Dadology 101

Don’t feel bad for a moment if your function is mostly transportation and encouragement.


Behind nearly every young harpist stands a bewildered parent. Most students go to lessons, rehearsals, and recitals trailing dedicated relatives with varying degrees of understanding of just what it is they are supposed to be doing.

In more than a dozen years as a “harp dad,” I have watched many parents and students work together. In any major family activity, parents tend to divide up duties and play different parts. Mom may carry more of the load in one area, and dad more in another. But I can’t help but notice how many dads struggle with the whole harp experience.

Say what you will, the harp world is a rather feminine place. Many excellent male performers and teachers notwithstanding, look at your studio recitals, or an American Harp Society convention, and it’s hard to make a reasonable case for testosterone domination. That leaves a lot of dads helping a lot of daughters, sometimes without being too sure of just how to be helpful.

I’ve met many great harp dads–the ones I think of as Harp Dads. They know what their harpists are working on, and how hard they work at it. Harp Dads are commonly found, after recitals and workshops, talking to the instructors and to the Harp Moms. When their  harpists head off to college or musical careers, they bask in the role of Harp Dad Emeritus.

But I’ve also met a lot of dads who aren’t quite sure what is going on. After the concert, these harp dads gather in a corner to quickly say what a nice concert it was, and then get on to fishing, football, cars, or other more comfortable topics.

YOU CAN DO IT!

First, let me assure every harp dad that you play a valuable role already. Second, I am not suggesting that every harp dad needs to be a Harp Dad.

It doesn’t quite take a whole village to raise a harpist, even if it seems like it at times. But it takes a team–student, teacher, parents, as well as conductors and other musicians.

Consider the role you are playing now, and whether that is the role you want to play, the one your harpist needs. The better you understand your role, the more intelligently you can make choices about how to contribute to your harpist’s growth, and the more effectively you can support your spouse in her own role.

A good starting point is to evaluate how you currently work with your harpist, through our highly scientific Harp Dad assessment test (see top right column).

MAKING YOUR MOVE

Once you know where you stand, talk to your spouse, student, and teacher about how you can be more helpful. Don’t feel bad for a moment if your function is mostly transportation and encouragement. Your harpist needs a lot of help, and we all have our roles.

On the other hand, don’t let preconceptions prevent you from seeking a more active role. Sometimes I hear, “I’m not the musical one here.” Musical ability is great, but it plays a much smaller part in supporting your harpist than do your dedication and enthusiasm.

Here in Minnesota we’ve produced a lot of fine hockey players. Behind most of those great players, you’ll find Hockey Moms– dedicated, supportive parents that make all the difference–whether or not they play hockey themselves (more and more do). There’s no reason you can’t be important in your harpist’s musical development without being musical yourself.

Tuning? If you can read an electronic meter, you can help tune. Replacing strings? Can you tie a knot?

And if you’re still not sure whether getting more deeply involved in harp activities makes sense for you, don’t forget that there could be hidden benefits.

BEING A HARP DAD COULD BE GOOD FOR YOUR CAREER!

Learning to play the harp develops more than just musical skills. The personal growth achieved through music is just as important.
Harp dads, too, encounter extra opportunities to develop valuable life skills:

Listening skills. Most people are poor listeners because they are too busy being good talkers.To strengthen a relationship, business or personal, focus on asking questions that get the other person talking.

Harp recitals provide an excellent practice ground for this technique. The secret, harp dads, is to make a preemptive strike when your harpist returns from the stage. Before she can say anything, ask, “How did you feel about your performance?”

Never let her beat you to the punch with the leading, and deadly, question, “How did I do?” Whether she did well or poorly, you’re going to give the wrong answer. Ask first, and let her do the talking.

The fixed smile. Experienced musicians know a good poker face is essential. If a player doesn’t visibly react to her mistakes, the audience may not even notice them.

Parents, too, learn to develop that fixed, slightly positive expression. Behind it, you can be thinking anything. The outside world sees your serene smile and believes that you really do like that new dress (Does it have to be covered with musical notes?), that you thought everyone played great (How many times did that one kid start over?), or that you’re excited to hear “Aunt Rhody” played three or four times in one evening.

Once you can get this poker face past your young harpist and the rest of the studio, you’re ready for long meetings, dinner parties, etc.

Delegation can make you more efficient and productive. But few know how to delegate the important stuff, preferring to give away what they don’t want to do anyway (rather like giving up broccoli for Lent). As a harp dad, you can develop your skill at handing off tasks to others, even the ones that you do well and that are important to you.

One of the hardest dad duties to learn to “check at the door” is providing enough embarrassment to keep your daughter’s eyes rolling. Dads know that embarrassing their daughters is explicitly written into the job description.

But when your daughter becomes a harpist, it’s time to cut back a little. Fortunately, you can delegate most of this important work to other adults, who are more than ready and willing to leap in and drive your harpist crazy.

Roll the harp into your church or school, and listen to what the grown ups say. You might hear, “Is that a harp?” The really sharp ones suggest, “That looks like a big oven mitt.” And you’ll definitely get this one: “Don’t you wish she played the piccolo, ha ha ha?” All of these statements are guaranteed to give your daughter’s orbital musculature a decent workout, without the least effort from you.

Sit back and take it easy while friends and relatives bury your child under harp tote bags, harp stationery, harp pencils and key rings, harp pins and earrings and socks. Savor the moment when one of these “embarrassment helpers” pokes your young harpist in the ribs at a concert and says, “Look! They have a harp!” Adopt that  fixed, innocent expression the fiftieth or hundredth time they call out, “Listen, I hear a harp!” at a play, movie, or watching TV. (It is permissible to snicker a bit when your harpist informs them that they’re actually listening to a banjo.)

A WORD OF WARNING

If I’ve convinced you to dive into the harp experience, let me also warn you that you can overdo this Harp Dad thing. The most common cause of the syndrome known as Harp Dad Insanitus is an attitude of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” If you don’t believe me, harp dad, see how big a help you are when it’s time for your daughter to buy that dress for the big concert. The best outcome to be derived from following mother and daughter through clothing stores is severe exhaustion, with a pounding headache, and an exquisite sense of your own uselessness.

And Suzuki instruction harbors special pitfalls. If, in your initial enthusiasm and wholehearted support for your harpist, you promise to listen to the Suzuki tapes along with her every day, consider that you may have just signed up for a do-it yourself lobotomy. An excess of “Twinkles” can be extremely hazardous to the adult mind, and there are plenty of ways to support your student that are less likely to drive you to one day rip the cassette out of the player and stomp on it.

PLAY YOUR ROLE

It doesn’t automatically make you a good harp dad if you can do absolutely everything related to the harp, and a poor one if you can’t. When you play a valuable role in the team, and help others to play their roles well, you’re doing a great job.

Just remember that kids grow up quickly, and your time for harp loading and hauling will be over before you know it. Your newfound ability to drop “Salzedo” into any conversation, on the other hand, will last a lifetime.


Article by Will Kenny. Will got into the Harp Dad business 14 years ago, when his daughter Derin took her first Suzuki lesson. For the next dozen years, he sat in on just about every lesson and rehearsal she had. He’s also pretty good at sitting through other classes and rehearsals. In his spare time, he makes a living as a freelance business writer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where he “explains things” for corporate clients by creating print, media, and online content to educate employees and customers about products, services, and best practices.