Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Writers' Guide To Harp: Part Three (Misconceptions)

One more point about the physical construction of the harp most people miss until they get up close: hey, look, colored strings! I’ve heard stories of people asking if these are training strings. N…o. The red strings are Cs, blue strings are Fs. All other strings are white. So, no, you’re not just staring at a sea of unmarked strings.

Since a harper’s mouth isn’t obviously occupied as a flutist’s is, most people imagine that we can carry on a conversation freely. Unfortunately – or is that fortunately? – it doesn’t work that way. I’m not exactly sure why; my theory is that speaking and playing attempt to use the same region of the brain. It is possible to train yourself to talk and play at the same time, but it took me years to learn the small repertoire of, “Yes,” “No,” and, “Thank you.” Now, after over a decade of playing, I can answer simple questions if I am playing a slow tune I know frontwards and backwards. I can say with some confidence that carrying on a full conversation whilst playing? Not going to happen.

But what about bardic storytelling? you might wonder. From what I’ve seen of it, the music and the speaking don’t occur simultaneously, apart from simple patterns that serve as sound effects. Instead, they alternate and augment each other.

And yes … it is “harper.” This applies to anyone who plays the traditional lever instrument. Harp-player is also correct. Harpist refers to the pedal harp – “the big tall thing with the gold pillar” – and is not correct in this context.

Reminders from the previous posts: those playing wire harps need nails; those playing gut-strung harps will need to go without.

Harp strings do not (or almost never) break due to pressure applied during play. They simply break when tightened too far. This can happen by accident when tuning or with sudden temperature shifts. Cold weather causes the wood to contract, potentially breaking a string. (Some wood instruments work differently, I know, so: harps go sharp with the cold, flat with the heat.)

The big joke amongst harpers is, “A harp-player spends half his time tuning, and half his time playing out of tune.” They are sensitive instruments. It doesn’t take much to knock them out of tune, and the range of the harp doesn’t go out of tune consistently. Every harp is a little bit different, but for instance, with mine: my base strings go sharp, the two strings above that stay almost perfectly in tune continuously, the mid-range goes flat, and some portions of the upper range go sharp again.

Assuming a fully levered, 36 string floor harp, there are approximately two million permutations of ways you could set your levers.

The above posts apply to the “mainstream” traditional harp, but there are other harps. Here are a couple I’m familiar with:

Latin American harps are lighter strung, which allows the use of the pinky (normally too weak to play). They’re also strung with blue Cs and red Fs.

The Welsh triple harp has not just one but three rows of strings and no levers. To get accidentals (sharps and flats), the harper dips their fingers through the outer row(s) to the inner row. The double row strings for standard play allows a number of overlapping techniques, including one unique to Welsh harp playing where the melody is played in both hands a split second apart. This creates a mesmerizing echo effect. Welsh players also usually rest the harp on the left shoulder and play melody with left hand, accompaniment with right.

You can actually hear the influence of the triple harp in a lot of Welsh music. These tunes have a running theme of a single accidental, often with a rather rapid switch back to the regular note.

And finally, if you want to hurt your brain, check out the
cross-strung harp, the only harp in the world on which it is possible to play “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

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