Old Dogs & New Tricks – taking up the harp at 60

Seven Harp Ensemble in Concert
May 27, 2013
Which harp string do I need?
May 29, 2013

A question I heard asked at the recent Harp Day at the Wesley Centre in Canberra, and repeated to me later, was whether you could start to learn the harp late in life. The general age for starting is in the eens or teens, of course. I started at 60, on the example of an aunt who took up the piano at the same age. I also knew of someone taking up the organ (and horse-riding, though not done simultaneously,) at 85.

In these days of people in their 90s doing half-marathons, and jumping out of aircraft even though at greater risk of forgetting the parachute, no one looks sideways at you, or, even better, burdens you with great expectations about progress.

One advantage of the harp is that the noises you make are not likely to affect a resident partner of perhaps long suffering like the sound of finger nails on glass. It might be more courageous to attempt a bowed string instrument from scratch, or bagpipes, though I wouldn’t stand in anyone’s way, or in the opposite front porch.

Harps are also very attractive pieces of furniture – which led to the production of considerably more of them in earlier times than were ever played, and to ladies of fashion posing with them for portraits. They rate as adornments of the home up there with a real wood fire, a Saluki, or a handsome husband. (You may have noticed that most harp players are women – that may be the subject of another article, but I am writing for that audience.)

OK, pros and cons of starting relatively late.

Among the cons is that we are supposedly slower learners. This starts to become apparent after several lessons, when a sense of déjà vu sets in. You seem to recall that your teacher (get a teacher, by the way) was saying exactly the same things the previous lesson, and the lesson before that. And despite your best efforts to move beyond that point, you have the sinking feeling that you are going to be hearing it again at the next lesson, although you could by now describe in your sleep what you are supposed to be doing with that hand.

Having mellowed at your age into greater concern for others, you worry about the mental health of your teacher. How can she remain so nice, and so patient? In a supreme nightmare, I found myself still early on in a master class, with Alice Giles saying the same things. However, she had the extraordinary kindness to confide in me that she still covers the same ground with the advanced players in orchestras, who get to neglect the basics.

A sort of con is that the kids sail past you, as on the ice rink or snow slopes. But they are pretty cute as they go past, so you just keep going. Like on the ice rink or snow slopes.

Also, the music and some teaching approaches are intended for the young. I recall my first teacher stopping and saying “At this point I usually tell my student to pretend she has a fairy sitting on her hand. But I’m used to her being an eight year old girl.” I assured her that I was quite capable of imagining the same thing, and happy to be an honorary eight year old girl while learning harp.

The pros are much more encouraging. Firstly, you don’t have parents making you practice. You are more likely to miss practice because you have to visit them in the home. Related to that, if you’re doing it, it is because you want to. You are not being made to, or trying to please someone.  You may be slower picking it up, but you are not hanging out to run outside and play. You can focus.

Also, you are more likely to be able to get a harp, and a nice one, than when you are young, if you have decided that this is what you really want to do. Spoil yourself. They are lovely things.

Chris Clarke

1 Comment

  1. Felicity O'Neil says:

    Dear Chris

    Thank you for your encouraging and delightful post. I really enjoyed reading it.
    I decided to take up the harp after attending the Harp Festival at the Wesley Centre last year, at the age of 56. It took me a little while to make the commitment, for even though my heart was in it, my self critical and negative thoughts were discouraging me. I had the tape playing … “you’re too old”, “you won’t be able to do it”, etc.

    I managed to ignore the negative voice and have commenced lessons through HCA and it’s been a wonderful experience … I just love it, and now tell people proudly what I have embarked on. Yes, I am no doubt slower to learn than a youngster, however, the teachers that I have had have been patient and encouraging and not at all ageist. I have no great ambitions and feel that if I only ever master a couple simple pieces, I will always enjoy sitting down to tinkle. As you noted, as a ‘mature age student’ of the harp there are many positive aspects, such as doing it because I really want to and also having the means to purchase a harp and have lessons. I also have been encouraged by my husband, who is a musician, and my younger sister who took up playing the ukelele at age 55.

    Thank you again for your post.

    Felicity O’Neil

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