They’re our worst enemies – right hand harmonics are perpetually an “unstable” part of our pieces: they always seem to be a dull or weak spot in most works. This is not
Great topic, Sam!
I’ve found that with both left and right hand harmonics it helps to avoid stopping the string until the precise moment it is played; i.e. I don’t place and then play the string. Also, especially in the higher octaves, I find that the space between the thumb and index finger in the right hand is very small (mostly because the strings are shorter). And for the unfortunate instance where I have to play right hand harmonics in the 4th and 5th octaves, I increase the space between thumb and index finger, and I direct my index finger more downward so it is more parallel to the string I am playing (thus putting more of my finger on the string to stop it). I also keep my thumb curved at all times. To make them louder, I put more pressure with the index finger, and give it a little push on the string as I play it.
I much prefer left hand harmonics, because they are easier, seem to be more resonant, and look so much nicer. I’m lucky that harmonics have never been a huge challenge for me, and I love playing them.
I have also wondered – when the left hand has to play an unusually high harmonic (like above 3rd octave G), is it possible to change the position so that it mirrors a right hand harmonic (stopping the string with the index finger, instead of with the side of the palm)? I have seen this in one piece, Parvis by Bernard Andres, where this would be helpful in the first harp part. Any thoughts on that?
I’ve never heard of executing a left hand harmonic like a right hand one – however a year or two ago my teacher told me that one of her new students, who had been playing around with her new found technique of harmonics, decided to play the harmonic with her index finger. Amazingly it seemed to work just as well as a normal harmonic. This would probably increase the range of harmonics upwards on both hands because it changes the position of your hand to “point” upwards rather than downward, which can cause some problems in the wrist.
I have to say, Jennifer, that it makes much more sense to be able to play right hand harmonics better than left hand ones – I suppose it is because your hand doesnt obstruct the view of the string. It’s just for some strange reason, whenever I go to play harmonics in my right hand, the sound is almost never crisp; there is always more of a “thud” rather than a bell-like sound.
Left hand harmonics can be played just like right hand harmonics in the higher ranges. At the end of the Parish-Alvars Serenade the left hand harmonics go so high that you have to switch the left hand position and play them just like a right hand harmonic. But in general harmonics seem to work best if there is as much distance as possible between the thumb plucking the string and the knuckle or heal of the hand stopping it. One thing that nobody has mentioned yet is the harp itself. Some instruments produce much better harmonics than others. Don’t ask me why. So if you are constantly frustrated with the quality of the harmonics you play, it could have to do with the instrument.
I completely understand what you are saying about the differences between instruments. My harp is terrible at producing harmonics: many times they are inaudible. On the other hand the harp I play in my teacher’s studio is great a producing harmonics. In fact my harp is a Salvi while my teacher’s is a Lyon and Healy. Has anyone noticed a difference in harmonic quality between harp types?
JP- Aren’t you sweet! I too find that harmonics are easier on one of my harps. But of course I wasn’t going to say that.
I’m not sure what it is that makes harnomics easier on one instrument or the other. I keep for myself a very old Lyon & Healy semi-grand that I completely rebuilt about 23 years ago. It’s a gorgeous instrument with a gorgeous clear sound. But I don’t get very clear and bell like harmonics on it. I don’t know why. I was thinking of recording the Parish-Alvars Serenade a few years ago, And I was going to record it on that instrument, but record the whole first page(all harmonics in chords!) on another instrument that had better harmonics and then splice the two parts together.
Karin- To be honest, I haven’t played it in a while and I haven’t done any harmonics on it. So I’m not sure. But I suspect they are great. I’ll let you know. I wonder if harmonics are affected by tension on the string. Some instruments require more tension on the string to get it up to the designated pitch. I suspect that the higher the tension, the less the harmonics speak. The lower the tension, within reason, the better they sound.
Each harp string produces several overtones, each of which has a node. Each node is geometrically spaced on the string, the first node is at the halfway point, the second node divides the remaining string in half.
If you are conscious of where the exact center of the string is, you will always find the harmonic there. You have only to stop the string
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