses were most helpful and encouraging. I, too, have spent MANY years with the piano and felt the harp should be a breeze. Ha!!!
    By reading this blog and the responses , I have learned quite a bit and garnered invaluable info and resources. Thank you all for a caring and welcoming community!

    Reply

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