Harpo Beginners is here! The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated revolutionary new and all-encompassing holistic approach to learning the harp is now ready to grace your music stands! Order your copies now!
OK, that's enough of the overblown tosh. How does anyone survive a career in advertising when their working life is based on language like that? But despite the slightly facetious hype in that first paragraph, it is true that I've taken a somewhat radical approach to learning in Harpo Beginners. I'll try and explain a bit more here without making you fall over with boredom.
Firstly I should say that it has evolved into four books (Harpo Beginners Books 1 & 2, Harpo Not Quite Beginners, and Racing Training - more of which further down the page), and there are three main strands to its conception. Read on to get a better understanding of why these books represent something a little bit different.
Back in the early 2000s I tried a little experiment. I taught exactly the same pieces of music to two separate groups of young pupils in different schools. In one school I taught the pieces using printed music, and in the other we didn't use music at all. Without exception, the pupils playing without music learned faster and seemed to enjoy themselves more than the pupils using music. I wasn't conducting the trial with two thousand pupils under laboratory conditions, so I couldn't swear that it conclusively proved anything, but it all seemed pretty obvious to me.
So I started teaching all my beginners without printed music, creating lively pieces to suit them, and writing simple accompanimental lines so that they could perform together. They loved it. And yet the thought of what additional possibilities and opportunities would be available to them if they could also read music niggled away at me.
The Old School way of teaching music tells you what all the treble and bass notes are, on page 1, then proceeds to use them all, often with both hands simultaneously: here you are, get on with it. This is fine for some pupils, but the vast majority of children that I come across need a great deal more help. Some are really baffled by it. Ask some pupils to tell you the difference between a G and an E in the treble clef, and they gape at you as if you've asked them to conduct an autopsy on an eight-foot alien that just crash-landed on their harp.
Clearly, an approach that allowed pupils to develop their playing by ear but also learn to read music in a steady, cumulative way was called for. And it would have to be fun.
Playing the harp with all your fingers isn't exactly easy at first (for most people), and if you compare it to playing a quick sequence of C, D, E, F (say) on the piano, it's really quite awkward for the beginner. Of course there are some players who take to it really naturally and would be puzzled to read those words, but for most it requires a fair bit of regular, patient, thoughtful and diligent work, particularly when playing upwards and ending with the thumb on its own: "Wuoerrh, that feels so weird..." is not an uncommon response. But so what? You just put in the regular, patient, thoughtful and diligent work and there's no problem.
...Except there is a problem. In fact there are two problems. Firstly, a lot of those young brains that are trying to cope with this whole new world of melodies and rhythms and unravelling the arcane mysteries of printed music, are already at full stretch. The chances of developing a good multi-finger technique while also concentrating on everything else are slim, while the chances of mental overload and brain-meltdown and doing everything badly are high. Secondly, when you're getting used to using more than one finger, you're inevitably going to need to play relatively slow and simple pieces so you can concentrate on developing your finger action properly. Not necessarily fall-off-your-perch-with-boredom simple, but not as interesting or exciting as it should be for young beginners. The fabulously impressive things that some of my pupils have been able to do just using one finger of each hand, darting around the harp and using cool syncopations, has proved to me beyond any shadow of doubt that there are huge benefits in delaying the use of all your fingers a little bit longer. And of course those pupils who have been hooked by the pleasure of making exciting music are much more willing to do that thoughtful and diligent work when the time is right...
Clearly, a fun approach that allowed pupils to develop their playing by ear and learn to read, while introducing more fingers gradually and carefully at a slightly later stage, was called for...
A school concert was coming up, and I decided to teach a couple of my pupils Learning Latin (the original melody that grew into the lively Latin American ensemble Los Pájaros Carpinteros). I wanted my other pupils to join in, and as the piece is based entirely on the chords of A minor, E major and D minor, it wasn't difficult to concoct a couple of interweaving simple harmonic accompaniments. I started doing more of that kind of thing and rapidly realised the massive advantages of understanding elementary harmony and being able to remember chord sequences.
Clearly, a fun approach etc etc etc that also involved learning basic harmony was called for...
Over the years I gradually put together a body of teaching material that seemed to do all those things successfully, and my pupils have responded enthusiastically. They can play by ear, they understand that printed music is a map not an uncrackable code, they can transpose simple pieces into different keys in their head, and they're developing a good multi-finger technique. And the pleasure they get – and give – from being able to play an hour's ensemble music from memory is palpable and immensely rewarding.
And so, gentle reader who has patiently, thoughtfully and diligently waded through all these words, I offer you Harpo Beginners...
...Or, rather, the Harpo Beginners collection: Harpo Beginners Book 1, Harpo Beginners Book 2, Harpo Not Quite Beginners, and Racing Training. Click on the relevant thumbnail to see a small representative selection of the many pages in each book.