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My Harps

Maybe you know how it goes...

My two harps You hear something (say Enya's "The Celts") which entrances you for a while. Then you come across elements in stories you're reading that seem familiar; ideas that get used again and again in different ways by different authors. The roots of these seem to lie in Celtic tradition, and some of them concern music. This sets you looking for traditional Celtic music and stories, and along the way you discover that harps seem to play a fairly important part. Well, you find some recordings of older harp music played by people like Derek Bell, Alison Kinnaird, Ann Heymann and Robin Huw Bowen, and the sounds they produce grow on you. You also discover that they're not playing the kind of harp you usually see in an orchestra.

By this point a few screws in what you like to think is a well oiled and perfectly functional mind have begun to work loose. An orchestral pedal-harp is a seriously expensive instrument, but some of the smaller harps look almost affordable, and you begin to wonder whether it might be fun to acquire one and try to learn to play it. Some more research indicates that you're still talking about a fairly serious sum, but then you stumble across the kit-form variety, and you're in trouble. You find yourself reasoning that if you make a harp yourself perhaps your motivation towards learning to play it might also be a bit stronger, and at least you'll have the satisfaction of making it. (Hear those screws rattling yet?) You buy a kit, and the fun begins.

Ok. So there were a few other influences at work as well:

It sounds better if you pluck the strings one
at a time In an attempt to satisfy that request I went hunting, and having exhausted the knowledge of those of my friends who have an interest in music education, I turned to the Net. I found quite a lot of harps, and eventually discovered almost by accident that when my sister said "harp" she actually meant "lyre"... My nephew now has a seven-string pentatonic lyre which I ordered from "Harps of Lorien" in New Mexico. With it came a small catalogue of enticements, but shipping things as big as harps across the Atlantic is expensive, so I went looking a little nearer home.

A Border Harps 30-string Clarsach

So I made myself a harp...

In the Early Music Shop catalogue I discovered that sometimes musical instruments come in kit form, and that can reduce the price significantly. A little more hunting revealed a list of harp makers, and I asked some of them about kits. I decided to try to make one. It took me almost a month of evenings to make my first harp, a 30-string (G-a''') Clarsach with semi-tone levers and nylon strings, from a kit supplied by "Border Harps" of Hereford, England.

Now I'm trying to learn to play it...

This is proving to be a bit of a struggle. I appealed to the Net (well, to rec.music.celtic and uk.music.folk) for advice, and I received a good selection of replies containing some interesting suggestions:

  1. Find a teacher - There is a classical (pedal) harp teacher who lives locally, and I'm assured she also teaches folk harp. I just havn't contcted her yet...
  2. Attend a residential course - Harp holidays run by Ardival Harps were suggested. They look interesting though Inverness is quite a long way to go for four days. (Well, driving there would make it seem like a long way, anyway.) There's a web page about the holidays at Ardival Harps.
  3. Use a harp-tutor book - A couple were suggested:
  4. Check out the Web. I found Locksley's EZ Harp Method, but it's for traditional Irish harp, played on the left shoulder, and seems to be concerned at least in part with performing in an authentic Irish style. An interesting site, but probably not right for a total beginner with a nylon-strung neo-clarsach. (:-)) For someone wanting to learn to play a wire-strung harp however...
I have tried to locate someone who teaches small harp somewhere nearby, but so far I've not succeeded.

I already had "The Small Harp Tutor", but was having trouble with the mechanics of plucking strings because it's almost impossible to describe the actions required in a way that a novice can understand.

I ordered "Teach Yourself To Play The Folk Harp" from the Sylvia Woods Harp Center and I've been able to make a bit of progress. Because the video does show the actions as well as describing them it's easier to make progress. I'm a little more confident that I'm heading in the right direction now.

Somehow one is never enough...

A 22-string Stoney End Eve Imp and Mt. Kenya

If there's one problem with my first harp, it's that it is not particularly portable. Ok, so a large pedal harp would be even more difficult to carry about, but even a 30-string instrument can get a little cumbersome. I went loooking for a smaller companion, and met a variety of candidates in the Hobgoblin Music shop in Crawley (which is not too far from my employer's office.) The cost aspect reared its head again though, and despite my earlier experiences I decided it would be fun to make a second harp from a kit. This time the kit was for a Stoney End Eve lap harp.

The main problem with having two harps is deciding which one to play. The string spacings are slightly different, and the tones quite noticably so. On balance, having two harps hasn't exactly increased the rate at which my playing improves... Imp with a friend

Imp with a friend One thing that has really helped has been finding friends who also play harps, and getting together once in a while to play for each other. Annie and Mike have been especially encouraging.

Another thing I've noticed is that harps make friends by themselves, as well as finding friends for their owners. Imp is quite well travelled, and wherever I take him, people will ask to try playing him. The same might be the case with my first harp, but he's not as portable as Imp, so hasn't had quite the same opportunities...

And then there were three...

19-strin brass-strung harp After I made my first harp, I visited the Early Music Exhibition in London. On that occasion, Bill Taylor gave a "maker's demonstration" of some of the harps made by Ardival. A couple of them were wire-strung clarsachs. At the time I figured that the technique required to play them effectively was more than I was capable of, but the idea that I might one day a wire-strung took hold. A couple of years later I visited the Early Music Exhibition again. On that occasion Ardival did not have a stand, but I met George Stevens, took away one of his leaflets, and about nine months later ordered a small 19-string wire-strung "Jerpont" harp from him. I collected it on 21st September 2001.


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