Tips for the Beginning Harp Player
For more, check out the "Beginner Tips" section of the Harp Blog.
- Please note that some of the technique below applies specifically to nylon and/or gut strung harps, played with the pads of the fingers. For info on wire and cross-strung techniques, which have some significant differences, see below.
- For specific info on how to avoid injuries, click here
Note: Books, tips and videos are all well and good, but remember there is really no substitute for having a real person there showing you proper technique, watching you to make sure you're not developing bad habits, and helping you out with everything from good tone, to arranging, to neat little tricks like how to do ornaments properly. (Looking for a harp teacher? Click here!)
For a list of method books for lever harp, click here.
- You play with the thumb and first three fingers; your baby finger is too short, so mostly it just stays tucked out of the way, except when using the whole hand to do damping (stopping the string from vibrating) or glisses (those great disney-waterfall-sounds where you run your fingers up or down all the strings at once). In harp music, finger numbers go from 1 to 4, 1 being the thumb (regardless of which hand you're using).
I have heard of some people growing the nail long on their pinkie and using it to do certain effects; also that there is the odd person for whom the shape of their hand and/or proportion of fingers allow them to play with all five fingers. I have never personally seen this done however, and would recommend not trying it unless you have a teacher watching you to make sure that using your fifth finger doesn't distort your hand position.
- Keep the thumbs UP. Think of the hitch-hiking sign. Your thumb should always be above your other fingers. This allows you to do cross-overs, which is a smooth way of moving along the harp by either crossing your fingers underneath your thumb, or your thumb over your fingers. It also helps keep your hand in a good position. In my experience, this is one of the universals of all good harp techniques, celtic and classical. (Note: Wire and some Multi-Course harps excepted - for specific details on those kinds of harps click here)
- Keep your hand loose and open. Think of holding a rolled-up paper or glass of water in your hand. Some techniques, especially classical ones, may require your hand to be at various angles (check with your teacher or method book), but your hand should always be as relaxed as possible, and not stiff.
- Close your fingers all the way into your palm when you pluck. This gives you good leverage and keeps your finger muscles from getting tight and stiff. Close into a loose, flat fist; imagine having a butterfly in your hand that you don't want to crush. (Note: there are some exceptions to this, such as when playing ornaments quickly, or when playing the wire harp.)
- Keep your elbows out from your sides. This doesn't mean having them sticking up high in the air (which could potentially hurt your shoulders), just as long as there is some space between your arms and body. This will help keep your arm muscles loose and free and will help keep your wrist from bending awkwardly. My rule of thumb has been: the elbows should only be as high up as is necessary to keep the wrist straight, and never more than 90 degrees perpendicular to your torso.
- Move your harp to you; do not contort your body to reach the harp. If you have to twist to see the strings, try angling the harp a little differently. If the harp is too low, put it on some kind of riser (box, stool, removable legs), or find a shorter chair. Similarly, if the harp is too high, try a different seating arrangement. Lap harps can be put on risers as mentioned above; you can also sit on a board that sticks out in front of you, and put the harp on that. Or you can buy an around-the-waist or over-the-shoulder strap, for small therapy or busking style harps. Medium sized harps often come with extending legs. For all harps, finding the right kind of chair is also important. Generally look for a straight-back chair or stool that encourages good posture, is comfortable, and is the right height for you and your harp.
- Finally, try and keep your wrist straight, not bent. This will help avoid carpal tunnel and repetitive strain syndromes. Keeping your hand open and your elbows up slightly should help with this.
Avoiding Harp-Related and Other Music-Related Injuries
For more info, check out the "Ergonomics" section of the Harp Blog.
A good, practical technique and proper posture when playing (back straight - no slouching!) go a long way towards avoiding injury. For the beginner harp player, it is a good idea to find a teacher who can give you some pointers on technique. A good teacher should be able to provide you with a technique that recognizes your physical limitations and avoids bad habits leading to repetitive strain injuries, while still addressing the need to be able to play the harp in an efficient and practical manner. For more info on harp teachers, click here.
The following are some bad habits I have noticed in my students, and in other harp players, that can lead to short or long term injury:
- Twisting or extreme bending of the wrist
- Elbows too high (ie. more than 90 degrees perpendicular from your body)
- Elbows too low- You need at least some open space between your arm and your body.
- Shoulders hunched - Remember your shoulders should come back as you go higher up on the harp; they should not rise up.
- Head and neck twisted to one side - Often people will twist their head to look at the strings. Try to look more with your eyes, and keep your head as upright as possible. It's a good idea to learn how to play without looking at the strings at all; not only will this discourage holding your head at an odd angle to see the strings, but it will help with sight reading, and with keeping eye-contact with an audience, or any other people you might be playing with.
- Playing with stiff fingers - Generally your fingers and hand should be as relaxed as possible. Bringing the fingers all the way into the palm can help the fingers stay loose and fluid when playing
- Using a chair that is the wrong height for the harp - Using a chair that is too low or too high can lead to slouching, leaning too much of the harp's weight against you, or having your arms held too high. The effects of these are often not noticeable immediately, but if you play for any length of time it can cause a great deal of discomfort, especially in the lower and upper back. If you have a harp that is not suited to playing on a normal-height chair, you may want to consider investing in a folding chair or stool that is the proper height. In some cases, it is even possible to play standing up, with the harp on a box or platform of some kind; or in the case of lap harps, to sit in a normal height chair, with the harp placed on a box or raised by using detachable legs.
- Over-practicing & excessive repetition - Practicing is good, but remember to take breaks! For beginners, this is especially important. You are training your fingers to do things they may not be used to doing. You are stretching and working muscles that may be very stiff and underused. Take it slow, and don't do too much at once. For early beginners, I recommend starting out with a 10-15 minute practice session, tops. If you want to practice more in one day, try setting aside several practice sessions, or take a significant break after each ten minute interval. When you're starting out, it's quite easy to overdo it. Having trouble with a tune, or an exercise? Some repetition is fine, but don't do the same thing too many times in a row. This can lead to repetitive strain injuries, such as sore joints, pain in fingers, shoulder and neck, and other problems. Talk to your teacher if you think you might be overdoing it - and remember, it shouldn't hurt! If it hurts to play, something is wrong and needs to be fixed! Stop immediately and figure out the problem before continuing.
For more detailed information on music-related injuries, you can visit these pages:
Musicians and Injuries
A Patient's Guide to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (if this link doesn't work, try going to their main page at www.medicalmultimediagroup.com and search from there - they also have sections on other repetitive strain related injuries)
www.pedrodealcantara.com, information on the Alexander Technique - site of Pedro de Alcantara, author and musician
Laurie Riley also has a book on music-related injuries and how to avoid them - for more details, see the General Information section on our Harp Books page.
Finally, those of you wishing to start out on a wire-strung or cross-strung harp will find that the techniques used differ from that used on nylon or gut-strung (single) harps. This is especially true if you wish to try the ancient technique of playing wire strings with your nails instead of the pads of your fingers. For a list of wire-harp and cross-strung method books, go to the wire harp section of our harp books page.