Starter/Beginner Harps Part Two: Harps on a Budget

Of all the questions we get asked via the CHP, how to get a harp on a limited budget tops the list. From the renaissance of the folk harp that began in the 1960’s, to now nearly seven decades later, the breadth and depth of choice for harp players in terms of instruments and music has expanded dramatically. Unfortunately, a good harp is still not a cheap harp, no matter how you look at it. Good instruments require time, careful worksmanship and decent quality materials, and the harp is no exception.

Thankfully, there are ways to get a good working instrument on just about any budget, with enough patience and dedication.


Harp Q&A: Starter/Beginner Harps

One of the most frequently asked questions on the Celtic Harp Page is what makes for a good beginner harp. First-time players are often baffled by the abundance of choice, and usually hampered by a limited budget. They want a harp that is inexpensive, but still has a nice sound and a decent range.

With that in mind, I’ve outlined a few basic things that will help when looking for a beginner harp.

Read the full article here.

For more on all the different types and styles of harp available to choose from, you can browse the “What Type of Harp Should I Get?” section on the CHP.

What Is A Harp Circle? (+ new music!)

This is the first of a new series of Harp-Related Q&A , to celebrate the Harp Blog being back in action (hooray!), and in honour of the first Peterborough-Kawarthas harp circle in over a year (!).

A sample of a tune arranged for multiple harps can be found by following the link at the bottom of the post.

A Harp Circle is an informal gathering of harpists (or harpers, if you prefer), which can take many forms.  The one thing they all have in common is the sharing of music.  A typical harp circle might start with a general meet-and-greet (which often involves people trying out each other’s harps), and everyone making sure their harps are tuned.  Bringing an electronic tuner is wise for this part, since there will be a lot of background noise (this is where tuning pickups really earn their keep!), and everyone will want to be at the same pitch (A=440, or concert pitch, is standard in most areas).

This is often followed by learning one or more group pieces.  Usually the group leader or organizer will have copies available for everyone, with parts at varying levels of difficulty (easy parts for beginners, more challenging parts for the more experienced).

Sometimes this group participation might take the form of a more formalized workshop, with a specific topic, such as singing with the harp, Welsh tunes, improvising, Irish ornaments, and so on.  However, in some cases it can be as casual as someone handing around some sheet music and saying, let’s all try this one!  Either way, the group organizer will let you know what format the circle will take.

At the mid-point will be a welcome break for munchies and socializing (participants are often encouraged to bring contributions of snacks, although sometimes these are provided by the host). 

After the break, there may be more group playing, or the second half of the workshop, but often this is the stage for the “once-around-the-circle”, where people are free to play a piece of their choosing.  This can be a great opportunity for shy and inexperienced players to try something out in public for the first time, in front of a small and sympathetic audience.  It can also be a chance for more experienced players to try out something new, or play their latest “party piece” – essentially, show off their playing prowess.  It certainly never hurts to get a healthy boost to the old self esteem, in the comforting company of peers!  However, all players will be encouraged to pick something relatively short, so everyone who wants to has a chance to play.

The performance part, in almost all cases, is strictly voluntary.  The idea of harp circles is to have fun, in a relaxed, no-pressure environment.  Players can feel free to participate as much or as little as they like.  For the complete beginner, sometimes it’s great to just be able to meet other harpers and see different harps, even if you’re a bit too shy to try playing along the first time.

In honour of our first harp circle of 2011, I’ve whipped up an arrangement of Southwind for multiple harps.  You can follow the link here to download both a print copy and midi file version from Chubby Sparrow.  Feel free to add your comments or questions below.

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.

Celtic Jams, Sessions & Ceilis (Part 2)

Time Signatures for Dance Tunes & Celtic Music

One thing that can really help find the beat in Celtic music is to know your time signatures. This applies to playing for English Country Dancers as well. In Celtic music, time signatures are often associated with a particular type of dance, which helps to inform how Celtic players will approach them. All time signatures each have their own unique rhythmic feel. The treatment of them in dance tunes can be notably different, however, from how they are treated in, for example, classical music. The following are some of the most common examples.

  • Jig = 6/8, usually two groups of three eighth-notes, with more emphasis on the first note of each group (so, “ONE two three, TWO two three, etc.), played semi-legato, e.g. DA-ya-da, DA-ya-da. Note that Irish whistle and flute players will often tongue very little if at all, and will instead use ornaments to emphasize certain beats and add texture and colour
  • Slip Jig = 9/8, usually three groups of three eighth-notes
  • Reel = 4/4, often played quite quickly, with emphasis on the first note; tends to be played semi-legato, i.e. neither separated nor slurred, e.g. DA-ya-da-da, DA-ya-da-da
  • Polka = 2/4 (or 4/4), more detached than a reel, with an unmistakable ONE-two ONE-two feel
  • Hornpipe = usually 4/4, often written in even eighth-notes, but meant to be played more like dotted-eighth-sixteenths; if you play them too much like dotted-eighth-sixteenths it will sound stilted, so they are usually played with a bit of a swing
  • Waltz = 3/4 or 6/8; exactly like waltzes the world over, except that the 6/8 “waltzes” (often O’Carolan tunes and the like composed before the waltz as a dance was invented) may move a little more quickly or have a bit more of a lilt to them
  • March = 2/4 or 3/4, depending on the rhythm – it will be obvious by the regular “walking beat” feel to it

There are other forms in Celtic music as well, which don’t necessarily fit into a particular time signature, for example:

  • Air = usually a slower piece; this is one of the few that may be treated “tempo rubato”, or more freely with regards to rhythm and timing; often it is based on a song, and thus played in a very lyrical fashion
  • Set Dance = often a longer piece, designed to accompany a particular dance; the musical cues will tell the dancers which part is coming up next, so it’s important to know exactly how many times to play each part through, and in what order

Celtic tunes are often divided into 2 or 3 parts – these will usually be referred to by the letters A, B, C, etc. (A being the first part, and so on). So if someone says, “let’s start again at the B part”, they mean to start at the beginning of the second section of the piece. Usually one or more of the parts is repeated (so some common patterns would be: AABB, ABB, AAB, etc.)

The best way to get the feel for Celtic music is to listen to it – often! Get yourself a handful of CD’s, preferably from different groups, different regions, different instruments. Listen to fast dance tunes, slow airs, songs, whatever you can find. Best of all, attend as many live performances as you can. Listen in on jams and sessions in your area. Even excellent sight readers will not be able to capture the “feel” of Celtic music without hearing it first.

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!

Celtic Jams, Sessions, & Ceilis (part 1)

Sorry for the long wait between posts, I was away all this weekend visiting with old friends.

Since so many harpists are fans of Celtic music, a lot of them are interested in jams and ceilis – what they are, how a harpist can participate, and so on. So this will be the first in a series of posts about that very topic. I’ve already got a fairly detailed look at Celtic Jams and Sessions up on the Celtic Harp Page, but I will go into each in a bit more depth here. To start with….

What are Celtic jams, sessions (or “sesiuns”) and ceilis (or ceilidhes)? Aren’t they all the same thing?

Some people use the terms interchangeably (you’ve probably heard the term “jam session”), however some trad musicians distinguish between the various terms. To most of the trad musicians I know, a jam is more of a free-for-all, where new people may show up not already knowing the tunes, but willing to just pick out chords and such on the fly. Often someone will suggest (i.e. shout out) a tune or set, and launch right into it, and everyone who wants to join in does. Quiet instruments and beginners might find the pace a bit breathtaking, and may feel overwhelmed at first. Part of the problem is that you don’t always know what to expect – some days you might show up to find you’re competing with three fiddles, two guitars, an accordion and four bodhran players (of varying skill levels). Singers and harp players may only get to be heard while everyone else is taking a beer break. In these cases, it helps to attend a few jams just as observer, and if possible to find someone to write down a list of common tunes for you (if you’re really lucky, you might even get someone to copy some sheet music for you). Generally, jams are part of the true oral tradition, in that you play by ear (memory). However, at our Sunday Celtic Jam here in Peterborough, no one minds if people drag their music stand along, and it’s quite common to see several battered copies of the Fiddler’s FakeBook in use on any given Sunday. It’s usually best to talk to the local jam’s organizer first to get the lay of the land (we’ll be looking at jam/session “etiquette” later on.)

A session (or sessiun), on the other hand, may be somewhat more organized, or even more “elite”. Often it is an established group of players who all know the same tunes, and can play them consistently at or above a certain skill level. Session players may meet regularly to learn new tunes, but when performing are expected to be able to lead or follow without getting lost, and to be familiar with the types of sets typical for that group (e.g., for a reel set, someone may call out a familiar set of reels in G major; a “set” is just several tunes strung together, played one right after the other). If you want to join an established session group, likely there will be a group leader you can talk to. They may send you home with sheet music or a tape or CD to learn from, and expect you to show up at the next session (or practice) with at least some of the tunes already learned (generally, this means by memory – Celtic session musicians do not usually use sheet music for performing, although it may be used for learning the tunes initially). However, some people might refer to any impromptu gathering of musicians as a “session” (there can be other kinds of sessions too – bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-timey tunes, folk music, you name it). As above, it’s good to ask the local organizer or a veteran player if you’re not sure.

A ceili (or ceilidhe) differs notably from a jam or session in that it is often intended to accompany dancing (although some people will use the term “ceili” to mean a jam/session, or even just any party or get-together where music is played – just to confuse the issue!). In some ways, a ceili (the kind for dancing) is similar to a session, but may be even more restrictive in terms of who is allowed to play, and what they’re expected to know. If you want to play for a ceili, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with all the traditional time signatures and tune types – e.g. reel, jig, strathspey, slip jig, polka, waltz, etc. In a Ceili, usually the caller (the person calling out dances) will lead, and give indication to the band what tunes are needed. Often the tunes will be done in sets of 2 to 4 tunes at one time, sometimes in the same key, but often switching keys or going into relative minors or majors of that key. For a harp player, this can be a bit tricky, but usually you can get away with it by using, say, the first (“A”) part of a tune to flip levers, and coming in on the repeat. As a harp, keyboard, or guitar player, if you’re invited to play for a ceili even though you may not know all the tunes, you will be expected to have some proficiency in picking out chord patterns to accompany the tune. If you’re a drummer, you will be expected to know the typical rhythm patters, and you must be precise in your timing, so as not to throw off the dancers or the other musicians. Some local Ceilis happen on a regular basis (e.g. once a month), and are open to any local musician (with outsiders being considered guests; it’s usually best if you’re invited by a local). Just keep in mind, that while at jams you are just there to play music and have fun, at a dance ceili you’re actually performing a function – keeping the dancers happy and energized, as well as pleasing the audience. This doesn’t prevent it from being loads of fun, of course! But they will expect you to be in tune and know your stuff.

Here’s a short jam/session newbie checklist:

1. Know Your Chords – It really, really helps to know how to play basic chords, and to know your key signatures. To practice, FakeBooks or other collections of lead-sheet music (melody line and chord markings) are great. Playing along with CD’s or DVD’s can also be helpful, as it should give you an idea of what it’s like to play with people going full speed.

2. Have a Way to Tune Your Harp in a Loud, Crowded Room – You’ll want to tune your harp perfectly before you go to your local jam, but as we all know harps don’t always want to stay in tune, especially if they’ve gone from house to car to unfamiliar location. It helps to arrive early to let the harp get adjusted to its new environment. For tuning when there’s lots of background noise, bring an electronic tuner and a pickup. Tuning by ear is a great skill to have, but won’t help you much when you can’t hear yourself! If hearing yourself is really an issue (you should at least be able to hear yourself a little while playing), then you might want to ask if it’s okay to bring a small amp. Some groups are okay with this, but in some places it’s completely taboo, so check first!

3. Know Your Local Group – Every regional group operates in its own, unique way. Talk to the organizer, talk to some regular participants. Most regular session players are friendly and helpful, and should be able to tell you all you need to know (such as, what playing level they expect you to be at, how fast it goes, how big the group is, if it’s okay to bring music and/or amplification, and so on).

4. Bring Your Own Stuff to Play! – People actually like taking a break from the rousing jigs and reels to listen to an occasional slow air. Bring a few favourites already memorized, and your audience will usually love it. The fast players can use this as an excuse to grab a beer or go out for a smoke, but you may be surprised at how many people stick around to listen. Harps are enchanting after all, and have an old, rich tradition in Celtic culture.

5. Don’t Give Up! – It may seem fast and furious at first, but don’t worry – if you get good at chording along to tunes, you should be able to start by picking out simple bass lines, then progress to more elabourate chords and rythms, and then on to counter melodies and harmonies. If the regulars don’t mind, you can bring a tape or digital recorder and record each session, then practice playing along at home. If you can find a tune list and sheet music, or if you’re good at picking up stuff by ear, you can gradually learn to play along with the melody lines as well. Consistent fingering helps to play those really fast tunes.

Free Handout #1: Beginner Exercises

Harp Exercises Thumbnail - Click on picture to get printable versionClick on the picture to get a larger printable version (it usually works better if you right click and choose “save link as”, or “save target as”, and then print it from your computer later; some browsers have a hard time printing high-rez images at the right size).

These are a few easy beginner exercises that you can use to start getting those stiff fingers a little more flexible and coordinated. All linking (“walking”) exercises can be continued for a full octave (or, up the entire harp if you prefer!). Fingering inside square brackets means all fingers in the brackets should be placed before beginning to pluck the first note. The little “x” in the crossing-over exercise indicates when to cross the fourth finger under the thumb (or, when to cross the thumb over one of the other fingers).

These exercises aren’t meant to be a substitute for a proper exercise book, just something to get you started.

For lever harps, I highly recommend Deborah Friou’s “Harp Exercises for Agility and Speed”; it’s the one all my students use. It covers just about every exercise you could possibly need on a lever harp, and would be equally helpful to pedal harp players. You can get Deborah’s books at the Sylvia Woods Harp Center, Melody’s Traditional Music & Harp Shoppe, and most other harp stores.

For more free handouts, check out the Harp Center Handouts section of the Sylvia Woods website.

Learning to Read Music – Why It’s Easier Than You Think

With Notes on Modern Notation Vs. Tablature
by Tanah Haney

I have, in my perusal of many method and repertoire books for harp, come across several books that use tablature prominently or even exclusively. This is presumably because the arrangers feel that tablature is easier for a new musician to learn than notation. There are also some teaching methods that focus exclusively on aural learning and imitation with beginning students, especially young children. While I would never argue that one approach was superior to another, or that one way would work best for all musicians (hence the “versus” in the sub-title is a bit misleading), I prefer teaching beginners note-reading early on for a number of reasons.

I should point out that my students always start with hand position, exercises, and fun things to do with the harp, all done by imitation and by ear, before venturing into note-reading. Ear training, memorization, active listening, interpretation, and other essential musical skills also remain a central part of the learning process throughout. However, I usually introduce note-reading fairly early on, with all ages, for reasons which I will outline below. In essence, I would argue that reading modern notation is not nearly as difficult as many people think, and can in fact be quite intuitive – the key, as it were, is all in the approach.

First of all, I would like to challenge a central myth or stereotype that has developed around note-reading. While the basic structure of modern notation might seem very mechanical, even mathematical, reading modern notation is neither a “cold” nor “unnatural” experience, and need not be approached mechanically. Rather, in its best form it is a learned intuitive process whereby one can get a sense of a piece of music by learning to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into the human brain (ever see a face or other picture in the grain of a piece of wood, or a wallpaper pattern, or a cloud?), and musical notation is one of the many ways that we can use this instinct to our advantage.

There is a lot of relative information that can be gained instantly by looking at modern notation, even if you don’t know the exact name of every note. When the sounds go “up”, the notes go “up” too; when the sounds go down, the notes go down. When there is a gap between notes on the stave, it represents a gap between strings or keys. Intervals such as thirds, fifths and octaves are recognizable on sight after a bit of practice. Young children can learn very quickly to recognize repeated patterns in written music, especially if they are first taught relative sight-reading. Relative sight-reading is a skill that can be attained well before the student has memorized all the different keys, or even all the note letter-names. Particularly helpful are beginner harp books that start off by colouring the C’s red and the F’s blue. (Some modern methods have even gone so far as to develop a colour for every note, an approach which can be used with a wide variety of instruments. )


The Ergonomic Harpist

If I were asked to describe my approach to harp technique in one word, it would be “ergonomic”. It’s a term that many people think of being applied to computers and other things normally found around the office: keyboards, chairs, and so on. But it’s also an essential component of playing a musical instrument without doing damage to your health.

Most non-musicians don’t realize what a demanding physical experience playing an instrument can be. But those of us who’ve been doing it for a while know all too well how easy it is to overdo it. My first rule of harping, and probably the only one that I will not yeild on, is this: If it hurts, don’t do it! No matter how accomplished and confident your teacher may seem, they should never force you to do something that causes you pain or noticeable discomfort. Everyone’s hands and bodies are different, and not all techniques work for all people. The two most widely recognized pioneers of harp technique, Salzedo and Grandjany, both had unusually proportioned hands and fingers. What was right for them might not be right for you. Any good technique should be adaptable to different physical shapes and abilities.

I have met one-handed harpists, harpists living with Multiple Sclerosis, and harpists suffering from arthristis. I have taught harpists from as young as eight to as old as sixty-eight, all with different levels of strength and stamina, size of hand, length of fingers, and so on. So if you feel like you may not be “made for the harp”, take heart! Find a teacher willing to be flexible. Keep in mind that “flexible” does not equal “lazy” – you will still have to practice regularly, and be willing to make changes if they will help to improve your playing.

More advice for avoiding injury can be found in the .beginner’s tips section of the Celtic Harp Page. I would also highly recommend checking out Laurie Riley’s books: “The Harper’s Handbook” and “Your Hands, Your Music“. If you’re self-taught, be sure to pick up a good method book or instructional video. However, keep in mind that nothing can replace having a teacher. Teachers can point out your mistakes, provide encouragement, and generally keep you on the right track where books and DVD’s cannot.

If you know of any helpful pages regarding harp technique, ergonomics, repetetive strain injuries, or other related topics, feel free to let us know if the comments, below.