New to the Harp
Maybe your child announced at dinner last night that they want to play the harp. How exciting! But now you find yourself wondering if this is even possible. Many families have questions about the instrument itself. How does the harp work? Do harps come in different sizes? How do you tune a harp? Below you will find information about the mechanics of the instrument, renting or purchasing a harp, and caring for a harp. Hopefully this information will give you a thorough overview of the instrument. If your child decides to pursue playing the harp, a harp teacher would be happy to provide more specifics, such as a recommendation for a harp to suit your child, a demonstration in tuning, and so on.
Let’s start with talking about what exactly a harp is. Everyone has some sort of image in their mind, perhaps an angel complete with a halo and a harp, or a woman in a ball gown seated elegantly with a harp, or maybe you’re a big fan of Harpo Marx.
Actually the basic definition of a harp is quite simple. A harp is a frame with strings stretched across it. When you pluck the strings, they create sound. You could make your own harp out of a shoebox and some rubber bands, but it wouldn’t sound like much. When you have a proper harp, the strings form a scale, the same as the white keys on a piano: C D E F G A B (or Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si), which repeat over and over for higher or lower notes. Harp strings are color-coded, one of the few instruments to use color for guidance. All of the C strings are red and all of the F strings are black or blue. Harpists only use four fingers to play: their
Harpo Marx, who played really well, actually. His playing is rather unorthodox, since he was
Here I am (in a ball gown)
at age 16.
thumb, index finger, middle finger and ring finger, with both their right and left hands. No one uses their little finger as it’s too short and awkward.
Many people, even other professional musicians that I chat with, don’t realize that there are two different types of harps: lever and pedal harps. There are many differences between the two. If a friend offers to give you and all of your luggage a ride to the airport, but they show up with a motorcycle when you’re expecting an SUV, this might cause some problems. Yes, they’re both vehicles, but there are some obvious advantages and disadvantages depending on your viewpoint. The same is true of lever and pedal harps.
Harp Basics: Lever Harps
Lever harps are also frequently called Celtic harps, Irish harps, or simply folk harps. These harps are small, much smaller than people are aware that a harp can be, usually between 3 and 5 feet tall. They generally have 22 to 38 strings, a 3- to 5- octave range. The name lever harp comes about because the strings are equipped with individual levers along the top of the harp. On the piano you have two rows of keys, one white (naturals) and one black (sharps and flats). The black keys are a bit higher or lower in sound from the neighboring white keys. The harp approaches this same question in a slightly different way. You only have one row of strings, but each string can be altered to a second position using a lever, so that each string makes two sounds. The levers create sharps and flats.
My hands on the strings. Neither pinky is touching a string; they're just tucked in. You can also see the color-coding of the red and black strings here.
An elementary school
student with a lever harp.
Because this type of harp is smaller, less expensive, and more transportable than a pedal harp, most students begin by playing a lever harp. Some play lever harps for their entire career. If you were to go see a professional Celtic harpist perform, they would perform on a lever harp. Other students, however, choose to switch to a pedal harp.
Here's a photo of a lever harp where you can clearly see the lever at the top of each string. (Click to enlarge.)
Harp Basics: Pedal Harps
Pedal harps are large, sometimes gilded with gold, and what you see on stage with a professional orchestra. Pedal harps have 40 to 47 strings and are around 5 ½ or 6 feet tall, and, for someone who wishes to pursue classical music seriously, they eventually become a necessity. Pedal harps are complex mechanical instruments. First of all, while lever harps have two positions for each string, pedal harps have three positions for each string: flat, natural and sharp, or more simply, low, middle and high sounds. Having three positions for each string gives you more options. In musical terms, the lever harp is limited in the number of keys it can play in, but the pedal harp can play in all twenty-four keys.
Secondly, each string on a lever harp is controlled by an individual lever. There’s one lever for each string, so changing the position of all of the strings can be a slow process. The pedal harp uses a similar mechanism at the top of the string to move between the three different positions, but the mechanism is then connected inside of the harp (much of the harp is hollow) all the way down to a set of pedals around the bottom of the harp. These pedals are used to move the strings between the three possible positions. Since it would be impossible to have one pedal per string (47 pedals?!), the pedals instead move entire sets of strings together. There are seven pedals for the seven notes of the scale. All of the C strings are connected to the same pedal and move simultaneously. All of the D strings are connected to the same pedal and move together, and so forth. Now you can change between the three different positions much more quickly than you can when you have to move each lever individually.
Finally, to change a lever, you have to stop playing with one hand in order to reach up and move the lever. Since the pedals are controlled by the feet, you can continue playing with both of your hands and move the pedals simultaneously, making transitions much more seamless. This does, however, mean that to play the pedal harp you need to use both of your hands and both of your feet. From a coordination standpoint, it's in the same class
Most pedal harps are about six feet tall
and weigh around seventy-five pounds.
the drum set, the organ, and the pedal steel guitar, all of which also use both hands and both feet.
Advanced classical music, whether it’s written as a solo piece or as part of an ensemble, is written specifically for the pedal harp. You need to have all 47 strings, be able to play in all 24 keys, and have the ability to change between sharps and flats quickly in order to play this music. Most easy classical harp music doesn’t make the same demands, so this can be played on a lever harp. If you begin on a lever harp, you might play this for several years before your skills increase to the point where your music requires a pedal harp. Since pedal harps are big instruments, students also must also be physically large enough to play one. Many students switch sometime in middle school or high school. Students who wish to pursue a music major in college are expected to be playing a pedal harp before they begin their college careers.
Here I am conducting a harp ensemble. You can see that there are many different sizes and styles of harps. Most of the harps in the front row are lever harps and the larger pedal harps are in the back row.
Finding a Harp: Renting a Harp
A few years ago, I rented a violin from a local music store. It was amazingly easy and only took about twenty minutes to walk in, set everything up, and leave holding a violin. Renting a harp is not quite this straightforward. To begin with, most local music stores do not rent or sell harps. However, there are harp centers, which rent and sell only harps, scattered throughout the United States. If you are lucky enough to be close to one, this can be a great option. They have many different styles and sizes of harps. Frequently they offer options such as renting-to-own, or trading up to a bigger size as your child grows. Students sometimes travel a few hours to the closest harp center, or even have harps shipped to them.
Rentals can also be found through private individuals. Many harp teachers have harps that they personally rent out, or might know of a professional or another student with an extra harp to rent. Usually this is pretty simple, just agreeing on a fee and possibly a deposit. However, most individuals don’t offer perks like trading in, or rent-to-own.
Finding a Harp: Buying a Harp
Some people choose to purchase an instrument, either right from the start, or maybe after their child has been playing for a while. It’s possible to purchase new instruments directly from harp makers and have them shipped to you. There are also used harps available. Some of the harp centers mentioned above sell used harps, and some harp makers sell used harps in addition to their new models. There are also classifieds ads, and Craigslist and eBay both do quite a bit of business on the used harp front. In general, harps do not get better with age, unlike some other string instruments. New or fairly new harps tend to be more reliable, as harps can develop structural problems with age.
One question to consider when looking into buying a harp is the lever or pedal harp question. It might be financially advantageous for you to purchase rather than rent a lever harp, but how soon might you consider switching to a pedal harp? Would it be better just to wait for a bit and move up to a pedal harp as soon as possible, or will it be quite a while before your child would be ready to consider making a switch? Your harp teacher will be able to provide guidance in this. The good news is that harps resell pretty well, so if you do end up buying an instrument and then eventually needing to buy a second one, you will probably be able to sell your first instrument without too much difficulty.
To throw some very general numbers out there, new lever harps range in price from approximately $1,000 to $6,000 depending on the size and quality of the instrument. Used lever harps start around $500 for something quite small. New pedal harps usually start around $10,000 and go up from there. Used pedal harps are available starting at a bit less, although sometimes a low price means that it is an older instrument that might need extensive work done. For any harp, there is a really wide range in quality, size, and age, as well as additional factors to consider, such as warranties, shipping costs, and potential repairs or maintenance needed. As with any major purchase, it’s good to assess what your needs are, both immediate and in the future, and then try to decide what would be best for your personal situation.
Finding a Harp: Accessories
Many families ask me what they might need in addition to a harp, which is a good question. You’ll need a music stand, so that you can see your music properly while you’re playing. Wire folding music stands are inexpensive and easy to purchase from any music store. You could also consider a professional quality stand, such as a Manhasset stand.
Harpists also always sit down to play, so you will need a seat of some kind. Many people sit on a bench or stool specifically designed with the harp in mind. These are adjustable to a variety of heights. Keyboard benches provide a less expensive option. Some beginning harpists might start out sitting on an ordinary dining room chair, or a stool they have at home. Figuring out the proper height depends on the height of your harp and your personal height, but regardless of this, a hard, flat surface is always better than an upholstered couch or chair.
My preferred keyboard bench. Because the height
is adjustable, it works well
for the harp.
Short Break: Positives
Maybe at this point you’re feeling like it’s all too much work and too expensive. Maybe you’re planning to talk your child into something much easier and simpler as a creative outlet, like making mud pies in the backyard. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that whenever you put this much information in one place, it looks overwhelming. Keep in mind that you don’t have to run out and do all of this at once. I just want you to have an overview of absolutely everything that might come up in the next several years if you do decide to pursue the harp, so that you're not in for any unpleasant surprises.
But let's set all of that aside, and take a look at a few positives about the harp before we return to our overview:
Compared to other budding musicians, a beginning harpist sounds really nice. Anyone can play a few strings and have it sound beautiful. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of a beginning violinist or trumpet player.
You frequently find unique opportunities with the harp, since you already stand out just by playing the instrument. Your church might love to have you play for a Christmas Eve service, or maybe your school orchestra would like to feature you during their upcoming concert. It’s much harder to get equal opportunities if you’re doing something that many other people do, such as singing.
The harp is a versatile instrument. You can play a variety of styles of music, and you don’t need to have anyone accompany you, the way you would on, say, the clarinet. Harpists can and do play solos all the time, in all kinds of settings, such as for weddings, parties, art gallery openings, and on and on.
Everyone loves the harp. I never meet people and have them tell me that they think of the harp as a horrendous, negative instrument, that they despise all music, and that they never want to hear me play. People are excited to meet someone of any age who plays the harp.
Taking Care of Your Harp
Once you have a beautiful harp in your home, you naturally want to take care of it. First of all, you want to find a good place for it in your house. A harp is sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, so it’s important to put it in a room where this is well controlled. If you’re physically uncomfortable with the temperature and humidity level, then your harp is definitely uncomfortable. You want to avoid putting it directly in front of a heating vent or in a sunny window. Take care not to allow your harp to be in extreme temperatures, such as leaving your harp in the car on a hot summer day while you run into the store, or sitting in a cold garage overnight in the middle of winter.
Dust your harp regularly using a clean, dry cloth and avoid cleaning products. Wash your hands before playing to keep the strings and wood clean. Taking care of your harp is important, but remember an instrument is not a priceless piece of art meant to be admired from a safe distance. Don't worry so much that you're afraid to play your harp!
Taking Care of Your Harp: Tuning
Unlike a piano, where you hire a professional tuner once a year, harpists must tune their own harps, just like guitar players. Except, of course, that guitars only have six strings. Here’s how it works: Each string is wound around a tuning peg at the top of the harp. A small tool, called a tuning key, fits onto these pegs. The tuning key works like a wrench and allows you turn the peg and string and make the sound higher or lower, so that you can tune each string individually.
You might be thinking, "Ok, so the tuning key allows you to make each string higher and lower. But how do you know when it’s high enough or low enough to be in tune?" An electronic tuner can be really useful for this, as it tells you when the string is at just the right point. You can get an electronic tuner as a free or inexpensive app on a smart phone or you can buy an electronic tuner at any music store. These are not instrument-specific and simply need to be a chromatic tuner.
A common t-shaped tuning key.
Your harp should come with a tuning key, but if not, or if you happen to lose it, you can easily buy a new one. Be sure to buy a tuning key recommended or sold by your harp’s manufacturer, as tuning keys are not universal and you need one that fits your harp.
It is also possible to tune a harp by ear, say by using a piano and matching the sound of each string to the sound of each piano key. This can be a bit slow, as you have to keep moving back and forth between the piano and the harp,
and if your piano isn’t perfectly in tune, then your harp won’t be either. Most people find an electronic tuner to be more reliable and efficient, but some people enjoy the challenge of tuning by ear.
One thing to keep in mind is that tuning is a skill. Just like with learning to play the harp, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Some beginning students find tuning to be straightforward right from the start. Others find it more difficult, but after some practice and coaching from a teacher, everyone gets better at it and soon it becomes routine.
A popular chromatic tuner.
Taking Care of Your Harp: Replacing Strings
Harp strings are made out of different materials, usually nylon, gut, and wire. (And yes, by gut I really do mean all natural animal gut. Did you know that harp string manufacturers also make tennis racket strings?) Harps frequently have a combination of the different types of strings. Because of the intense pressure on the strings, they tend to break from time to time. This does not mean that there’s something wrong with your harp or how you care for it, but simply that the string is no longer able to withstand the pressure. All harps break strings. You might go for six months without breaking a string, and then break several strings in a few days, especially if the weather changes suddenly. It is easy enough to order a new string from a harp company if you know what you need, but figuring out the proper string to order can be confusing, as there isn’t a standard numbering system. Also, strings are highly specific to the type of harp, so you can’t necessarily order a generic nylon string and put it on any harp that uses nylon strings. Most harp manufacturers provide information about the type of strings that your harp needs.
Once you have a new string, you need to put it on the harp. This involves tying a knot at one end, threading it up through the instrument, and winding it around the peg. It takes several days for new strings to stretch out and stay in tune, so it’s normal for the new string to need lots of tuning at first. Professional harpists replace all of their strings about once a year so that they are always in top-notch condition.
If your harp is four feet tall or less, moving it is not very difficult. You just need to put the harp in its cover and carry it out to the car. Most harps come with a cover of some sort, but if not, you can purchase one separately. Some people even make their own covers, especially if they have a small instrument. Be sure to place your harp in the car securely, so that it won’t slide around or tip over during the trip. If it’s a very hot or very cold day, it’s a good idea to let the car run for a few minutes before you put your harp in, so that the temperature won’t be too extreme.
If your harp is in the five- to six-foot tall range, moving it is a bit more involved. First of all, harps of this size are unwieldy and carrying it may be awkward or difficult. A harp cart, also called a dolly or caddy, is an invaluable tool, so that you can simply roll a harp from the house to the car. Assistance might be needed when going up and down steps. You also need to make sure your car is big enough to fit the harp. SUVs, minivans, and station wagons are all great options. It’s most common to either lay the harp on its side and slide it into the car, usually with the seats folded down to make a flat bed, or to put the harp in on its column, sliding it between seats.
Full-size harp on a harp cart ready
to load into a minivan.
Professional harpists will tell you that moving a harp isn’t too difficult, because when you do it all the time, you develop a system. Someone who changes the oil in their car twice a year will find the process more difficult than someone who is a professional mechanic. If you have to move your harp all the time, you soon get good at it.
Finding a Teacher
Still interested? Most people begin by finding a teacher and then look for a harp based on the teacher’s recommendation. There are several resources that provide lists of teachers, organized geographically. You might try contacting several teachers in your area to see if you can bring your child for a trial lesson. Attending a performance
given by the teacher or a recital of their students can be a nice way to see a bit more of a teacher. Because music lessons are almost always one-on-one sessions, it’s important to find a teacher who is not only musically excellent, but one who also works well with your child’s personality.
Good luck with the harp! Maybe before long you’ll find yourself with a harp in your living room and a budding performer on your hands, rather than just dinner table conversations about possibilities.
© 2015 Jacqueline Pollauf. All rights reserved
Without a doubt, the cutest harp I have ever personally seen. It was fuzzy to the touch!