Learning through Skype Lessons

I cannot tell you how often I see posts on the WireHarp list from students who bemoan the lack of knowledgeable teachers in their area.   Complain no more, good people, as there is a solution to this dilemma!  Skype lessons can put you in touch with some of the most skilled teachers and players imaginable.

This article is authored by my friend Sam Tyler of Portland. She and I both study with teachers who live in another state or country through using Skype.  The article, published recently in the Wire Branch‘s newsletter Wire Strings, is reprinted here with permission.  I have added some photographs which do not appear in the original newsletter article.
My best advice to you?  Try some Skype lessons!

–Sue

Exploring Skype Lessons for the Clarsach

The odyssey begins when we fall for this siren of harps–the clarsach. We trust the voyage will reveal itself, if only we set sail. Sometimes our ship finds ports of call, great cities of harp festivals and workshops, where we are showered with ancient writings full of curious markings, and melodies that haunt our dreams. But we travel the sea alone, without a map or compass. It is all too easy to drift. What we need, of course, is an experienced guide who can point us in the right direction. The reality is most of us are becalmed far away from help.

Enter Skype software–free video calls anywhere you can logon to broadband internet service using either an internal computer camera or a webcam attached to a USB port. Suddenly we can take lessons with some of the best clarsach teachers in the world. As one Skype student said “it’s like being a ordinary cello student and having Yo-Yo Ma come to your house once a week to teach.”

For purposes of this article, I interviewed (by Skype, of course) four clarsach teachers — Simon Chadwick, Cynthia Cathcart, Bill Taylor, and Ann Heymann, and seven of their Skype students. Before we get into the particulars, I want to state right up front that every student was wildly enthusiastic about the long-distance lessons and their teachers.

The Skype Venue

In most ways Skype video lessons are just another venue; they provide a place to hold a lesson so that teacher and student can see and hear each other. Travel time is minimal, taking just a few seconds while your computer makes a connection. However, this venue does present some technical problems at times.

The most obvious challenge is that teacher and student share two dimensional views of each other in a limited window. This small viewing area means that teachers and students need to frame themselves well–a quiet room free from interruptions with good lighting appropiately placed. A teacher cannot walk around a student or reach out and correct a hand position, so making hand and strings clearly visible is important. From time to time the lesson may be interrupted by a frozen or pixalated screen. And Skype’s compression, which is just fine for voice transmission, does weird things to the long resonance of the clarsach, particularly in the lower registers. But take heart, pioneering teachers and students have found ways to circumvent the limitations.

Skype Tools

Skype students can use recording software that works in conjunction with Skype to save their lessons in video format for review. Call Recorder (shareware) and Pamela(freeware) are two small applications mentioned in the interviews. Students should check with their teacher before using recording software. Any recording should be for the student’s private use only and should not be posted or shared without express permission from the teacher.

Video files can take up a lot of hard drive space. The simplest solution is editing. A student can watch a replay of the lesson and then edit the video, snipping out portionsof a lesson to save. Saving video directly from a Skype lesson can do even more than give you a quick reference. One right shoulder playing student takes editing one step further “flipping” demo clips, so that the left shoulder played demo of the teacher appears as a right shouldered view.

Video can also help the teacher get a clear view of a student’s progress. Students can capture short videos of themselves using the internal computer camera, a webcam or a digital camcorder. One advantage of the webcam is that you can move it easily to a position near your harp for close-up views. If you have never played around with video and are a bit daunted by the thought of incorporating this in a lesson, rest assured that it is fairly easy.

Although materials like notation and text can be scanned and sent by e-mail, large video files need another method of transmission. One option is to use an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server. Another option for sending video files is to upload the video to a free YouTube account as an unlisted file, so that only teacher or student can view the video once they are given the specific URL for that particular clip. No one can access unlisted files by browsing. Although there is time involved in uploading, the viewer gets very high resolution and sound quality that can make it worth the extra effort.

How Do You Learn?

One of the discoveries I made in my interviews with teachers was the wide range of teaching approaches for their online students.

Simon Chadwick

Simon Chadwick. Photo from his Picasa site.

 Simon Chadwick has been giving Skype lesson for about two years, but his interest in video teaching began much earlier. Years before Skype was available, Simon was involved in a project to create video clips that could be put up on a web site to demonstrate harp technique.

With Skype Simon found a good way to work with students using oral harp traditions. His focus is on ancient Gaelic music; studying manuscript facsimiles, students learn to work from original sources. Simon explained, “Like notation, oral tradition has its own collection of standard units, but they are different from modern notation. There are gestures, fingerings that take advantage of natural strengths and weaknesses in the hands, genres like dances structured by specific rhythms, and styles of playing. Once learned they are not forgotten because you find they appear again and again.”

Simon wants students to understand the aesthetic principles and historic structures behind what they are learning. He told me, “the way you think about things determines how you retain and memorize and use material.” He feels this approach to learning orally along side a teacher allows you to retrieve the music effectively and develop ideas for performance with an eye to historic accuracy. Students may begin by singing new music, so that they have it firmly fixed in their heads before placing it on the harp.

All of Simon’s students are fully committed to approaching the harp in an historic way; they play left-shouldered and have found that the traditional methods suit their needs. One student told me, “I get frustrated with sheet music, I find I am much quicker to

learn through an aural approach.” Simon does not use supplemental video, nor does he give students modern notation. His tools are manuscripts, early tablatures, and some voice song files–the focus is real time experience of the oral tradition.

Simon’s informative web site at http://www.simonchadwick.net is full of resources on historical harps and music, and provides more information regarding his lessons.

Cynthia Cathcart

Cynthia Cathcart. Photo from her website used with permission.

Like Simon, Cynthia Cathcart has been offering Skype lessons for about two years. She has developed her own materials for teaching and uses her book, Pathways, which presents a clear sequential track for acquiring fingering and damping skills, and is geared to new students. Cynthia has designed her online classes to take advantage of the benefits offered by video technology.

Midweek students use the web cam to video their progress. The video file is sent via an FTP server and Cynthia reviews the file before meeting with the student on Skype. Describing the process she said, “You know they are going to listen to it before they send it and that helps them develop their own critical ear–they notice things missed when playing.” Her student complimented the video process telling me that it has allowed her to move rapidly from one short piece to another gaining new skills at a steady pace, saying,“it keeps pushing me beyond my comfort zone–but not so far as to be overwhelming.”

The student’s video allows Cynthia to see the week’s progress in a clear resolution; she can replay the video if needed to focus on problem areas. After the lesson she puts together new materials which includes a video of herself playing assignments, notation, notes on new techniques, a report on the lesson summarizing what was covered, and perhaps some additional exercises. These materials are transmitted to the student by FTP server and e-mail. Online lesson time allows students to play problem areas and for Cynthia to focus on resolving any difficulties or questions. Teacher and student both use a webcam as it gives them the flexibility to zoom in on the strings during a lesson.

Because the previewing, video making, and lesson preparation off camera is fairly time consuming, the lesson is divided into two parts–part of the lesson time on-Skype and part off-line. Cynthia also welcomes students to e-mail her between lessons with questions as part of her role as teacher. She notes that Skype seems to require more structure– an impromptu detour in a lesson could leave the student looking at an empty chair while the teacher goes looks for a special reference or book!

Cynthia welcomes working with a student’s personal goals (i.e. exploring modes for a student working with healing music, or focusing on music appropriate for church performance).

Cynthia’s web site is at http://www.cynthiacathcart.net/ An interesting aside–one of Cynthia’s students came to her after seeing one of Cynthia’s videos on YouTube.

Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor. Photo used with his permission.

Bill has only recently brought his well-honed teaching skills to Skype and structures a lesson as much like in-person lessons as possible. He does not require videos from

students, but is excited about the added dimension they can bring to a Skype lesson. When a student makes a video it solves the sound transmission problems inherent with Skype. He told me,“Having the student make a video tidies up the presentation in all aspects.” Bill also noted the advantages of being able to backup a video in order to review a section and the possibility of viewing the video with the student during the lesson to help the student see a problem area.

Typically Bill uses standard notation with detailed fingering to present new material. He plays the music through, so that the student can record it and use it for reference between lessons. By playing during the online lesson he can stop and point out challenging areas that might be encountered and work in real time with the student to make sure ornaments, fingering, timing, etc. are understood. If the student does not use recording software, Bill can e-mail sound files for reference after the lesson. He often includes historical and musical genre information related to the music in the lesson to give students insights for interpretation. Bill’s student shared, “ Bill can make a piece come alive…Skype lessons have taken me to a new level with my playing, not just learning to physically play better, but to get inside the music.”

Speaking on the subject of what to expect in a lesson, Bill told me, “lessons must be paced in useable size pieces. As students internalize information they begin to bring something of themselves to the process. They might draw on abilities in a variety of areas–improvising, sight reading, even arranging. I try to plan practical things, ways to get students to explore possibilities in a piece, to bring something to the work, to internalize interpretation and to use the skills they have learned. Ultimately I want the student to acquire and build their own repertoire–to work in their own areas of interest.”

Bill’s web site is http://www.billtaylor.eu/ where you can find articles he has written and the lengthy discography which includes both solo and group work.

Ann Heymann

Ann Heymann. Photo from her website.

Ann has truly pioneered teaching the clarsach. Out of her decades of performing ancient Gaelic harp repertoire and in depth research of old manuscripts, Ann discovered and developed the “coupled hands” approach to playing the clarsach. Rather than being separated in high and low registers on the harp, the player’s hands alternate in sequences that naturally clarify strong beats and easily add historically appropriate harmonies; the interplay creates a balance that allows the music to unfold in a natural almost dance-like choreography. Her book Coupled Hands for Harpers, which introduces the approach in a gradual progression, has been a classic tutorial for clarsach harpers.

The philosophy of coupled hands underlies Ann’s work with her students. One student who came from a classical pedal harp tradition told me, “coupled hands is so organic, the music flows so naturally.“ Another said “Ann’s amazing wealth of knowledge and context for the music, not only inspires me to research new repertoire, but takes me deeply into the music I am playing.”

Ann says she works to help the students develop a relaxed and effective technique with the focus on feel. “I want a player’s fingers and hands to connect directly to the sound, to open the way towards a certain amount of improvisation.”

The lesson format is much like an in-person lesson. Ann says, “I work with students based on their needs and their level –my style is informed by whom I am teaching.” Some students require more detailed notation, another may be helped by special sound files that slow down the music and put variations into separate tracks to facilitate aural learning. For one student who was struggling with hand position problems, Ann made a video of herself playing from different angles.

Skype’s two dimensionality makes pinpointing technical problems in playing harder to see, so Ann asks students to play from different angles. She particularly likes to see over the shoulder — the “harper’s eye view.” One of her students sends her video before a lesson as a way to give Ann these extra angles. Video is not required and Ann likes the immediacy of seeing the student play during a lesson. She may demonstrate techniques or new music during a lesson and students can record her playing with Skype-connected software for later reference.

Ann is willing to work with a wide variety of repertoire as long as it is level-appropriate and idiomatic for the harp. Although she is thrilled to have students who follow historical and traditional standards, she enjoys helping students who follow a different muse.

Ann’s web site http://www.annheymann.com is where you can learn more about her historic approach, her books and CD’s, and her many accomplishments including her seminal work with precious metal strings.

Students Speak

Most students taking Skype lessons originally met their teachers at a class or workshop, often traveling great distances for the opportunity to study with that particular teacher. They never dreamed it was going to be possible to take private lessons with someone who might be thousands of miles away. So that you have a taste of their enthusiasm here are a few of the comments they made to me:

“Skype works fabulously…it is wonderful to have face-to-face time with a great teacher.”

“It’s amazing! Even if you can get to a special week of classes you need the continued input and access to a teacher to progress. I would come home from workshops with a head full of ideas, wanting to try everything. I would work on a few things, but it is hard to make progress without some continued help.”

“It is so gratifying to have the little ‘ah-ha’ moments that happen in lessons when you get an insight into the history of a piece, or finally understand how to use a technique well and can claim it for other music you work on.”

“Before Skype, when I worked on my own, it was two steps forward, one step back and sometimes two steps back. If you work on your own, you too often reinforce bad habits and it takes time to unlearn–the role of your teacher is to keep you out of the weeds.”

“Even with Skype’s limitations, boy, my teacher catches everything–fingering, damping. I don’t get away with anything!”

“Skype lessons are an ongoing conversation. I ask questions; I learn what questions to ask– how to go further into the music.”

Think you want to try it? Visit the web sites (I did not include lengthy introductions for the four teachers highlighted here as they are well-known to the clarsach community, but on their web sites you will find detailed bios and other helpful information). Make a list of your questions. The more you know about your expectations the better equipped you will be when you contact a potential teacher. Then e-mail the teacher with whom you think you would like to study and set up a time for a Skype chat. A teacher can give you suggestions regarding equipment, lighting, and good positioning. These were the four teachers I knew who were using Skype; you may have another teacher in mind with whom you want to study–can’t hurt to ask. It’s your journey and you get to steer the ship.

I leave you with one final student comment, “just tell them in your article to try it, it’s great!”

–Sam Tyler

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Starting Fresh a Year Ago

It’s January, and many of you are still in for months of snow and ice.  Yet just a few days ago, I noticed that the copper flowers had opened overnight on the witch hazel in the front garden.  That, along with the sight of crocus leaves popping up through the mud, is certain evidence of spring’s arrival.  The signs become clearer after Brigid / Imbolc, at the start of February.

Witch hazel in the garden, January 2011. Photo by Sue.

Now is a good time to take stock of the changes I have made over the past year, and whether I have made some progress toward my goals.  Just over a year ago, I switched to playing on the left shoulder.  It was a neurologically challenging experience for the first few months, and one that I had avoided by making all sorts of excuses for a few years.  Initially, when I thought of changing shoulders, I thought it would be too difficult.  It felt like a long reach through the harp, or across the strings, and I didn’t like the fact that the strings now appeared farther away from me, as they fell from the left side of the tuning pins, quite away from my face when playing.

At some point I’m going to write a great deal more about changing from the right to the left shoulder, but for the present, suffice it to say that all my excuses for not changing shoulders were just that:  excuses.  Yes, it’s difficult, and somewhat confusing to the poor brain.  I had to make some adjustments, as I’d been playing on the right shoulder for a few years, and worked with a wonderful local harper and teacher, Doug.  As you’d imagine, I had a fair amount of repertoire on that shoulder.  I could play all sorts of Breton dance tunes, some pretty Irish tunes, Morris dance tunes, and a fair number of pieces from Ann Heymann’s Coupled Hands for Harpers on the right shoulder.  What became of all of that when I switched?  I still have it, but I don’t use much of it anymore unless I turn the harp and place it on my right shoulder.  Some people are truly shocked to see me switch back and forth between shoulders, but it isn’t as difficult as it seems.  My brain simply knows one set of patterns for all the old repertoire, and a different set of patterns for everything I’ve learned since the change.  My style is quite different on each shoulder, too, which is rather strange, but I suppose it makes sense.  Over time, my expectation is that I’ll come up with a new way of playing music I want to keep by moving it over to the left shoulder, and that will be that.  For now, I spend over 90% of my time playing left shouldered, and only switch when I visit a friend and play my old music with him.

A year ago I decided, too, to begin studying historical harp technique and repertoire, and began taking Skype lessons with Simon Chadwick in St. Andrews, Scotland.  The discipline of a weekly lesson has been a great help to me.  I think that the change of shoulder, accompanied by a rather abrupt change of harping style, have slowed down my progress, but all to good effect.  Some of you might get testy when you read what I’m about to write.  After working on historical harp technique for a year, I think that it requires much more work and practice than playing in a more standard style.  There is so much to know that I wish I had started as a flexible adolescent with a speedier brain and quick hands.  Although I still like the sound of some of my old music played on the right, much of it sounds blurry and unfocused to me now.  It’s too ringy and lacks power in the bass range.  I am acquiring new music more slowly in favor of learning all sorts of curious and arcane skills that will later help me play with the control I want. You know what?  It’s been worth it.

–Sue

Harpers for Housing Benefit Concert

A previous year's concert.

Every fall a group of harpers from the Portland area gathers to participate in a benefit concert.  In recent years the organization chosen as the recipient of funds raised is the local housing charity, the Northwest Pilot Project, which offers assistance to elders 55 and older who are in danger of homelessness.  This is an organization I feel delighted to support.

Here’s the news on this year’s event, coordinated by Kathleen Staub and Dale Rhodes:

Harpers for Housing
Sunday, December 5, 2010 @ 2pm
Lincoln Street Methodist Church, 5145 SE Lincoln St., Portland, OR.
Click HERE to see a map to the location.
Requested donation is $10, all of which goes to the NW Pilot Project.

Volunteers, largely lever harp players, will be performing.  I’m still choosing a piece or two to play, but had better decide soon.

Have a good evening.

–Sue

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