I'd like to take a break from writerly musings to share some of the most frequent conversations I have as a player of the traditional lever harp. These come up again and again at gigs, and I've developed rehearsed responses to them:
Them: So you're a harpist, right?
Me: Actually, I'm a harper. Harpist refers to the pedal harp - the big golden thing with the pillar. Harp-player works, too.
(This distinction is important to me. I'd prefer not to be called a harpist.)
Them: Is this is a Celtic harp? (Sometimes they pronounce the C like an S.)
Me: Yes; to be more accurate, it's a traditional lever harp because it has these levers (Vanna White gesture here) instead of the pedals on an orchestral harp.
Them: Are you Irish?
Me: Nope. I'm Scottish and Welsh, though.
Them: Is this a small harp?
Me (what I'd like to say): You try carrying it.
Me (what I actually say): This is a traditional harp. It's the predecessor of the big harp you see in orchestras.
Them: How long have you been playing?
Oh, how much easier it became when I could just say "over a decade" and stop counting every time.
I work through a fair number of misconceptions. It seems to confuse people that I don't also play with an orchestra; similarly, they seem a bit taken aback when I tell them I studied privately (instead at a university, presumably). Then there's this conversation:
Them: Can I help you carry something?
Me: Could you carry my chair?
They look at me, probably a bit like I'm crazy. They look at the massive instrument.
Me: I'm balanced, but I have to carry the chair in a way that makes it hard to walk. It would really help.
I have gotten "such a little thing with such a big instrument!" more than once, which always makes me laugh: I'm about 5'7" with strong shoulders. Besides the Scots, I've got German and Italian in me. I'm not heavy - thank you, 20+ hours of running around a kitchen this past quarter - but I am not a delicate flower.
I think possibly my favorite question, though, came from a guitarist. First of all, some background: my harp has 36 strings, one for every note. Each individual string has to be tuned. When a string breaks, the replacement has to "settle" before it will hold. This usually involves, as a ballpark, 50 - 60 retunings. So the following ensued:
Him: How often do you change the strings? Every few weeks?
Me (horrified look): Only when I have to.
Harps are notoriously finicky for responding to every shift in temperature and pressure. In fact, that leads to one of my favorite harp jokes, which I got from the Welsh triple harpist (he is a harpist - the Welsh harp is much closer to the classic instrument) Robin Huw Bowen:
Q: How long does it take to tune a harp?
A: No one knows.