The Big Bang Theory is a hit TV sitcom that first aired in 2007. The main characters are two nerdy physicists (Sheldon and Leonard), their scientific friends (Howard and Raj), and their beautiful neighbor (Penny). In 2010, Mayim Bialik joined the cast as neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler. As Sheldon says, "she is a girl, and she is my friend, but she is NOT my 'girlfriend'."
We love Amy Farrah Fowler because she plays the harp! And we love actress Mayim Bialik, because she actually wanted to learn to play the harp properly, instead of just "faking it" for the camera. She has done a great job, with very little time to prepare.
The Sylvia Woods Harp Center is proud to have played a small part in making this possible by renting harps to both Mayim and the show. Aedan MacDonnell, a long-time employee of the Harp Center and the person in charge of our harp rentals, has done a great job of facilitating all of this, and teaching Mayim what she needed to know. Aedan and Mayim have made a great team. I asked Aedan to write down her experiences on this fun journey.
Who'd a Thunk Renting a Harp Would Lead to This
by Aedan MacDonnell
In April 2011 Warner Bros. rented a harp for set dressing for their sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." I delivered the harp to the studio, met Chris, the set designer, picked up the harp a week later and went on my merry way. In August they rented the harp again. This time Chris mentioned that the actress would actually be playing the harp in this episode, so I casually said that I teach harp. He said he'd pass on the word. (I figure a little self promotion couldn't hurt anything.) Now I don't have cable and I don't watch much TV, so I had no idea that "The Big Bang Theory" is a very popular show.
A day after dropping off the rental harp I received a call from Traci, the producer's assistant, setting up an hour lesson for the following day with the actress who would be playing the harp. I was told I would be parking in space "J" right next to the building where they tape the show. Driving onto the Warner Bros. lot is a fun experience. Building 25, where "The Big Bang Theory" is taped, is at the back of the lot, so I had to drive past several buildings and trailers (which accommodate the stars) while navigating around battery powered golf carts, bicycles, pedestrians and trams filled with tourists.
I parked in space J and hauled my trusty Dusty 32 harp into the building where I met Mayim Bialik for our first harp lesson, which was held on the set in her character, Amy's, "living room." I was impressed with Mayim's down-to-earth friendliness, and she made my job as teacher very easy; understanding everything the first time.
I spent the first 15 to 20 minutes teaching her hand position and placing. (It took her all of 10 seconds to grasp which strings were what notes.) We were making quick progress when the music she was to play in the upcoming episode was brought in; "The Girl From Ipanema!" And, Mayim was to play it during the taping in front of a live studio audience in less than two weeks. No dubbing. Oy! We definitely had a challenge ahead of us.
Mayim played bass guitar, and like many beginning harpers that already have a musical background, she quickly picked out the tune. And like pretty much every beginner, she plucked strings using the "claw" technique. The left hand was particularly problematic because as a bass player she really wanted to drop her thumb. But she was determined to get it right. The studio rented another harp for her to take home to practice on, and by the time of our next lesson a couple days later she had greatly improved. But she still had the challenge of playing "Girl From Ipanema." Fortunately, about 15 minutes into our second lesson the script arrived and we found out they wanted her to sing the song while playing. That made our task somewhat easier because now we just had to come up with a simple accompaniment, rather than trying to create a very simple arrangement of a not-so-simple song. Actually, I should say it made my task much easier; Mayim had the challenge of playing a foreign instrument and singing. We spent the next 20 minutes or so working on an arrangement she felt comfortable with, but that also relayed the feel of the song.
We had one more lesson before the taping on Tuesday evening. Mayim was still having trouble keeping her left thumb up, which was causing other problems. I finally told her to approach the harp with her hands in a relaxed fist with her thumbs pointed to the sky. That helped immensely. She was doing great for only three lessons. And not only three lessons, but lessons where we really had to focus more on the song and less on technique, although I did my best. Mayim really wanted to not look and sound like a beginning harper. I truly admired her commitment and determination.
During our last lesson before the taping I was asked if I could come in for the taping the following evening in case Mayim needed my assistance. Since this is such a popular show, the audience seats were filled, and as I walked into the building from the back door, I heard an emcee entertaining the crowd. I found Traci and was instructed to just hang out and help myself to the craft (buffet) table provided for the cast and crew. For about an hour I stood around watching the taping and enjoying a quick bite. About 20 minutes before they taped Mayim's segment I was asked to tune the harp, which was already on set. Mayim came out, played the harp and finished the rest of her segment. I was very proud of her; they taped her segment twice, and both times she nailed the harp piece. When she finished she came over, gave me a big hug, I congratulated her on a job well done, and went again, on my merry way home.
A couple months later I received another call from Chris needing to rent the harp again, followed by a call from Traci setting up more lessons for Mayim. This time she was to play and sing "Everybody Hurts" by R.E.M. I found a rendition of it on YouTube and came up with a simple arpeggio that very closely duplicated R.E.M.'s arrangement. At our first lesson I could feel her hesitation when I showed her the arrangement. But she didn't say a word and, by slowly showing her how to play it, and with lots of encouragement, she played her first two-handed arpeggio. I don't know who was more thrilled, Mayim or myself! She told me later she really didn't think she'd be able to do it, but trusted me enough to at least give it a try. One thing I've found in teaching is that my students do succeed when I truly believe they can do it, give them lots of encouragement along with simple detailed directions, and by having lots of patience. (Of course, you don't give them something that's beyond their ability, just something that gives them a nudge to the next level.)
It was a genuine delight to work with Mayim, and she really enjoyed playing the harp. So if you watch "The Big Bang Theory" and see her playing the harp, you can say definitively that it is actually Mayim playing, and doing a remarkable job of playing and singing with only a handful of lessons.
I guess the moral of this story is, have faith and patience with your students, and don't forget to promote yourself when the opportunity arises, no matter how remote the possibility may be. You never know where it may take you. Will I go back to Warner Bros in the future? You'll have to ask the writers.