Is a lap harp a good idea for me?

  • Member
    Elettaria on #192629

    I am vaguely pondering getting a lap harp. I’m not sure I need one, though. Right now I have a 19 string wire harp (Ardival Kilcoy) that lives in my flat, on long-term loan from a friend, and a 34 string Camac Hermine in my partner’s flat, which I’m renting while I figure out what I want for my proper big harp. We spend half the week in each flat. I am getting on better with the big lever harp, but wire is an interesting challenge too.

    The harp I am eyeing up is one of the basic lap harps George Stevens makes. He seems to be a serious harp builder, so I’m guessing that his cheap and cheerful range is actually good. Look under “Other harps”. The price of a 23 string one with brass levers on Cs, Fs and Bs would be £520.

    There are two more reasons why I’m considering it. One is that it would give me a chance to try silkgut strings and see whether I’d like them for my big harp, although I don’t know whether a lap harp would be a close enough equivalent for that to be useful. The other is that I would get my friend who’s an artist, and who is keen to start working with harps, to paint the sides of the soundbox. Which adds another £100ish, of course, plus postage costs. Alun Thomas also makes lap harps, more like £300 for 22 strings and sharping blades, but they’re a lot higher-pitched, 1E to 4E where the Stevens lap harps are 2D to 5C, and I’m not sure about those sharping blades.

    The real question, of course, is whether this would be a useful harp for me. I’m disabled and largely bedbound, are they useful for noodling about on in bed or on the sofa? I usually play the wire harp sitting cross legged on the sofa, for instance. Or would I end up with three harps to keep in tune and end up neglecting at least one of them? It’s not as if I get out enough to need a harp with me on the go.

    Participant
    Biagio on #192695

    I find a true lap harp (which I define for myself as under 30″ tall and 6 lb. in weight) to be a very nice thing to have. Nor do I find it necessary to add levers although I do for convenience. The size is rather key – assuming good response of course – in that I want to be be able to play it with the top about chin height and the base not much lower than the thighs ( a “true” lap harp -grin). Mine happens to be a double strung 23 – 46 total.

    It’s in nylon though other types would be an option. I am not sure that using fluorocarbon or “silkgut” would tell you very much about how those strings would sound on a larger harp since they would be rather thin but I suppose one could try it. I made that and six others as rentals for a retreat, keeping the first prototype. Any harp maker could duplicate it I’m sure if that idea appeals to you. They cost about $200 US to make and I sold the lot at $500 each excluding levers. So – not a major investment for a nice little harp to noodle around on the sofa, or throw in the car.

    I don’t know Mr. Stevens’ work though he certainly seems to know what he is doing! Alun Thomas and his father however are very well known and respected on this side of the Atlantic.

    Hoping that is helpful,
    Biagio

    Participant
    hearpe on #192717

    A lap harp is good for everyone! Love my Stoney End Eve 22. (My avatar picture)
    Although I play my larger 34 more, it is nice to grab a smaller one and fidget with watching TV or in the Comfy Chair.

    The COMFY CHAIR!?

    Member
    Elettaria on #194896

    Noooo!  Not the Comfy Chair!

    I keep going back and forth on lap harps: will the extra tuning drive me up the wall, will I find the limited range too annoying.  There is a 22 string Morley lap harp currently on eBay at a price that has me very tempted, especially since my partner is having to move flat, so moving the 34 string harp between flats when we go back and forth every weekend is no longer going to be possible (and was a nuisance to begin with).  It’s 21 years old, F to F, and the levers sound like they’re reasonable but you might not want to do lots of flips during pieces, judging by what Morley tell me (not as good as Camacs, anyway).  I’ve started chatting with the owner, who had Morley put gut on the lower strings (the rest are nylon) to get a better sound, so they sound like they’re a proper harpist rather than someone who’s been treating it as furniture, and said the levers are in good condition.

    How useful is that as a range?  I’ve been playing quite a lot from a medieval book (arr. Friou), for instance, which tends to be C major/ionian, D dorian, or A aeolian, and which is often in a fairly small range, I think, with only the odd rare lever change.  Entering everything into Musescore in order to transpose it would be a pain, although I suppose you can copy and paste a lot, and at least you don’t have a vocal part with lyrics to add, so it’s going to be a hell of a lot less work than, say, entering Handel arias or Mozart duets, which I’ve done in the past.  I quite like singing Dowland, but that requires lever changes throughout the pieces, if not necessarily frequent ones.  Bach would be right out.  The 25 string Border harp in poor condition I originally borrowed from friends went down to an E, but that string didn’t really work and I don’t think I missed it, though I probably enjoyed being able to go up to the A at the top.  If need be, I suspect I could move it to G – G, as most of the harps in that range were strung that way, although how much hassle is it to repaint the levers?

    I can’t improvise to save my life and don’t see that changing.  I have been meaning to learn to play some of the pieces my partner plays on the dulcimer, which would be nice.

    If all else fails and I never end up using it, how hard would it be to flog a basic but decent fully levered lap harp in Edinburgh?

    Participant
    Biagio on #194898

    Hi Elletaria,

    Given your physical and space limitations, in your place I would be looking at the so-called “therapy” harps most of which are intentionally light and designed for playing while seated.  My personal favorite has become the Harps of Lorien Raphael, and it can be ordered in kit form which would save you something on shipping and VAT.

    Not too keen on that Morely as you describe it and the pictures show: it seems to be a bit too large for comfortable playing on your lap and that F-F does not appeal very much either. Most people seem to prefer and most music is arranged for a low G or C in a small harp.  When I see that range I have to think it was chosen in a 22 mostly with the harp’s size in mind.  But I guess it depends on what music one usually likes to play.

    Speaking for myself, improvisation is something that I learn by doing, much like playing by ear. There are exercises that will help however.  One way is to take a simple tune in lead sheet format and play it all the way through with one pattern.  Then all the way through with another. And so on.  Over time you will develop your own personal style.

    By “pattern” I mean what you do with the left hand taking into account the metre.  For example, if the tune is in 4/4: first just one whole note drone with the melody. The fifths.  Then a fifth in two half notes. Etc. etc. until you start playing around with thirds and inversions in the right hand as well.  One thing at a time!

    In a quiet mood and comfortably seated (NOT the dreaded comfy chair) I can spend hours just doing that.

    Here’s the info on the Raphael (and the 22 string Sasha which is also F-F):

    http://www.harpsoflorien.com/therapy_economy_harps.html

     

    Best wishes,

    Biagio

    Member
    Elettaria on #194900

    I was hoping you’d reply!

    Those harps were more commonly sold strung G to G, which I’m guessing means that I could change the strings, if I don’t mind painting the levers.  Although does that mean buying a whole new set of strings, or can you take them off and put them back on a note down?  I spoke to the people I rent from, and on the pro side they said those were really good harps, they have a lot of the 27 string models.  On the con side, their courier plan didn’t work out, the chap they use would charge £100, so I’d need to figure something else out, if the seller agrees.  The harp is 30″ high without its legs, and I’d probably be playing on the sofa or bed, with my legs up and the harp between my knees.  That’s how I was playing the little 22″ wire harp I was using before, and I could manage a bigger harp than that up to a point. The Lorien harps you mentioned look lovely, but they’d be twice the price and that’s with very few levers.  I don’t know of anything anywhere near that price, rosewood harp-shaped objects aside.  Do you still reckon it’s not worth going for?

    Improv – very useful, I will try that!  Thank you.

    Participant
    Biagio on #194901

    Hi again,

    I can’t say one way or the other about the strings; just taking it up a step (from F to G and onwards) would increase the tension and given the age it is possible that the owner dropped it due to some concern. So yes, you would be wise to get a new string set intended for that lower tension and would pretty much want to anyway for the dyed ones.  I’d not buy anything used sight unseen in any case.  As for the levers you could probably remove the paint with acetone (aka nail polish remover).

    Structure and strings aside, I wonder if those legs come off and go back on easily?  I’d just hate putting it on my lap with the legs digging into my thighs (unless you can rest it on the inner curve).  That would pretty much limit your height adjustment though.

    It does seem to be fairly priced, all things being equal.  Just don’t commit to buying until you have tried it, I think.

     

    Best wishes,

    Biagio

    Member
    Elettaria on #194902

    (I mean, really good harps in the sense of nice little budget ones, obviously.)

    If I were to turn it into a G to G harp, how difficult and expensive is that likely to be?  Do you need to buy a whole new set of strings?  Could I leave the strings that were the right colour in place and just tune them up a tone?  Could I actually leave them tuned F to F but looking like G to G, effectively making it a transposing instrument?  I’m not going to be playing with other people a huge amount, if at all.

    How much complex, lengthy harp music is there likely to be that wouldn’t work with F to F?  I’m currently putting in a piece into Musescore to see how difficult it is.  One page, simple, done in twenty-five minutes.

    The plan would be to leave the legs off permanently.

    Member
    Elettaria on #194904

    I won’t have the opportunity to see it before I buy it, by the way.  It’s about 500 miles away.

    If the harp is twenty years old, then if it’s not been restrung since then, how likely is it that I should be changing the strings anyway?  If so, can I do anything like use some strings for the ones next to them, rather than having to buy a whole new set for £70 or so?  Also would there be any possibility of changing some or all of the strings for fluorocarbon, if I could get the same gauge (and it looks like it’s very close, judging by the charts they have), or would that kill the harp?

    Member
    Elettaria on #194905

    Aha, I found a video of it!  OK, that’s tinkly, and the legs don’t look removable at all.  I think I’ll pass.  Thanks for all the advice.   If my finances permit in the future, I might get a lap harp for my partner’s, but meanwhile everything is up in the air with him moving flat, and my Mark Norris plus a year and a half more of renting is already going to eat up my savings.

    But I have just had a good half hour practising Bach Prelude BWV999, and am feeling much happier and harpier.

    Participant
    Biagio on #194908

    Well OK!  Plus I don’t like the tone at all either for what that’s worth.   The one in the video is G-G I notice.  In regard to changing strings generally you really have to know the details of the original  – vibrating length, gauge, frequency and composition – before being able to say what would work well.  On a small harp it’s unlikly that you will do real damage if the new gauge is close but better to be sure.

    Always best for me to decide on exactly what I want and then start looking.  Too many people buy something because it looks nice and then end up being disappointed.

    Too bad you are not in the US – I know (or knew) of a repaired Raphael in New Jersey and I know the repair person well, it would be a good purchase.  Oh well…getting on lots of lists like this one, the Harplist, Virtual Harp Circle, etc. is the best way to find good used harps – many nice ones sell just by word of mouth.

    Best wishes,

    Biagio

    Member
    Elettaria on #194964

    You’re absolutely right about working out what you need first, I should have been doing that.  It just looked cheap enough to be tempting, although not actually that cheap by the time I factored everything else in.

    I should really see if I can get on with that Ardival wire harp I have on loan, if it can cope with being used as a weekend harp and scandalously neglected the rest of the week.  I asked around on a wire harp group and responses for how well the strings held their tuning varied wildly.  Some people were astonished to hear that not all harps need to be tuned every day, some people said they found wire kept its tuning way better than gut.  My technique will probably be better now that I’ve had a few months of solid practice on the lever harp, since I think I was overplaying and knocking the strings out of tune that way.  Mind you, I don’t know whether being more used to a lever harp means that I now have a steadier hand which will work better with wire harp, or whether I am now used to playing way too strongly for the wire harp.  The tuning will probably still defeat me.  I wish I had chanced upon a type of wire harp that holds its tuning for longer!  I caught myself gazing longingly at the beautiful one you’re selling – how’s that going, by the way?

    Participant
    Biagio on #194966

    You have raised some good points Elletaria, particularly on wire harp technique.  Yes indeed, playing with the same force as you would on a high tension gut or nylon strung harp is, one might say, “contra indicated.”   You need only graze the strings lightly to bring out its beautiful sound; too much force not only sounds muddy but, as you say, can pull it out of tune.  Cynthia Cathcart has a series of introductory videos that are worth watching.

    Some other potential drawbacks worth mentioning: if the back is closed (no access holes) changing a broken string requires using a metal toggle ( “zoggle”) and pushing that through from the front.  Typically you have to lay the harp flat or make a stable stand when not in use.  Wire is expensive relative to gut and nylon and sources are not as available (in Scotland you are fortunate to be near Malcolm Rose). It can take some jiggling around to get a new string lined up with the others.  Finally you have to learn some damping techniques that are not as common on gut/nylon.  You probably know all this already of course.

    Thank you for asking – few have expressed any interest in mine so far. One (a professional in California) wanted a larger range; a young girl loved it but I told her father better to begin learning on a nylon strung harp and steered them to a Kortier Wren Faire.  And so it goes.

    In all honesty I think that you  might not find it to your liking:  it is too tall to be played comfortably while seated (at least for me – I’m 5’8″) and I put the strings on the right hand side which would require getting used to.  I’m not entirely happy with the ring of the upper three strings either (something I should address – whoops). But I’m delighted that you like it!

    I do wonder however if a small double strung might be to your liking.  Unfortunately not many people make those either but there are some ranging from “Good” to “Excellent”.  In the “Good” column – Blevins and Stoney End, in “Excellent” Rees.  All of these have dealers in the EU.  A particular favorite around here is the Blevins Cameo 46. All three do turn up in the used market from time to time.

    Best wishes,

    Biagio

     

     

    Member
    Elettaria on #194967

    I have an idea that might solve all my problems!  Biagio, do tell me what you think.

    So what I’d really love would be a little wire harp that holds its tune well enough to cope with weekly tunings (bear in mind I wouldn’t be playing it for the later half of the week), preferably with slightly wider string spacing than the Ardival since I use fingerpads not nails, and a few strings more than my current 19 would be nice.

    I’ve found Callan harps in Ireland.  He makes full-scale 34 string harps and also makes budget smaller harps, using a delightful variety of local woods.  I know of at least one wire harp he’s made, an adaptation of his 14 string model.  I don’t know its exact dimensions, but he offers a 21 string model, also mentioned here. I’m thinking that could convert very nicely to a wire harp.  If the same string spacing was kept, 21 strings is nice, and if a slightly narrower spacing was used (I imagine there’s a compromise between standard nylon spacing and the spacing on my Ardival), then 23 or 24 strings would be a really nice range, provided of course it kept its tuning.  The one on the website goes down to a low G, and from what I understand from other posts here you drop a few tones when converting to wire, so say somewhere between C and E at the bottom?  The price on his small harps is good, and not having levers or needing a stand or case will help.  There are more photos and some videos on his Facebook page.  The lap harp sample sounded nicer than the other budget lap harps I’ve heard, into the middling range, I think, and wire harps hopefully sound nicer anyway. (I don’t know, what does a bad wire harp sound like?  I’m not blown away by the wire harp videos on the Triplett site, but I’m not sure they’re being played by wire harpers, as I can’t hear any damping for instance, and those harps have a solid reputation so I suspect the videos aren’t doing them justice.) It would be small enough to keep at my partner’s flat for weekends, the smaller range and lack of levers wouldn’t matter because wire harps are a different animal, it would be fun to explore the different style and repertoire, and it wouldn’t have the tinkliness that tends to annoy me with lap harps.

    Does this sound like a good idea, assuming the luthier is able and willing to produce a nice little budget wire harp?  If so, what should I ask about, and what should I be careful about?  Could you remind me what the construction features are that make some wire harps hold their tuning better than others?

    Member
    Elettaria on #194970

    We cross-posted, but yep, I’ve had one lesson in wire harp and have been teaching myself from First Steps by Marshalsey and Coupled Hands by Heymann.  So I’ve been doing damping and so forth.  Keeping the harp on its back has been fine as well, since it’s such a wee thing.  I had to put a few new strings on the Ardival when it arrived, and am lucky to have a friend who works in wire and who did a beautiful job on putting the toggles on.

    I forgot the other main problem I was having with the wire harp , and that was seeing the strings.  (I really don’t think I’d get on well with two rows of strings, which is a pity as they sound amazing.)  I was using the Posca paint markers recommended, and the dark blue was great but the red wore off in about twenty minutes.  Still, I’ve got a few colours to play with now, and better lighting set up, and I could probably sort that out if I didn’t have the tuning problem holding me back.  I’ve had that Ardival harp a year, I did spend a while tuning it as often as I could, and I don’t think I can keep up with the tuning schedule it needs.

    Your harp definitely sounds too tall for me!  I hope you find it a lovely new home.  Would it be better suited to left-shoulder playing, then?

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