The Harp Herald

A blog about harps, harpists, and other crazy stuff

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Lever Harp Spoken Here

Lever Harp Lineup at Lyon & Healy WestPeople often ask me if I’m willing to work on lever harps, and the answer is yes! In addition to my extensive experience with Lyon & Healy and Salvi lever harps, I have also serviced and repaired harps by a variety of other makers including Camac, Dusty Strings, Thormahlen, Sandpiper, Triplett, Heartland, and more.

While some traveling harp technicians prefer not to get involved with lever harps, I consider them a specialty. During my time at Lyon & Healy I spent two years performing final regulations on all of the Troubadours, Folk Harps, and Preludes that Lyon & Healy produced. I was a member of the R&D team that developed the Prelude. I also had a hand in the final assembly and regulation of many of the Salvi lever harps sold in the United States in the mid-1990’s.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about your lever harp and its needs. How often do lever harps need service? A lot less often than pedal harps. Lever harps can go for years and years without any more maintenance than regular cleaning and string replacement. If you’re starting to hear some buzzing when you play, or if the harp doesn’t sound in tune anymore when you flip up some of the levers to change keys, then you’re probably due for a regulation.

I generally recommend that lever harp owners who are not having any problems with their instruments have them regulated about once every five years. This gives me a chance to perform preventative maintenance like tightening screws, replacing levers that may be wearing, and watching for any structural issues that may be developing over time.

As with pedal harps, I recommend preparing for a regulation appointment by replacing the strings in the first and second octaves if they are more than two years old. Many harpists also decide to have their bass wires changed during a regulation appointment. As we discussed in this post, new bass wires can give your whole harp’s sound a big boost.

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The Lowdown: Getting the Most from Your Harp’s Bass Wires

Have you ever felt like your harp just doesn’t resonate like it used to? Let’s talk about bass wires and the sonic contributions they make over the harp’s entire range.

What are bass wires and why should you care about them? They are the metal strings in the lowest two octaves on your harp. On a typical pedal harp, the bass wires run from the lowest string up through 5th octave G. On some lever harps, the wires run as high as 5th octave C.

Each bass string consists of two pieces of wire. A plain steel core runs straight up from end to end. A much thinner winding coils around the core, and this is the part of the wire that you can see. Between the core and the winding a layer of silk threads keeps the core and winding from vibrating against one another. A good set of wires will resonate sympathetically even when you’re playing strings in higher registers,resulting in a richer sound and better projection across the harp’s entire range.

You can demonstrate this by playing a chord in the second or third octave, then quickly dampening the strings you just played. Do you still hear the chord? That’s the sound of the lower strings vibrating in sympathy with the higher ones. The bass wires act as assistants in the harp’s resonance, even when they aren’t being played.

Over time, dust and grime work their way in between the coils of the winding, muffling the wire’s sound and dampening its sustain. Old bass wires have a tubby, plunky sound that dies quickly, while new ones ring out and hold their tone longer.

Eventually, the tight winding of the coil begins to loosen and the wires begin to rattle or sizzle loudly. As wires age, their ability to vibrate sympathetically decreases. Tarnish on the coil’s surface will cause it to lose its resonance. This happens slowly so that you may not notice the effect, but you may wonder why your harp just doesn’t sound as good as it used to.

How often should you replace your wires? That depends on your playing level and your needs. Many orchestra players I know replace their bass wires once a year. They need every bit of sound the harp can produce to compete with the other instruments onstage. I would recommend that anyone who plays in public on a regular basis change their bass wires every two years. More casual players can wait longer, perhaps as many as five years. If you haven’t replaced your bass wires in a long time, try it, and you’ll be pleased with the instant improvement in your harp’s tone.

So, You Want to Take Harp Lessons?

Harp CrownsI’ve talked to a lot of harpists who tell the same story: “I saw a harpist playing at a wedding (or party, or outdoor concert, or whatever) and I just knew I had to learn how to play.” Is this you? Do you feel drawn to the harp for reasons you can’t explain? Well, I say go for it! Find yourself a teacher, a harp to buy, rent, or borrow, and get started. If you’re the parent of a child who has expressed an interest in the harp, why not give her or him the opportunity to try it?

Finding  a Teacher

You can find leads on harp teachers in your area by Googling “harp teacher” with your community’s name. Ask at music stores. They may have referrals. If you run across a harpist you like at a wedding or public venue, ask if she gives lessons. You can also find a list of teachers at the American Harp Society website. Hopefully you’ll find more than one to choose from. If so, ask about their experience, styles of music they specialize in, their availability, and their fees. Some harp teachers have a very specific approach and repertoire they teach, while others are very open to following the interests of the student. Both approaches can be successful. What matters is  feeling you or your child is a good match for the teacher. Sometimes there’s no way to be sure without trying a few lessons to see how it goes.

Finding a Harp

Harps aren’t cheap. Even cheap harps aren’t cheap. If you see any advertised for only a few hundred dollars and imported from Pakistan, do not buy them. They are very pretty but almost unplayable. There are a few other small starter harps, such as the Harpsicle, or lap harps by companies like Stoney End, but you may find some teachers who do not recommend these. Talk to your teacher before you buy one. Some companies, such as Lyon & Healy, offer rent-to-own programs, which typically give you a six month rental in return for a small down payment on the harp. After six months, you can return the harp if you change your mind about it. Otherwise, you pay the balance and keep the harp. It is also possible to rent a harp before you decide to buy one of your own. See this post for more info on finding rental harps.

You Can Do This

If I had a dollar for every person who ever told me they have no musical talent, I’d be retired. There is an unfortunate misconception among many people that musical talent is based on genetics alone. This is simply not true. While the most outstanding among us, the Leonard Bernsteins and Whitney Houstons and Wolfgang Mozarts and the like, probably were born with an extra dose of musical genius, the capacity to make music is in all of us. The key is practice. Musicians are made, not born. Whenever you start a musical instrument, especially if you’ve never played before, it is difficult and discouraging. Your fingers will not want to obey you and you may feel that you just don’t have what it takes. Hang in there. Give it a full six months of really trying, going to your lessons and putting in regular practice before you decide it isn’t working. Everyone goes through this period, even the geniuses (Well, maybe not the geniuses, but everybody else does….). You may not believe it at first, but it does get better. Good luck!

How to Find a Harp for Rent

If you’re just starting out on the harp, or even thinking of starting lessons, you may be wondering if you really have to plunk down thousands of dollars to buy your own harp before you’ve had a chance to see if you like playing it or not. The answer is, no, you don’t. You you should be able to find a harp you can rent in your area for a few months while you determine whether the harp is the instrument for you.

Finding a rental harp is a little trickier than finding other instruments for rent. Walk into any music store and you should be able to rent a violin or a band instrument, but I would be very surprised if you found  a harp, unless this store is one of the few that sells harps. Instead, you should be looking to rent from harpists in your area.

Start with teachers you are thinking of working with. Many harp teachers own one or more rental instruments for their beginning students to rent. If the teacher you’re interested in does not, he or she may know of other harpists in the area who do rent harps. If you can’t find a teacher, try contacting the professional harpists in your area. You should be able to find a few by googling “harpist + (your town’s name here).” Professional harpists may have extra harps they are willing to rent. If you live in a small town or rural area, you may need to travel to a larger city to find a harp to rent. Harps for rent are often advertised in publications for harpists, such as Harp Column, but if the owner is not within driving distance you’ll have to be prepared to pay the shipping expense.

Rental agreements and prices vary by region. Be sure to understand in advance who is responsible for strings, maintenance, regulation, etc. Most of the time the renter takes care of strings and other expenses. Regulation and other repairs are usually not an issue if you just rent for a few months, but be sure and understand who will be responsible if the instrument needs repair. You should also discuss insurance coverage with the harp owner. Harps are often covered by musical instrument insurance, but it may be advisable to add it to your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy.

Buying a harp, even a small one, is a significant investment, and there is no reason you should do it if you aren’t certain you’ll want to stay with it. Fortunately, if you get to know the harp community in your area, you should have a chance to try before you buy.

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