I was listening to NPR this morning and listening to my favorite interviewer, Terry Gross, do an interview with T-bone Pickens. He made an interesting comment-he was talking about guitars and drums, but it’s something I have always felt about the harp too-that there comes a point where, if you try to play too loudly, you loose resonance. He said that if you overplay a drum or guitar, it just doesn’t resonate as well and doesn’t sound as loudly, as if you play with less force but more tone. That certainly is true of the harp. I think that some harpists overplay the instrument for one of two reasons. The first is the mistaken delusion that they have a “big sound,” when all they are doing is playing everything fortissimo. The second is when they are playing an instrument(and one brand comes immediately to mind!) that is very tightly strung and doesn’t resonate very well. So they are forced to play everything with maximum force to get any sound at all. In both cases the sound produced is unclear and unfocused and there is almost a loss of pitch, probably because, with so much force, the pitch initially starts high and then drops down.
thank you for bringing this theme out….
Smaller harps and lighter tension harps are very often overplayed because the harpist don’t get real in contact with the instruments voice possibillity.
This makes pain to the ears….at least to me.
I agree with you on the overplaying part- I have listened to many harpists that seem to play everything with rolled chords and numerous glissandos, to the point where the melody becomes muddled. For me, as a listener and a player, the simple ethereal tone of the harp is lost when it is overcome with all those embellishments. That is how I view overplaying, but playing everything fortissimo is not pleasing to the ears either. The expressiveness of the piece would be completely lost I imagine.
Regarding harpists… I think sitting behind the harp may be part of the reason harpists overplay. It’s like listening behind a speaker rather than in front of it. If I’m playing in a loud room, I can’t hear myself, but I have guests come up and tell me the name of every tune I play….
I agree, the harp can get really abrasive-sounding. It’s possible to get a big, full sound without yanking. The problem stems from the direction the string is pulled, as well as the amount of force. If it is pulled to much sideways instead of downwards, it can twang on the disc prongs or the groove of the nut. Other instrumentalists play long tones to improve their tone; harpists would benefit from playing very slowly and paying careful attention to how the tone changes depending on which direction they pluck, how much finger they use, how high or low the thumb is, how much curve to use, how the curvature may change as they get into lower registers, etc. The ear should trump everything. If it sounds bad, then change the technique.
Elizabeth- I agree with you. But you left out one other factor to sound production which is very important, and that’s how much you press into the string before you release it. No matter what the dynamic is that you want to play, pp to FF, pressing the finger into the string will give you a deeper, rounder sound. It’s particularly noticeable when playing octaves in the 5th, 6th, and 7th octaves. Try placing the octave, fingertips(4th and thumb) placed along an imaginary line at a right angle to the strings, and squeeze the strings towards each other before releasing them. Squeeze them hard. You can release them at any dynamic and they will still sound with more depth and sound less percussive then if you just place and play.
To the comment about orchestral playing- do orchestral harpists really use amplification?
If so, I’ll have to admit to being aghast. How about the notion that instead of coming up to the volume of the orchestra, the orchestra should come down to the volume of the harpist.
I have to add to my distaste for the trend of playing everything as fast as the fingers can fly, the equally annoying tendency to play everything as though it’s better at an amplified volume.
The best teachers I ever had NEVER even said the word “loud”. Good instrumentalists learned to produce a large, round tone, then learned how to make it large and round in smaller increments or large and round at the fullest potential of the instrument or ensemble. This isn’t just semantics- it’s perceiving the size of a tone at different volumes without altering the tone itself.
I distrust amplification more and more. In a concert setting, the acoustics and size of venue should eliminate the need for it, in a social setting where background music is desired, amplification subverts the purpose of the music, and in an ensemble setting, mutual agreement about the output of the ensemble should also be based on auditory common sense.
All of us should bear in mind that auditory acuity is decreasing with each generation. Guess why that is….
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