Teacher's Corner With Anne Morse Hambrock - Teaching Blind Students To Play Harp

Recently a colleague asked for tips to help teach a blind harp student. When I first began teaching harp at Carthage College, there was a blind student who owned a lever harp but had only taken about 3 harp lessons before I met her. She had been doing the best she could on her own and was very frustrated. We got right down to it and, after four years of hard work together, she was able to give a senior recital split between harp and piano. She and I were very proud.

But the journey was not easy. The first difficulty we found was the lack of good sheet music for the blind harpist. There were very few pieces to choose from. Not only that, the pieces we found did not seem to have been vetted at all. It felt as though a publisher made an arbitrary decision "This music is popular, let's also publish it in braille!". So we took another approach.

Step one was to make sure she was sitting at the right height and to always sit in exactly the same position at the instrument. This is vital. When your only guide to the instrument is how far your arms are extended, middle C must feel as though it has a permanent location.

Try the following experiment with a friend and a tape measure. Close your eyes and hold your hand, palm facing you, exactly 7 inches in front of your face. Have your friend measure to assess the accuracy of your guess. Chances are you missed by at least an inch. Gauging your distance in a vertical plane without the benefit of vision or gravity to aid you is very challenging. This is why sobriety tests involve touching your nose while your eyes are closed.

Step two was to have her focus on playing exercises that were completely linked. By this I mean scale and arpeggio patterns that cross over or under or change direction ascending and descending. We spent at least a year focusing on every kind of connecting finger passage we could find. The kiss of death when you cannot see your strings is playing passages, especially in the left hand, that jump. The right hand has the benefit of using the edge of the soundboard for guidance - no Salzedo fear of touching the board allowed when teaching the blind - using the board as a fulcrum for the right hand is crucial to navigate the strings without sight. But the left hand, more often than not, will not have this advantage. Using the board in the left hand will mean a position so low on the strings as to almost sound pres de la table.

This problem of jumping passages in the left hand is what made so many of the braille editions of sheet music too challenging for my student. I'm not saying they were too challenging for any student, but probably not a good idea for the average student.

So the next step, after establishing good hand position, good body position, and good technique, was to start making our own arrangements of music she would like to play as well as teaching her how to make up her own compositions.

Her greatest love was church music so we started with hymns and folk tunes. We treated these tunes exactly as one would when using a jazz "fake book". We looked for melody lines that were at least 75% "connectable" in the right hand, memorized and perfected them. Then we created bass lines that could be equally connected. She had a braille translator so sometimes I would say the notes aloud and she would enter them into her translator, sometimes I would have her learn the melody by ear and by feel directly onto the instrument.

When it came to teaching her how to compose, we started with basic music theory and I just turned her loose. For those not quite up to that challenge, I play a simple bass line in a minor key using only the tonic and subtonic chords (in the key of D minor that would be D chords and C chords, for example) and let my students freely improvise on a second harp. For optimum results, play the bass line for at least 7 minutes. It generally takes at least 2 minutes of noodling for a student to stop worrying about whether or not they are doing it right to really relax and get into the groove of improvising. I use a minor key because there is almost no chance of a truly horrific dissonance that will scare off the novice improvisor.

My blind harp student had the added advantage of being able to sing while she played so, over the course of the 4 years she made wonderful progress.

I hope this post has been hopeful to any aspiring blind harpists and those who plan to teach them. If you need further tips, contact me on my facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/AnneMorseHambrockHarpist?ref=hl