Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the harp? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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The Harp

As we didn't know much about the harp ourselves, this page was kindly written for us by Brian Davis. The pictures are courtesy of Dreamsinger Harps and Venus Harps.

Family: String, though quite unlike the violin etc.
Cost: from £1,000 (small, Celtic or folk harp) or £5,000 (concert, orchestral or pedal harp)
Best age to start: 8 years upwards (small harp) or 12 years upwards (large harp)
Easy to start? Yes, if you can find a teacher

Harps are among the most ancient of instruments and are found in different forms all over the world. All the Celtic nations particularly revered the harp from earliest times. The harp is basically a wooden triangular frame with strings stretched across it, ranking from short (high) to long (low). It rests on the right shoulder (at its point of balance, so it's not too heavy) and the right hand plays the treble and the left hand plays the bass. The sound is made with the tips of the thumb and first three fingers (the little finger is too short). To ensure a good and varied tone fingers need to grow strong with practice, and learning a good technique from the start is essential to avoid ineffectiveness and frustration, so the harp is not a good instrument to try and teach yourself - you really need a teacher.
It is a great advantage to have learned the piano first (say, up to Grade 3) so that reading a double-stave score - using both hands together - is already familiar, and there is some basic knowledge of how the key-language of music works. Then one is freer to concentrate on how the notes are arranged (not like the piano, neatly laid out under the eyes, but much closeer together starting behind the right ear and slanting down to the bass) and how to get the best sound from the strings. Playing the instrument is straghtforward to start with and one can make a pleasant sound from the beginning. Once basic hand positions are mastered, one can soon start to play simple tunes.
The small or folk harp comes in a variety of sizes, but the average range is about four and a half octaves - around 32 strings. It usually stands about 3'6" high and weighs around 30 lbs. (13 kilos). The strings are arranged in a rising scale with the C's coloured red and the F's coloured blue for quick recognition. By a system of levers at the top of the strings these can be tightened or loosened a semitone, so that one can get some of the "black notes" and play in a wider range of keys.
The concert harp has a much larger range, with nearly fifty strings giving six and a half octaves. It stands around six feet high and weighs between 80 and 110 lbs. (40 - 50 kilos). As with the small harp the strings are arranged in a rising scale, but here all the strings can be tightened or loosened by one or two semitones (so can each play three different notes) by means of foot pedals which rest in three different positions, flat, natural and sharp. The left foot controls all the B, C and D strings, while the right foot has the E, F, G and A strings. The pedals give you control of rods that pass up the centre of the pillar at the front of the isntrument. These are attached to a system of levers along the curved top of the harp, which work little discs with pins to pinch or release the string, once for a semitone, twice for a tone. All this means that despite having no "black note" strings like a piano, one can get all the notes on a piano - all flats, naturals and sharps - but not all at the same time. You can set the harp entirely in flats (making a C flat scale), or entirely in naturals, or entirely in sharps, or any of the dozens of permutations in between. This is what enables one to set up a particular scale or chord then make that spectacular and unique harp sound, the glissade or glissando by running a finger or thumb up and down the instrument. But you can't play a chromatic scale at any speed since you have to use some strings twice and be very nifty with the pedals! When playing a piece, one sets the harp in the key the piece starts in, then each time a note occurs outside that pattern, one has to use one of the pedals. This is usually quite straightforward, but gets complicated in more advanced music and can be impossible if the composer hasn't done his homework on the instrument!
The concert harp has a reasonable repertoire of its own, though not so large as that of the piano - both classical, romantic (where it excels) and modern. Music written for the piano can be very effective on the harp if it is not too harmonically complex or "pianistic".
The strings are mostly of gut, with metal strings in the bass, so the instrument needs tuning each time it is played. Electronic tuners are available which make the task easier. It should not take long - a matter of minutes. Gut strings perish in time, but at the start, if the harp stands in an evenly regulated atmosphere, this should not be a problem. We have known a pupil say she had not needed to change a single string for a year, though this is unusual. With much playing and the need to move the instrument frequently into places like hot concert halls or damp churches, the situation certainly changes. First octave strings cost about £4 (but you get more than one length); fourth and fifth octave ones are £8 - £15, and the metal bass strings £12 - £20 though these will often last for years. Nylon strings are available, and necessary in certain climates, but seem more difficult to tune and don't sound as good.
Harps are more robust than they look, but nevertheless need to be treated and moved with care; the tension of all the strings puts an enormous pressure on the frame. As the mechanism of a concert harp is intricate, instruments should be serviced from time to time by an expert, and in the UK this usually means a trip to London. As frames can warp and the mechanism wear, newer harps are usually best. As a rule their value decreases over time (unlike fine violins, which gain value as they get older). That said, it is true that the quality of the different makes of new harp varies greatly, and some of the beautiful old 19th Century harps by the well-known maker Erard, now renovated, have surged up in price recently. In the UK most harp makers and harp-dealers are in and around London.
Transporting a folk harp does not present much of a problem, but an estate car or van is needed for a concert harp. Padded covers protect them well enough, and many harpists have a little trolley to wheel the instrument about on. If your travel involves trains, ships, planes or pantechnicons you need a hard case - a major and heavy piece of luggage indeed.
There is a wide range of opportunity for harpists, but you do need to stir yourself to find it. A professional orchestra only needs one or two harpists, and it only needs them for a minority of pieces. On the other hand amateur orchestras always find it hard to locate harpists when they need them - and when they ARE needed, they're really needed as there's no other instrument, acoustic or electronic, that can successfully imitate the harp's unique sound. The repertoire of chamber (i.e. small group) music is not large, but harps always sound well accompanying singers and solo instruments. It's also useful for collaborations with artists from other genres like dance, puppeteering, poetry etc. There's quite a good demand for solo harpists to perform at functions like weddings and dinners, and harpists often give recitals in small halls and churches. The Celtic harp has a favoured place in the folk world, and always sounds good either on its own or in a band.
To learn more about the harp, we recommend The Harp Haven, a good portal to a variety of harp-related sites. Venus Harps and Dreamsinger are two American manufacturers of concert and folk harps respectively, both with interesting websites. A search at Music reveals over 40 harp teachers based in the UK, while American visitors should go to The Celtic Harper and follow the link to "teachers".

• An expensive instrument to buy, but it may be possible to find a harp firm that will rent you one
• Finding a teacher may be difficult - there are a number in London and other major cities, but elsewhere they are few and far between
• Easy enough to start
• Large harps are easily damaged and need to be transported with care. You need an estate car or van
• Reasonable opportunities for group music-making but you'll have to search for them


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Copyright © David Bramhall & Brian Davis 2003