My new favorite teaching tool – Part 1

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Good teaching tools are abundant in our community.  We are extremely fortunate to have some truly brilliant minds in the harp family, that share their gifts readily.  All you have to do is search in the “methods” section of any store that sells harp music and you will be rewarded with a rainbow of options for just about every type of harpist.

I use a variety of resources for my teaching.  But, up until very recently, my only students were either very young or adult beginners.  Since updating my studio website, and streamlining my marketing harpolympicsplan (check out my post about this process) I have suddenly found myself with a new bunch of high school age harpists.  I quickly found the need for different materials.  As an example… my 15-year-old beginner isn’t nearly as intrigued or amused by the Harp Olympics bear as my 8-year-old student.  I love that bear.

Everything changed when I found the…

Berklee Harp
Reading, Improvising, & Arranging for
Pedal and Lever Harp

Beyond the fact that the author is Felice Pomeranz, legendary pop/jazz harpist, and professor of harp at Berklee College of Music, the title itself has sold me on this resources usefulness.

Sometimes this is all you can find when a more obscure song is requested.

Sometimes a chord sheet is all you can find when a more obscure song is requested.

Reading, improvising, and arranging!?  This is what I do all day every day. Say a bride wants an obscure country song at her wedding and no matter how long and hard I search I can’t find the sheet music online.  What I can find is the chord sheet.

Of course, this is only half of the puzzle and is paired with about an hour of listening to the youtube video over and over and over while crying about my never adequately developed dictation skills.

Melody – check!
Chord Sheet – check!

I’m good to go, right?  Not if I don’t understand how to read this chord sheet.  Beyond that… if I don’t have a working understanding of chord progressions, where they are on the harp, and how to improvise an interesting left-hand pattern this piece isn’t going to sound very good at all!

This is why “Berklee Harp” is so important!

I have the benefit of years of teachers attempting to smash information about advanced music theory and ear training into my brain and it is still a struggle for me to do something like read from a fake book.  “Berklee Harp,” if used properly, trains you to overcome those struggles and become a more versatile and flexible harpist.

BerkleeHarpSo, why is this only Part 1?

I have been using this book for about a month and a half with 2 of my teenage students and one adult beginner. In this blog I want to run through the chapters that I have, at this point, worked through with my students, and will report back on further chapters as we progress through the book!

Chapter 1 – 3

Chapters 1-3 cover the basics of triads, both major and minor, the circle of fifths, triad inversions, the I IV V I progression, and voicing.  There is a lot of information in these three chapters, and giving each student the amount of time that they need to absorb this information is important.

Each chapter has exercises to strengthen the skills learned from the reading, and (my favorite part!) encourages the student to perform these exercises in a different key each day!  So… we are teaching music theory, key recognition, and flexibility all in one fell swoop here!

Having gotten through these three chapters with my students I am taking a brief pause before progressing to chapter 4 (which gives us our first lead sheets to read off of!) to ensure the information has taken hold in their brains.  I do this with timed drills.

I IV V I Drills:

For 1 minute my student plays a pattern of I-IV-V-I in a given key, and for each chord, I yell out the inversion that the student should execute.  We do this in 3 different keys in each lesson.  Students must be able to complete the following steps before continuing to chapter 4:

  1. Play progression as block chords, without regard to voicing – this is a necessary first step.  Each of my students has, at first, found this process to be a little startling.  They have to wrap their brain around what I am asking, and for this reason, I don’t ask them to worry about voicing, but rather, to simply find the notes and play them in the beginning.
  2. Block chords, WITH regard to voicing – Now they have to keep everything as close as possible!
  3. 3 note arpeggiated chords – left hand and right hand ascending patterns
  4. Large, hand over hand ascending and descending pattern – this is where we find the real challenge.  The student music be able to think ahead enough on the descent to plan their next chord with proper voicing.

At home practice:

I have encouraged my students to create flash-cards to practice this skill.  By creating 9 flash-cards (3 that say “Root position”; 3 with “1st inversion”; and 3 with “2nd inversion”), shuffling them and drawing 4 at random the student will be able to practice, and hopefully, begin to internalize these skills.

Teaching real-world skills

This is something that strikes me as incredibly important.  The skills learned in this book will take a student to the places they need to go with confidence.  Beyond the practical skills gained through navigating this book, to put it most simply, it forces the harpist to become intimately familiar with their instrument.  Not all of our students will grow up to be professional harpists, but giving them the tools to confidently perform in any key, with virtually any kind of music in front of them is an invaluable gift with vast potential.

How would you do on the I IV V I drill?  Create some flash-cards of your own and give this a try.  It’s harder than you might think!  If you try this and want a greater challenge, just let me know and I will create a few 1 minute YouTube videos for spontaneous inversion call-outs!!

I’ll let you know how things go as I progress on this project with my students!  I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of this awesome book!  Spoiler – it comes with a CD that has rhythm tracks and instrumentals to play with in later chapters, giving you the opportunity to try your hand at improvising without the pressure of a live or rehearsal situation.

Do you feel like your reading, improvising, and arranging skills could use a little beefing up?  Me too! Comment below with your experiences and any questions you might have!

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Miami based Dr. of harp, gown-addict, lover of bulldogs, and fitness enthusiast.

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