If a fine grand piano cost just as much as a harp, why aren’t harps more popular in today’s music culture? Or why aren’t harps in more public and private schools. In my opinion, it just seems that the harp world is still so closed to the outside community making the harp a hard instrument to access. Will it always be like that or will it change? Your thoughts……
The question of why the harp isn’t as popular as the piano can be seen in the heritage of the instruments. The piano has been around (in different forms) for hundreds of years where as the harp as we know it today was only invented in 1811. The world of piano is simply exponentially larger than harp… there are more instrument manufacturers, and (importantly) more composers who write music for the instrument. Piano is extremely accessible; anyone can sit behind it and feel like they are making music. I do not believe the same can be said for harp. Sure anyone can strum their fingers over the strings and play a glissando, but as far as sitting down and playing “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul” the instrument does not offer the same ease of use. In my experience lack of exposure to the instrument is the #1 reason that there are not more people playing the instrument. I live in Miami, and considering the number of people who live here there are a shamefully small number of harpists. The reason for this is that there are only a small number of professionals in this area. We are all out playing and working as much as possible (trust me… we will work more if there is more work to be found!) and yet still people are not being exposed to the instrument.
The issue of beginning a harp program in a school system is multi-faceted. First you need someone who is willing and able to teach young students. The schools have to be willing to purchase/rent an instrument as well as pay a teacher to guide students and help maintain that instrument. In my experience schools are very unlikely to be willing to shell out $25,000 in the hopes that a harp program will work (and in the few schools in my area that do have harps they are stuffed in cases, un-used, un-loved, and often in un-playable condition). The only way a school program works is for someone (the harpist) to give themselves 100% over to its development. If the school is unwilling to pay for the program the harpist then has to provide instruments. In Miami there is absolutely no access to instruments. There is no where that you can go and buy a harp. To obtain an instrument one would need to drive up to St. Petersburg, Atlanta, Virginia, or order an instrument directly from one of the manufacturers.
Honestly I could go on and on about this…
My thoughts on this issue are that the reason harp isn’t more popular today is because it is an expensive, specialized instrument by nature. We as harpists must always be working to expose wider and greater audiences to our instrument with the goal of creating new audiences and bringing new young people and adult beginners into our world!
Some universities have donated harps. When I was at Illinois, I think a couple of the practice harps were donations. There is one donated harp here at a university, but it is not being taught. As far as I know, it is out on loan.
Even a private harp student has to have a way to get access to a harp (buying, renting), and have the motivation to play.
It is unlikely that public schools will ever have them. There are so many schools in one city that it would be impractical. Also, other instruments are easy and cheap to rent from music stores. Even replacing strings is easy. I rented a violin while I was brailling music for my blind student, and if I needed a string replaced, all I had to do was go to the store, buy it, and they would put it on right there.
Harps are expensive and hard to play.
My teacher was a clarinetist before being a harpist. He told me that (his words) anyone can become proficient on a clarinet in a year, but not so with the harp…it takes much longer.
So think about where your harp or harps will be when you pass on, and maybe you can place one where it will be appreciated and played, like maybe a church school where there wouldn’t be any state requirements regarding the teacher having certification or whatever like in a public school.
I notice in this thread and in some other related ones the a priori proposition that the harp in question is a concert pedal instrument. I suspect that this notion is also prevalent in the minds of many people considering taking up the harp. As Kristina points out “the harp as we know it today was only invented in 1811” and here she is of course referring to Sebastian Erard and the pedal instrument.
At the risk of raising a few hackles unintentionally, let me observe that the harp as an instrument has been around a good deal longer than 200 years. While I respect and admire those who play the concert harp, I think it is a great pity that this rather narrow focus persists. I do hope and believe that this is gradually changing, first with the “Renaissance” recording by Alan Stivell, and increasingly by masterful musicians such as Kim Roberson and Harper Tasche.
Perhaps as people are increasingly exposed to these and other artists (thank goodness for the Internet!) it will become more popular and – who knows? – those who pick up a lever harp at first may find they wish to move to the pedal instrument; or, in the case of two professional pedal players I know, find that their love is after all with the wire harp.
There are some harp programs in public schools, but they are few and far between. Robin Gordon-Cartier comes to mind as one who set up a harp program in the public schools in New Jersey, if I remember correctly. I think the biggest problem is that harp is such a specialized instrument. Musicians who graduate with music education degrees usually are proficient in most instruments in one or more families (i.e. all woodwinds, all brass, etc.) and have a basic understanding of how to play (and teach) most of the other major instruments found in an orchestra. Harp is generally not included in their basic knowledge. During my 5 years studying harp in college, never once was I asked to give a demonstration to a class of music ed students on the basics of the harp. So for a middle or high school orchestra to even offer harp, the student must have their own private harp teacher and provide their own instrument. I have heard stories multiple times of students saying they wanted to learn harp in school but were told they could not, so they chose something else.
As others have said, the cost and lack of availability of harps is prohibitive as well. We in the harp community are the ones in the best position to change this. I have done demonstrations in classes many times. Students and staff always love them, but it takes a lot of time and resources to set up anything permanent in the schools.
I think back on my own experience with music in public schools, and it seems that most schools focus on instruments that can are commonly played in band or orchestra. There wasn’t even a piano program in our school as piano students take from a private teacher and that is the norm in American Society.
As far as lever harp goes, it is not an instrument commonly played in band or orchestra. For the same reason, we didn’t have a lute, mandolin or guitar program, either. Luckily for the guitar, there is a lot of exposure for that instrument as well as self-teaching books that make it accessible to all before moving to private instruction.
I would also like to mention that most of my early training on french horn in public school was done by people who knew little about the horn. I had a few bad habits I had to break when I moved to a private teacher, but I can’t imagine the amount of bad habits (and unhealthy ones, too) that a young student can adopt from a teacher who took a few weeks of harp training in college. For the long-term health of the body we should be glad that children can’t learn harp from public school teachers. I mean no offense to public school teachers, but some instruments are more challenging on the joints and tendons than others, and I think the harp is a doozie.
With the assumption that the most common band/orchestra instruments are going to be the ones available to young people in a public school setting, it is then OUR responsibility to expose young people to the possibility of playing the harp. Get out there. Play in public. Let children do a glissando. The schools will not be ambassadors for our instrument. There is nothing to be done about that.
Having grown up in what I’ll euphemistically refer to as a “financially struggling” family, I can tell you exactly why the harp is rare, at least in my experience:
I know of no one who can afford a pedal harp. Not one single person within my immediate sphere, even after years and years making good money in a white-collar job. Even a used one costs as much as a car, and not one person in my family could have dropped that much money on anything. Even a car itself. I still can’t.
Few people know about the existence of lever harps, and if you were to float the idea to a teacher, the first thing many of them would say is, “Well, you can’t play anything but folk music on that.”
Pianos are more plentiful, the digitals that you can find will put any craigslist acoustic to shame, and there is more music written for them — plus you can find a decent used digital for about a thousand dollars. Sure, you can’t audition for Juilliard on one of those — which everyone and their sister-in-law is quick to point out — but you can get a pretty long ways on one, and at least get a talented kid started on piano and inserted into the world of that instrument. That way, they can get their feet wet and become part of that social circle, which they can then use after a few years to maybe hook them with up a good acoustic.
Simply put, there are very, very few people who can drop twenty grand for something that is not a life necessity. And unfortunately, there is no way to make pedal harps cheaper than that since they are extremely complex mechanisms. People will always point out that they know someone who knew someone who knew someone who found a used L&H Style 23 for two hundred dollars once, but that is just not the sort of story that can be applied reliably, and it takes a long existence networking within the rarefied world of the harp before you can even hope to find that sort of deal without being taken for a ride. Financially struggling people on the outside looking in would not even know where to start.
The lever harps that are more affordable are less well known and to this day are (wrongly) believed to have a very narrow compass of Irish folk music and nothing else. If you can even find a harp teacher in your area (there are very few), asking them if you can use a lever harp is often like asking a piano snob if you can use a digital. You get looked at as if you just stepped in something.
This is a big part of why I’m eager to clear out my current “Haendel aria intros” project on the piano and get started on the “Rachmaninoff for lever harp” project, precisely because I’d like to strike a bit of a blow in favor of showing that it is indeed possibly to play complex classical music on an instrument that costs two grand … which again, is still far, far more money that my parents could have dreamed of having lying around when I was younger.
Someday, I’d like to work on arranging the Grieg elegaic pieces for harp, but they require a pedal, and as someone who comes from poor circumstances and does not yet own a house, it will not happen for a long time if ever — and I have a looooong history of good-paying jobs in the white-collar sector.
Anyhow … a bit of a ramble. 🙂
Here’s another ramble about harp cost.
I had parents who would have never bought their kid a harp, whether or not they could afford it. They never did approve of me playing a harp.
I bought my first harp in 1971, L-H 15, the cheapest at that time, while I was working nights in a nursing home. I saved for three years to have half ($1400) the total cost ($2800), and L-H financed the rest. If you think that sounds cheap…. we worked for minimum wage…. $1.60 hr.
That’s a LOT of wet beds.
At that time, L-H always said the wait for a used one was 3 yrs…like every time I asked. If I bought a harp today, I would definitely want a used one…regulation all settled in.
I would suppose L-H still finances harps.
I first went to my bank, and the loan officer laughed at me. He thought it was hilarious that I wanted to buy a harp. He told me that when time came to make the payments, I would buy clothes. There I sat, in a homemade dress and some sandals from K-Mart. I went out to the bank prez and told him I was closing my account and why. I knew they didn’t care because I didn’t have much in it, but still….
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Getting out in public is a wonderful thing to do, even or especially if not performing or busking – it’s really amazing how people, especially kids are fascinated by even a small harp. We get lots of questions from them and their parents and when they find out that a small decent harp will cost anywhere from $500 to $1500 maybe some will get hooked. Once hooked they may continue on to larger instruments, who knows?
While it is true that some orchestral music is difficult or impossible on a non pedal instrument there is a good deal beyond the stereotypical “celtic” available for the lever harp. For that matter, some scores would be difficult on a pedal harp. And if one really requires more chromatic ability there are the double strungs and especially the cross strungs.
Full disclosure – I have no relationship with Mark Blessley; his five octave fully chromatic Orion or Rigel sells for around $6000-$6500.
Look Ma, no pedals or levers! No second mortgage either.
Well, I am a little surprised that some of the pedal harpists out there have not commented about pedal glissandos. This is one of the MAIN things that double-action pedal harps can do that no other harp can do. It allows us to make seven tones into only four, five, or six by using enharmonic tones, or synonyms. Orchestral music is full of these “chordal” glissandos, only possible on the pedal harp.
For lever or cross-strung harpists who do not understand this principle, a small explanation may suffice here. Say you want a fully diminished seventh chord for a glissando. C–E flat–G flat–A are the four tones. The pedals are in the order D-C-B-E-F-G-A, so they would be set like this: D#-C-B#-E flat-F#-G flat-A. Only the four tones sound as a glissando is performed, when the pedals are set like this.
Sorry, Biagio, but the chromatic cross-strung harp will not work for these glissandos. It is arranged like the piano keyboard, and you can only gliss on the white keys, C Major or A natural minor scale, and on the black keys, an F# Pentatonic scale. The double-action pedal harp can do this and more in ALL KEYS.
I hope this helps a little to clarify some of the differences in the types of harps available out there. I wish that pedal harps could be made less expensive, too, and made available to more harpists. I also wish that, as an option, they could be built more like lever harps, lighter construction with less tension, like the Musicmakers’ Large Gothic that I own. If I could have pedals on that harp, I would be in heaven! The early pedal harps were lighter and smaller than modern ones, so a nicely-restored antique harp might be an option, or a reproduction of one.
Best wishes to all of you,
Hi Balfour, when you talk of (chromatic) cross strung harps, you mean the 7/5 strung cross harp. There is also the 6/6 strung harp, which is reasonably popular in Germany and which can be played in all keys. I think highly chromatical fast pieces of music may be more easily played on a 6/6 than on a pedal harp. There is so much more to playing the harp than only glissando’s.
But I think, the real point is that all kinds of well made harps have their own advantages and disadvantages. Some music sounds better or is played more easily on one kind of harp and other music on another kind of harp. Some pedal harpists like to play as well on their lever harp(s) or cross strung harp(s)!
I’m really surprised that no one has mentioned the principal reason that piano is more popular than harp: At the lower levels, piano is much easier to play than harp, and even at the lower levels, the piano is more versatile than harp. At the lower levels of technique, it’s easier to hold onto basic technique and mobility on the instrument. I think the same is probably true for guitar as well. Again, I’m only talking about the lower levels of technical competence. By comparison to both piano and guitar, the harp is far more difficult to learn to a moderately competent level, and it’s far more difficult to retain technique on the harp than on piano. Trust me, I know. I go years without playing a single note on the harp or piano, which I studied to a moderate level many years ago. I can go back to the piano and easily play simple things immediately, whereas on the harp after a long absence my hands feel stiff, I can’t immediately feel distances or intervals, and of course, I have no calluses.So I think the main reason some instruments are much more popular than others has to do principally with how easy it is to learn to a moderately competent level.
Maybe some day someone will invent a light weight reasonably priced double action for smaller harps – for now as Balfour suggests one would probably have to search for an old Grecian that has been restored. Alas, those cost a bunch too!
Let us agree in any case that there is no “one size fits all” kind of harp – which is probably why many of us have several! Agreed, you can’t quickly do chordal glissando on a cross – but on the other hand, you can’t double the notes in the same octave as you can with a double, or set one side to a different key – say a fifth up. Can’t do that on a pedal harp either.
That’s one very engaging double technique that you don’t often hear about, that is ONLY possible on a double.
Too many beautiful harps too little time! I’m just now finishing off a small 3 octave wire strung – those don’t sound like any other kind of harp, but you sure as heck would not want to gliss on it – ha ha.
These are all good posts. Thanks everyone! You are correct, we need all these different types of harps, because one size/type does not fit all. That is another huge difference between harp and piano–most pianos/keyboards have 88 keys and are much more “standard” than harps of all different sizes, number of strings, string tension, string spacing, etc. Around here, in western North Carolina, people are just giving away very good pianos–all one has to do is move them! This is certainly not true of harps. If any can be found, they are still very expensive, even used ones.
Have a great day, all of you,
There may be more public school programs than you think. Vincent Pierce is directing a two-school program in Midland-Odessa, Texas, where there is a very large harp program that is well funded.
The harp was more popular than the piano, until the piano was equally popular, and then overtook the harp, in the early 19th century. I think it is partly because the piano is easier. I’m sure the cost could not have been much less for a piano in those days. They were also sturdier and perhaps easier to move about.
We must have a positive attitude. The harp has had more exposure in tv and movies in the last ten years or so than since the 1950s. We need to capitalize on it. It would help if we had a publicity program to promote the harp in general, to everyone’s benefit, to increase interest.
Every professional harpist should have an active teaching studio, like so many flutists do. It may cost more to begin on the harp, though we have rental programs. Working with the manufacturers for solutions helps. Lyon & Healy’s troubador programs in the 1970s helped create a huge generation of harpists.
It would help, I think, if we could maintain more of an atmosphere of professionalism, like any other professions. Would you pose as a doctor just because you took a few classes or feel you are a healer? It has long been a struggle to create respect for the harp among musicians. There are too many orchestras and conservatories that have no harpist or harp program. Lack of respect is part of that.
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