About this time every year I get emails from students inquiring about studying harp with me at the college level - either at Carthage College or at the University of Wisconsin Parkside.
Here are some of the most common questions I receive:
1) Can I major in Harp Performance at your school?
2) Can I minor in Harp at your school?
3) Can I major in Music Education ?
4) Does your school offer a degree in Music Therapy?
5) Can I play on the school harp or do I have to bring my own?
6) Is there a harp ensemble?
These are all excellent questions but there are several more you should ask or at least be thinking about.
1) Are there other harp students at your school and how many?
Some colleges have very small harp programs - 1-3 students, some have a mid range of as many as 9 and some have a very large program of 20 or more. If you wish to have the opportunity to play in as many ensembles as possible and a high level of visibility, a small or mid sized program may be a good fit for you. A small program may also have more scholarship money to offer. If you wish to be part of a large community of harpists with the cache of a prominently named teacher, you may feel that a big program is your best fit. One caution about a large program - depending on your skill level and dedication, you may find yourself studying with a graduate assistant rather than the primary harp teacher.
2) What ensembles are available and what level of harp parts will I encounter?
Just because a college has a music program does not mean they have a full orchestra. Some colleges may only have a small chamber orchestra. Although, you should not rule out the possibility of playing with bands and wind orchestras and also accompanying choirs. If you wish to play in an orchestra after graduation, you should be trying to get as much ensemble experience as possible while you are in college.
3) If I bring my own harp to campus, where will it be kept?
This is a very important question. While not every college can promise you your own practice room in which to keep your harp, they should at least be able to guarantee the security of your instrument.
4) Will I play only classical music or do you teach jazz and other modern approaches?
One of the realities of today's world is that becoming a concert performer of classical music or playing in an orchestra are not the only ways to use your harp skills after graduation. Many harpists find a majority of their income is tied to weddings and parties. Knowing how to successfully market yourself in this field is important. It is also wise to understand how to quickly make your own arrangements of piano parts to music your clients may request on short notice. Many college teachers cover this area but some do not and assume you will find your own way when the time comes.
5) Do you teach harp pedagogy?
Another very important question. If you are planning to teach harp after graduation there is a lot to know! While most teachers will at least address the subject of harp pedagogy while you are studying with them, not all colleges offer a harp pedagogy class for credit. This often has nothing to do with the harp teacher and everything to do with college budgets and bureaucracy. If the college you are interested in does not offer a pedagogy class for credit but you are passionate about learning to teach, you may need to ask the college to let you do an independent study with an emphasis on pedagogy instead.
6) Are there opportunities to play freelance while I am studying at your college?
First of all, if you wish to freelance while you are in college you need to assume that you will have to have your own harp and transportation with you. Do not assume the college will let you take a school instrument off school property. Also, do not assume you will be able to have a car on campus your freshman year. Some colleges have strict rules about living in the dorms freshman year as well as rules about bringing cars to campus. Secondly, you need to respect the market around the college and not expect to take work from your teacher if there are not many harp jobs available in the area. Encroaching on your teacher's livelihood will put a strain on the student/teacher relationship and interfere with the mentoring process.
7) Do you teach a particular harp method?
The three most commonly taught harp techniques taught at the college level in the United States today are: Salzedo, Grandjany and Renie. All three of these techniques are associated with famous harpists - Carlos Salzedo, Marcel Grandjany, and Henriette Renie. For the answer to this question to be useful to you, you must first know what technique you are already using. (Your current teacher will be able to answer this question for you.) While there is often a mention of "French Technique" that is a vague and slightly problematic term as all three of the aforementioned harpists were a product of the Paris Conservatory. This means that, technically, all three of these methods qualify as "French". Currently, however, the Grandjany and Renie techniques are more commonly associated with this term of "French Technique" and Salzedo has come to mean a technique specific to the students of Carlos Salzedo.
Each technique does have a hallmark hand position and tone quality. Also, the farther away from the original teacher one gets, the more the technique can also take on the tone of the other harpists in the chain. For example: my Salzedo teacher was Lilian Phillips who studied directly from Carlos Salzedo in the 1940's. This puts me one step away from Salzedo and my students two steps away. My Grandjany teacher was Dr. Ruth Inglefield who studied directly with Marcel Grandjany in New York as well as Pierre Jamet in Paris. I also studied briefly with Pierre Jamet. This puts me one step away from Grandjany, with my students two steps away and then I have a direct contact to Jamet which puts my students one step away from him. This sort of harp pedigree can be confusing but knowing a potential teacher's stylistic background can help you achieve a good match.
8) How do I audition for you?
There are two main types of auditions - scholarship and non scholarship. Generally, scholarship auditions will take place on dates fixed by the college and will be in front of an audition committee. You are typically auditioning, not against other harpists but against all other instruments. A non scholarship audition can be as simple as contacting a prospective teacher and asking if you can come and have a sample lesson from them. I strongly recommend this if you are planning to major in harp performance. It is less important if you will only be minoring. You should be prepared to pay for this lesson; be sure to find out the usual fee for each teacher in advance of the lesson. If a teacher is particularly interested in having you as a future student, he/she will often then advise you to also give a scholarship audition.
9) What kind of music should I play at the audition?
If it is a scholarship audition, you should present your very best playing. While concertos are impressive and I do recommend playing at least an excerpt of one at your audition if possible, a really top notch performance of a lesser work will do more for your chances than a poor performance of a piece that may be over your skill level. Poor preparation on a major work will significantly reduce your chances of a scholarship. There are no brownie points for the attempt. Also, be prepared to sight read.
As far as the repertoire at a sample lesson, you should have at least one piece which you consider "finished" that you are proud of, and another that is "in progress" so that you and the prospective teacher truly have the opportunity for a teaching moment. If your hands are cold, do not be afraid to take a minute to do some warm up exercises. Just keep your warm up time to under 3 minutes.
In closing, probably the most important questions are not for the harp teacher but for yourself.
"What do I want to do with harp?
Do I want a full time career as a harpist?
Do I want a career in something else with some harp on the side?
If I want to play harp on the side, do I want to play strictly for my own enjoyment or do I want to pick up occasional freelance work?
Do I want to teach harp?"
To properly choose a college at which to study harp, you must first know what you expect to gain from the experience and where you wish to go with the instrument. It may seem like an obvious point that does not bear mentioning but you would be surprised at the number harp playing high school seniors I have encountered who have never given these questions any thought at all!
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Be sure to follow up with a thank you note any time you receive answers from a prospective teacher or have a trial lesson with them!