An Alternate Tuning for Lever Harps

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    balfour-knight on #185364

    I recently had the idea to tune one of my lever harps in C flat, like my pedal harp. Since I have two lever harps, I decided to leave one tuned in C so I can play in all the sharp keys, and tune the other harp in C flat so I can play in all the flat keys. Long ago, I tried the E flat tuning, but it seemed awkward and I could not play in A flat and D flat, two of my favorite keys! Now, between the two lever harps, I can play in all the keys that I can play in on my pedal harp.

    The C flat tuning has already proven its advantages to vocalists I work with on a regular basis. They seemed to always be complaining about too high a key, so now they can sing a half step lower without me doing anything different!

    I wondered if any of you who play the lever harp have ever tuned this way, and what you may think of it. It seems like such a simple idea now that I have done it, but it took me a long time to come up with the idea! So far it is working out great, so let me know what you all think.

    mae-mcallister on #185368

    Sure, why not?

    I often have my harps tuned into F (rather than Eb) because I play a lot of folk music which is all in sharps sharps sharps and I got sick of flipping so many damn levers each time.

    Whatever works for you, we can have 8/12 keys and everyone is free to pick whichever 8 works for them best:)

    balfour-knight on #185377

    Thanks for responding, Mae. I did want to add that I had tried BOTH of my lever harps in C flat, to see which one to leave in that key, and my Ravenna (Dusty Strings) did not sound as good to me in the lower tuning. She is much shorter than my Large Gothic (Musicmakers) and the bass strings obviously needed to be at the C tuning tension to sound bright and feel firm to me.

    On the other hand, the C flat tuning actually improved the sound of the Gothic! She still has very firm tension and a totally full, gorgeous tone in C flat. She is my best sounding harp, anyway, which has been proven time after time when I “take her out,” according to all the comments I hear after a gig. I string her with metal on the lowest five bass strings, beginning with Low C, then go to lever gut for the next eight strings, finishing with nylon for the rest of the 36 strings. Jerry Brown has been wonderful to deal with over the years that I have owned this beautiful harp!

    mae-mcallister on #185718

    Something interesting…

    Last night I finally got round to watching a present I was given over the holidays – Laurie Riley’s Secrets of the Celtic Harp – and I could help but notice that she had her FH36 tuned into B/C Flat! For a while I was like, “why the HELL would you have your harp tuned like that” (especially if you were playing folk music!) but then I remembered this thread and also that that is how pedal harps are tuned and maybe that makes sense somehow.

    It was actually a really good DVD and up picked up lots of tips for folk technique…but I also couldn’t help sniggering in amused indignation as she stressed at the beginning how important it was to research the history of the tunes and then proceeded to claim that Inisheer and Drowsy Maggie were both Scottish:D

    Biagio on #185719

    I doubt that you will find many Celtic harpers more knowledgeable than Laurie and no offense, I rather doubt that she tunes to B. I’ve never seen her do that and I have a lesson every week or so. If she did, she had a very particular reason; I’ll ask her and report back though, I have a lesson at 12:00.

    Inisheer and Drowsy Maggie are frequently played in G D or F and those are the key she plays them, trust me on this. Which will depend for her or any other harper on the instrument’s range and the other instruments in a session. If your bagpiper is in F it would be silly to tune into G.

    On the other hand, if you’re recording a DVD with many different tunes it could conceivably make sense to tune to Cb and set your levers for whatever you want. All up and you’re in C major albeit a half step lower than concert A 440 e.g.


    Biagio on #185725

    By the way, when Laurie or someone else advocates researching a Celtic piece, they are not speaking of a particular key that you choose, but to the style. Bear in mind that many tunes were never written down so one should know the history if one wishes to be traditional; e,g, Irish music has a lot of ornaments but they are rarely written in. Here are two examples:

    The Orange Rogue is thought to be named for William of Orange who was roundly hated; playing that legato as a slow air would not make much sense though it might sound pretty.

    A more extremely one: Port na bPucai. Some mystery surrounds the origin – some think that Sean O’Riada actually composed it in the early 20th century to sound deliberately archaic. Be that as it may, Janet Harbison’s arrangement is lovely but it is not at all traditional:

    Most pipers would agree that Evertjan ‘t Hart has it “right”:

    Pretty different styles! Of course, if one wishes to play as Aoiffe O’Dowd does with Harbison that is up to you – I quite like it and I can’t get Everjan’s interpretation except on wire. The point being that knowing a tune’s history will give you a clue to your interpretation – which you are of course free to disregard – no one is stopping you. Let the harp police go somewhere else:-)


    Allison Stevick on #185727

    Ah, this prompted me to get out my copy of the DVD again. 🙂 I really like it and have learned a lot using it. I think maybe the reason she said Inisheer was Scottish might have just been a simple mistake, in that she was teaching the “snap” ornament at that moment and it makes things sound Scottish. So, despite the fact that Inisheer was written in the 70’s, by an Irish man, about an Irish island, I could totally see a slip-up happening if you’re trying to teach a certain technique like that. Also, I know there are some very distinctive traits to each one, but Irish and Scottish music have a LOT of similarities to each other. I know I’ve accidentally gotten some details wrong when I explain the background of the tunes I play for residents at the nursing home. 😉

    edit: Just noticed I cross-posted this when Biagio was also posting. Apologies for any redundancy or non-sense-making… 🙂

    Biagio on #185729

    Er….seems like I’m being argumentative but honest not trying to be. Allison is right – Thomas Walsh is an Irishman. But – ah ha – living in Scotland and Inisheer is a Scottish piece about the Island (Inis Oirr).

    Off to my lesson!


    Allison Stevick on #185730

    OK, that makes sense.

    balfour-knight on #185731

    Hello, friends!

    You all have really been busy on “my blog” while I was out, ha, ha! We finally got out today in the ice and snow to run errands and get groceries so we are prepared for the next snowstorm they say is coming. Hope for Spring to come soon to the mountains of North Carolina!

    Interesting point about Irish/Scottish. Around here, most people do not know the difference, and once or twice at our concerts, we have wrongly announced that a tune was one or the other. When we realized it later, we corrected it for the next occasion, but most folks just love Celtic, without regard to exactly which country it truly is.

    Mae, how did you know that recording was in C flat? Were you playing along with it, or do you have Perfect Pitch? I wonder if recorded music plays at the same pitch in the UK as it does here. When I was growing up with just a record-player, it did not play at the standard pitch, it was at least a semi-tone higher. I played everything in C sharp trying to keep up with it, ha, ha! And I started tuning my own piano when I was 15, so I knew by the tuning fork that it was tuned to A=440.

    Keep the replies coming–I love them!

    Best wishes,
    Balfour (and Carol)

    Biagio on #185734

    Reporting back – Laurie says she was tuned in C; Inisheer she plays in G, Drowsy Maggie in C. I guess it might also be said that we are talking here about the style of the piece, not the composer. Drowsy Maggy f’ instance is Irish in origin but it’s played differently in Scotland and even more differently in Appalachia, as Laurie does on that DVD. That sort of thing is what I like about folk music; it changes and you can make it your own.

    Of course sometimes it gets a little out of hand; anyone remember Farewell Angelina by Bob Dylan? Now that’s an outright theft of Farewell to Tarwathe. Dylan plays it without the snaps but they’re in there in the original (Scottish) song – which is about a whaler going off for the hunt in Greenland.

    Allison Stevick on #185736

    I love all the variations you get with folk music. The regional “dialects” fascinate me. I have to admit–since Biagio mentioned it– I am one who tends to play “The Orange Rogue” legato and slow… But I do it knowing that it’s not how it’s meant, so I figure that makes it ok… ?
    Sorry, this comment has nothing to do with alternate tunings. 😉

    Biagio on #185743

    Hey Allison, no harp police here. I try to play The Orange Rogue sarcastically with percussive dynamics which doesn’t often work:-) But just as often legato, it really does lend itself to that – which is why I brought it up! My bad (grin).

    Getting back to alternate tuning though…do any of you sometimes just tune pentatonically, sit in a dark room and see what happens? Pretty fun, but I can’t remember what I did when it sounds good, darnit:-)

    Balfour, nice to have you out and about! I was going to write to thank you for the kind things you wrote, will do so tomorrow. Right now I’m pooped.

    Later all,

    balfour-knight on #185757

    Hello, all you wonderful friends! We are finally having a thaw–the temperature is up to 35 degrees! There IS hope for Spring!

    Biagio, thanks for posting the videos–they are both very nice. It must really take some coordination to play those pipes, pumping as he has to do. I played the accordion as a child, and it would wear me out!

    Allison, I’ll have to remember to send the “harp police” out to check up on you, ha, ha! No, really, this blog can go where it wants to go; I am really enjoying it!

    Allison Stevick on #185758

    I’ve heard playing uilleann pipes referred to as “wrestling the octopus” and that seems pretty accurate to me! I love how they sound.

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