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Adelaide Jang: From office to orchestra pit, a classical harpist’s journey

Hello! My name is Adelaide Jang. I’m also known as NervousHarpist. Nervous for short. I’m a professional harpist, but I’d never touched a harp three years ago.

My story so far

I was born 13 weeks premature with retinopathy of prematurity, and have lived my life so far with a prosthetic left eye, and 2/60 vision in my right eye. I studied at a specialist residential school, and vividly remember being asked if I wanted to learn an instrument. I replied “I want to learn the harp”. 

Was this the start of my journey? No. I was told they didn’t have a harp, but would I like to try violin? I went to about three lessons, learnt nothing and gave the violin back. That was it for me. It was assumed I had no musical abilities and I never touched an instrument again during education. Instead I focused on languages, graduated university, tried my hand at various jobs, including Japanese video game content translator, teaching English in Korea, marketing, learnt a little coding, went back to school to study Geospatial Intelligence Systems but then dropped out as it was too much for my eyes, and then worked in IT as tech support for a company in the US that employs mainly blind and visually impaired personnel. I never felt like I had any direction and didn’t really enjoy my life. I was good at things I applied myself to, but I always had an urge to be creative. When I couldn’t be creative, I didn’t apply myself. I wasn’t happy. 

In August of 2020 I’d been listening to covers of video game music on YouTube, specifically harpist Emily Hopkins and it reignited the idea in my head that I wanted to play a harp. I searched for local harpists and was put in contact with my first teacher Mary Bircher, a symphony harpist. I was upfront and told her I didn’t even know how to read music in print or braille, or have any experience with an instrument, and of course I told her about my severe visual impairment. She agreed to rent me a harp and so on August 27th I received a rental harp, and enjoyed noodling around on it for a week, and then took my first lesson with Mary in September 2020. I fell in love with the harp instantly. 

Adelaide Jang performing at a Christmas event in 2022

I played a lever harp for about 4 weeks but didn’t have the hand eye coordination to change levers quickly and so moved up to a pedal harp. The difference is that lever harp has levers for sharping each string’s pitch and pedal harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals that allow your to switch each note between natural, sharp and flat. 

I would practice 2 hours before work and another 2 hours when I got home. I progressed quickly and started to learn to read to music very slowly. When I lost my job during lockdown, I was faced with the decision. Do I look for another job, or do I focus on this thing that I have found that has given me passion for life, direction, and so much enjoyment? I knew then I wanted to be a professional harpist despite it seeming impossible to many. 

Initially, those around me brought up my age, my eyesight and the thousands of hours musicians practice before becoming professional. I had been tracking my hours right from the beginning of my harp journey, and honestly the thought of these barriers that might inhibit my dream, inspired me to try and break them down. 

I began live streaming my daily harp practice, as NervousHarpist on Twitch, sometimes streaming over 8 hours a day. Gradually I amassed a small following on Twitch, of generous and supportive people who were curious about the harp, and seeing the process of learning it. My teacher Mary moved in the Spring of 2021 and I started studying with Katie Wychulis, another symphony harpist and also university faculty. She immediately saw my potential and enthusiasm. 

At this time, I had been going through a particularly tough period in my life, and I found that the harp had offered me an escape. For the first time in a long time, it felt like things were on the up.

My Twitch stream has followed my progress from my first notes to ABRSM grade 5 music theory, which I passed with distinction; we have gone all the way through harp grades 1-5 and are currently studying for grade 6. I entered the US Mid West Harp Solos competition in 2022 and won 3rd place/Honorable mention performing Joseph Haydn’s Theme and Variations arranged by Carlos Salzedo. 

Back in the UK I started to play gigs at cafes and private parties, playing classical music and non-classical pieces I taught myself by ear. I even joined a concert band orchestra in Essex called TakeNote. We rehearse together weekly which is a wonderful opportunity to learn and put new skills into practice, as we prepare for our spring concert on May 20th. This year I am also going to be attending an intensive harp summer camp in the US. After grade 6, I will continue on to grade 8, and eventually university level audition repertoire. As of writing this, I have put in 3079 hours of practice, including lessons.  

All the time that I was going through this, I just held on to my dream. I want to be a harpist. I want to inspire others to throw themselves wholeheartedly into things with such force that they can break down barriers, and this is exactly what I need to do myself, in order to pave the way for others. It has not been an easy journey but I have achieved what I perceive to be wonderful things, and so I want to share those hurdles and how to overcome them with others. I envision myself being the first blind, adult learner to graduate from a major music conservatoire, succeed as a tenured orchestra harpist and soloist, and one day hold an academic position researching pedagogy with a focus on accessibility for the blind. 

I regularly stream my practice on on my Twitch channel and upload highlights to YouTube.

My tips for accessing music as someone with sight loss

Instrument technique

The first hurdle you may experience is in the actual process of learning how to play your instrument. We cannot rely on our eyes to see what people are doing, so I encourage you to be open to the idea of letting a teacher physically guide you. My own teacher often adjusts my finger positions or lets me feel her hand position on the instrument. While some of us may feel uncomfortable being physically adjusted, in the early days this is very important for developing good technique via muscle memory so don’t be afraid to ask for that kind of guidance from your teachers and mentors. Work on small sections, and take your time. If your teacher is explaining in a way that doesn’t make sense without sight, let them know, be very specific.

Music notation

The next significant hurdle I have experienced is accessing music notation. I am still working on a complete solution to this but I hope what I’ve got so far is adequate in getting you started, whatever instrument you play or hope to take up. To learn a piece of music, you can learn by ear and muscle memory, with sheet music or braille music. I recommend using a combination. In my case I use sheet music and I also learn by ear and muscle memory. 

How do I access my sheet music I hear you ask? My current solution is using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and an app called forScore. This app allows me to use the iPad’s camera to take a photo of sheet music or to import a PDF score. It catalogs all my music by name, genre, what lists I have it in e.g. daily practice list and so on. What I like about this is that I can turn the iPad horizontally and display the first half of the page twice as large as if it were in portrait orientation. 

Android tablets also have software you can use to scan in your music, and just taking photos of it in landscape mode can also work. Don’t forget to organize your photo gallery with folders if you use this method! 

As I have memorized the main hand shapes that I use, I often write on the score with the touch screen the note the hand shape starts on, and draw little images to remind myself of the hand shape. I can zoom in and out with my fingers to make the music bigger or smaller, and I use this method when I’m memorizing a piece.

When I want to sight-read and play at the same time, I use two slightly different methods. I have photographed my music one measure at a time, and have used a battery operated Bluetooth page turner with the ipad to scroll through. 

For pieces where I’m using my feet a lot on the pedal harp and it is difficult to add in another 2 pedals for page turns, I have another solution. I bought a 21 inch magnifier on a stand off the internet and modified it slightly to sit on my music stand over the landscape orientation iPad. There is enough space to fit my hand under if I need to, but I use it with the bluetooth page turner pedal. The important thing for me is that my solution is portable for playing gigs, concerts and going to rehearsals. 

If you don’t require a portable solution, you can scan your music onto your computer and display it on a very large monitor. This has also worked for me in the past but it is not a portable solution as computers and monitors need to be plugged in. An extra-large 17.3 inch tablet preinstalled with JAWS and music notation reading software is also available, called the Dancing Dots Lime Lighter Leggiero, but I have yet to try this solution as it is a rather costly $2900 US dollars. 

If you read braille music, there are services that can transcribe printed music into a format that can be printed in braille, and RNIB can advise you on such services. In this case, I recommend using the braille in conjunction with your ear and muscle memory, working measure by measure to learn pieces.  

I often listen to performances of the pieces I’m studying over and over, and sometimes get my teacher to record her playing along with the metronome.

Studying and progress

What about learning theory and sitting examinations? I have used and ABRSM books scanned and enlarged to study for my theory exam. I also requested extra reading time when I booked it. If this method is not for you, there are also tons of wonderful video courses and content available online. There are music study streams on platforms like Twitch and Kick where you can listen and interact with the streamer in chat to ask questions. 

When I stream theory, I often get asked to explain what I’m looking at or what I’m trying to do, and answering even the simplest questions with different explanations helps cement my own knowledge, because not everybody learns in the same way. Your local college may also offer music theory classes that you can attend even if you are not enrolled as a student already. 

Adelaide practicing as part of an orchestra

Performing and networking

Now you’ve got the instrument of your choice, and you’ve learnt pieces to play, what’snext? Getting out there and playing of course! If you have an instrument that you can carry easily, you may have an easier time than myself getting to venues via public transport. For those of us who have chosen large cumbersome instruments, whipping out one’s bus pass is a futile exercise. If you are in a position where there is no assistive transport service or taxis are not feasible, this is where you need to network. 

Without the support of others, I am unable to attend rehearsals and get to where I need to go. It is vital to make musical friends, and get the support of those close by, because not only can you ask people for the assistance you need, but you’re also sharing your gift with them. Join Facebook groups for local musicians, follow people on social media and go to the concerts of others. Friendship is a huge part of a musician’s journey. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner and they’re an advanced professional. 

You must never compare your own progress with others, even though I myself am guilty of comparing myself with 6-year-old prodigies and throwing myself into jealous practice frenzies. Making connections with people of all different ability levels gives us the opportunity to learn and also appreciate that they once were beginners too and we can be inspired by their hard work. It works both ways. I still take the time to listen to beginner harpists earnestly plucking their first ever tunes in our Learning the Harp Facebook group, and it really brightens my day. 

If you make a lot of nice friends, you may also be able to borrow instruments when taking your own may not be possible. When I go to harp camp, another harpist has generously agreed to lend me a pedal harp for the week, as mine won’t even fit in the cabin, let alone the overheads on a plane. Heartland Harps in the US make carbon fiber harps that are incredibly light. I hope to get one in the future as it’s perfect to take on a train or bus.

Now we’ve got to our destination, there are further hurdles! Learning the layout of the building before your performance is recommended but not always possible. Arrive early. Don’t be afraid to tell people about your visual impairment. You need to know where you’re sitting or playing, where the exits and toilets are etc. where the edge of the stage is, because you don’t want to be the one that falls off it. Make sure the lighting is suitable if you need more light to play. You can buy rechargeable music stand lights. There’s even a wristwatch with a haptic feedback silent metronome feature. There’s so much technology out there, we just need to find it and share it with others. 

Closing thoughts

I have a lot more handy tips to share regarding practice, study and performance, and I hope that by engaging with Sound Without Sight, you are able to read more of them in future. If you’ve enjoyed reading about my journey so far, please continue to follow me via my streams and videos. 

I’m streaming harp practice from 8am until 3pm weekdays on Twitch and Kick. You can also watch our weekly highlight videos on YouTube and shorts on TikTok. 

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