Hand Injury Considerations

Posted In: How To Play


  • Participant
    Howard Ashley on #232033

    Greetings,
    I just joined this forum last night. I have been lurking for exactly two days and in that short time I have seen all I need to know about Harpists. All good! Seriously, I play pipe organ professionally and Horn at an amateur level and I haven’t seen this level of discourse and insight on forums related to those instruments. It’s quite amazing.

    I am 60 years old and have managed to not really consider harp seriously because I never saw any men playing one. I play horn duets with one of the parishioners at my church job and I would very much like to have a portable accompanimental instrument to accompany her solos. She is by far the better hornist.

    Two years ago I sustained an injury to my left shoulder that for some strange reason caused the ring and pinky fingers of my left hand to not open fully straight. They maybe reach 45* open but they can close fully. Piano and organ playing is affected but I still have my job. I don’t think anyone is really aware. My typing which I was quite proud of is actually affected more. French Horn is not as affected as I though it might be. That may be because it really is just a thing I picked up on a whim and only got serious a year ago when I met this other horn player.

    I have seen Harpists playing with their ring and pinky fingers tucked in. I have also seen them spread their fingers out. I don’t know exactly how much use the left hand ring finger gets in harp playing. That is really the essence of why I am writing. To find out. I don’t really know how much my injury would affect harp playing. I am hoping it would have less impact than it does on keyboard playing. I did see a hand specialist and had several months of splints and exercises and nothing worked and I stopped going to appointments. I am terrified of having anything more invasive done.

    Does anyone here play with a hand injury? I do think having had a long professional career in keyboard instruments helped me keep going after things changed physically. I don’t know how it might affect learning a new instrument. In some ways I think it might be better that I don’t have any prior experience. Thoughts?


    Participant
    wil-weten on #232035

    I don’t have an injury to my hands, but my fingers are rather small and stretching isn’t easy for me.

    Harpers and harpists don’t use their pinky fingers. I think you’d best ask a harper in your neighbourhood (if there isn’t a harpshop in a reasonable distance) to show you how to play an 1-5-8 chord (root – fifth – octave). If you manage to do that with using the standard fingering with your thumb, middle finger and ringfinger, I guess your fingers won’t be holding you back at all. If you manage to grasp a 1-5-8 chord with an alternative fingering, you’re probably lucky as well, though I would ask a reputable teacher what she thinks about your potential on the harp.

    You may wish to start your harping journey with renting a harp from a reputable harp shop. That way you can find out if the harp is a good fit for you and you may get a nice deal when later on you would decide to buy this harp or another harp (harps differ a lot in sound and string tension and ‘feel’, so it’s important to find the harp that suits you best.

    Are you somewhere in Europe, in the US or in another part of the world? If you like, we could come up with some marks and models that are widely available where you live.

    Anyway, enjoy the start of your harping adventure.


    Participant
    charles-nix on #232036

    Howard, I happened to be browsing when your inquiry came in. A couple of things come to mind: 1) pinky is never used at all 2) ring finger of left hand is used A LOT. As with a piano/organ, the left hand lowest finger (ring finger for harp) will supply the bass note. Harp music commonly has bass note/5th/10th chords. I’d say most hands will reach a tenth on a pedal harp, but will be nearly flat in doing so.

    Unlike keyboards, there is no single string distance specification for harps. Some are built with very tight spacing: easier to reach, but more opportunity for a still-vibrating string to hit the fingernail of another finger causing a buzz.

    Most people play with the harp on right shoulder, left hand bass, right hand treble. But there is a tradition in Wales (and maybe elsewhere) of playing left shoulder, right hand bass, left hand treble. I see no reason you couldn’t learn that way–but for a keyboard player, it might be a real brain twister. On lever harp, as you begin to need to change levers during a piece (for accidentals) they’ll be on the wrong side to reach quickly with the non-busy hand.

    Can you find a teacher? or a trained harpist? I think you need to try out the reach. Pedal harp is probably the widest you will encounter. If that is too wide, maybe someone near you has a Dusty Strings–they would be a bit narrower. If that is still too wide, there are some even narrower.

    If you have any finger strength limitations, you may want to head toward lower tension harps. Another issue for narrow-spaced harps is large diameter fingers. If you have trouble getting between the black keys on an organ, you might have a problem getting onto the strings on some really tight instruments.

    I did a little internet search. Perhaps this harp showroom is near you?

    http://classicharpsnw.com/homepage.html

    They might have some you can try. And I’m sure you’ll get some more thoughts from others.

    Charles Nix

    PS: There are several male harpists regularly around here.


    Participant
    Biagio on #232042

    As a sidebar, a harpist friend of mine, Barbara Fackler, performs with her husband who plays French Horn – it might interest you to browse the website:

    https://www.hornandharp.com/

    I’d say it rather depends on what kind of music you wish to play and the strength in your left ring finger. It is true that the 1-5-8 (or 1-3-5-8; these refer to the notes in an octave) is a fundamental pattern but a good teacher can show you ways to play that without using your ring finger, if necessary.

    Charles has discussed tension and string diameters so no need to continue on that topic. However, I would say that there are many styles of both the instrument and music. that those who have only seen ladies in flowing skirts or gentlemen in tails playing a pedal harp may not be aware. One that springs to mind is the wire strung harp, aka clarseach.

    The wire harps are generally smaller than gut or nylon strung harps and the long ring obviates the gut/nylon harp’s large chords. Some get really “traditional” and there is a perception that these harps must be played with the finger nails, but honestly that is a fallacy.

    A good 3.5 octave wire strung can cost anywhere from $3000+ for the traditional make (soundboard from a single hollowed out log, mortise and tenon frame) to about $1000 for one made with modern methods.

    There are at least two here who play the clarseach; Barb Fackler whom I mentioned also plays that as well as lever and pedal harps.

    Hope that helps,
    Biagio


    Participant
    Veronika on #232043

    I would suggest looking into the Feldenkrais method: it is great for dealing with “inexplicable” effects of injuries, just like you describe. Because they are not inexplicable, it is just that we are not usually able to see the connection. This method guides you to explore how you organise yourself, through gentle movements, and the effects I’ve seen can be astonishing.

    It has helped me with a shoulder injury and I got rid of back pain thanks to it. And the awareness of oneself it brings is, well, astonishing. I’ll stop now before I get into a long catalogue of possible benefits! But yeah, personally I’d always try Feldenkrais before anything invasive.


    Participant
    Howard Ashley on #232059

    Thanks so much everyone. I knew I had come to the right place. I came across the Facklers website over the weekend! It’s going to be hard resisting the urge to just play their harp parts on a piano. This brings up the question: assuming that my left hand reach is adequate (I don’t notice any weakness) how quickly would it take to get to the level of those Fackler accompaniments? I generally learn instruments quickly and harp seems on its face to have some relationship to a piano layout. I know, I know, I have to go try out a harp. I’ll see myself out.

    P.S. organ composers are forever inverting things and putting accompaniment figures in the right hand while the left hand takes the melody. Since the pedals have the ultimate bass the overall effect is preserved. Even so I have played lots of piano arrangements where the left hand takes the melody. It wouldn’t be as mind bending as might be supposed to play in the manner charles-nix suggested. Would that really help though? Are the right hand uses of the ring finger less than for the left hand? Seems like it would be more because it is the dominant hand for so many.


    Participant
    wil-weten on #232062

    One thing that I think is really important, is the question of the amount of chromatism in the kind of music you like to play.
    Wire harps usually don’t have levers, so they are really diatonic. One can play somewhat chromatic music on lever harps,depending on one’s ability to flip levers while playing. On pedal harps one uses the feet instead of the left hand for enabling to play notes that don’t belong to the key one plays in. And then, there are the cross strung harps, with 6×6 layout or 7×5 layout. The 7×5 layout looks a bit like the layout of the piano, while the 6×6 layout has equally devided half notes left and right. Both systems have their pros and cons.

    And then, there’s also the double strung harp. Laurie Riley has a lot of information and great videos on that. Start here: https://laurierileymusic.com/complete-introductin-to-the-double-strung-harp/ She’s also very interested in the ergonomic aspects of playing the harp.

    Also, Carolyn Deal ‘smilingharp’ has a lot of information on double strung at her site and links to her video’s at: http://southeasternharps.com/Home.html . By the way, there are more builders and shops for double strung harps, but this link is just to give you a first impression.


    Participant
    Alison on #232067

    you will find welcome improvement once you commence with the instrument which provides much of the physiotherapy you need for the hand. Obviously your problem is higher up, so I would also see a chiropractor.


    Participant
    Biagio on #232077

    Hi Howard,

    In an attempt to answer to your questions…

    WRT transposing the hands, that can be done (and often is) on smaller harps and the double that Wil mentioned. Or you could simply lean the harp on your left shoulder rather than the right, in which case you would probably want a harp with the levers on the right side (assuming a lever rather than pedal harp).

    You will not have to go through learning music theory so that’s a plus, but harp technique takes time to learn. Being a keyboard player suggests that you can probably sight read so eye-hand coordination is probably there too. There are two answers to “how long” I’d suggest:

    First, try to find a harp teacher in your area. Often a teacher has student harps to lend or rent and can advise you more specifically than we can here.

    Second, browse Laurie Riley’s website and perhaps even write with your questions. Laurie has done a lot of work with handicapped harpers; and as someone mentioned plays the double strung (in fact she and Liz Cifani came up with the idea of the modern double). Laurie is a very gracious lady, and excellent teacher, and also teaches over the internet. Here is her website (again) so you can see what she offers see in particular two books – Harping with a Handicap and Harping with One Hand:

    https://laurierileymusic.com/

    Best wishes,
    Biagio


    Participant
    wil-weten on #232080

    I agree with Biagio’s advice above.

    One thing I forgot to mention before: as you are used to performing on the organ and the horn, you may as well wish to perform on the harp.

    If so, you may want to think about the portability and transportability of the harp. A pedal harp of 46-47 strings easily weighs 35 kilo, while one can find 34-38 string lever harp from about 12 to 17 kilo (some weigh a bit less, others a bit more). The heaviest lever harp I know (and own) is the L&H Prelude with 40 strings with pedal gut tension and a weight of about 20 kilo. This is a harp that sounds almost like a pedal harp. Harps that are rather light weight and so have rather a much lighter string tension, sound quite different. A friend of mine said that to her ears, these harps with a low string tension almost sound more like classical guitars than like (pedal) harps. I must confess I never had this association myself before she mentioned it, while I do play the classical guitar (or, better said, try to play it).

    Some harps come with a pick up and a pre-amp installed. This may or may not be what you are looking for.

    Beware though that harps fit more or less like shoes. The model should suit you. You really need to sit behind a harp to find out whether it’s a good fit.


    Participant
    Biagio on #232098

    I suppose that everyone hears differently and certainly if you play near the top or bottom of the strings it will sound very much like a classical guitar. VERY low tensioned harps with wide light sound boards such as the South American sound that way intentionally.

    So much depends on both the strings and board not to mention the player’s technique that it is difficult to make generalizations. The only way to tell how a harp will sound in your hands is to sit down and play. That in itself is not an entirely good guide for a beginner since technique will be undeveloped, so it is best to bring along an experienced player when trying out different harps.

    There are many excellent harps out there; I agree with Wil that it is a good idea to rent before buying.


    Participant
    wil-weten on #232143

    Howard did you intentionally delete your message of today?

    Sometimes the forum software deletes a message unintentionally and I think this may be the case here.

    I did receive your message into my inbox, so if you lost the message, I could re-post it for you, if you wish. And then I could provide you with an answer to some of yourquestions.


    Participant
    Howard Ashley on #232145

    Interesting. No, I did not intentionally delete my message. I have tried several times to re-post it but the system won’t let me. I have it saved in Word though. Maybe now that you have broken the spell I can try again? If not, I may take you up on your offer. I grow more and more impressed each day with the harpist community.


    Participant
    Howard Ashley on #232146

    This is a repost of an entry I made earlier today. In the process of editing it the system refused to accept my changes and then stopped accepting anymore attempts saying the message already existed, though I could see no sign of it. Anyway, without further ado:

    I visited the link to Laurie Riley’s site a little while ago and the current blog entry (6/9/19) speaks directly to “how long?”. Very funny. @wil-weten said,”as you are used to performing on the organ and the horn, you may as well wish to perform on the harp.” Absolutely! Everything I do ends up having a performance aspect. I was born to perform 🙂

    So, yes, I have been primarily looking at instruments regarded as having “good projection” and a size that is generally acknowledged as good for ‘performance’ in public spaces. I have to say that in the short time I have been researching this the Lyon and Healy ‘Prelude’ comes up again and again and again. Has anyone compared it to a Salvi ‘Ana’? Are they the same Harp?

    Someone linked a harpshop in Portland and it appears to be around 12 miles north of my home. Doable, although not as easy as might first appear because I don’t own a car. They list a used L&H ‘Plde’ for sale, as well as several ‘Troubadors’. Also a number of Dusty Strings FH36’s. Thanks for that link, I have yet to actually contact the shop but they will likely be a first stop.

    With respect to double strung harps in particular and other kinds of … alternative styles (cross, triple …) in general. My only concern is: how much repertoire is there for these instruments? When I browse music sources for harp all I see is lever harp and pedal harp. Assumedly the lever harp arrangements will avoid the very ‘chromaticism’ that the alternative models can handle, but I am not certain that a double strung harp is up to taking on a standard pedal harp arrangement. I don’t really want to play something that is neither fish nor fowl.

    I have a strong interest in Celtic style harping. It is constantly reinforced that the “blazing ornamentation” common in this style is best done on lighter tension and nylon (or steel) strings. Where can I find examples of this ornamentation? Written out, I mean. There seems to be a lot of pre-recorded harp instruction online. Mostly very elemental beginner stuff. Does it have to be in the context of live (or Skype) lessons with a teacher to learn more advanced music? And with all those pedal style lever harps out there … doya’s all ever get up to some good ole jigs and reels on your classical style instruments?

    Oh, oh, one more question if I might – I know that you are supposed to lean a harp back to your shoulder and balance it on its back feet. You can see that at rest the instrument is tilted forward and the strings become more or less vertical in playing position. My question: do you also tilt pedal harps? They are perfectly vertical when sitting flat on their bases and what would happen to the pedals if you tilted them back? And what about the pedal style lever harps? They don’t have pedals but they are built straight up and down and if tilted backwards … well, I don’t know. I haven’t seen the matter discussed.


    Participant
    Tanya Hill on #232150

    I can answer the last question for you :). You do indeed tilt the harp back and rest it on your shoulder – both pedal harps and lever harps are tilted back when you play. As far as what happens to the pedals when you tilt the harp back, they are high enough off the ground that they still remain high off the ground when you tilt the harp back.

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