New students generally come in two forms- those with previous harping experience, and those without. You might have your teaching game down pat for new students, but what do you do when you take on someone who already has some playing knowledge in place, especially if that approach to playing is different from yours.
The number one thing to ask a transfer student is who they have been learning from, and if they have still recently been having lessons with that person. The harp world in most places is small, so unless the student has moved across state, country or world, chances are you know who it is they have been learning from. This in itself will give you important background information about the student’s prior harp experience, and what approach they have been used to. You may feel at this point that you wouldn’t be a good fit for the student as your approach is completely different. If this is the case, it’s always worth discussing this, as they might actually be looking for something totally different from what they have been used to. A change is as good as a holiday!
The other crucial thing about discovering the student’s previous teacher is that the teacher might not yet regard themselves as previous. It is vitally important for all concerned that the student finishes on good terms with their old teacher, and that the teacher is understanding about their move to you for lessons. Collegial relations are not going to be helped if there is an underlying resentment about student poaching, and your own professional reputation may well suffer as a result. If appropriate, you may even want to put in a call to the other teacher to double check all is well, and to get a handle on any back story or teaching tips pertaining to the student. Sometimes forewarned is forearmed!
I always ask the student to come to the first lesson with EVERYTHING they have ever worked on. Any books they may have lying around could prove valuable. Maybe there are a few key pieces that they own, but haven’t yet worked on. Anything that casts light on their musical background is helpful at this point. Have they encountered important composers and pieces along the way, or are there gaps in their experience and knowledge that you can help fill.
Likewise, you can ask to see any notebooks that they may have. Some teachers keep incredibly detailed lesson notes (I confess I’m not one of them!) and you can gain some significant insight into a student’s past history, learning speed (oh look, they spent 6 months working on the same piece!), and variety of repertoire covered. Have they spent time on theory and aural? Has there been a balance between repertoire and technique? The lesson notebook can be a wealth of information pertaining to these all important bits of background knowledge.
It’s also a good idea to ask them to prepare a favourite work as well as something they last worked on. You can tell a lot about a student but what they choose if asked for a favourite, even if you are met with a bemused “I don’t know- I just played what my teacher said I should.”
I always make sure I ask a new student what they would like to do with the harp. It’s amazing how often this question is not asked. But if you want an engaged, motivated and ongoing student you need to know why they are playing.
Knowing what the student would like to achieve forms the bedrock of both long and short term lesson planning. (you can read some more about lessons plans here) It can help give direction in the first few weeks of lessons when you are both finding your feet in this new relationship. And it can establish an open feel to your lessons, where students feel they can say honestly what they would like to do, and not be shut down or dissuaded. OK, sometimes a bit of negotiation may be required (along the lines of eat your vegetables or you don’t get desert (click here for tips on how to get your students eating vegetables!) and there is no time like the present to set that up as a way of doing business.
Ultimately, your aim in the initial interview and lesson should be to get to know your new student as both a student and a person, and come to understand what their past musical journey has been and how you can help them on the next step. Look for gaps that you might be able to fill, and don’t forget to bring your own unique flavour to the lesson.