When is a harp buzz not a harp buzz? When it’s coming from somewhere else in the room.
The world we live in is teeming with objects that want to deceive us into thinking our harp has a buzz. Disguised as ordinary lighting fixtures, heating registers, even as innocent tchotchkes on glass tables, they sit patiently, waiting for us to play that one particular note, then–
You think it’s your harp. You curse that scheister who just did the regulation. How could he miss this? You play fourth octave F sharp and it sounds like a swarm of bees is heading right for you. You can’t get good help these days! But before you fire off an angry email to that son of a bleep, take a minute to rule out unwanted noises coming from elsewhere in the room.
Every object has a resonance frequency, meaning when sound vibrations of a particular frequency or pitch hits it, it vibrates. In most cases, these vibrations will not be noticeable. If an object is too thick, for instance. But certain items, such the thin pieces of metal found the covers over every fluorescent light fixture in every harp practice room in America, vibrate very easily. These are known as sympathetic vibrations, wherein sound from one vibrating object (your harp string) excites another (that confounded light fixture).
In other cases, two objects that are touching each other can make a noise when one of them vibrates. Sometimes, when I’ve found myself tuning up a harp next to a desk, I’ve heard a noise and found that two metal objects, a pen and a stapler, for instance, are vibrating against one another. Steel wastebaskets are also good for this, especially when you replace your bass wires and throw the old ones into it. More than once, part of my procedure for “regulating” a harp has involved kicking the wastebasket or the desk to rearrange the items inside, thus disrupting the marriage of whichever objects are too close to one another.
How to detect a room buzz? First, determine whether the sound you hear is a sympathetic vibration or not. In other words, is the buzz directly connected to the string you’re playing (and any parts it is in contact with, such as a disc)? Most non-sympathetic harp buzzes have a short duration, or cause the string to sound muted or snappy. They are most often caused by improper gripping of the discs (or levers, on a lever harp). Sympathetic vibrations tend to last longer. They also can start just a fraction of an instant after you play the string.
Once you are certain you have a sympathetic vibration, try to determine whether or not it is coming from your harp. It can be harder to tell than you might think. Stick your ear next to a soundhole and play the offending string. If the sound is louder, chances are it is coming from the harp. Do the same with the mechanism and column (on a pedal harp). If a sound gets louder as you put your ear right next to parts of the instrument, there’s a good bet it’s the harp. If the sound doesn’t get louder closer to the instrument, try leaning as far away as you can and playing the string. See if you can hear the direction the sound is coming from. Once you suspect a room vibration, take your harp in another room, ideally not one with the same type of light fixtures, which are the number one cause of these things. If the sound is gone when you play it elsewhere, it is clearly in the room.
If you have a room buzz, you may be able to fix it. Check around. I mentioned desks and metal wastebaskets. Glass curio cabinets are also frequent culprits. If it’s that darned light fixture, you may have to live with it. At least you’ll know it’s not your harp!
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