Is that a harp?
Yes, the Celtic or folk harp is a direct descendant of the first harps. It traces its lineage back to all the corners of the ancient world, to Egypt, to the Middle East, to the Celtic isles and old Europe. Far older than the orchestral or pedal harp, the Celtic harp has come into its own, thanks in part to the modern technology that gives us accurate sharping levers.
The pedal harp is a relatively recent development. It is bigger, has a much larger soundbox (to carry the sound over the orchestra), and 7 pedals that change the pitch of the strings (see lever question, below, for more information). Often, the pedal harp is ornate, even gilded, which reflects its more elite origins and its coming-of-age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
What are those levers you’re flipping? Do they change the key?
Close. They are called sharping levers, and when they are up (engaged), they sharp the pitch of the string by one half-step. For example, F becomes F-sharp. By adding or taking away sharps (i.e. making naturals and flats), we change the key. For a long time there were no levers, and the first levers weren’t very accurate, which meant that playing in only one key was the fate of harpers of old. Times have changed!
On a fully-levered harp, each string has a lever that must be set individually, and each string can be one of two pitches–say, either F or F-sharp, or E or E-flat. (Contrast this with a pedal harp, where one pedal position determines whether all the F strings on the whole harp are one of three pitches: F-natural, F-sharp or F-flat).
Is it hard to play the Celtic harp?
This is probably the question I get asked most often, and answering it was the inspiration for this website. Harp playing, like any other endeavor, is a journey. If you’re passionate about learning, it will feel easy. Your harp will call to your from its corner, and the sweetness of your time with the harp will draw you to practice. But yes, like any instrument, it does require the “P” word. Instead of “practice”, why not think of it as play? The more you sing and listen as you play, the lovelier your music will be, and your willingness to be present will create the magic sounds that drew you to the harp in the first place.
Like any fine motor skill, learning to play the harp requires kinesthetic training. You teach your fingers what to do through repetition. But what a joy that process can be when even the simplest series of notes can be so beautiful! No other instrument offers such instant, gratifying results to your ear.
How many sizes do Celtic harps come in?
Celtic harps come in many sizes anymore, but generally no smaller than a 22-string lap harp and no bigger than a 38-string floor harp. (A full-sized pedal harp has 47 strings).
Okay, then how many strings do I need?
That depends on several factors, including what kind of music you want to play and how much you want to carry the harp around. I started with at 29-string harp and soon wanted more strings, as I love to play music that makes extensive use of a rich, resonant bass. For Celtic music, or therapeutic music, it is quite possible to be content with a smaller harp. In fact, 27 strings is the norm for a portable, well-built therapy harp. My training in the International Harp Therapy Program taught me just how much one can do with a rather small harp.
On the other hand, it is sometimes easier to learn hand position at a floor harp, because you are freed from having to hold a harp on your lap, a strap, or a box in front of you. The best thing is to try as many harps as you can get your hands on, and delay buying one until you have enough experience to know what you want. Most harp stores offer harps for rent. If you’re not near a harp store, try to go to a conference or workshop where you can try many harps.
How do I buy a Celtic harp?
This subject something I’m asked about all the time. I’ve added a whole page to help guide you through the process.
What should I look for in a harp teacher?
First and foremost, find a teacher who believes his or her job is helping you achieve YOUR goals. A child of seven and an adult of 70 may have very different motivation for learning to play the Celtic harp, different needs, and different goals. Find a harp teacher who has a good grasp of harp technique; it really does apply to any harp. (Hint, if your teacher doesn’t talk to you about closing your fingers into the palms or keeping your thumbs up, find another one. This careful technique really will pay off in the long run).
Regardless of what a fabulous player a teacher may be, make sure that teacher has enough skill and experience to be an effective teacher. What do the teacher’s other students say?
I encourage my students to approach playing the harp from as many angles as possible. For example, a typical lesson includes not only exercises (usually pulled out of a current piece), but basic music reading and chord building, improvisation, and composing or arranging. Whether you prefer learning by ear or learning by reading notation, your teacher should stretch you in the opposite direction, while honoring your strength and building on it. Most of all, your teacher should inspire you to have fun while you’re learning!
Do you have to tune the harp every time you play it? Is it hard to tune?
Have you heard the one about the harpist? She spends half her time tuning and half her time playing out of tune! All jokes aside, how often you tune depends on many factors. New harps require frequent tuning; new strings do as well. Big swings in temperature or humidity make a harp go out of tune. A seasoned harp in normal conditions should keep its tune for days, but as your ear becomes surer you will notice the little changes and want to correct them. Electronic tuners have made the process much easier.
Tuning is something that becomes second nature, gets faster and easier, and trains your ear. I like to approach it as a sort of grounding meditation. I tune my harp, and as I settle myself into its lovely sounds I center or “tune” myself in preparation for letting the music flow through me.
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