It’s finally time to have a blog post about harping. I seem to have done a lot of it as Christmas approaches, culminating in Harps North West’s fine Christmas Party and Concert yesterday.
Six years ago I didn’t harp at all. Someone suggested a beginners’ workshop with Harps North West might be fun, and I went along. Instantly hooked, I embarked on an intensive series of workshops and lessons, culminating in achieving Grade 6 on the instrument. After that the exam pieces just started to get longer, so I decided to call a halt on this and just enjoy the music. I already played the piano, which helped the learning curve.
Harps North West http://harpsnorthwest.org.uk is a charity promoting appreciation of the harp in all its various forms – the pedal or concert harp, the clarsach or lever harp (sometimes known as the folk harp), the electric harp and even the cardboard harp, an easy and inexpensive way of making a start on the instrument. Mary Dunsford, current convener of Harps North West, plays all four and I’d like to thank her for letting me use two of her photographs. Her young son is already plucking the cardboard harp!
The soundbox on Alfie’s harp is made of cardboard, but it still produces a lovely sound! This harp has been personalised by Alfie’s mum with cartoons from the Beano, all featuring different sound effects – ‘pow’, ‘zzzzip’ and many more. He’s going to be a great player.
I play the clarsach or lever harp and, although I’m Scottish, I opted for a Welsh one, beautifully made by Telynau Teifi of Wales, a great firm to deal with. My folk harp, the ‘Gwennol’ (which means ‘swallow’) has a wonderful big sound box and an impressive sound for its size.
The levers are used to raise the pitch of each string by a semitone, and before we play a piece we need to set the levers for the key it is in. If you miss one, it’s painfully obvious in the playing… Pedal harpists don’t have these issues as the key changes are all done with the feet. My harp has 34 strings and a range of nearly 5 octaves. Every string has to be tuned before a performance.
There were a few surprises for me with harps. First of all, they are suited to an enormous variety of musical genres – classical, folk and jazz all sound good! Secondly, it can be a solitary instrument if you want, but it’s also great for group playing. I was surprised to discover just how many people play this instrument, and how sociable and friendly the harping world is. The best place to meet harpists from all over the world is at the Clarsach Society’s Edinburgh International Harp Festival, which takes place every April; there’s an amazing variety of classes, workshops and concerts and you’re run off your feet if you try to do everything. One of the best things I did at the Edinburgh Harp Festival was join 150 other harpists in one concert back in 2011.
In addition to playing on my own, I play with a small group ‘Harper Four’ and with other members of Harps North West at their regular events.
In late November each year Harps North West runs a weekend course at Higham Hall, beautifully set in Cumbria with views of Skiddaw from the front door. This is how it looked on the first Sunday in Advent.
Our tutors for the weekend were Welsh triple harpist Robin Huw Bowen and Charlotte Petersen from Peebles, both well known to us all for their lovely playing and musical arrangements. Robin champions the Welsh traditions on his triple harp (yet another variety of harp, which has three rows of strings rather than levers to give the semitones) while encouraging us to ‘practise, practise, practise’ as an aid to greater speed and dexterity.
As you can see, the Welsh triple harp is a bit taller than my lever harp. Many of Robin’s tunes are inspired by the Welsh gypsy tradition and his work with Romani Eldra Roberts, who has passed on the melodies to him. Charlotte gave us some haunting tunes from Scotland, Ireland and France, as well as a delightfully jingly Swedish Christmas carol complete with glissandi and bell-like chimes. A reindeer duly appeared on the front lawn.
At the Harps North West Christmas party concert participants aged seven to seventy played a selection of group carols. There were also contributions from soloists and our smaller playing groups. One brave young participant played a solo after only six lessons. Alfie had brought his cardboard harp, but seemed to prefer to sweep the floor. Perhaps we’ll hear him play next year!
A very happy Christmas to you all from the world of harping!
For anyone who wants to try out the harp, there are regular beginners’ workshops with Harps North West and through regional branches of the Clarsach Society. Mary Dunsford also offers sessions on the cardboard harps through Cumbria Cardboard Harp Project https://www.facebook.com/CardboardHarpProject. Go on – it’s impossible to make a bad sound!