Young students/ frequent motivation
Traditionally, young students of any instrument need frequent feedback, and opportunities to share their new found knowledge and skills with their peers and adults. No one learns well in a vacuum. Typically, young students studying any instrument may perform at a holiday performance, and at an end of year recital in June. In the mind of a young student, the time between December and June is infinite. They may have difficulty relating the skills and repertoire they are learning in January with a potential performance opportunity in June. More frequent performance opportunities will help their motivation and focus in preparing for whatever may be upcoming in the very near future.
When to join the ensemble
The harp students in my harp studio are usually invited to join the ensemble after 4-6 months of study. While their skills may still be quite limited at this point, they will learn a great deal by osmosis from the other students in the ensemble. At this very early stage, the beginning student will participate in just a few pieces. While the student of 4-6 months may not be ready to participate in every piece just yet, they learn a lot by watching and listening to the group. They will learn much of the repertoire aurally through observing rehearsals before they are ready to participate in the performance of them. Having this aural familiarity will speed up the process of learning new parts when they are ready. All parts are specifically tailored to the skills of each student at that point in their development. No student is expected to learn a part that is beyond their technical skill level. It is very important to insure that all students have positive successful experiences. Careful and thoughtful integration of young students will insure their success.
Repertoire Selection and Balance
Selecting repertoire that can be performed for multiple occasions maximizes the rehearsal and preparation time for everyone. Since many performance invitations seem to be for holiday performances, several Christmas pieces may be in order. Although, non-holiday material is also suggested, since they will also be invited to perform at other times of year as well. There are also a number of pieces which are not specifically holiday material that can be performed at holiday events, as well as other times of year. So, we have basically 3 categories or repertoire:
Once the repertoire has been selected, keep in mind that choosing too many pieces may prove overwhelming in the beginning. Also consider keeping some of the more successful pieces in the permanent repertoire, always adding new material and increasing the body of repertoire available to perform at any given time. When you have a clear picture of how many harp students will be in the ensemble, and an idea of their skill levels, decide how many different parts will be in each piece. Typically I choose appx 3 different parts, splitting them among 7-8 students. This will change depending on the piece, but keep in mind the seating options, and the implications of changing the number of parts for each piece. If the young harpists are arranged in ‘teams’, then seating becomes easier, and will remain somewhat constant throughout your repertoire. Identify the 3 students with the highest skill level, and assign them each one part, editing it to match their skills, if they are not capable of performing it as written. Then pair up the remaining students with these 3, based on skill levels and strengths to augment the basic 3 parts. Edit each of the 3 parts to something reasonable for the younger students, ensuring their success. Bear in mind that there may be 2 or more younger students on the same basic part. Based on the personality, independence and strengths of each individual student, you may wish to tailor their parts to be quite similar, or very different. Each situation will be unique.
As technology advances daily, we can take advantage of benefits to our students. I use “Finale”, a computer musical notation program to arrange and compose their parts. Once the notation is in the computer, it is quite simple to make an audio file of the score, and each part. Convert those files to audio files, emailing them to students. The files are downloaded to their smartphones to use during their own practice sessions. They practice along with their own part, as well as becoming familiar with each of the other parts, and the score. If the tempo of the piece is too fast, I can record these audio files at numerous tempi, giving students the opportunity to practice with the audio files each week increasing the tempo, until they can play it at performance tempo. Granted, these audio files are simply digital representations of the notes, they are not intended to be artistic renderings. They will however, assist in the science phase of learning notes, rhythms, and how the puzzle pieces fit together for any given piece of music. Once that is achieved, they can focus on the musicianship, expression and phrasing.
Enhancements as students progress
As students develop and progress, their parts will be come very easy for them, especially on the pieces you have chosen to remain in the permanent repertoire. The opportunities for aural learning by osmosis during rehearsals should not be underestimated. As their skills progress, they will have heard similar parts with more technical difficulty throughout all the rehearsals and performances. They will be ready to ‘upgrade’ and ‘enhance’ their parts to a more challenging level. While ensuring success should always be a major goal, so too, should continually challenging them to improve and develop. Often students will ask for 'more notes'. A skilled educator should recognize this balance, editing parts appropriately, and enhancing them when appropriate.
Rehearsals take place only a few weeks prior to a performance. We meet in my living room on Sunday afternoons for 3 hours. No one could do it in perpetuity, but we all rally for 4-5 sessions prior to a performance. I am lucky enough to have several harps in my living room. Often educators will run a rehearsal as a dictator, giving the students little or no input. However, one of our goals as educators should be to develop thinking, independent musicians, with opinions and interpretations. So, it would be self defeating and short sighted of us to run these rehearsals in a dictatorial manner. If the students have an opportunity to express their own opinions in terms of tempo, dynamics etc, then they will have far more ownership in the total team when we perform in public. Be careful what you ask for, you might get more than you bargained for. Once again the experienced reflective educator will know how far to let the input go, and when to take back the reins. Young children find it difficult to work for a 3 hour period, so we take a break in the middle for a snack. The break can be as productive as the actual rehearsal time. The social time together allows them to develop relationships, strengthening the ensemble as a team. I also use this break time for announcements, and discussions about upcoming performances.
Many performance invitations may become annual invitations, a very nice compliment to the performance of the students. These connections are important to nurture and maintain. Often they will lead to yet more invitations to perform. Churches, assisted living facilities and museums often love to have a harp ensemble perform as part of a service, or for their residents or patrons.
When significant time is spent preparing for a performance, the opportunity to present the same repertoire, or similar performance very soon thereafter maximizes the effort and time spent in rehearsals. Parents don’t seem to mind the rehearsals as much, if the product is more time effective. Scheduling 2 events for the same weekend works well, but preferably not 2 for the same day. Kids don’t have the same stamina as adults, and will be too exhausted to perform well at the second venue. We have even been lucky enough on a few occasions to have 2 venues geographically close enough together on 2 succeeding days, so we are able to take the harps directly from one to the other, minimizing harp moving. This will only work if adequate security for the harps can be guaranteed.
Ensemble skills & teamwork without competition
The harp ensemble is a team. It is far more than merely several students coming together, having learned their parts. They need to work together, as a team, with a common goal of excellence in performing. If one member slacks off, they all suffer, just as in a sports team. Carefully developing these membership skills will develop a sense of community, rather than competition among members. A musical performance is a balance of science and art. If each ensemble member arrives at the first rehearsal having prepared their own individual part (science) technically knowing all the notes, fingerings, etc. then we can spend the rehearsal working on the artistic piece of the equation. Granted, this is not always the case when working with young children, but it should nevertheless be the goal. In addition to making music out of the accurate notes they have all arrived with, we need to develop ensemble skills of non-verbal communication, and cues. Asking individuals to play their part, so others can hear what is going on, as well as identify who has similar and contrasting parts helps everyone, especially the youngest members to know where to look for assistance if they run into trouble.
They can easily glance at someone else who is also playing their part to help them get back on track. One of the most valuable ensemble skills I can teach them is to keep going if they get lost or confused, to try and find a way to ‘get back in’. They can achieve this aurally as well as visually. We study the form of the piece, all its similar and contrasting phrases and sections. When they understand the framework, they will have a better idea when a familiar repeat may be coming, and be able to jump back in there. If they know who to look at, who may have the same, or similar part, visually they can see where they are, and jump back in. Offering both of these opportunities helps to develop their ensemble skills, aural skills and provides alternatives for visual, kinesthetic and aural learners. You never know when it might be needed in performance! Depending on the piece, and whether or not it is conducted, specific members may be identified to provide a cue, visually or aurally. It may be the person who has the responsibility for initiating a ritard, or perhaps a cue to begin a new section. All too often our young students are invited to play in their school orchestra, arriving for only the last rehearsal or two. Having not been a part of the rehearsal/development process of the repertoire, these young fledgling harpists are often overwhelmed and confused. Even though they may know their part flawlessly, suddenly hearing all the other parts, and following a conductor may throw them for a loop. As these initial experiences are critical to their development, having a traumatic experience could be counterproductive. Participating in a harp ensemble with other harpists who study with the same teacher can provide some of these critically needed skills preparing them to participate successfully in a school orchestra, as well as numerous other performance opportunities throughout their lives.
Hierarchy within the ensemble
I strive very hard to never compare my students to one another. If I mention another student’s name, it is in a non-competitive spirit, and complimentary. If students have heard negative things about each other from their teacher, it will undermine the efforts of bringing the community together to perform as a team. Each one will continue to wonder, ‘…if I know negative xyz about Susie, then I wonder what she knows about me!!!’. This is unethical, unprofessional, and will undermine the self esteem of these precious students we are trying to develop. With that said, it is very interesting to observe how they determine their own ‘pecking order’ within the group. It is always unconscious, and non-verbal, nonetheless ever present. It is never in a competitive spirit, rather a respect for each other, and the advanced skills of the older students, revering them as role models, until their turn comes to be the veteran role model for younger students. These role models are delighted to be respected, and are quite willing to serve as mentors for the younger ones. In the end, the healthier the atmosphere is in building the community, the better the ensemble will perform together as a team.
Non-musical benefits of ensemble participation
Many music teachers, not just harpists, are so wrapped up in, and pressured by the musical aspects of preparing for a performance, that the non-musical benefits are often overlooked. The self esteem of performing, within a group is a tremendous benefit that grows with every performance. Not only does the young student feel joy at successfully sharing what they have prepared, but it builds their self esteem in believing in themselves, and their own abilities. Often an audience will have questions, and I will include the ensemble members in answering these questions. This develops their public speaking skills, and motivates them to think about what they have accomplished from different perspectives. Poise, grace and etiquette are also amazing benefits that simply go along with the territory. These are positive attributes for which there are fewer and fewer opportunities for young students to acquire in our ever changing society.
Performing skills are readily transferable to any number of real life experiences we face later in life. Performing experiences don't just enhance our abilities as musicians. Our brain stores the capacity "to be present" and "engaged" in any number of settings that others might find unnerving, standing and teaching before a group, presenting a talk, addressing a judge, presenting a petition orally to the city council, and so on. The opportunities to benefit from childhood/early adult music experiences are as infinite as our life choices. Even though significant lesson and practice time is spent on preparing ensemble music, the cost in time far outweighs the time spent away from repertoire, as long as a careful balance is maintained. The motivation, joy, sense of purpose and fulfillment ultimately create a much better environment for the young student to prepare for many and varied types of musical performance. In the end, don’t we all really want to prepare well rounded, thinking, independent musicians who will move on to succeed in the music world, long after our services are required?