Theory vs Practice vs Reality

Posted In: How To Play

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    leisesturm on #232446

    As some will know I have recently been seized with the desire to obtain a harp and explore its world. I am researching harps and harp technique mainly through online means. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of tutors that have prepared beginner material for YouTube.

    This is not meant as a call out. I just want clarification. The instructor that can be seen in this video: has also uploaded a video with a pretty clear description of finger follow through, thumb follow through, and proper bracketing. Not knowing anything more about it this looks like perfectly fine playing to model, on its face. But … …

    Obviously this particular video is not a tutorial. However, I can’t actually see any evidence of the technique that is so painstakingly outlined in hers and others tutorials. Is it that fingers closing into the palm and thumb closing over the fist and the free hand and fingers covering the notes to be played before they are employed … can all that realistically be done “in real life” i.e. in performance? Or is it all actually there and I am just not seeing it?

    Biagio on #232465

    It takes time to get your hands to perform well in harp technique, whatever the style and yes, you will get the clearest tone by closing all the way to the palm. That may not always be realistically possible at speed but when first developing your “muscle memory” that is how we all start (except on wire).

    Here’s the deal: you cannot play with ease and fluidity if the hand and arm are tense, but when you first start to learn your finger muscles may not have developed to the point where you can get volume while keeping the finger also relaxed until you pluck. There is also a harmful tendency by beginners to pull with the arm and/or lean to the side. These and other pointers are why we all recommend at least some study with a professional. Do not just follow any old player that turns up in a search.

    There are many subtleties: squeezing the string slightly before the pluck, using the release as a “spring board” to the next pluck, placing in advance, being able to do an effective raise without losing your place, etc.

    For starters, of all the examples on Youtube, Chris Caswell’s explanation I think is the clearest for when you first approach the harp; here’s the first of four:

    I would suggest a couple of other things to help you with these observations. First, study the lessons freely given by Josh Layne (Harp Tuesdays):

    Welcome to Harp Tuesday

    Second, when you are ready to purchase books, do buy either Metoda Arpa by Maria Grossi (it’s in Italian but there may be translations) or On Playing the Harp by Yolanda Kondonassis (in English). They are all three highly respected harpists and teachers.

    Kondonassis and Grossi teach Salzedo method (or taught in the case of Maria), I’ve never asked Josh about that. I really don’t think it matters if the style is Salzedo or Grandjany or some other in the beginning. The important thing is to get a solid foundation from a qualified teacher.

    Other great players with videos on Youtube include Laurie Riley, Marta Cook and Grainne Hambly (all Celtic harpers).

    A student once asked Laurie “How do I master technique?” Her answer: “Do everything incredibly slowly at first, and in rhythm .”

    Full disclosure: I studied harp making with Chris and studied lever harp under Laurie, with early pedal harp with Jocelyn Chang..

    Hope that helps!

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    wil-weten on #232505

    Hi Howard, I agree with Biagio on having a look at the very many instructional (free) videos of Josh Layne.

    Yet, I think you’d best start with studying the several (free) videos of Ray Pool: you see them listed and embedded at: He explains and shows elementary technique in a calm and clear way.

    Yes, fingers and thumb closing is a really important technique, not only to get a good sound, but also to relax after playing a note in order to prevent developing (chronic!) injuries.

    There are several good books to study technique, Biagio already mentioned some of them. Still, it’s vital that you get feedback from a professional harp teacher.

    Otherwise you risk developing a less great tone, but, even worse, chronic injuries.

    The big problem with self-teaching when one has decided to become a professional, is that one can’t unlearn things. Unfortunately, I started my harp lessons in a large group from a teacher who had studied piano. Many moons later, I still struggle to not use the same old, bad harp technique for which I was not corrected when starting to learn the harp, again and again.

    I am convinced that taking lessons from a professional harp teacher in order to learn a good and healthy harp technique is an investment really justifying the costs, especially when one aims to become a professional.

    I am probably repeating partly what I already wrote somewhere in the earlier thread you started, but I hope you don’t mind.

    Biagio on #232518

    Great pointer Wil, I had forgotten about Ray Pool’s online lessons! Your comment about self-teaching is also right on the money – I say that from personal experience (rueful grin).

    Howard, we tend to beat this to death – “Get a teacher” – but don’t let that discourage you. Of course some people continue lessons all their lives (honestly) in the form of workshops master classes, but most of us do not.

    At the start you asked “How long before I can probably play well?” and I kinda skirted that question. Let me put it this way:

    I got in through the back door so to speak (and still enjpy harp design more than playing haha) , with no background at all in music; after stumbling around trying to self-teach started lessons with Jocelyn and later Laurie. After a year or so had pretty good technique but not too great at sight reading

    On the other hand, a friend who played classical guitar and piano was actually teaching within two years.

    Do though try to join a local harp circle and the Puget Sound Folk Harp Society. We hold two annual retreats and an Fall picnic where you will meet people like the Thornahlens, Harper Tasche, Laurie Riley, Ray and Sue Mooers (owners of Dusty Strings), and many others.

    Don’t worry about travel either – almost everyone carpools!


    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    leisesturm on #232529

    Just watched a Josh Layne video where he did a one sixth speed slow motion of a rapid scale pattern … … you know, I almost had this thread deleted. When it didn’t get any responses right away I had a crisis of confidence and thought maybe I had crossed a line. For some reason none of the responses to this thread came through my e-mail although responses to my other thread do.

    I should have known that although not explicit in the remarks, my question was being answered anyway, in the best way possible: by examples. Until I actually get my hands on a harp there isn’t much more I can say. Except, thank you.

    Biagio on #232532

    It has been a pleasure Howard; as you can tell some of us love to “talk harp”, maybe too much LOL.

    I’ve hesitated to bring this up since you have clearly done your “homework” and both the Ravenna 34 and the Crescendo are fine harps (plus, I like my friends at Dusty!). However….if you would like to save some money and are reasonably good with basic hand tools one other option would be a kit – specifically the Musicmakers Voyageur:

    That was my second harp before I got into custom designs, and it was a breeze to build.

    It is an excellent intermediate grade harp, fully as good as the Crescendo – examine the instructions on the website to see if that lies within your interest and available tools.

    Your only “challenge”would be mounting levers if you decide that you really want would have to order those from Camac or perhaps Dave or Ray could help. I notice that Musicmakers does provide either Truitts or Camacs on the finished kit so that is another possibility. They are wonderful people to work with too!

    Another nice thing about this kit: it is easy to customize with, for example, a spruce sound board (built to specs by Rick Kemper) and/or a different string set – which would run another $500 or so on top of the kit price of about $1,500. So for a concert grade harp equivalent to a Dusty FH34 you would be looking at

    Kit: $1,500
    Spruce SB $250
    Other strings $200 (optional, for lower range or different tone)
    Levers 15/ea. $510
    Total about $2510

    I don’t know about a soft case though I’d bet it would definitely fit in a Dusty CD36 – about $525, which I could give you for a lot less if you want to consider this option.

    Well, just a thought but if it does interest you let me know and we can discuss details about construction or anything else offline.

    Best wishes,

    wil-weten on #232556

    Hi Howard, you mentioned that you didn’t get responses to this thread. Could it be that you haven’t subscribed to this thread, yet? You will find a link near the top and near the bottom of the page to do that.

    Earlier, you wondered why almost only the Dusty Ravenna had a bulkier bottom (you formulated it differently, but I can’t find your exact words). Well, the Camac lever harps all have rather ‘bulky bottoms’. I am a great fan of Camac harps. They’ve got models with all kinds of lever tension, and, they all are fitted with great levers. In Europe, these sturdy harps with balanced sounds have rather nice prices (relatively speaking…), I got the impression they are significantly pricier in the US, but still, I think if possible, you’d best visit a shop where they sell Camac lever harps.

    Biagio on #232573

    Wil you may know this already but here it is: the box for Ravennas (and Boulevard) is made from a single truncated triangle of Baltic birch plywood. That sheet is scored with grooves (seams), then glued in those grooves and folded up to form the box. That geometry results in the bulkier bottom; a less bulky bottom would require grooves that when glued up would not be as stable as the shape they came up with.

    You will note that Dusty also covers the box with a thin sheet of laminate which serves to both strengthen those seams and reduce some of the brittle sound that plywood produces.

    On the box in general: shape and volume is an ongoing debate among harp makers. Some lever harp makers prefer the box to be real wood, some think that a square shape like the Rees has better acoustics,some prefer to go the pedal route where that box is built up from thin sheets of laminate and formed in a vacuum press. You loose little of a solid wood’s sound that way but get more volume and a thinner lighter box.

    While I’m in lecture mode: most agree that where the string access holes are placed and their size has a definite acoustic effect with smaller holes being preferred. If you look at the base of several modern harps they will have one or two large (3 inch diameter holes) – those truly do act as “sound holes” for projection, as opposed to what are mostly holes to get at the strings.

    It’s safe to say that people study what has worked, modify that for modern materials in some cases, and then see what works for them. Obviously it is expensive to experiment with a harp design (grin) but it also safe to say that very rarely will the first of a new design will be a prototype, not what eventually ends up in the showroom:-)

    Here’s a shout out to harp makers – they share their knowledge and thinking with each other all the time!


    wil-weten on #232583

    Hi Biagio, yes, I know the special way the Dusty Ravenna’s are made and that the plywood of the soundboard is covered with vinyl. It always surprised me that they didn’t cover it with veneer, but I guess that vinyl is easier and cheaper to use.

    The bulkiness at the bottom of other lever harps (like the Camacs and the L&H’s) may have to do with a greater volume of the soundbox as well as the balance of the harp (it won’t topple over as fast as some other models).

    Yeah, there’s a lot to say about the different ways a harp can be built and what this means for the sound of the harp. I understand why people are fascinated by harp design and like to try out all kinds of possible varieties. And then there is the wood… Even harps made from the same model and the same wood, but from a different tree, sound different. It was quite shocking for me to discover with my own ears how much difference in sound this can be. Some people even believe that harps made from the same tree, but from a different part of that tree sound different.

    leisesturm on #232587

    @wil-weten, you may be right that I am not subscribed to this thread. Thing is, I can’t remember having to do anything special when I created the other one. ‘Can’t remember’ being the operative phrase 🙂

    I’ve had a look at the Camac line of lever harps, and also the L&H harps. So by ‘bulky bottom’ … I’m looking at the proportion between how wide across the harp is, and how deep (front to back) it is. I might see it different in real life, but in photos the Ravenna appears to be much deeper relative to its width than other lever harps. Obviously the great weight of the sheer number of harps that follow … ‘convention’ means I’ve either got to get with the program or … or else get a Ravenna and call it good.

    , it isn’t wil-weten than likes to complicate things 🙂 I’m pretty sure I could finish a Voyageur kit! Arrgh. Now you have me poring over the Musicmakers website and working the angles and wondering if, since I’m saving all that cash, whether or not to upgrade to the Cheyenne (would that fit in the CD36 case?) since retail for that kit is exactly $2K which is less than the base Ravenna with full levers! French Horn wasn’t this hard, I just wandered into a pawn shop and $600 later I had a name brand horn in excellent condition (in hindsight) that I play to this day (15 years later).

    Biagio on #232588

    Yeah I guess I did throw in a curve Howard:-) As I wrote, I don’t think you can go wrong with a Ravenna 34 or Crescendo but if finances are a consideration and if giving an FH34 or FH36 a pass the MM harps are worth a look. The former Regency (now the Cheyenne) is a great harp too if one is OK with aircraft laminate SB (I am, when money is a consideration). I don’t know about fitting in a Dusty case for the Cheyenne but MM does provide cases (at an extra cost -$525) assuming you buy the kit.

    Not to throw more sand in the works (well, OK yes) at $4699 for the finished harp they have on hand with gig bag (aka case) and Camac levers…that’s a sweet deal.

    WRT building a kit and adding Camac levers: I talked with Cody (from Musicmakers) this morning and here’s the gist of what he said. They will sell the appropriate Camacs for their string set for $20 ea.; he also noted that they are trickier to install than Truitts – and I agree. Could be done though and bless his little heart, my bud Rick Kemper has a detailed instruction about them.

    A few thoughts on levers in general for what they’re worth: Most beginner music is written for Celtic tunes so are in in Cmaj, with a few tunes in Gmaj or Fmaj. Those for meant for classical music are often written in Ebmaj. So to my way of thinking, if one intends to build rather than buy it makes sense to only get the needed levers at first. They are expensive!

    Lovelands from the manufacturer $6, $14 from MM
    Rees from Robinsons Harp Shop $11
    Truitts from Betty Truitt $15
    Camacs for the Voyageur or Cheyenne $20

    Cody mentioned their Universal levers; for what it’s worth I am not a fan of those for the quality of harp we are discussing. My personal choices in order –

    Camacs and Truiits: tie but prefer to the latter for ease of installation*
    Rees: also easy to install but not as heavy as the above
    Lovelands: still a good workhorse by a pain to mount until you have lots of practice

    *Note: Camacs require metric drill bits and special wrenches for the bridge pins and that is costly – the screws holding the levers are right under the strings which is a pain. You also have to put some strength in holding them down when marking holes! All in all I much prefer Truitts for ease of installation!!

    And just to throw another curve ball: there are alternate string designs for these two if one later decides they like a mellower more resonant tone. They would not have to buy new Truitts for those, they would for Camacs.

    Isn’t it fun? Too many cooks spoil the broth and too many choices gets wacky:-)


    Edit: For what it’s worth, if it were for myself and considering a kit I would get either the Cheyenne or Voyageur with C F and possibly B Truitts, planning to add more levers after a year or two. Hi Ho!

    PS I’d also be happy to trek on down to help you – after selling all my tools I do miss making harps!! I live on Whidbey Island and have friends in Tacoma, so it would also be a fun change of scenery.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    Biagio on #232669

    >I’ve had a look at the Camac line of lever harps, and also the L&H harps. So by ‘bulky bottom’ … I’m looking at the proportion between how wide across the harp is, and how deep (front to back) it is.<

    There was a discussion on the Harpmakers forum about this ie the ratio between width and cross sectional area at the bass and here’s the Readers Digest version of that:

    On most “folk” harps that ratio is around 20%-40% (pretty large variance!), on pedal harps it is higher – around 70%-78%. We might speculate that the higher volume for the pedal harp is related to the often much higher tension on the pedal harp which can move a larger air mass and hence provide higher volume.

    I suppose that a deeper box for folk harp tension would not hurt but probably not help either unless the sound board is quite wide and light, as found with the Paraguayan type harps. I don’t know that anyone has made a controlled quantitative experiment though…that would be interesting (and also pretty expensive!).

    Mostly with those folk harps it’s a question of where the center of gravity falls, I’d guess. Deeper boxes would make for a more stable platform when it is just sitting around in your corner. Most harps also have feet down there for that reason.

    Interesting question though!


    Biagio on #232749

    Hi Howard,
    I had time on my hands so pushed some numbers around. I don’t want in any way to steer you in any direction but figured I’d share what came out of it.

    As I wrote on the other thread, I put in a call to David and Sharon Thormahlen asking if Dave would mount Camacs for you. Still waiting to hear back (they usually return calls in the AM). A point to bear in mind is that if Dave would agree and the charge is acceptable you would be committed to the strings that Musicmakers provides.

    On that score I took a look at Musicmakers’ strings for the Cheyenne (and Voyageur as long as I was at it) and revised them to my preference: five are too fat for my small hands and I really do not like metal wound bass strings. I also really like a more mellow tone.

    Having gone that far I thought “What would I do if it were me?” Here are the choices I came up with:

    Ravenna 34 with full Camacs $2370
    Crescendo with full Camacs $3520
    Cheyenne with revised strings* full Truitts and supplied SB $2760
    Voyageur with revised strings*, full Truitts and supplied SB: $2220

    *I estimated those strings at $150 from my price list, two years old; assuming the 6 fluorocarbon ones are in stock.

    A spruce board from Rick Kemper would be about $450 additional cost (I don’t remember the SB dimensions). A case for the Cheyenne is $525 from MM. No figures available for a case for the Voyageur. It would not fit, I find, in the Dusty CD34, probably with room to spare in the CD36 ($525).

    A case for the Ravenna 34 or Crescendo from Dusty is $295.

    I hope that this is useful for you! Again, all are fine instruments.
    Best wishes,

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Biagio.
    leisesturm on #232769

    Am I to understand from your latest post, Biagio (besides the fact that you are most generous with your time and patience) that the Thormahlen Harps that you and others were urging me to check out in my earlier thread are the MusicMaker Harps (and kits) that I have already done a bit of research on?

    So here is what I think is a reasonable and rational way to proceed with this: Procure a Ravenna 34. Preferably a rent to own kind of trial purchase. Assuming the trial goes well (and how could it not with all the positive vibrations from the harp and harping community) settle in to learning the instrument with the 34 string.

    In six months or so obtain the kit for the Cheyenne (36) Harp and start on its build out. No time pressure on a completion date as I will have a harp to play in the meantime. No point getting another 34 string. The ‘plinkiness’ of the Ravenna becomes less of a drawback and maybe even becomes a positive as it becomes a different voice, one which just might suit the Celtic repertoire more. If you get from that that I don’t have any plans to sell the Ravenna after the Cheyenne is completed you would be correct.

    The MusicMakers are big harps. Their cases are very expensive and don’t (to my eyes) look as nice as the Dusty cases. At least the Ravenna will fit in its Dusty case and can be worn as a backpack. The Cheyenne will not fit in the CD36 case. It’s just too big a harp. I can’t tell from their pictures if the MusicMakers cases have pockets for music and accessories. I hope so because that’s a whole lot of case there.

    wil-weten on #232770

    Howard, I think it’s a great idea to start with a Dusty Ravenna 34.
    You mention the ‘plinkiness’ of the Ravenna. To my ears, the Ravenna has a typical celtical sound with a rather medium tension. If you want a significantly fuller, but still mellow sound, I would definitely check out the L&H Ogden. This harp has pedal gut tension and, at least in Europe, comes with a very nice rucksack! Here: it costs $3,200.00 dollars. I like the silent and smooth functiononing Performance levers on the L&H’s. They are not a great as the Camac levers, but better than all the other levers I have tried. I love the Ogden. I play on it at harp lessons. Of course, the sound is less rich than an L&H Prelude, but it still is a very great harp. Earlier, one could order the Ogden also strung with nylon.

    Edit: as to Thormahlen harps, these are beautifully built lever harps built by Dave Thormahlen in Oregon.

    Music Makers instruments are in Stillwater, Westlakeland Township. They make quality finished musical instruments, kits, blueprints, and supplies. They are best known for their harpkits.

    So, these two businesses are definitely not the same.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by wil-weten.
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