Amid the harsh noise of blaring brass and clashing violin that ricochet through the music school, the gentle strumming of Elzbieta Szmyt's harp seems to be the music of angels. As uncluttered and pure as the music she plays, Szmyt smiles and welcomes guests and students alike into her studio, a space adorned with a simple Japanese print in shades of rose and cream and posters from the numerous harp events she has performed in worldwide. \nSzmyt is an assistant professor of music and the director of the Pre-College Harp Program in IU's harp department, which is the largest in the world. She has performed internationally, including at the World Harp Congresses in Denmark and Prague. Szymt teaches students ranging in age from 6 to late 20's and travels around the world performing and teaching at master classes. One of her most frequent stops is in Warsaw, Poland, the city where she grew up and earned her master's degree. \nAlthough she went to regular school like most young students, Szmyt also attended a rigorous afternoon music school from the age of 12. By the time she finished high school at age 20, she had accomplished what most American university students learn for their bachelor of music. Prior to her acceptance at the Academy of of Music, Szmyt applied and was accepted to Warsaw University, where she received her masters of clinical psychology in 1987. She received her master's in harp that same year, but assuming she would be unable to continue playing professionally without an instrument or the necessary funds, she got a steady job as a neuropsychologist at a Warsaw hospital. She then met Distinguished Professor of Music Susann McDonald, the director of IU's harp department, who invited her to study at IU. She was granted a full scholarship, allowing her to receive her artist's diploma in 1991, an achievement that she describes as "beyond her dreams." \nShe said the overwhelming opportunity, as well as the ready access to instruments and information, still surprises her.\n"I feel like people often take for granted what they have here," she said. \nIn Poland, very few people can afford to buy harps, which range in cost from about $14,000 to "any number you can imagine." At the Academy of Music, the eight harp majors shared two instruments for all of their lessons, orchestra rehearsals, chamber music ensembles, performances, competitions and practice time -- of which they got a maximum of two hours a day to learn as much or more music than the average American harp student would be expected to learn at the same level. \n"The intensity of learning at the Academy of Music was incredible," she said. "You just don't waste time." \nManaging their time is something her students pick up on pretty quickly, because Szmyt teaches them from the very beginning "to think about what they are doing and to learn wisely." But her students say learning the harp is still a lot of fun. \n"[Szmyt] is always happy and trying to make us happy too," 14-year-old student Claire Aronis, said.\nSzmyt has the unique talent of making the students feel at ease while still maintaining a level of discipline that motivates the student to progress at his or her own pace -- a pace so advanced that many students come all the way from Louisville, Ky., to take lessons from her. \nApparently with good reason. \n"Elzbieta is truly one of the best teachers for young students of harp," Claire's mother, Cheryl Underwood said. \nSzmyt said her many classes in child psychology and the psychology of learning have come in very handy at times, when she has struggled to find the best way to explain a new subject or clarify an aspect of the music. \n"I have found it fascinating to learn how to teach the younger student," Szmyt said. "It was also very interesting for me to learn the function of (the English) language, which is my second language. You have to use so much imagination and creativity because there is no one way of explaining something to a child. You have to have at least as many ways as children you teach." \nStudents' parents agree that Szmyt's teaching philosophy is just one more reason why she is the best for young harp students in the area. Not only does she display a vitality of involvement that encourages the student to excel, she is a genuine person and a devoted teacher.\n"She's one in a million," Cheryl Underwood said. \nResources for those interested in pursuing the harp are: the Vanderbilt Music Company (812) 333-5255), The World Harp Congress Magazine and the American Harp Society Magazine.
Get stories like this in your inboxSubscribe