Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

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.

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