Harpo’s technique

Posted In: Amateur Harpists

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    kay-lister on #155462

    Realizing that Harpo Marx never had harp lessons, I have read that Masters of the harp of that time requested that he play for them so as to study his technique. This being said; is there a “Harpo Technique” so to speek out there some where?

    tony-morosco on #155463

    According to his autobiography he never took actual lessons, but he did know Mildred Dilling and often got advice from her. Sometimes calling her in the middle of the night to play records for her and asking her how to do what ever it was on the record he wanted to learn. Mildred Dilling is often cited as being Harpo’s teacher, but she never actually taught him in formal lessons. She simply gave him tips and advice now and then.

    He did try to take lessons once, and that is probably the story you are referring to. The teacher spent a lot of time just having him play to “evaluate his technique”. In the end he realized the guy was taking notes trying to learn his technique rather than teach him so he gave up and never tried to take lessons again.

    As far as I know no one ever actually studied with him and learned his unique playing technique. And honestly, while he was an inventive performer I don’t

    kreig-kitts on #155464

    There was a Harpo Technique, but he never talked about it.

    bob-miller on #155465

    Do you know who the guy was that tried to teach him?

    tony-morosco on #155466

    I don’t recall off hand, and I don’t think he actually named him in the book. I will check later when I have access to my copy, but I don’t think he used his name.

    rod-c on #155467

    Hi Kay:

    I, too, am a Harpo fan. I went to http://www.harpomarx.net

    carl-swanson on #155468

    What’s curious about the whole Harpo issue is that in 5 of the 6 films that the Marx Brothers made, the harp playing that you hear in the harp solo scene is not Harpo. It’s Gail Laughton. Both Jack Nebergal and John Escosa told me that. It’s perfectly obvious too to a harpist because Harpo’s hands are not in the right place for what you are hearing. I had originally thought that he had recorded the harp soundtrack first and that the scene was just badly syncronized. But it’s not even the same arrangement. I don’t know, and have never heard an explanation, why Harpo didn’t play those scenes himself. He apparently did play in one of the movies, and I’m sure he played on I love Lucy and other TV appearances. Of course, Gail Laughton never got any official credit for this. But he was a well known Hollywood studio harpist and jazz harpist of the day, and maybe the sound editor just wanted something much more virtuoso than Harpo could do. I don’t know.

    bob-miller on #155469

    Hey Carl,
    I am by no way an expert like you but when I look at the videos of Harpo playing the Harp on the web site listed above it sure looks like he’s playing the harp and in the correct octave to me. Maybe the Gail Laughton guy played on the ones when Harpo isn’t actually playing the harp but rather some prop acting like a harp. I think you should take a look at those videos and reconsider what you heard. Although I may be wrong but when you watch him play “Why am I So Romantic”, “When My Dreams Come True” and “Im Daffy Over You” he sure is in the correct spots and definitely playing.

    tony-morosco on #155470

    I am with Bob on this one Carl. I have seen every Marx Brother’s movie and while the syncing may be off on one or two for the most part there is no doubt in my mind that Harpo is, indeed, playing the parts. The hands and the arrangements do match up most of the time.

    In fact they match up even when we know that it is dubbed and not really playing live. For instance the one where he plays on the Indian Loom, or the one where he smashes the piano and plays the frame with the piano strings. In both cases he clearly isn’t actually playing, but his hands match the music very well.

    It is possible that on one or two occasions the sound needed to be recorded for some reason after the initial filming and Harpo wasn’t available, but for the most part I am convinced it was Harpo playing.

    Besides, while there may be some justification for one or two instances due to scheduling for someone to redo the harp parts, there is no rational reason for anyone but Harpo to have regularly played the parts himself. There is no doubt he really did play the harp, and played in a unique style that wasn’t necessarily easy for others to copy. Why would the studio’s hire someone to imitate his playing when they had him to play it in the first place?

    He makes no mention of anyone else playing for him in his autobiography, and in all other areas is is very candid about his life and what went on during his career in both vaudeville and the movies.

    I am satisfied that with possibly one or two exceptions, when we see a Marx Brothers’ performance it is Harpo playing the harp.

    carl-swanson on #155471

    I agree that Harpo certainly played the harp and played it well in a unique style. That’s why I don’t understand why Gail Laughton would have been used some of the time. I’m not a huge Marx Brothers fan(not my kind of humor) so I can’t say I’ve seen any of their movies recently or that I’ve seen all of them. I do remember seeing one or two movies though where it seemed clear that Harpo was really playing, but it didn’t match what I was hearing on the soundtrack. It could have been a ligistics thing, where sound recording on the set was so difficult that they decided to re-record Harpo under better conditions, and it may be that he never played the same thing twice in the same way. They may have timed his playing on the set, then told him(or Gail Laughton) to play for exactly that same amount of time in a sound booth, so that Harpo or Gail(whoever was playing in the booth) couldn’t even see what the movie footage showed. I’m just guessing here.

    Evangeline Williams on #155472

    The one film I saw with him playing, and a photograph from another, shows him playing a non-harp…one is a weaving loom, the other, he takes out the insides of a piano I think.

    carl-swanson on #155473


    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #155474

    I know we went over this before. It is only in “The Big Store” that Gail Laughton is visibly dubbing Harpo’s playing, and the two men have completely different sounds. One thing Harpo did to be so relaxed is to lower the tension on his strings. Notice how he can pull them out of position and then play on them? He either used thinner strings, or a different weight, or tuned much lower. He had one or some lessons with Salzedo, who declined to try to change his approach. After all, Harpo made far more money than he did. Harpo was also known to take lessons over the telephone, probably with Mildred Dilling. I never cared for his musicianship so much as his personality and humor. I have two lps he made, one kind of stinks, and the other is terrific jazz/pop playing.

    David Ice on #155475

    I knew Gail Laughton the last few years of his life.

    carl-swanson on #155476

    David- Thank you so much for explaining that. It makes perfect sense.

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