Interview with Felice Pomeranz on jazz harp education
Felice Pomeranz is Professor of Harp at the famous Berklee College of Music. Under her tutelage, many harpists have developed into very versatile musicians, and the Berklee harp department is still growing. In the graduation year of several exceptionally gifted students, and the year that Felice joined the faculty of the Brazilian Jazz Harp Immersion, we are interviewing her about jazz harp education and more.
Your musical life:
What are your current activities as a jazz harpist and educator?
I am not just playing jazz, but I try to improvise as much as possible and add jazz elements to much of the music I do.
I teach quite a bit, both at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and at my private studio in the suburbs. My students range in age from nine to seventy-nine.
Having a look at 2016, there's many concerts and clinics I could highlight. I was a clinician at the American String Teachers’ National Conference in Tampa, Florida. In June, I was the harp teacher at our Berklee String Intensive in Boston. Then I went immediately to the American Harp Society National Conference, in Atlanta, Georgia to teach. In July, I taught the Jazz Harp Academy students at the Brazilian Jazz Harp Immersion. My jazz quartet performed and did a workshop at the Midwest Harp Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was the Somerset folk harp festival in New Jersey as well, and in the Fall, I will travel to California to do workshops about my brand new book, Berklee Harp.
What were you like as a child? Were you always passionate about music?
I have been interested in music ever since I can remember. We always had music in our house. My mother insisted on taking me to hear orchestra concerts, ballet, opera, musicals - just about anything with music. She sang to me every night and played Mozart recordings to make me go to sleep!
Which music did you grow up with?
We listened to all kinds of music, from Tschaikovsky to Louis Armstrong, and everything in between!
In your own early harp/music lessons, were you already jazz focused?
No, my early lessons were strictly classical. I began music lessons on piano and classical guitar at seven, and then harp at twelve.
Who were your teachers?
My main harp instructors were Marjorie Call (Salzedo’s last wife) in Los Angeles, and Bernard Zighera, the principal harpist in the Boston Symphony.
What/who are you inspirations/inspirators?
My two last harp teachers were very inspiring to me, as was Gunther Schuller, who invited me to come to New England Conservatory after my being a fellow at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. Some of my jazz inspirations are the greats in jazz, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, A.C. Jobim, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Shirley Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and of course, Dorothy Ashby. But there are many great players today, too, such as Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and others, from whom I learn a lot!
Your experience as a professor in harp music
At Berklee, a world leading contemporary music institute, you teach both classical and jazz. Has it been like this from the start, or did you incorporate jazz into the harp program later on?
Berklee is different from other traditional music schools, in that many styles are taught. We began the harp program in 2002 with one student, and the curriculum included more than classical solo and orchestral repertoire. We have always taught jazz and more contemporary styles, even from the beginning.
What drives you as a music/harp educator? What is your secret to success as an educator?
There is no secret to success as an educator. An asset to good teaching is to love helping people. One must listen to what your students need - it is not about you! It’s about the student, and the strengths they have which you cultivate and help to grow. Their weaknesses are your points of interest, too. You show them ways to improve their technique, playing, listening, or practicing - any facet that needs help.
How do you advise your students to practice jazz?
There is no mystery about learning jazz. It’s the same as practicing any style of music, except you use your ear a lot more than classical music. One must develop the vocabulary, styles, articulation, time feel, harmony, rhythms, and so much more! We practice on many levels and in different time sets, such as you would do in traditional practice. For example, if you’re accustomed to practicing your scales with the metronome on 1 and 3, try playing them with the metronome on 2 and 4! Just five to ten minutes a day can make a difference in your playing!
How do you advise classical focused students to add jazz to their practice routine?
Classical musicians are often glued to the page, so we try to get them off the page as much as possible. Transcribing simple songs or solos, learning songs by ear, and listening to the different ways jazz musicians articulate a phrase are great for classical musicians. They feel so liberated when there are no “wrong notes”.
What should harp education look like in the future?
Music education should be about being a versatile musician. Very few professional musicians play just one style and nothing more. Professional musicians need to be ready to play anything. Sure, they need to know classical repertoire, solo, chamber, and orchestral. But they also need to be able to improvise, read a lead sheet, know many kinds of chords and styles, play in a studio easily, and collaborate with nearly any other musician. If we have trained them well, they will be able to manage any musical situation given to them.
Which messsage (in this regard?) would you want to give to harp educators?
Today and tomorrow’s harpist needs to be a well rounded and versatile musician. Not just a harpist!
What advice can you give us to help educational developers like the boards of music academies understand the importance of jazz & improvisation in a harp music program?
All educators need to recognize what is needed to train students for successful careers in music. Musicians today need to be versatile and know many styles of music, not just classical. Being able to improvise, play jazz or rock or celtic or folk music in addition to traditional classical music is the path to being employable in today’s music marketplace.
Your work on educational material:
How did you get to producing Harp in the Band?
Before Harp in the Band, we produced the DVD, Jazzy Beginnings. It features my jazz quartet and has three songs to learn, exercises, practice routines, and a free downloadable workbook. Harp in the Band was designed to learn several songs in the Great American Songbook and some of my originals. There are lessons to go with each song, and concepts to learn. It is a play-along CD, with space to improvise with my band. It also has a free downloadable workbook. The concept for Harp in the Band is that if you can play all the music on this CD, you would be ready to go play a set in a club or on a casual gig. It’s fun and harpists seem to enjoy using the CD.
Considering your jazz arrangements, what have you learned about the limits when arranging for mostly classical trained harpists without the more advanced jazz and improvisational abilities of jazz musicians?
The only limit is someone’s level of understanding and their technical ability. Two of the most fun aspects of jazz are the rhythms and the chromaticism. Harpists need to work on both of these! We can ALL get better at our rhythm and pedal/lever technique! It’s just a matter of practice and listening.
You published a method for harpists wanting to learn more about playing in contemporary styles. Can you tell us more about that?
Berklee Harp is the first harp publication for Berklee Press. It is a method book for teaching improvisation, chords, lead sheet reading, jazz styles, rhythm, harmonic vocabulary, and listening. I composed most of the music in the book, and there are play-along tracks and a streaming recording, with audio examples and numerous exercises. I use a lot of the exercises in the book in my own teaching.
Are there harpists, just out of school, that have grasped your special interest?
We have been very fortunate to have three students graduating from Berklee this year who will be major players for years to come. Charles Overton, from Richmond, Virginia, Pia Salvia, from Belgium, and Mairi Chambeul, from the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, are all major talents. They can play many styles very well, including jazz, and they all improvise and compose music, too. You will certainly come to know their music in the years to come!
Do you have any advice for beginning jazz harp students?
Be patient! Trust! Know that you will be able to play this music if you listen carefully and learn little by little.
Improvisation is so much fun, and there are really no wrong notes, just better choices!
Play what you hear and sing a lot! If you can sing it, you can play it. Eventually, the music will come to you.
What should music teachers never forget to tell their students?
Believe in yourself. You are terrific, and you can learn to play better! Practice with the metronome! Play with others. Play away from the music. Sing your phrases. Take breaks in your practice. Most importantly, have FUN!