Changing a String

You are sitting comfortably in the other room, reading a book, and you hear a god-awful bang…. It sounds like your harp has split in two! Don’t worry – it’s just a broken string. But you’ve never changed a string before! It can seem quite intimidating the first time you have to wrangle with a slippery, uncooperative nylon string, but it’s really quite a simple process that just takes a bit of practice. For anyone who may not have a teacher or harpist friend to show them how to tie that special “harp knot” (it’s really not hard, essentially just a loop within a loop), the folks at Wm. Rees have an excellent set of instructions, including pictures, here. If you know someone with the old standard, Sylvia Wood’s teach-yourself harp method book, she also has a good diagram with instructions in the back of the book. You can practice the knot with a piece of string a few times first; I also recommend practicing on the broken string, since the nylon is stiffer and more likely to slip than a piece of twine.

Strings don’t just need to be changed when they break – it’s also a good idea to change them if they start to sound dull, or have developed obvious weak spots (which might mean they are prone to breaking, and you don’t want that to happen in the middle of a gig). Some people change their strings periodically just as a matter of course, to keep the harp sounding bright; if you’ve had the same set of strings for a number of years, it might be time to consider gradually replacing them with new ones. Some people dive right in and change the whole set all at once, but this isn’t necessary; you can start by changing the ones that sound a little dull, or all the bass strings, or one octave, and do the others over a longer period of time. Or, you can set aside an afternoon and do the whole harp.

Keep in mind that any new string will take a while to settle in (nylon strings stretch); you’ll want to check its tuning several times a day for the first couple of days, and should probably tune it every day for a week after that. If you absolutely have to change a string during a performance, you will need to tune it during every break, and possibly after only a couple of songs. If you’re worried about taking the time to tune the string frequently, you can either try to leave that note out of your playing, or you can explain to the audience what you’re doing. Most people will have no problem with you tuning a bit more often, if it means the harp will sound better. Our medieval ensemble regularly has to re-tune after several pieces; we usually delegate one of our members to be MC and talk to the audience a bit while we’re doing it. If you’re playing solo, you can use the time you’re tuning to talk a bit about the harp, or the pieces you’re playing, or tell a story or amusing anecdote.

Sitting with small harps

A recent thread on the HarpList reminded me of this ever-present dilemma for those with small to medium-sized harps. How does one sit properly with a lap harp or mid-range harp? Good posture is always essential in playing the harp effectively and comfortably. However, small harps, and especially those tricky medium-sized harps (around 25-30 strings) often pose special problems. There have been many solutions suggested over the years in the folk harp community, so I thought I would summarize a few of them here.

Boxes and Other Platforms

One common solution for smaller harps is to either find or make a box (or stool) that puts the harp at exactly the right height for you when you’re sitting in a normal-height chair. You want to make sure the box is of the right dimensions to fit the base of your harp on comfortably without any danger of it sliding off or tipping over. To this end, sometimes people try to find a box or stool with a lip around the edge, or put a non-slip matting of some sort on the box so the harp cannot slip. The typical flexible non-slip material that people use for kitchen drawers or underneath area rugs works well for this. Some people find that having the harp on a wooden box actually adds to the resonance of the instrument. You can also stain or paint the box to match your harp or to be a subtle neutral colour for performing. The main disadvantage of many of these platforms is that they are not necessarily very portable (they can be made quite light, but may be awkward to carry or put into a small car). For those who travel a lot with their harp, something that collapses for easy transport would be ideal.

Custom chairs and stools

Another solution for mid-sized harps is to sit on a smaller stool or bench, or a short custom-made stool. For some people, this is an ideal solution, since a folding stool is easy to throw in the car with your harp (or store under your couch or in a closet), and you can make or buy a bag with a shoulder strap to put the stool in. However, sitting lower down may pose its own posture and comfort problems. Some people (myself included) find that sitting for long periods of time on a low stool can lead to discomfort or even chronic pain in the hips and back, and may lead to slouching or fatigue. If you want to try this solution, start by playing for short periods of time, and pay attention to how your body reacts to this position.

Found Objects – Ironing Boards, Foam, Stacks of Books, etc.

With my students, I often use a combination of a folding stool and shallow boxes, because all my students are of different heights (from small child to tall grown adult). Our Scrabble box even sometimes comes into play here! To make it look less tacky, I throw a nice piece of fabric over top of the boxes, which also helps with slipping.

Some people with lap harps have found that they can put a smaller ironing board on a regular height chair, then sit on the narrow end of the board and put the harp on the board in front of them. I’ve tried this and for a couple of my lap harps it works quite well. Since ironing boards are often (a) in use for their original purpose, or (b) not the most practical things to wrangle with, some people will custom make their own wooden platform that approximates this shape. You can also now get a professionally made version of this gizmo in the form of a lap harp board; here’s an example of one available through Melody’s Traditional Music.

One original solution recently mentioned on the HarpList was to cut bits of hard foam (like the type used to pack computers) and slip them onto the legs of the harp. This could be a way to extend legs that aren’t quite long enough, without making the harp more tippy. Another lister suggested a wooden kitchen drawer utensil insert, which made a good platform when turned over (including a rim to keep the harp from sliding); they then stained it and sprayed it with polyurethane.

Legs, Feet and Stands

Most harps (excepting some lap harps) come with a base of some sort (often a solid base or feet), or legs that can extend the height of the harp (ideally, the removable kind). Sometimes legs can make a harp very tippy, so if you’re still in the process of harp shopping, look for legs that are designed in the most stable configuration, or a good solid base that lets the harp sit on the floor without danger of falling over. If you have a harp prone to tipping, prop it in a corner or against a bed or wall when you’re taking your break, so no one will accidentally knock it over (yourself included!). Be sure to try out the harp with legs while sitting on a normal height chair. If the base or legs are too short or too long, it’s worth talking to the harp maker because they might be able to customize a set of legs for you to be the right height. Some people who are handy with wood will even make their own custom stand, which can double as a way of proudly displaying your beautiful instrument.

Harp Straps (for shoulders and hips)

Many smaller, lighter harps these days (especially those specifically designed as “therapy harps”) will come with an optional shoulder strap. I would strongly suggest borrowing one to try first, since for some people straps can be very hard on the back and shoulders. Personally, any time I’ve tried to use a shoulder straps (even with quite light harps), my back and shoulders have been very sore afterwards. However, for some people this works just fine and makes the harp wonderfully portable, for instance when playing in hospices or at outdoor festivals. I have personally had much better luck with what is often referred to as a “harp bra”, or hip strap. It’s basically a custom-sized piece of fabric, where the front corners of the lap harp fit into a kind of sling, and then the strap goes around your hips, so the hips hold the weight of the harp while you’re sitting. This only works in a sitting position, of course, but it may be a better solution if you have any issues at all with your back or shoulders. As always, let your own body be your guide – if whatever you are using makes you uncomfortable, sore or tired, it’s time to find an alternate solution!