“On Being a Teacher in a Secondary School Environment”
by Francis Thiele
I began teaching the harp around twenty years ago and still keep in touch with my very first harp student Laura. Even though I am also a professional historian, I enjoyed teaching my harp students so much that six years ago I returned to university to complete a Diploma of Secondary Education. These days I am employed as an instrumental and classroom music teacher for senior students at Braemar College in Woodend, a local Independent Secondary College in a regional area. I passionately believe that teaching is a vocation and that it does not necessarily follow that because you play your instrument to a high level you will be a good teacher. Playing and teaching someone how to play are two completely different things requiring very different skills.
I feel very fortunate to have been trained by some wonderful harp teachers and it is their legacy that I hope to pass on to my students, albeit in my own idiosyncratic way. I currently teach private students at home in my studio, many of whom are adults, and younger students in the school where I work. At the moment my students range from beginner to intermediate players. I have taught harp in a secondary school environment for thirteen years now. When I started working at Braemar College, the Music Department was able to purchase nine small (30 string) nylon strung harps. These harps have worked out well as beginner instruments. We made boxes for the harps to sit on so students are at the right height to play and I have organised for them to be progressively levered over the years as the budget allowed. In their first year students are given a harp without any levers then, as they progress as instrumentalists, they move towards having a harp with more levers. Students are able to hire the harps and take them home to practise at a subsidised rate. I have taught students in small groups of 4 or 5 as part of a year 5 and 6 classroom instrumental program, in instrumental lessons with 2 or 3 students at a time and in an individual lesson format. I have always run a weekly harp ensemble for my students, which in the last two years has become an early music ensemble including other instruments such as flute, violin, viola, cello and guitar. I cannot emphasis enough the importance of ensemble work for the musical development of students, the benefits are amazing, and as a consequence I also run a monthly ensemble for my private students at home. While I prefer individual lessons with students, we also offer an introductory group lesson option that gives students the opportunity to try an instrument at a cheaper cost to parents. These group lessons are only available to students for a semester. After this time students move onto individual lessons or try another instrument. The emphasis of the Music Department is on diversity and accessibility, as well as excellence.
One thing I have noticed is that while I don’t have a high number of students compared to the singing or piano teachers, my students tend to continue learning the harp for a long time. One of my students who started learning harp with me in year 5, for example, is now in year 12. It is an incredible experience to take a student through their schooling as a musician in this way and see them grow and develop as individuals. I am not aware of any particular disadvantages to teaching harp at a regional school. Instead I feel a strong sense of community where I live and a collegiality with other music teachers in the area.
I am acutely aware, however, that if I wasn’t teaching very few of my students would have the opportunity to learn the harp. I see my instrumental teaching as my own small contribution to the development of the harp in this country. The harps are a highlight of the Music Program at Braemar College and I feel much appreciated. I make an effort to take my students out to perform in the community regularly as an ensemble.
Last year, for example, I organised a small concert tour of the local primary schools where we played and gave a presentation about the harp. We also went to the local Community Health and Aged Care Group to perform. Community performances are an important part of our Music Program generally and do a great deal to promote our school and foster a love of music among young people generally. They also give students invaluable performance experience from a young age. I try to organise attendance at master classes for my students wherever possible, usually once a year. I have been particularly fortunate to have Alice Giles and Maria Cleary work with my students on different occasions and both of these superb teacher/performers have been very willing to spend time with my students regardless of their level of ability. From a professional learning point of view, these are also valuable experiences for me because they give me feedback about how my instrumental teaching is going. One of the truly special aspects of the harp community in Australia is that we have regular contact with performers of an international standard like Alice Giles to work with our students. This accessibility is one our absolute strengths that we, as teachers, need to take advantage of on behalf of our students at every opportunity. Of course, teaching in a school environment involves a broadening of your skills way beyond the normal teaching of harp to individual students using the standard harp repertoire. Instrumental music teachers in schools need to maintain their professional learning and often require formal teaching qualifications. They need to work with classroom music teachers and be aware of the requirements of the school curriculum as it impacts on their instrumental lessons. They need to work with their own and sometimes other instrumentalists in varied ensemble situations from small string groups to a large school orchestras or bands. They need to be able to conduct and enthusiastically encourage students to play to the best of their ability in often very short periods of time leading up to performances. They need to be able to arrange music for their students and maybe even for other instruments, and be very flexible. (I now arrange music constantly for my students to enable them to participate in a diverse range of school music activities). They need to be aware of and uphold school systems and policies, particularly in relation to student welfare. They often need to work outside standard school hours assisting at concerts and other school events. In my opinion, it is also very important that instrumental teachers keep up their own performing and development as musicians so they can fully empathise with the experiences of their students.
I am aware that I was given a very special opportunity with my own teacher, Xanya Mamunya, who after many years as her harp student gave me the gift of actually teaching me how to pass on our craft. She saw in me an ability that I didn’t even know I had at that stage and taught me reverence and respect for the profession of teaching. I hope that one day I can pass my own knowledge on to another aspiring music teacher in the same way.