I had the idea to write a beginner curriculum after years teaching both piano and harp lessons, in a variety of settings and with students ranging in age and ability. My piano students and I found so much success and satisfaction with some of the mainstream piano methods, while I searched for similarly comprehensive and well-designed materials for harp. Much of what currently exists for early harp instruction is collections of repertoire – which, no matter how delightful the pieces, leaves the teacher scrambling for corresponding technical and theory materials and without an organized course of progression.
As an instructor, I have found that having a dependable method frees me up to bring creativity into lessons, to listen and respond to the needs of the student, to incorporate supplementary repertoire as desired, and to feel confident in the direction the student is moving. Without such a method, the instructor spends much of her time and energy piecing together materials, searching for music to suit a particular need, or backtracking as the student falls behind in note reading or technical skills.
Thus, I developed the Happy Harps curriculum to address many of the deficiencies I see in the field, and I hope it will provide a solution for other harp teachers. The features of the curriculum that I would like to highlight include:
Colorful repertoire: Today’s music student needs exposure to a variety of sounds. Happy Harps does not rely on childish “ditties”, but incorporates Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, Celtic, Jewish, Gospel, Japanese, North African, Spanish, American folk, Christmas, Medieval, pentatonic, and programmatic music. There are also plenty of student-teacher duets!
Student-friendly layout: I have meticulously formatted each page to ensure the student can read and understand the material presented. Staff size is appropriate for beginners, and colors are used to highlight new or important information. Understated illustrations are included on many pages. The “look” of the books is intended to be clear and attractive, but not juvenile. The books are for use by the student and teacher together – rather than mainly for the teacher to use to teach by rote.
Tracks for different beginners: Many piano methods have a “primer level” for students who do not yet read music, as well as an “accelerated” option for students new to the instrument but not to music. Similarly, Happy Harps offers one track for very young students and complete beginners (Level 1A/Level 1B) and another for those new to harp but comfortable reading music (Complete Level 1). This way, a brand new student can jump right in to playing without spending weeks learning to fully read on a staff beforehand, and those who already read on the staff can get the technical instruction that they need but without the theory work that they don’t. Both tracks cover approximately the same repertoire and technical skills, and both lead into Level 2.
Instrument accessibility: It is uncommon that the family of a student who wants to try harp is willing to commit to a large lever harp at the initial stages. Because the vast majority of my students begin on a small harp, the curriculum accommodates this reality: Level 1A may be completed on a
26-string unlevered harp, Level 1B and Complete Level 1 require a 26-string harp with some levers, and Level 2 calls for a mid-sized (34-string) harp with full levers.
Effective technical approach: In the teacher training program of Peabody Conservatory (“Harp Adventures”), the late Ruth Inglefield taught us to start the student with fingers 1 and 2 on the harp, gradually adding 3 and then 4. I have, through plenty of experimentation, indeed found this to be the best approach if the goal is good hand position and technique. Additionally, this approach allows for three- and four-note harmony from the very beginning, which is not a possibility if the student is to play single notes with finger 2.
Step by step progression: Concepts and symbols are incorporated into the music only once they have been introduced and explained. This way, the student can have full comprehension of everything printed on the page, and the teacher isn’t weighed down explaining many new things at the outset of a piece. Level 1A starts from scratch with finger numbers, note values, stem direction, and placing. By the end of Level 2, the student has learned chord inversions, transposition, major and minor scales, and 16th note rhythms, among other topics. The series takes a student from the very first lesson, up through an early intermediate level.
Balance of familiar and unfamiliar songs: Many students would say that they prefer to play music that they “know”. However, many music teachers would say that it’s harder to learn to read music – not to mention acquiring technical skills – by playing only music that you “know”! So, each Happy Harps level includes a few pieces that may be familiar to the student. The rest of the repertoire is comprised of pieces composed by the author, pieces arranged by the author from various musical genres, and pieces written by other great harp pedagogues. (Permissions to use all copyrighted work have been acquired.) Also included is some exposure to Western music history.
Emphasis on pattern recognition: My early music education (on the piano) did not include any discussion of the relationship between notes, chords, or keys. It did not involve ear training or improvisation of any kind. As my music education continued, I felt the absence of this type of knowledge. I believe that one goal of music education today should be to lead students to an understanding of how music works, how it’s created, and how to learn it. Thus, Happy Harps offers pattern-based exercises, thorough explanations of concepts, and opportunities for composition and improvisation. Consequently, students learn to recognize rhythmic and melodic patterns – a skill especially important for harp music, which often relies on moving a “shape” up or down.
We have all heard non-harpists suggest that the study of harp is an elite, exclusive activity. But, is the same idea commonly held with regard to the study of piano, voice, guitar, or flute? A lack of organized, mainstream pedagogical material contributes to this notion of harp playing as inaccessible. Perhaps years ago, most beginning harpists were very dedicated music students with years of piano background. Today, the curriculum should be designed so that all interested students can find enjoyment in and benefits from studying harp.