Last week I taught another banner round of B&B lessons to an autoharp student, different again from all the previous students who join me here at home for five days of targeted music instruction.  The list of topics collectively covered in my living room thus far is impressive:

  • The student in need of by-ear, chord-choice help.
  • Another came for contest coaching.
  • A hammered dulcimer player who made sense of music interpretation for a one-man show in his city.
  • Someone whose autoharp studies shifted momentarily to a voice lesson.  (Did you know that I majored in voice in college?  Teaching singing is also familiar territory.)
  • A couple autoharpists tackled the chord-and-release method.
  • And how about the autoharpist who played/devoured the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” for three days and still couldn’t get enough of it?  (Obviously, this is only for the intensely focused, which I can handle just as well as the less focused.)

This latest student, Susanne, asked me to demystify the most integral subject of all: strumming the autoharp to back up her singing and make her a more consummate jammer.  We expect strumming to be simple, but wow, there is a lot to it!  A veteran autoharpist, Susanne sensed her strumming was, as she stated on the questionnaire she filled out a couple months earlier, “backwards.”  It was my job to help her strum beautifully, on a 1969-vintage Oscar Schmidt autoharp made in Union, New Jersey and recently rigged with 21 chord bars.  For this week, I left my custom autoharps in their cases and tuned up my Asian-manufactured, 15-chord OS autoharp made in the 1990s so that we would play with a closer sound match.  (Susanne played each harp one night later in the week while I fixed dinner; her New Jersey harp sounded just a little more round and resonant.)

On Monday morning, Susanne played for me, albeit nervously.  (Everyone tells me it’s always harder playing for the teacher.  I recommend thinking laboratory instead of stage, because we need to start by accepting the playing where it is right now.)  We found out that her strumming was 50% on the money (good start!), so we jumped right in to bring the other 50% up to snuff.  In short order, all fear was shed, and by lunchtime, Susanne’s sound had improved significantly.  Susanne returned to me a stunned look a couple times that first morning, amazed to know that she really could improve her autoharping and her instrument’s resonance–and it was easy!  Yes, everyone can do this!  (In fact, it is the first thing to learn, not the last.)  Sounding good is my joy, and my purpose for everyone I teach.

We went on to explore stroke direction in rhythm (where “backwards” lived), the changing movements needed between strokes (often forgotten, yet essential), hand shape (changing slightly all the time to set selected fingerpicks both in and out of the way of the strings), and working up to coordinating the singing mouth to an arm strumming in organized fashion (a first).  “Where were you 20 years ago when I was just starting to play?” she asked on Tuesday.  Um, right here in the metro Denver area of Colorado, waiting to be found.

Our lesson times together took longer than expected the first three days (I aim for three 45-minute sessions each day), but it paid off: by Thursday, Susanne freed herself to discover and learn on her own, at her own pace.  She further nailed concepts alone, stopping every now and then to ask me questions while I fixed lunch or prepared handouts for her future reference.  (After all, she would need to know how to do everything she’d learned on her own at home.)  Afternoon activities like The Local, Dastardly Tour (a recommended must for every B&B student) and a brief run to the Great Plains also gave Susanne enough of a break to see if she’d retained everything.

I have to say, though, that Friday, our last day, was the most magical.  The “music” Susanne brought with her was lyrics and chords without music notation.  I can work with this format, but only to a point: we both knew what the chords were, but we couldn’t discern their exact placement with the melody.  (It also didn’t help that some of the chords were poorly placed over the lyrics.)  While Susanne practiced freeing her strumming arm (the word “careless” became her mantra of choice), I transcribed the melody to one of her favorite songs from YouTube onto music staves and then entered arrows underneath to illustrate the “boom-chick” strum pattern she’d been working on.  When I first handed her the score, she was thrilled to see for the first time where the chord changes landed and where she would sing a word after a “chick.”  Upon strumming and singing, though, she reverted to Monday’s old strumming habits, with backwards “chicks.”  I chimed in: “All the arrows point in the same direction.”  That’s when I saw the lightbulb go on in Susanne’s head: she at last understood the guts of strumming in the new way we’d been playing together all week, with a visual reference to help her stay on track at home.  (Why didn’t I dig out music notation sooner?  Because strumming freely and easily took lots of practice!)  Back came another stunned look.  Wow: I love witnessing lightbulb moments.  Immediately, Susanne handed me another sheet of lyrics and chords to transcribe, so that she would have one song in duple meter and another in triple meter to refer to at home.  She is determined never to forget the How.

Did we ever get “off topic”?  Sure, just a little.  I introduced how to pinch, using a new method that’s slowly been unfolding here over the last five months (I had hoped we would transition to melody playing by mid-week, but strumming was clearly the main squeeze).  Even this small introduction helped Susanne when she needed to re-shape her string hand because it had flattened or curled up tightly (the ideal is somewhere in the middle, free yet secure).

All week long, both of us learned a lot: for Susanne it was mastering the calm that comes with organized stroke order and an ease of playing she’d never known that translated into resonant string tone.  For me, it was understanding more about teaching the student, while discovering how the string hand’s shape revises so that all fingerpicks glide easily across the strings rather than get stuck in them.

For those pondering the B&B experience, know that this really is all about what the student wants.  Each one clearly articulates their agenda on the questionnaire they fill out well before arrival, and I respond by meeting them at their level when they get here and then raising it higher.  As I said at the top of this page, every B&B student’s plan for improvement has been different, but one thing is for sure: they all want to improve!  Fulfilling each teaching request is not only inexhaustible, but also fascinating for both of us, as the student’s musical understanding develops while I continue to sharpen my own musicianship by discovering how to teach yet one more aspect of the autoharp or hammered dulcimer.

I love B&B teaching, and invite you to join me for five days of musical submersion with good food and fun tossed in for good measure.

To find out more about B&B lessons, click here.  Also, a group B&B experience is coming to Phoenix, Arizona, February 4-7, 2018, for a dozen autoharpists who know something is missing in their playing and want to improve on it.  (Yes, you CAN!)  Click here for more info.