I have been teaching Celtic harp at Mitchell Conservatorium, Bathurst, since 2005. The harpist population in the Central West of NSW is sparce and widely spread from Lithgow to Dubbo and beyond. I was the only professional harpist I knew when I arrived in Bathurst. Teaching at Mitchell Conservatorium presented me the challenge of a lever harp that was not standard. It had many design flaws, so I used my own harp. Students also had little information about harp choices, and what was available in the wider world of harps. I find this is part of a wider challenge living in a regional area, with lack of resources available to assist in harp rentals and maintenance.
I also had the challenge of establishing a classical technique approach with my students. Students may come for lessons who have begun to learn on their own, and basics of hand position, placement and whole arm movements need to be modified.
Over time, I have learned to soften my own approach and respect the wider benefits for students who wish to continue learning the harp, but find to difficult to follow the classical style. My focus is now on breathing and relaxing, whole body awareness and creative music making. What I have found is that by attending to the broader aims of learning the harp, a healthy playing style develops along with the student’s self awareness.
When I first began teaching harp here I also drove to Orange Conservatorium where I had two to three students. As circumstances changed for those students, I focused on my Bathurst students, a couple of whom travelled long distances for their harp lessons. In the rural NSW, such trips are essential to obtain many services not available in villages and small towns.
Perhaps the most important ongoing challenge as a harpist and teacher is the isolation that my students (and I) feel without the opportunity to meet and share pieces and information with other harpists.
However the contact list of harp students and players in the Central West has expanded over the years. With encouragement from harp student, Helen Harrison, who volunteered to host our workshops at her home near Orange, we began our Central West Harp Circle gatherings. The mostly bi-monthly Sunday afternoon sessions were lively, ranging from scary to fun for those who came. We found our musical balance and were able to share several pieces, have afternoon tea, then finish with a pro-forma performance, usually for Ross, Helen’s husband, as our solo audience.
Circumstances continually change, with Helen and Ross moving to Nowra, and our larger harp circle has not met regularly for some time. Venues in Orange are available, thanks to harp student, Jenny Root; in Hill End, thanks to harp colleague, Kim Deacon; and Mitchell Conservatorium in Bathurst are available. We plan to renew our regional Central West Harp Circle gatherings later this year. Meanwhile my three students and I continue to learn the ensemble pieces when we meet in Bathurst. We are also fortunate to have the expertise of Linda Mehrtens and Noni Dickson who arrange harp ensemble scores for beginner to intermediate levels. We especially enjoy playing Prelude for Peacearranged by Noni, and are practicing A Christmas Canon (canon in D with The First Noel) arranged by Janet Jackson Witman.
Workshops have always been a highlight of our year, especially with special visitors such as Alice Giles, who has offered workshops and master classes when visiting Bathurst to perform with SHE.
On the Sydney Conservatorium Open Harp Day, 1st November 2013, we officially opened our harp audio-visual teaching link, with Alice Giles in Sydney and our Central West harp patron, Edmund Walker, cutting the ribbon in Bathurst. Our youngest harp student, 7 year old Siane English, received an introductory AV master class with Alice. In early 2015 an adult harp student, Elizabeth Palmer, moved from Bathurst to Dubbo. She is my first student to receive regular lessons through the AV link with Macquarie Conservatorium, Dubbo. The DET system has been extremely beneficial, apart from the occasional technical glitch. However, we meet for lessons when the opportunity arises.
I am looking forward to establishing more teacher/student AV links in the Central West. It would also be a thrill for us to invite harpists from the city to join us for a “Grand Jam of Harps” sometime in the future. At the moment I am finishing my MA in Creative Music Therapy at Western Sydney University Penrith, and semester time is precious.
I am grateful to the Mitchell Conservatorium Director, Graham Sattler, and his administrative staff at Bathurst for all the support they have given me in promoting the harp and assisting me with the logistics of managing the AV link. Finally, I am most grateful for the encouragement and creative vision of Alice Giles in opening the doorway to our AV student/teacher virtual studio and for continuing to follow our progress with interest.
I invite any harpists who are visiting Bathurst to contact the Mitchell Conservatorium if you wish to meet up with us. We have harps and music to share and would love to see you !!
If you’re in the area, contact Gwenda by email firstname.lastname@example.org or mobile 0402 050 770.