March 9, 2021
Imogen Barford and Charlotte Seale, both harp professors at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, have been running courses together for years. The latest one – something like their thirty-third together – is the Ibacus International Harp Course, planned for the beginning of August 2021, in the heart of the Suffolk countryside.
What is the secret of Imogen and Charlotte’s famous double-act? They share a clear technical perspective, and emphasise even the youngest students thinking for themselves and owning their music. The students relish this, as worldwide praise for the course shows.
“There are different schools of thought about this”, says Imogen, “but I believe technique is best practised separately. A good technique is like preparing the canvas for a painting, or learning grammar for a language. It enables you to do something, for example to be expressive. Most people benefit from working on it without the additional challenges of a piece. Effective practice is about what you can’t yet do: many students say they always do exercise X or Y – but working on technique is not warming up; it’s about getting better at the harp. On the courses, when a student pushes themselves to the next level, which initially sounds insecure, there’s often a group cheer, even if it sounds clumsy at first, because it means they’re making progress, working in that space between what you can already do, and what you can’t.
“I sometimes get the impression that students hope that technique will happen on its own”, Charlotte agrees, “but playing music means physical ability, and you have to practise that. In the course group, we often count the number of times something has to be repeated to make it secure. It’s always a higher number than students think it will be! That gives them a realistic perspective, and it’s reassuring to see that we’re all in the same boat.”
Group work is an important part of the Ibacus course, although of course there are private lessons too. “Once students have understood that technique is there to empower them, not bore them”, Imogen continues, “and they can see how much agency they have over their own progress, they’re very enthused. The group response is always great, suggesting ways to practise, solve a problem or master something new. Sometimes they come with the idea that technique is something they’ve been told to do. I’m much more interested in showing them the way to their own ideas and creativity, which make working on technique much more interesting.”
“I always encourage my students to understand both the how, and the why”, says Charlotte. “The group work can be very helpful here because they can see something working, or not, for somebody else. They can see and hear the difference a technical improvement makes. They are immensely supportive and encouraging of each other, and find inspiration in seeing the progress they each make in such a short time. Sometimes they come back a year later, having taken everything from the first course and applied it, and they’ve transformed their playing. It’s wonderful when that happens.”
Musical cognizance is important everywhere – but maybe it’s particularly important on the harp. It’s a difficult instrument, full of mechanical challenges. Imogen certainly thinks so. “There’s so much you have to take care of on the harp, from pedals to buzzing. Even somebody really accomplished can be so busy with it, they forget to create meaning. Students can often play a piece as if it’s about going to the supermarket, but we have to find the meaning in every interval, every dynamic. I often ask them ‘Why did you write that bar like that?’ – they have to understand the meaning as if they wrote it themselves. I encourage them to see how good they could be and see a way to get there. It’s one of my major roles as their teacher to support and challenge them to keep that vision of their potential in sight.”
If this has got you curious, look no further than the course website! All information, booking forms, harp hire options and a fair pandemic cancellation policy can be found here.