Regarding Acquiring a Harp
Q: I’ve read about pedal and lever harps? Which is right for me?
A: Have a seat and grab a snack. Harps can be a bit confusing at first! Hopefully this breakdown will help a bit.
Harps a generally classified by the type of mechanism employed to change the pitch of the strings while playing. For those with a familiarity of a piano keyboard, think of the strings of harp as all white notes. The pedals or levers create our black notes as we need them. The pedal harp has been the most popular design since the 1700s, with the double-action pedal harp taking the front stage in the nineteenth- and twentieth- centuries. Lever harps have had a major revival in the past hundred years and have undergone many new and wonderful improvements.
Pedal harps (or formally, the double-action pedal harp) have a series of seven pedals, each with three notches, positioned around the base of the harp which are operated by the feet. The pedals are ordered in such a way (left to right: left side DCB—right side EFGA) that the player can move around the circle of fifth by alternating feet to modulate to various tonal areas. Each of the pedal notches corresponds to the accidentals: sharp, natural, and flat. The pedals in the varying positions move rods up the hollow, decorative front column which in turn move fork-shaped discs along the neck. A string with no discs engaged will be a flat note, with the top one engaged is a natural note, and with both engaged is the corresponding sharp note. So, three pitches are available on each string (for example, G-flat, G-natural, and G-sharp). Each pedal is connected to all notes of that name, so when the B pedal is moved to B-flat, all of the B-strings will sound a B-flat (when properly tuned, of course!). The pedal-harp, therefore, is tuned (harps are tuned with all discs disengaged/open to prolong the life of the disc mechanism and strings) in C-flat major. In terms of size, pedal harps range from 40 to 47 strings. Weights will range from 50 to 100 pounds, and prices will range from $11,000 to $200,000+ with most professional non-gilded harps falling around $25,000 to $40,000.
Lever (or Celtic) harps use a simpler lever system and are typically smaller. Depending on the lever manufacturer (there are many!) the lever will either pinch, pull, or push the string to stop the vibration at a certain length, a semi-tone higher. Unlike the modern pedal harp, the lever harp only has two positions: on/up/in and off/down/out. As such, when the string is tuned to a natural note, say C-natural, the engaged lever will produce the pitch C-sharp. The levers only raise the pitch. But what if a flatted note is necessary, you may ask? For this reason, a widely-accepted tuning for the lever harp is to tune the open (no levers engaged) strings to the key of E-flat major. The flatted strings with the levers engaged will produce the corresponding natural note. This allows for B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat — the first three flats when moving around the circle of fifths. Unlike the modern pedal harp, there are many accepted tunings for the lever harp. I generally recommend C major for complete beginners and changing to E-flat once the student fully understands the theory behind the tuning. Lever harps are also smaller. Unlike other “smaller” instruments in the same family (think violin-viola-violoncello), the lever harp is not higher pitched than the pedal harp. The lever harp is just a segment of the pedal harp’s range. For example, a 38-string lever harp will lack the bottom seven and top two strings that would be found on a full sized concert grand pedal harp. Small lever harps may be 22-30 strings while the larger ones will be 34-40 strings. The largest lever harps are roughly the same size as the smallest pedal harps. Weights will range from under 10 pounds to 40 or so pounds. Prices will fall around $1,000 to $6,000+ for custom-made instruments with exotic veneers and inlays.
It is of note to mention that not all Celtic harps have levers, and sometimes the harps are not fully levered. Unlike the pedal harp where all notes of the same name (all Fs, for example) are connected to each other, the levers are independent of each other; at the same time the player can have an F-sharp in one octave and an F-natural in another. This is not possible on the pedal harp. On the lever harp, each lever needs to be moved manually before and during the performance with the left hand of the performer. The independent feature helps keep the cost of the lever harp comparatively low and allows for additional cost-saving options like a partially-levered harp. (I recommend students get a fully-levered harp. It makes the instrument more versatile, it retains its value better, and it is best for the levers to be installed by the manufacturer during the building process.)
Q: I am considering taking lessons. Do I need my own instrument?
A: That’s great! Yes, you will need access to a harp to practice. There are several (relatively) local companies listed on the Links page which provide rentals. It is recommended to start on a lever (also called Celtic) harp as they are smaller/easier to transport, more affordable, and have enough strings to get you through the beginning years of study.
Q: I can buy a flute for $200. Why are harps so expensive?
A: Unlike other instruments which can have a lot of machine-made parts, the harp is largely a handmade instrument. Even the least expensive lever harps are handcrafted. The labor costs in combination with the expensive woods and metals for raw materials makes the harp an expensive instrument. The double-action mechanism of the pedal harps has thousands of moving parts which are all assembled by hand. It is often the most expensive part of the harp (in part this explains the large price discrepancy between pedal and lever harps).
Q: I recently acquired a harp and watched, read some books, and watched some videos. Why would I need lessons?
A: Often a new harpist will try to learn on his or her own without the aid of a teacher or mentor other than videos found on the Internet. While the eagerness is admirable, more often than not bad habits are formed which can lead to hindered ease of playing and physical problems down the road. While it is a beautiful sounding instrument, there is nothing physically “natural” about playing it. Studying with a qualified teacher will help keep ailments such as neck/back issues, tendon inflammation, etc. from developing. Enrolling in lessons will allow the budding harpist to develop a fluid technique employing proper posture and position of the hands.
Q: Do you teach in-home lessons?
A: I prefer to teach at one of my studio locations, but in-home lessons are a possibility. Contact me for details.
Regarding Strings Q: What string should I order to replace the one I broke?
A: Strings break. It comes with the territory. Before a string can be replaced, it must first be identified by name. This is often very confusing for the novice string changer.
Each string on the harp has a very specific and unique gauge, though there are a few exceptions where neighbor notes share the exact same gauge and color. In a pinch neighbors can be substituted, though a string that is too thick will sound dull and thuddy, and a string that is too thin will sound brittle and tinny.
Identifying the octave:
For most harps, strings are named by octave and note name (first octave B, for example). There is no B-flat string, etc. Only the root-names are used. For purposes of harp stringing, octaves begin on F and end on E. Why, you may ask? Once upon a time, the largest harps had a final note of F. There you have it. A visual aid I like to use to remember is to picture F –> E. The F and arrow (placed at the right height which is not possible using computer text) create an extra E. To confuse matters, often string manufactures will assign a number for each string as well. However, the numbers do not necessarily apply to your particular harp in an obvious and logical manner. For example, first octave E is string 1 by many string manufactures. It is the first string only on 38- and 40-string harps. Additionally some manufacturers only number the strings and do not bother with octave designations.
The octave number gets larger as the strings move down to the column/pilar/bass/thickest strings/tall end of the harp. The octave number becomes smaller as the strings move up the knee-block/treble/thinnest strings/low end of the harp. Think: large numbers=big/thick/long/expensive strings and small octave numbers=short/thin/inexpensive strings.
For a concert grand harp, there are 47 strings. The bottom/lowest three are in the seventh octave. The top two are in what is called the zero or above octave. (When strings were being numbered, these two didn’t exist.) Octaves six through one are complete. Middle C is always fourth octave C or C-4.
To be continued…