QUESTION FOR LEVER HARP PLAYERS

Posted In: How To Play

  • Participant
    carl-swanson on #184767

    I never played lever harp and also have never taught on it either. So I’m really not familiar with what is available for lever harp in terms of technical materials. My question is: How do you learn technique on lever harp? What kind of exercises or etudes do you use? Are there etudes written specifically for lever harp? I’m very curious to know what is available as far as lever harp pedagogy is concerned.

    Second question: How many strings does your lever harp have and what are the lowest and highest notes. Is 36 strings the standard? Do all 36 string lever harps have a C6 on the bottom and a C1 at the top?

    Participant
    Tacye on #184769

    Hi Carl – I started off on a level harp and Grossi. A lot of technical material doesn’t use pedals and as such swaps easily between the instruments.

    In the UK the standard/common baseline for a lever harp is 34 strings – 6C to 1A – I think this became standard about the 1970s or 80s and before that from the 1930s the common harp was 31 strings 6E to 1G. (I believe the Clarsach Society’s preferences had a lot to do with there being a standard.) Larger harps are around but all the makers do a 34 string full levers student model.

    Something you need to be aware of swapping from pedal to lever is the variability of lever harps. There are some, such as the Salvi Anna, Teifi Eos, L&H Prelude and the Dusty Strings Boulevard which you can sit down and play with the finger technique pretty much as you would a pedal harp. There are others where you need to use a technique more like that of single action or a nice Erard Grecian – tone down on the force and maybe rotate the hands a bit.

    Participant
    carl-swanson on #184770

    Thanks Tacye- Over here in the U.S. I tend to think of all non-pedal harps as being in one of two categories. One category is the harps that use the same strings (i.e., same gauge) as pedal harp, and therefore have a tension and spacing more or less the same as a pedal harp, or at least very similar. The other category are what I call “folk harps” which use much thinner strings, have much lighter tension(and much thinner soundboards). Is that what you are talking about when you mention variability? I’d like to hear from some American lever harpists on these questions too.

    Question for teachers who teach lever harp(as well as pedal harp). When you start a new student on lever harp, either a child or an adult beginner, what do you use for technical material to get them moving on the instrument. Is there something(in terms of teaching materials) that you wish was available but isn’t?

    Member
    Angela Biggs on #184771

    I’ve never played pedal harp, so I can’t compare the two.

    However, I use Friou’s Harp Exercises for Agility and Speed to work on technique. Denise Grupp-Verbon’s Lever Drill is the only systematic work on lever-throwing I’ve found; it really got me over my fear of lever changes within pieces.

    I use what I’ve come to understand as “classic” technique – thumbs up, fingers down. I’ve only touched a pedal harp once, and the pull didn’t seem much greater than my Heartland Sylvan, though the gut strings are definitely stickier than my harp’s nylon. Therefore, I believe the difference in technique between lever and pedal can be minimal. Celtic harpers sometimes play with their thumbs low and palms facing each other; the book I started with didn’t use this method, so I don’t know anything about the reasoning behind it.

    When I taught myself the basics years ago, I used Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp. I suspect there are more lever-oriented (as opposed to folk-oriented) manuals out there now. I “teach” lever harp to novices – by which I mean I provide some guidance and accountability – and I’ve accrued a couple of books I haven’t found very helpful. Laurie Riley’s Basic Harp for Beginners is, in my personal opinion, both too simple and too complicated. It teaches harp tabulature, which to me is not worth it, and doesn’t get very far by the end of the book. On the other end of the spectrum, Yolanda Kondonassis’ On Playing the Harp is much too in-depth for middle-aged women who just want to “play the harp,” rather than study it. (But if you have a student who is extremely serious, nearly the entire book can be played on a lever harp.)

    My harp is 36 strings, C to C. 34 strings is considered a minimum for a full-range folk instrument, and I think that always starts at the low C. 36 is generally considered full-sized in the U.S. — again, with the low C on bottom. Lever harps go up to about 40 strings; after 36 they add low notes. The more strings, the more likely the harp is geared toward classical music as opposed to folk; and indeed, the larger lever harps are often designed to look like pedal harps.

    Lever harpers are more likely to play-and-sing, especially singer-songwriter type music, so learning how to read and manifest chord symbols can be important. I teach this as I go along, in both the roman-numeral method and the contemporary one used on lead sheets. Shirley Starke wrote How to Play the Folk Harp from Chord Symbols, which is a self-study book specifically geared toward using a lead sheet. If that’s not something you do yourself very often, it would be a helpful book.

    My students all start out with traditional lessons – reading music, the theory and playing of chords, hand position, posture, pulling into the palm, etc. However, since they are mostly adults, there have been a couple who start out this way, but whose lives get massively in the way so that they can’t realistically practice. For them I transition to workshop-type lessons without a practice expectation. We learn very simple songs that can be taught in the folk tradition (verbally), or very simple duets. I’ve found that the duets are extremely successful. The beginner gets the experience of playing with another musician; the experience of reading music while playing (can’t memorize it if you’re not practicing!); plus the richer, fuller sound of more strings playing, even though she is herself only plucking one string at a time.

    For workshop-style solos, I’ve used the slower/easier tunes in the Sylvia Woods books, as well as some of the shorter pieces in Sharon Thormalen’s “A Rose in Winter.” Some of these are quite repetitive, with an ostinato in the LH, so the student ends up with a whole piece, though only learning about half the amount of music. Kathryn Cater’s “Enchanted Melodies for Two Harps” is a good resource for very, very easy duet material.

    I agree with Tacye, there is much more variability among lever harps and their music than with pedal harps. For one thing, though they often look the same, there can be some differences between lever harps and Celtic harps (string spacing, tension). String tension and sustain varies quite a bit among lever harps from different makers. Also, the goals of lever harpers are generally less lofty than pedal harpists. There aren’t any orchestral ambitions, and there are basically no competitive opportunities in the U.S. for lever harpers; though there are a few in the U.S. for Celtic harpers.

    I hope this information is helpful to you.
    Angela

    Member
    Angela Biggs on #184772

    And to answer that last question of yours – I’d love to see a greater selection of very easy duets. 🙂 That one book has enough to last me for a little while, but I’m going to get to a point before the end of year where I’ll need to start writing my own.

    Participant
    Biagio on #184773

    Hi Carl,

    Grossi is excellent as Tacye suggests and so is Kondonassis (On Playing the Harp), also oriented toward the pedal harpist. Generally speaking, technique transfers readily. The are a few “buts” however and they can be big ones depending on the harp design and the student’s preferences.

    Not long ago it was common to assume that the lever harp was a relatively inexpensive instrument to begin study, later graduating to pedal. Therefore technique (other than the pedals) and repertoire could be taught identically and instruments such as the Troubadour are designed accordingly: gut strings, concert tension and spacing, minimum 5 octaves, balanced for tilting to the shoulder etc.

    This is no longer an entirely valid assumption; using pedal technique may actually result in injury on a lightly strung instrument, and certainly will not sound pleasing. Modern lever harps are designed in a bewildering array of ranges, tensions and string spacings just to name a few, and often for specific purposes. The Thormalen Ceili and Triplett Celtic are designed with the Celtic player in mind, and are more amenable to wire harp technique; the Lorien Raphael and Triplett Christina for therapy instruments; meanwhile Camac and others have come out with electric and electric- acoustic harps. Let’s not even begin to get into the subject of modern wire harps, doubles and cross strungs!

    So it is difficult to say whether there is any one standard range or technique. Rather than bore you and everyone else with a long dissertation (it’s getting pretty long already) let’s consider some harpists who have trained on pedal and now often or principally play the lever harp: Kim Robertson, Frank Voltz, Catrin Finch, Marta Cook, Deborah Henson-Conant. To widen the field somewhat more let’s also include Paraguayan style (Alfredo Ortiz). I think that studying these artists will be helpful when considering where to focus and what to ignore with respect to technique.

    As to range, it probably would be best to consider the particular student(s). Certainly the more strings the merrier, but a good 26 string can be just fine for the student who does not have a predetermined focus. Some may decide that the concert harp is for them eventually. Others may not. So I’d suggest minimum 26 strings, medium tension, “concert spacing” and a full set of quality levers. Many of such instruments have a C as the lowest string but not all and personally I don’t think a 34 versus 36 or 38 is that big a deal other than cost.

    In addition to Salvi some excellent makers to consider are Triplett, Thormahlen, Sligo, Rees, and Dusty Strings. Most of these provide a great deal of information and thoughtful discussion on their websites. Rick Kemper (Sligo Harps) even tells you exactly how he makes his harps and goes into great detail on string theory (always a useful thing for the student to understand).

    Best wishes and have fun!

    Participant
    Biagio on #184774

    PS In reply to Angela regarding Celtic style: we hold the thumbs low and the hand cupped because we principally play with the nails and the thumb often carries the underlying tonal center. Playing is often rapid with many the instrument has a lot of sustain, spacing is narrow, and damping becomes quite important. Closing the fingers into the palm and the thumb over the hand as one would on a gut or nylon harp can result in really long ring: up to 30 seconds or more. Thus, technique has been developed (or re-developed!) to accommodate. A really fascinating book to study (and actually for any harpist) would be Ann Heymann’s “Coupled Hands for Harpers.”

    I’d like to add as well for beginner’s materials the “Play the Harp Beautifully” volumes by Pam Bruner and two by Ray Pool: “3’s a Chord” and “1,2,3 – Play.”

    Two books I really wish every lever harper would buy, although not concerned with instruction: Laurie Riley’s “Harper’s Manual” and David Kolacny’s “Trouble Shooting Your Lever Harp.” These two address a lot of the practical aspects of choosing and maintaining their instrument (and save the instructor some time in answering technical questions).

    Participant
    Tacye on #184775

    Hi Angela, Do you know the Meinir Heulyn duet books?

    Participant
    Donna O on #184776

    Carl,
    I agree with what Biagio and others have said. There is no one answer to the question. I play a L&H Prelude 40 (gut, concert tension and spacing,1E to 6A) and a Dusty Strings Crescendo 34 (nylon, medium tension and slightly closer spacing, C to C ). My teacher is Salzado trained and started me out on Salzedo’s Method for Harp, Lawrence and Salzedo, Pathfinder to the Harp and Conditioning Exercises. When lever flipping became impossibly difficult in Salzedo’s material my teacher either adapted it or I didn’t do those exercises. I also use Friou’s Exercises for speed and agility. I also have used Bochsa 40. I was taught traditional pedal harp technique which I found I had to adapt a little when playing on the Dusty.ie: I would tend to overplay and had a lot of “buzzy” strings initially. Now I can go back and forth between harps quite comfortably.

    Participant
    carl-swanson on #184778

    Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into your posts. I really appreciate it. I hope many more people respond as well.

    I know that people come to the harp, both lever and pedal harp, with different expectations and interests, and this is a good thing. Many adult beginners, as Angela said, just want to “play” for fun, and are not particularly interested in or have the time for didactic study. Also, there are different styles of playing(celtic, folk, classical, etc.) and the techniques for each of these may vary quite a bit. So do you think a book of etudes, short and lower level, in which different patterns are explored(in typical etude fashion) could serve all of these various ways of playing the instrument. In other words, if you have a book of etudes, teachers could use those etudes to teach whatever type of technique he or she teaches. The etude does not dictate a specific way of playing. It just provides a format for exploring technical problems on the harp and gives the student something to play that sounds like a real piece of music but is really a technical study. Just curious.

    My whole life with the harp consisted of serious pedal harp study with classical training. When the lever harp first came into being, it was thought of as a cheaper way of getting started on the harp, with the full assumption that the lever harpist would eventually go on to pedal harp. That is no longer the case, and I’m interested in all of the things that the lever harpists are doing, what kind of things they are playing, and also where there may be gaps in what is available to them. Thanks everybody!

    Participant
    carl-swanson on #184779

    Donna- You mentioned Bochsa 40. That’s the 40 easy etudes, op. 318? Did someone adapt them for lever harp? Or do you just work from the pedal harp version and skip the chromaticism that occasionally comes up?

    Participant
    Tacye on #184780

    Carl, I find lever harps don’t fit into just two categories that well – more of a continuum from pedal gauge to cobweb! The ‘lever gauge’ strings that Bow Brand sell are a very good match for the 1911 L&H string gauges, and feel noticably lighter than modern pedal gauge but most harps with these will take a bit of finger pressure. Once I get to an octave lighter than pedal I am much more likely to overplay and I get on with gut at whatever tension far better than nylon. There is also the question of sustain, some lever harps don’t shut up which is different to play too.

    Spectator
    allegra on #184783

    It might also be worth looking at the studies and exercises book for the Trinity board exams, as it is the same book for both lever and pedal harp exams, from Initial grade up to Grade 8. I think most of the exercises are for both types, with some that have alternative versions.

    http://shop.morleyharps.co.uk/acatalog/100626.html

    Participant
    Biagio on #184784

    Happy if what we’ve written is helpful, Carl. Yes I think that there is a huge gaping hole for lever players and I encounter it all the time on the Yahoo group that I moderate. I’ll sum it up this way: a very common question from beginners is, “What harp would you recommend I buy?” My short answer not so snippily is, “It might be better to ask, where can I find an instructor?”

    But that really begs the question of understanding a harp’s design and as far as I know there are no thorough guides that are written for the player (as opposed for the design world). For example:

    -What are the reasons and the differences between a high headed harp and a lower headed one?
    -Is a spruce sound board really the best and only way to go?
    -Is there really a difference in tone between walnut, cherry, maple….?
    -Is is true that I should not substitute gut for nylon or vice versa?
    -What’s with all the different ways of naming strings (there are at least three accepted ways)?
    -How about those wound strings????
    And so on.

    I have my own opinions, some of which would cause angst in certain quarters. But these are all pretty valid questions and I really wish some one would go out on a limb and write it:-)

    Biagio

    Member
    Janis Cortese on #184787

    As someone who is just learning and might like to find etude books, I truly, truly wish that instructional materials approached the occasional mid-piece lever flip as simply a normal activity instead of something frightening. The attitude seems to be that pedal harps allow for modulation, and therefore lever harps must allow for none whatsoever, which I’m not finding to be true at all.

    This leaves a big gap in materials: whole books of pieces with ZERO lever flips at all, and pieces like Pool plays, which involve a ton of them. I haven’t found instructional materials so far that introduce mid-piece lever-flipping in a beginner-intermediate-advanced sort of way and that assumes it’s something that just needs to be mastered, period. Sure, I can get a lot of good information on hand position and string manipulation from the many pedal harp books, but of course they say nothing at all about that entire row of device controls lined up atop the neck that are just begging to be messed with as well.

    However, as a newbie, these books might be out there and I just haven’t found them yet. 🙂 (Update: Angela, thanks for mentioning that lever drills book. I’m off to find a copy!)

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