Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Harping On!

Harping On!

I guess because I play the harp, it always seems strange when people come up to us at gigs and say that this is the first time they have seen a harp in real life. 

I’m always happy to talk about the harp and often will let them sit down and try it.  There are usually a number of questions they ask and I’m also happy to answer them.  However, I thought it might be good to have a short description of the harps I have, with some answers to the usual questions.  I promise there will be no technical stuff!  Well, not much.

I think I will start with my smallest harp – a Triplett Avalon Lap Harp with 25 nylon strings.   My lap harp has a full set of sharping levers, which are small mechanisms mounted near the top of each string, and are designed to shorten the string length the exact amount necessary to raise the pitch a half step when the handle is lifted. Sharping levers enable easy key changes and playing of accidentals.  Not all harps are fitted with a full set, some only have sharping levers on the 'C' and 'F' strings, but I also use them on the 'A', 'E' and 'B' strings to allow me to quickly tune to flats.  I promised no technical stuff, so I will stop there and just say they are very useful.
The strings on my lap harp are nylon and all the red strings indicate the ‘C’ note and all the blue strings indicate the ‘F' note.  This helps me to know where I am, as there a number of octaves to deal with.  Here is a photo of four of my harps, The lap harp is in the front.

After a number of different celtic lever harps I finally have a beautiful Triplett Signature 36 string harp (Fiona).  Now the larger celtic harps have a mixture of strings.  The low strings can be metal wound on metal, as they go higher they can go through nylon wound on metal, nylon wound on nylon and the rest can be plain nylon.  Again, Fiona has a full set of sharping levers and a beautiful sound.  Not all harps are equal in the sound department and that is the most important consideration when choosing a harp.  I have tried some that were very dull and thumpy (that's techie jargon!).  If someone is looking to buy a harp, I always tell them to try it, don't buy unseen.  Fiona is the first on the left in the above photo, as you can see she has a beautiful carved swan's head with amber eyes. 

Last year, we purchased a Kortier Electro Acoustic 36 string Celtic Lever Harp (named Mac, for my mother who was Scottish).  Again, the same attributes as Fiona but there is a pick-up under each string and so we can plug her in to an amplifier and make her quite loud!!   Handy when you play at a dinner for 500 happy, chatting diners.

Then came my Selena Concert Pedal Harp manufactured in Russia (Anya).  I couldn't believe it when we found this and were able to buy it.  I always wondered what it would be like to play a pedal harp and now I know and I just love it.  Anya is the big one on the right of the photo.  This is the harp I receive most questions about, so I have gathered a little info from the web for you.  I'm sorry to say some of it is a little technical but someone may be interested.  Here is a little taste.

A pedal harp typically has six and a half octaves (46 or 47 strings), weighs about 80 lb (36 kg), is approximately 6 ft (1.8 m) high, has a depth of 4 ft (1.2 m), and is 21.5 in (55 cm) wide at the bass end of the soundboard. The notes range from three octaves below middle C (or the D above that) to three and a half octaves above, usually ending on G. The tension of the strings on the sound board is roughly equal to a ton. The lowest strings are made of copper or steel-wound nylon, the middle-lower strings of gut, and the middle to highest of nylon, or more or all gut.

Pedals of a harp
The pedal harp uses the mechanical action of pedals to change the pitches of the strings. Pedals were first used in 1697.  On the modern harp there are seven pedals. The pedals (in order from left to right) on the left side of the harp are D C B, and E F G A are on the right. Each pedal is attached to a rod or cable within the column of the harp, which then links to a series of moving rods within the neck. When a pedal is moved with the foot, the column rod is moved, which then moves the linkages and turns either or both of two small discs at the top of 
strings. The discs are studded with two pins that press against the string as they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The pedal has three positions. In the top position no pins are in contact with the string and all notes are flat. In the middle position the top disc presses its pins against the string, resulting in a natural. In the bottom position the second, lower disc is turned, shortening the string again to create a sharp.  In each position the pedal can be secured in a notch so that the foot does not have to keep holding it in the correct position, unlike piano pedals.  There is a lot more information on the Pedal Harp on Wikipedia on the internet.

I thoroughly enjoy playing all of my harps and fairly recently became interested in the Clarsach, wire strung harp.  Celtic harp is a general term referring to a triangular harp traditional to Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  It is known as a telenn in Breton, cláirseach in Irish, clĂ rsach in Scottish Gaelic and telyn in Welsh.  In Ireland and Scotland it was a wire-strung instrument requiring great skill and long practice to play, and was associated with the Gaelic ruling class.   

Phil was able to find me a Triplett 33 string Excelle II Wire Harp (Nessa) and so I have another learning curve to undertake.  Harps with wire strings should be played with your fingernails to ensure the beautiful bell like sound.  We really enjoy Patrick Ball playing his wire strung harp, check out the sound.  Normally, non-wire strung harps are played with the pad of the finger and require short nails.  It seems to be a very different technique and I have to have short nails, so that I can still play my other harps effectively.  The wire strings are phosphor bronze and are a gold colour.  They are also quite a challenge to tune, especially in the upper register.  The slightest turn of the tuning lever and you can zoom past the perfect pitch for that note and have to start all over again!

So that's all the harps I have currently, but there could always be another one needing a good home!

The other question is about my sheet music "book".  I have taken to using my ipad to store all my sheet music with a great app that allows me to build setlists and annotate on scores.  It is so much easier that carrying around a huge book of music.  Then I found out about a great bluetooth gadget that allows me to turn the pages on my ipad with two foot pedals - right to go forward and left to go back.  I'm still struggling a bit with this, as my brain finds it hard to concentrate on my hands and also turn pages with my feet.  This becomes even more difficult when I'm playing the pedal harp as I already have seven pedals, with the page turner that makes nine.  Feels like I'm tap dancing some days!

I'm sure I have missed something, so if there is anything else you would like to know, please just let me know.