At Let's Play Music, we recognize that your child is developmentally ready and excited for some fabulous musicianship training even though her young fingers don't have the dexterity she needs to practice those skills at the keyboard just yet. The autoharp gives us a beautiful way to grant her that learning experience while letting the fingers have just a little more time to mature and grow.
All first-year students enjoy playing the autoharp in class and a few lucky ones can also practice at home. For the rest of us, here are some tips for the WHY and HOW of practicing autoharp skills at home without a harp!
Why Practice Autoharp?
Playing the autoharp in class gives students the chance to learn a multitude of skills simultaneously.
A student coordinates both hands while playing the harp.
They read and interpret the chord map, push the correct button with one hand, and strum with the other hand. They establish a steady beat then try to incorporate chord changes without losing it.
They sing the melody, practicing their ability to harmonize with the accompaniment they create, and match pitch to the instrument.
Each child's ability to hear chords and cadences and identify them will improve.
When it comes time to play piano, these students will be prepared to have their eyes reading and hands working. They'll keep that beat and know how to time motions to play on the beat. They'll be listening to themselves and self-correcting. As they compose their own songs and accompaniments in year 2 and 3, their ear-training for chords will lead to success.
In light of all the learning going on, would you be delighted to practice all of those skills and have it be almost as effective as using a real harp?
Use Your Book
Your child will make great strides in these skills simply by pointing to the chord changes in her book as she hears them on the CD, or by pressing the chord triangles as if they are buttons and strumming the floor, table or bumpy spine of the book. Don't make the mistake of under-valuing this simple, elegant tool that's already at your fingertips!
Option: Download an App
If you have an iPad or an iPhone at home, consider autoharp apps that you can download to practice playing your Let's Play Music songs. "Musical Autoharp" by Thumb Wizards is $0.99. Another fun option is to play autoharp ONLINE HERE. The letters on your computer keyboard correspond to the buttons, so you can strum by pressing keys or using the mouse to push buttons. For example, letters E R T corresponds to the F C and G chords. You could put Blue, Red, and Yellow stickers on E R T and your child is set to play. Follow the chord maps in the back of your child's Red and Blue semester practice books- you're all set!
Where to Put Stickers If you use the app, it does not have the colors of the chords, so you may be left wondering what chords to play. If you look carefully, each button on the autoharp has a letter, as well as the word major or minor after it. There are two keys that our Let's Play Music harp songs are performed in: C or F. We perform songs in whichever key ensures the melody falls within a comfortable range for children to sing.
Red, Blue, and Yellow chords will be identified as I, IV, and V chords in the Orange semester. In the key of C, the scale degrees are: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7. Yes, you will be quizzed on this in Orange semester! You can put Red, Yellow, and Blue stickers on your real harp, or your computer keyboard, but for the iPad app I found it easiest to have sticky notes on the edge pointing at the button (you can't put stickers right on the button.)
The key of C Major
Red chord (the I chord) = C Major Put a RED sticker on C.
Blue chord (the V chord) = F Major Put a BLUE sticker on F. Yellow chord (the IV chord) = G Major Put a YELLOW sticker on G.
pg 55 Primary Chords Song, pg 57 Chords in Pieces, blog post 5 Fat Turkeys, and Blue Semester: pg 51 On top of Spaghetti pg 54 Bill Grogan's Goat
Here is a photo of my ipad, ready to be played in the KEY OF C by my 4-year-old. I used post-it-notes to indicate the chord colors, and attached them around the edges of the screen.
The key of F Major
Red chord (the I chord) =F Major Put a RED sticker on F.
Blue chord (the V chord) =Bb Major Put a BLUE sticker on Bb (B flat) Yellow chord (the IV chord) =C Major Put a YELLOW sticker on C.
pg 56 Barnyard Boogie pg 58 Ain't it Great to Be Crazy?
and from the Blue Semester: pg 53 El Gallo
Here are the post-it-notes set up for the Key of F.
Make Your Own Autoharp: Easy
It's quick and easy to go low-tech! One option is to print out a photo of the auto-harp push-buttons. Now your child will have something to touch while reading the map and singing along. Done!
Make an Awesome Autoharp I can already see the gears turning in the minds of artsy-crafty parents. Why not make a full-on homemade autoharp!?
1. Start with a full photo of an autoharp. Print it out in color (either 8x11 or 11x17). I email files to my neighborhood office store and they print things for a small fee.
2. Mount it on some foam-core or cardboard or plywood to keep it sturdy.
3. Optional: Do you want to Mod-Podge over the image to protect it forever?
4. If desired, add texture to the "strings" of the harp. We used Elmer's glue and ran a bead of glue along each string image. When it dried it left a ridge on each string that my daughter can feel as she glides her fingers across. You could lay down a length of fishing line or fine string into the glue as well, to get the texture.
5. Add real stickers to the appropriate chord buttons. (read on for help finding the chords)
Teacher Emy LeFevre cut plastic sheets into harp shape (this would also work with wood) and machined grooves to give texture for strings and buttons. Wow!
Buy An Autoharp
If all that crafty talk made your head spin, you might be interested in simply buying an autoharp. The great news is that your family will be a huge hit around the campfire, on long road trips, at the family-reunion talent show, and during TV-free week.
LOOK FOR an autoharp with at least 21 chords. 15 chords can get you through your Let's Play Music experience, but you'll wish you had more when you start to play with your own fake book of favorite songs. If you see diatonic vs. chromatic harps, choose the chromatic; it has strings representing every note, like both the black and white keys on the piano.
Used harps can be excellent, and a good buy as low as $100, especially if they come with a recommended case for keeping the harp safe. Ebay is the most common place to find a used harp and Oscar Schmidt is the most common maker of harps at our level, costing $250-$600 or more new.
You'll also need to pick up a digital tuner and a tool for tuning your strings if it was not included.
AVOID a harp that can't hold a tuning or that has pins that seem very loose, which might be expensive to replace.
If a string is missing or broken, however, you can probably replace it inexpensively. If the harp is not holding tune for more than a few weeks, you may need to replace all strings (we recommend you do one at a time or take it to a shop to have it done.) If you buy a used harp and find that it needs the felt replaced, that is another job you can reasonably do at home with an ordered kit.