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.

8 thoughts on “The Ergonomic Harpist

  1. Someone pointed me to this page. As a professional musician (classical training, plus perform on and teach hammered dulcimer and autoharp), I study Body Mapping (www.bodymap.org) toward healthy playing AND great sound. It is always saddening to hear about musicians of any instrument being in pain. What comes to my mind as I read above is the need to understand the body’s core, as well as the organization of the arm structure. Yes, all harpists are built differently, and as a result the movements used to play need to help out. I typically find movement to be lacking in my dulcimer and autoharp students, alongside mismaps of the arms and hands. And to that I’ll add typing on the computer like playing the piano, with the wrists off the keyboard (certainly no wrist rests!). Thanks for openly talking about this subject. It’s an important one. Although the URL below will take you to info about pain prevention for the instruments I play, there may be some gems in there worthy for harpists to take note of. Best to all!

  2. I am so glad to find your site…thankyou thankyou..I am a beginner harp player and have been playing now for about a little over a year and have been inlove ever since! It is so nice to find ‘flexible’ attitudes towards body types and such.I have large lanky hands and all harpists i see seem to have such tiny cupped hands plucking away at the strings…I am pretty much self taught as i cant afford a teacher here.I occassionally get a lesson in with a beautiful local harpist but mostly practise on my own.I have used Sylvia Woods book and i practise everyday…Any helpful resources or hints for a beginner are muchly appreciated.
    I will now go and browse the rest of your wonderful site.
    Thanking you

  3. I was diagnosed with MS 4 years ago. I took up the Harp 1 year ago and find it wonderful! So relaxing though challenging! Its a fantastic instrument!

  4. Sherry, it sounds like you have found a good teacher, which is great. Good luck, hopefully the harp will work out for you. I have over the years had students with fibromyalgia, arthritis, MS, and other conditions. A couple of them have, unfortunately, had to stop playing, but most of them are still my students (and/or my friends) years later. I think the main key is that teachers recognize that everyone’s bodies and abilities are different, and work with people on an individual level.

  5. I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia for one year, and had to give up playing my first love, the viola. After wandering around through the web looking for some wonderful instrument to play, I came upon the lever harp, and had one glorious lesson last Tuesday(March 20) with more to follow. I found that playing at the direction of my teacher was not painful at all because I could allow my shoulders to relax, and my arm position was fairly natural. I hope to be able to continue.

  6. I have chronic problems in my wrists and shoulders (yet to be diagnosed as a specific syndrome, despite many tests; they tend to assume it’s just because I’m tall and thin), and the computer is by far the worst culprit. I find that if I use the computer very little, and play harp regularly, I’m generally okay; but if I’m using the computer heavily, the aches and pains that usually result can be aggravated by harp playing.

    I haven’t tried the pen-and-tablet yet, but I did get myself an ergonomic keyboard, and a desk that allows me to use the mouse with either hand, at a level close to lap level, which is the most neutral position for my arms. I also got a mouse with a scrolling wheel in the middle, so I didn’t have to move the mouse up and down to scroll a page. All these things made a big difference, but the best thing is still to remember to take lots of breaks, and stretch regularly.

    I tend to get very distracted when working on computer projects, so I downloaded a little timer that can beep at certain intervals to remind me to stretch. Of course, I have to activate it for it to work, which I don’t always remember to do. Luckily my husband tends to notice if I’ve been sequestered in my room for too long, and will come over and make me take a break.

  7. On 18 Jul 2006, in Harplist someone wrote:

    I was diagnosed with TSyTis some time ago, following what I feel was repetitive stress movements from my work. Almost 2 1/2 years later, I am now hesitantly ‘better’ although that is a relative term.

    Like others, I used acupuncture, which I found really helped when I had severe flair ups of pain, and I wore and slept in a wrist splint for months (infact I always carry one with me just in case). Anti inflammatory painkillers were a regular addition to my diet for many months too. I was offered steroid injections, but refused as my research suggests that for TSyTis it doesn’t always help, as opposed to Tendonitis for example.

    What I did was to reduce and stop a lot of other activities so that I could continue my harp playing. I rationalised what my hand had to do I guess, and decided that the one thing I wasn’t giving up was
    my harp music. I did gave up archery, knitting, hand sewing and for several months, playing the bass strings on my harps though. I changed my computer mouse for a pen and tablet, and changed sides too ~ I am very competant with both hands now! With my
    teacher, I did try to play my harps whilst wearing a splint, figuring that that was one way to continue but I found it too frustrating. We really dissected my technique, just on the off chance I was
    making things worse but I am pleased to say that I _was_ doing all the right things, harp~wize.

    I haven’t had any serious episodes of pain since February this year, but I am not complacent. I still don’t do a lot of things that I used to, and I am always aware that I could re-injure myself again very
    easily. There are certain things I will never do now (including those jobs at work which I still feel precipitated the whole thing) and my harp playing has had to change ~ no long hand span of notes in the bass for me! I also need to roll my hand to get some chord structures, which whilst it doesn’t always look great means I don’t hurt. That to me, is the most important thing.

    As was so often told to me by all the consultants that I met in various hospitals ~ time and rest will eventually heal. It is a great shame that in todays world where we are catagorised by ‘what’ we do, rather than who we are, we are expected to carry on working through the pain. With these types of injuries, that merely exacerbates the whole thing.

    However, I am still playing . . . .

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