Hello everyone, nice to meet you! I have played the piano and sung since a small child, and at the age of 12 I learned the harp for a couple of years, both lever and pedal harp. Then I turned into a percussionist, randomly. Anyway, I got ill with ME/CFS (also called CFIDS in the US) in my first year of uni, so that all went down the drain, and the marimba was eventually sold, though I still have the utterly gorgeous 1924 Bluthner piano I inherited. These days I am largely bedbound, don’t get out of the house much, and often use a wheelchair when I do. The main medical issues affecting me here are profound fatigue, including having muscles that are weaker and get painful with overuse; a tendency to RSI in my forearms and hands (I use a stopwatch for quilting and playing the piano); and to a certain extent, concentration and mild visual problems. It’s mainly the physical symptoms I’m concerned about here. My piano playing is nowhere near as good as it was when I was 18, but I think I was about diploma level then and haven’t practised much since, so this isn’t surprising!
I’m in my late thirties now. Every few years I get an urge to look at harps again. I went to the Edinburgh harp festival, hmm, maybe a decade ago, and I remember taking along my Ceremony of Carols score and happily playing the Interlude on a harp there. (Has Britten written anything for lap harp, by any wondrous chance?) So I was able to go back to that level fairly easily, if that gives you any idea. (I’m noticing that a lot of harp music around for lever harp seems to be very basic. And is it just me, or is YouTube crawling with people playing the harp with their thumbs pointing down?) I’ve always rather fancied accompanying myself on the harp for Dowland songs, it’s a lot closer to the original lute than a piano is, but of course lutes can play chromaticism in ways that are trickier on a lever harp, and I’m not sure how well Dowland adapts. My two books of Dowland’s songs are at my partner’s flat right now, or I’d check. There are quite a few lovely Purcell songs out there which may well be too chromatic, though I am now wondering about A Prince of Glorious Race. Hmm, I should have a go at writing the right hand part for that, right now I just have the bass line, and learning figured bass was a long time ago (I did music as my outside course at uni). I’d really like to learn traditional Scottish music, I’ve been living here for half my life for heaven’s sake, and I think my best friend intends me to learn Fhir a Bhata properly (i.e. in Gaelic. Help).
Mostly when I play the piano these days, it’s to sing with, so that’d be my main approach with harp as well. I’m pretty much an alto these days, if that affects repertoire that fits a smaller harp, though I hope to get my soprano range back some time. What else do I sing, well, opera composers have an irritating bias towards sopranos, so this leaves me that lovely oratorio songbook with swoonworthy Bach and Handel in particular, and Schubert lieder, and Dowland foreshadowing the Nice Guy movement, and then there’s the random silly songs we make up about the cat but they’re unaccompanied.
On piano I grew up on Chopin and then got into modernism as a mode of teenage rebellion, but somehow I suspect Bartok and Shostakovich aren’t built for the harp. I do have a couple of early modern/baroque keyboard books I like. I’m introgued by exploring folk music from different cultures. Jazz would be amazing if I could actually manage it, I’ve never been able to play by ear. I sat my support worker down and made her watch Deborah Henson-Conant’s Watermelon Boogie this afternoon, and it was just as fabulous as ever. What I don’t like is the twee approach to playing the harp, airy-fairy stuff, even if I do have the long hair for it.
Oh, and I am also cherishing dreams of playing with my partner, though I’m not quite sure what. Probably with him on dulcimer, it appears to have adopted him as his instrument. It has strings in D-A-D, including a mixolydian, and he often capos it to E minor. If I could keep playing for long enough to go busking with him now and again, that would be absolutely awesome! He finds the Game of Thrones theme tune seems to be the most popular, and plays a range of other bits and bobs. Failing that, just being able to go and sit outside and play would be so nice. The spring weather has finally arrived and the nearby lawns are covered with students. (A week ago it was snowing.)
My partner and I are going to make a date of going to the Edinburgh Harp Festival next week, perhaps twice if I have the energy (and if bringing the wheelchair doesn’t freak them out too much – what on earth is a stair climber?), and I want to look at lap harps, probably 24-26 strings. (There’s a cheap-but-hopefully-not-too-nasty 20 string “therapy” harp Morley are selling, where I imagine the limited range would just drive me up the wall. Yes, I know to avoid anything harp-shaped coming from Pakistan.) I was thinking that I may be able to play a lap harp on the sofa with my feet up, or even in bed, and also be able to take it out for when we go and sit in the local park. In fact, I was wondering about whether I’d be able to play it while sitting in my wheelchair (it’s a smallish one, 16″ seat width and depth, which is deeper than your average chair), but I’m not sure there’d be enough space for the base. Can you sit cross-legged on the ground and play them? I’m 4’11, average build but with A Bosom, which I gather can affect how harps are comfortable. I’ve been messing around with my partner’s mountain dulcimer in harplike positions, and I have a feeling that flat-backed harps are going to be uncomfortable against my shoulder.
Another concern, of course, is whether I will be able to keep my arms up without tiring, and just have the strength to keep plucking at the strings. Every time I try something like my partner’s dulcimers or one of his ukes, I can manage plucking the strings, but I can’t manage the frets at all, it just hurts my fingers! Also I don’t want to end up tensing up horribly, or sitting in a bad posture that makes my muscles unhappy. I tried messing around with recorder a bit recently, but I no longer have the muscular strength to hold an alto (I think it was a close call in the past), and I’ve a feeling that with the soprano I was tending to rest my elbows on my bosom rather than holding them up, if that gives you any idea. Lovely instrument, and I adore the baroque repertoire, but the problem there was that I had no idea what to do with it, and was too ill to keep up with regular lessons. With harp I think I know enough already to get going on my own.
Anyway, if this does look promising, I am eyeing up a few harps. They all go down to the C below Middle C.
Fullsicle – 26 strings, light tension, may be a bit twangy especially at the bottom, but I’m told that you can order wire-bound strings for the four bass ones which makes it sound closer to the special edition Fullsicles they have brought out. Cheapest, a bit unattractive though I’d live, and I’m concerned that they will be uncomfortable and/or not sound too good. And not all that cheap considering that they don’t include accessories and charge a bomb for the case. I may be a good quilter, but I have no idea how to use a sewing machine, and sewing a harp case by hand sounds like even more effort than when I made that ridiculously detailed tea cosy. Apparently it may be narrower for when it comes to holding it between your legs, which may or may not be an issue for me.
County Kerry – 24 strings, which I suspect will be enough, as I don’t remember using the very top ones much. Gorgeous looking beast, and I hear it has a nice rich sound, a comfortable rounded back, light tension, and is generally beloved. (Though how do you get in to change the strings with those tiny holes?) On the other hand, that rounded back is also quite a bit deeper, and I hear that may make it harder to use as a between-the-legs lap harp. Anyway, £1200 from Morley or £1000 from Devon, accessories included thank you very much. I’m guessing that if I buy it and realise it just isn’t for me, it’ll be snapped up if I sell it. Both do it for hire at £35/month which looks quite reasonable, though you end up spending a lot extra if you do it that way with Morley, not sure about Devon, haven’t rung either of them yet. The only people I’ve spoken to so far are a lovely harp shop in Canada, since they were open today. I think she said this one can be more comfortable when there is A Bosom in play, the flat ones less so. It doesn’t come with straps or anything, though, can something be rigged up?
Triplett Christina – therapy harp, 25 strings, similar flat soundbox to the Fullsicle but otherwise prettier, droolworthy woods, Morley says light-medium tension, £1650 from Morley or £1550 from Devon, £50/month from Morley but Devon don’t seem to hire it out. Slim, good range, no doubt sounds lovely, but the price is getting a bit ridiculous by now. Why oh why can’t I get on with instruments like dulcimers where you can get cheap-and-cheerful and they are great? Even the cheap-and-nasty harps cost way more than a dulcimer, and you can’t get cheap-and-cheerful at all!
(Note for me: email Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org about the Triplett.)
The Dusty Strings Ravenna is in same price range, but I gather it’s generally bigger, heavier, and with a stronger tension, so that’d be harder for my fingers. The rest all weigh the same as my cat, and she is a very small cat. Speaking of cats, I will absolutely need to keep the harp covered with a cat around, won’t I. She’s good at sticking to her designated scratching surfaces and has never molested any of our instruments, but I wouldn’t want to risk it. Seriously, Harpsicle, who sells a harp without a cover?!
So what do you think, folks? Am I just being silly here, or will I be able to play comfortably and also be able to find plenty of repertoire that suits my tastes and ability level? I’m happy to do some arranging, I’m handy with MuseScore, but I do not want to be going to the trouble of arranging and transcribing every single thing I play, life’s too short.
(Apologies for the length. I was up till three ogling harps last night and may be slightly hyper from lack of sleep.)