Disability issues, thinking of returning to the harp

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    Elettaria on #186999

    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 harprealm@gmail.com 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.)

    emma-graham on #187023

    I’m not able to answer all of your questions although I am sure you will be able to get loads of info here. I just wonderered if you have read about Claire Jones and her battle with ME? You might find this interesting

    Harp-wise I am sure you will find something that works for you. Morley will be very helpful and knowledgeable. The Devon harp centre is very small and may not be able to offer you such an extensive range or advice? I don’t know if you have had a look at the Derwent harps Adventurer 20? I broke my wrist just after Christmas and needed something to take along to my occupational therapy appointments (I’m a professional pedal harpist). I picked up an adventurer for just £150 delivered to my house and it is a fantastic little harp. Well made and a really good sound for he money. I was so surprised by it! Cheep and cheerful personified. I know it has fewer strings than you would like but worth a thought. Your visit to Edinborough will no doubt be very, very helpful. I would suggest you try everything in your price range and compare them to get an idea of what suits and will work for you. I hope you find what you are looking for.

    Angela Biggs on #187051

    If you want a good range with very little weight, have you considered Heartland’s carbon fiber harps? You can get 36 strings with full levers for 42″ and 8 pounds.

    It looks like it’s been a while since you played, and there’s plenty of music for lever harp now, at all levels — though staying in the 26-27 string range will definitely limit the selection of upper-level music. You mentioned that you sing with your piano; obviously your options are endless if you start writing your own songs with the harp.

    Since you have musical experience and specifically prior experience on the harp, I wouldn’t recommend the Fullsicle, though the Harpsicle line are good little harps for the price and the company is really great. I use them for teaching and as rentals, but I don’t think it will be enough for you.

    You may not need to cover your harp just because you have a cat in the house. My lever harp does just fine, and we have a cat plus a large dog. My situation may be different though; my harp lives in a small room where the animals don’t spend a lot of time. Just keep an eye on your cat around the harp for the first couple of weeks. You’ll be able to tell if she plans on making mischief.

    To answer you question about the Harpsicle cases: Harpsicles are specifically built to supply a market for harps in the very low price-range. The covers are likely sold separately to keep the cost of the harps down (and a person with a sewing machine can easily turn an old sheet into a triangular sleeve, maybe with a little flap to cover the top, for nothing more than the cost of thread). Then there are many people who use these harps for pleasure only, never taking them out of the house, and so don’t need a case.

    wil-weten on #187054

    Hi Elettaria,
    You wrote: ‘ 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).’

    I think this situation doesn’t only ask for a harp with a light string tension, but also for a lap harp you can ‘attach’ unto your wheelchair. I know that some people in wheelchairs are able to play floor lever harps. Floor harps are easier to keep in balance. Some of these harps do have a light string tension. Maybe this is something you may want to research.

    Elettaria on #187092

    So much for being notified of replies by email, I had no idea there were any! Thanks for the welcome, folks.

    I don’t use the wheelchair indoors, just sometimes when I’m out.

    Since writing this, two friends have offered to lend me their harps as they’re not playing them! Friend A has had three wrist fractures due to roller derby, so she has a 19 string Ardival wire-strung harp (the Kilcoy) sitting unused which she’s offering on long-term loan. Friends B and C have just had their second baby, and I’m guessing it’s their umpteenth instrument as C is a musician, so their harp is sitting unused at C’s parents’ house, not far away. This one is a 34 string nylon-strung lever harp. Right now the plan is to take that one first, see how I get on with it, and if I think I’ll be able to play the little wire harp, get that next time A’s parents (who live near me) are visiting her down south. (And then put the wire harp in my flat and the lever harp in my partner’s flat, as we split the week between our two flats.)

    I’m booking myself a lesson in wire harping with Bill Taylor of Ardival at the festival, so that will hopefully give me more of an idea what you can do with it. Obviously I’d have to fit the repertoire to the harp, but hey, it sounds like an exciting challenge, and Ardival tell me there’s plenty of music. I’ve prepared a couple of songs to take along, and Bill tells me it’s fine to retune the Fs to F#s, so that puts them into a better key for my voice. Purcell’s A Prince of Glorious Race in E minor (bass line playable once it’s been moved up a bit, vocal line too chromatic for an unlevered harp but I’ll be singing that), which is seriously gorgeous and which I urge you to listen to, and the folk song The Water is Wide (just the melody, I have very vague recollections of a choral version at school) in D mixolydian. I’ll bring some other stuff too, I’d love to have a go at Fhir a Bhata and have that in E minor in one of my Scottish songbooks. Incidentally, my best friend is from the Western Isles, so if I take up the wire harp I will get her to teach me to sing in Gaelic!

    In some ways this gives me the perfect combination, a bigger lever harp for a wider repertoire at home, and a really portable harp which I can play on the sofa or at the park or what have you. That said, Zan at Ardival cautioned against learning both at once since the technique is so different. I’ve a feeling I could cope, I remember learning C and F recorders at once some years ago and not being thrown, but I’ll see.

    One issue with wire harp is that it’s traditionally played with the fingernails, and I have no intention of growing mine out. I can’t stand having long nails. Plus I am primarily a pianist and don’t want nails clicking on the keys. Some wire harpers use their fingerpads, I’ve read various discussions and it seems perfectly allowable. Indeed, someone compared it to using either a wooden mallet head or a wool-wrapped mallet head on a marimba, and having played the marimba for years, I definitely prefer the latter! (Actually, I don’t think people use hard mallets on marimba, that’s xylophone.) But I gather that if you play wire harp with your finger pads, you need regular, disciplined practice to get the calluses nicely built up and maintained, rather than sore or even blistered fingers, and I’m not going to be doing that sort of practice, I’m too ill. Are finger picks an option? If so, what sort? I’ll try to catch Ardival before they leave tomorrow and ask, since I have a music shop over the road. Being small will limit me there.

    I’m going to have a look at various harps while I’m there anyway, you never know, but hopefully I can now save oodles of money and get TWO harps! And then see if I can find a teacher who won’t mind giving me sporadic lessons at my home with a pupil who won’t be practising much and will probably have to cancel quite a bit. Failing that, there are tutor books around.

    Incidentally, how hard is it to find your way around a wire harp with unmarked Cs or Fs? I presume it clicks sooner or later, just like adjusting to a different string spacing?

    Allison Stevick on #187096

    I think it’s great you’re going to have a lesson with Bill Taylor! I took a wire workshop with him last year at EIHF, (and also spent inordinate amounts of time at the Ardival booth playing and asking questions) and that was what really convinced me to look into wire harping. If I’d had the money at the time, I totally would have brought home a Kilcoy or a Rose. They are great!

    You can play wire without nails, it’s true, but if you don’t want to develop callouses or blisters, you’ll have to play very lightly. It will still sound good, but will be quiet.
    About finding your way on wire strings: I imagine you could just get used to it, but what I do (and many others do, too) is use sharpie markers to color a few inches of the Cs and Fs and then there’s no confusion.
    I hope that’s a little bit helpful, and I hope you find the harp you’re looking for.

    wil-weten on #187116

    As I like to complicate things… as you mention loving to play chromatic music, have you thought about a cross-strung harp? Then you would not have to hassle with lever flipping… Of course, learning to play this kind of harp does bring it’s own problems: http://www.harpspectrum.org/folk/harper_long.shtml

    Biagio on #187117

    Hi Ellettaria,
    On reading through this thread there were a few things that sort of jumped out at me – both as a harp maker and as a (recent) convert to the wire strung harp. Here are some thoughts for what they’re worth, with reference to sme friends who suffer from ME….

    Design – Both weight and length would be a consideration for playing in bed or on a couch. I have a double strung 23 and while it is light it is a bit too tall for comfortable playing while lying down. I’d say the same about the Harpsicles (which I don’t like with the standard strings – but they now offer a higher tension string set). For playing while sitting, especially in a wheel chair I feel it is very necessary to have a solid stable support for a floor harp, and a design that does not require tipping the harp back. It would be quite easy to injure your back otherwise.

    Wire Strungs – I am a real fan but have to caution that most are fairly heavy compared to nylon/gut harps of the same size, Ardival in particular. Accidentals and chromatics generally must be “worked around” as sharping levers do not work well except on steel strings (which I dislike). Brass or bronaze need blades to avoid breaking the strings and you really can’t “flip” them. You mentioned the Triplett Zephyr – a friend recently restrung hers with bronze and is very happy with it.

    Other Types – I think that Wil-Weten has a good idea in the cross strung if you play a lot of chromatic music. Another option would be a double strung, I have made several from a light rental/travel harp to a large cherry 26 string. Both doubles and crosses must usually be somewhat heavier than singles but they give you far more options.

    Availablity – I am not very up to date on European makers and distributors but I do know that Blevins, Stoney End, Rees, and Dusty Strings have distributors there, all good makers. Harps of Lorien makes a lovely single 26 (the Raphael) but I don’t know if it is available in Europe. One option that is often over looked however would be to approach a maker directly for a custom design. Surprisingly perhaps, many will design one specifically for you and at not much more expense than a stock model. Finally, if you know some one who is a decent wood worker, a few excellent kits or plans are available. As one example, I am about to modify the Music Makers Shepherd harp plan to be bronze strung instead of nylon.

    Best of fortune,

    wil-weten on #187118

    Hi Biagio,
    In Europe Dusty Harps can be bought by several fine harp shops. In the UK Morley Harps, in the Netherlands by De Zingende Snaar.

    In the Netherlands Blevins can be bought at De Troubadour Harpen and Rees Harps at De Troubadour Harpen and at the shop of De Veer-Van Hattem.

    Stoney End Harps can be bought in the UK at Hobgoblin’s.

    This list is not exhaustive!

    As to harps of Lorien, they used to be sold at De Zingende Snaar, but I can’t find them any more on their list of harps.

    If one can’t find the links of the shops above, I’ll be happy to give them.
    Anyway, at the Zingende Snaar, the kind shop owner is used to speaking English and to doing international business. And I think that at De Troubadour Harpen speaking English should not be a problem either.

    Elettaria on #187121

    I should probably mention that I am fairly broke, and getting TWO harps on loan from friends means that I am not planning to buy anything.

    So, we’re back from the harp festival, cold, tired and happy! My partner exclaimed, “DULCIMER!” within seconds of getting to the exhibition. He wasn’t impressed once he tried it, but then fell in love with a bowed psaltery, bless him.

    I really need to think about sensory overload and factor that in when I am guessing how exhausting a trip will be. It was noisy, crowded and the lighting was harsh. So that made it harder to get a feel for things. But generally I think I will be able to pick the lever harp up again, provided I get my positioning right. The lesson with Bill was an absolute delight, and it’s such a small wire harp that the weight and size were no problem. (Though I kept on hefting various lap harps people were selling which were allegedly 3kg, and saying, “No way is this as light as the cat!” Ah well, cats are mysterious creatures. I mean, it is theorised that they are actually liquids.) Bigger lap harps would probably not be the best for me, apart from possibly the 20 string “therapy harp” Morley are selling. But by that point I will already have a wire harp that size, so there’s no point, really. The wheelchair turned out to be ideal with the Ardival Kilcoy, I’m going to have trouble finding something as comfortable to play in at home. Bear in mind that I don’t use the wheelchair around my flat, just sometimes for trips outdoors.

    I found my shoulder was aching when I was having a go on some 34 string lever harps at Camac, but I didn’t get that problem when trying pedal harps at Pilgrim, so I suspect that was a simple positioning issue.

    The problem I didn’t expect is that I was getting double vision, worse with the wire harp. He’d put a bit of paint on the Cs and Fs, but it’s still not the same as the really visible ones on a nylon or gut harp, where the problem was less. I’m due for an eye test in a couple of weeks, I’ll ask my optometrist what’s up with getting double vision in my peripheral vision, and maybe email or ring my wonderful-but-retired eye specialist. I was seeing the strings crossed at a narrow angle, I think a bit like a cross-strung harp. I’m hoping it won’t be as bad at home, since the exhaustion and sensory overload will have probably been making my visual problems worse. ME eye problems are thought to be a blend of neurological and muscular. Anyway, that was rather a shock. Has anyone else experienced it? My partner said he was getting it a bit with some harps. He was having fun picking out the Jurassic Park theme!

    Biagio on #187122

    I find lighting is a fairly big deal with wire, painted or not. The “trick is to have the light directed at the strings, say with a goose neck floor lamp, and with a light carpet or background. One soon gets used to it and soon plays by feel anyway.


    fied on #187130

    “Anyway, that was rather a shock. Has anyone else experienced it?”

    Yes. I have astigmatism in both eyes. so with anything close and at a slant I get a weird vision thing that distorts the strings’ placement so much it throws my fingering off in the upmost octave; I’m not sure it’s double vision, though.

    I’m compensating by learning how to play by feel in the top octave and that’ll probably help with lower octave work, too.

    Elettaria on #187132

    Biagio – yes, the first thing Bill did was to get me to wiggle the wheelchair about until I was getting the best possible light from the window shining on the strings on the left side. I need light coming over my left shoulder for quilting too, so I should be able to do this that at home, at least if I can quilt with my feet up on the sofa. Failing that, you can usually smuggle in a clip-on spotlight somewhere.

    Fied – interesting. I can’t remember my astigmatism, but generally I’m about -8, so I think it’s reasonably substantial. My partner said he was getting that effect a bit as well, and while he’s only just started wearing specs a few months ago, he said he was getting the double vision thing a bit as well. I was seeing two rows of strings at, hmm, perhaps a 40 degree angle to each other? Very confusing. Bear in mind that the Ardival only has 19 strings, so most of them are pretty high up. The double vision thing was coming and going. I do have a tendency for my vision to go funny when I’m on heavy pain meds, maybe it’s just a thing that I’m prone to. I also have been concerned about my peripheral vision in the past, although it came out OK in the standard test the local optician ran.

    Anyway, I would hopefully learn to play by feel. Bill had me learning one piece where your fingers stayed parked on the same strings. I didn’t look at the strings at all for that, just at the music, and it was much easier. He also pointed out that there’s a long tradition of blind harpers, so evidently a lot of people have learned to work around this. I will definitely need to compartmentalise when it comes to the string spacing for the different harps, but I think that’s the kind of thing I’ll be OK at. The string spacing is certainly very close! Even with my small fingers, I was finding it tricky. Practice, I suppose. Just how long do your nails have to be to use them for wire harp? Long enough to clack on piano keys and generally get in the way?

    fied on #187133

    I don’t play the wire harp, mainly for the reason, that, like you, I can’t bear long nails because they set my teeth on edge if they’re beyond the tips of my fingers and they anyway interfere with piano and (for me) guitar playing.

    Biagio on #187142

    Fied, at what I guess would be “optimal” length my nails project no more than 2mm beyond the pad, and even 1mm would be OK for me. I play with nails or the pads depending on the tone I want (and how clumsy I am) and shape the nails somewhat as well. This because I also like my nylon strung harp and don’t want to be restricted. Getting the thumb nail right has been my main “issue”, I’ve had to experiment.

    I’ve been taught to press into the string slightly before the pluck which of course exposes a bit more nail surface. Further, I kept the same spacing on my wire harp as on the nylon ones. I’m aware that really dedicated wire players like that minimal spacing, play entirely with their nails and eschew blades entirely. Fine for them but I don’t want to completely “re-educate” the hands:-)

    Our wire harp group got together yesterday; of the harps, there were two Caswells, one Triplett Luna, one (and the only wire) Dusty, a converted Triplett Zephyr, and my own which is similar to a Caswell. None of those harps have the traditional narrow spacing and none are tuned with “the sisters.”

    I think it’s as much a matter of philosophy as anything. Some people are really into historical harps and that’s wonderful for the rest of us. At the tender age of 65 and a beginner as well I’m just not real interested in becoming the next Cynthia Cathcart or Ann Heymann. Couldn’t anyway!!


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