When a string breaks during performance

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    billooms on #198264

    What do you do when a string breaks during a performance (or just prior to a performance)? When I’ve had to replace a string, it seems to take hours for the string to stretch out enough to be playable for more than a few minutes. It seems like every few minutes you have to tighten it more to bring it up to pitch. How do you deal with that if you have to replace a string during or just prior to a performance.

    Sylvia on #198269

    I’m interested to see what other people say about this.

    Depends on which string.  I had a wire break during performance.  It sounded like a gunshot.  I pretended nothing happened and just kept going, avoiding that string.  (A wire doesn’t break thru and flop…you can’t tell by looking at it that it’s broken.)   I also had a pedal rod break once while I was playing, so I had to choose my rep so I could avoid that note…it was the F, so I played just my C-flat music.  Luckily, it was free-choice and not specific music.

    Sounds like you had nylons or guts break.  That would be difficult to avoid the string, unless it’s really high.  Sometimes you can tell when nylons are getting weak because there will be a slight groove where the disc meets the string.  Guts are a little easier to tell because they might have a rough spot or actually look frayed…in the middle or at either end.  Some people change their strings often, but I don’t because it’s just too expensive.  I keep an eye on them and hope they’ll be OK.  It’s very rare that a nylon breaks, and it seems to be the little, tiny ones anyway.

    It does take a long time for the new strings to stop stretching (except the wires…they are up pretty fast).  That’s another reason I don’t like to change strings.



    Tacye on #198272

    When I need to change a string and play on it right away I do a lot of tugging on the new string to stretch it rather than just letting it stretch by sitting at pitch or get a little stretch every time it is played.

    A lot of a string not keeping pitch is the knot tightening, so if I have changed a string because I didn’t like it, but it is still just about passable I keep it as an emergency spare and find that will keep pitch faster, though can be fiddly to get through the soundboard.

    paul-knoke on #198274

    Theres also the Grandjany rubber-band trick:

    Put the tuning key on the pin for the new string with a rubber band hanging down from the shank of the key. Bring the bottom end of the rubber band out, up, and around the handle of the key. Stretch the rubber band over the top of the neck, and hook it onto the string end of the tuning pin. The key will be held securely in place and ready for whenever you need to give it a quick tweak!

    Sylvia on #198276

    Oooh, Paul.  Now tuning keys are rubber-covered, I know.  Years ago, when they were just the metal and wood, I dropped one on the soundboard of a harp at school.  It made a gash.  I reported it to my teacher, and after that, I was super careful about handling a tuning key.  Maybe they bounce now without damaging the board, but I wouldn’t want to try it.

    billooms on #198301

    The tugging is a good suggestion. I also like the idea of keeping old strings that already have the knot pulled tight.

    carl-swanson on #198304

    If the new string is nylon, crank it waaaaay high, and then bring it down to the correct pitch. That helps keep it from sagging too much. If the string is gut, do the same thing, but don’t crank it up as high or you risk breaking the new string.  Both nylon and gut strings want to go back to the tension they were at before being tuned to the correct pitch. Often when I get a rental harp back, many of the strings are to high. I tune them down to the correct pitch, and then when I go back to tune them again a couple of hours later, they are again high.  So out of tune strings don’t always sag.  If a string breaks on the day of a performance, tune the new string a whole step or more sharp and leave it there. Then, just before the performance, bring it down to pitch.

    I should mention here that if I am tuning a harp that is way out of tune, either high or low, I tune the whole thing(using a machine, tuning all the C’s, all the B’s, etc.) and then when I have finished, I immediately do the whole thing a second time, and then a third time. By the third time, the strings are pretty much staying in tune.  So the take away here is: 1) if you are tuning a brand new string, start by cranking it way over pitch and bringing it down to pitch, and 2) if you are tuning a whole instrument that is way out of tune, tune it completely three times in a row(or more).


    balfour-knight on #198306

    What great postings!  Carl, I also have found what you said about strings going back sharp to be true, seeking the pitch that they had been accustomed to.  If a lever harp has been tuned to the Key of C and then changed to E flat, for example, the three “new” flats in every octave will go back sharp after being let down to the new Key of E flat.  The reverse will be true if you take the harp back to C from E flat.

    Bill, I have been very fortunate, in all of my years of playing and doing concerts, weddings, etc., to have never had a string break during a performance.  I did have a close call once, however.  I was doing a concert in a hotel lobby and had arrived about an hour beforehand in order to set up my pedal harp, then go have dinner in the hotel dining room before the concert.  I tuned the harp and noticed that middle E sounded “false,” and when I retuned after a few minutes, that string went noticeably flat!  Five minutes later, it broke with a loud ping, and I went out to my car to get my box of replacement strings.  I put a new gut E on the harp, pulled it sharp while my wife and I had a lovely dinner, then came back to the harp to tune and give the concert.  By pulling it a wee bit sharp, it held pitch pretty well until intermission, surprisingly, then I tuned it again, and got through the rest of the concert.

    If the string had broken during the concert, I would have just “made do” and not replaced it, but I was fortunate to have time to deal with it.  I do restring every year or two, though, to help minimize this problem.  With the recent problem of the breaking Bow Brand strings, I have held off this time until hopefully the problem will be resolved.  Some folks have had great success with the French Premier strings, so that sounds like a good option.  I enjoyed reading the article in the current issue of Harp Column concerning this very problem!

    Happy Harping, everyone,


    billooms on #198308

    I also enjoyed the article in the current issue of Harp Column. When I first bought the harp in June (a Chicago Petite 40) I had one or more strings break every week — one nylon and the rest gut. No breakage for the last few months, so perhaps all the weak ones are gone.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #198310

    I have had strings break during performances and rehearsals, so I always keep my bag of spare strings at my side. (It’s black, so that it looks good onstage.) If there is time, I replace the string and  do my best to get it up to pitch quietly by putting my ear up against the back of the sound chamber. I tune it up whenever there are some bars of rest.

    If there is an enharmonic alternative, (such as a D flat for a C#), then I will use that string, if possible.  If there is no alternative, such as a D natural, then I either omit the note entirely, or put the whole phrase up or down an octave.

    If you are playing solo, then you have the luxury of stopping and fixing it while joking with the audience. In an orchestra, you are out of luck.

    I find that gut strings tend to hold their pitch sooner than nylon strings.

    It may be helpful to keep an eye on the condition of your strings. Any strings that look frayed or chipped should be replaced. However, sometimes there is no obvious damage and the string breaks anyway.

    Andrea on #198367

    I’ve lost strings during solo performances, orchestra performances and, most often, in show pits. For solo performances I agree with Elizabeth.  I stop, change the string, explain what happened and joke around with the audience. The strings that go in pit orchestras tend to be the very high nylon ones from using a pick on the glisses.  Often I can wait till intermission to change them because you don’t actually articulate them and no one’s going to know they’re missing in a gliss.

    Orchestra breaks are more challenging.  If possible, I replace it immediately. I always have my string bag next to me. I never leave it backstage. I have string replacement time down to about 90 seconds.  If I don’t have time, I try to use an enharmonic or skip the string.  As to tuning, now that tuning keys are rubber-coated, I use an ergonomic key and I just put it on the tuning peg for the new string and give it a crank whenever I have a couple bars of rest.  I’ve never had the tuning key fall off.

    The worst break I ever had was a 3rd octave C which went about 8 bars after the cadenza in the Waltz of the Flowers during a full performance of the ballet.  It broke with a loud bang, luckily covered by the French horns. If you’ve played it, you know that the next piece up is the Grand Pas de Deux which is harp arpeggios for days and it runs on muscle memory meaning that suddenly skipping the C in arpeggios is not easy.  I dropped out of the rest of the Waltz, pulled the new string out of my bag, installed it, tuned it up during the applause after the Waltz and hit the downbeat on time. The tuning didn’t hold well, but at the speed of the arpeggios it was not too noticeable and at every measure rest (there aren’t a lot), I gave the tuning key a crank.  After the ballet the French horn section (seated next to me), gave me a round of applause as they had sat there watching the whole string-changing production.  I never want to go through that again.


    Sylvia on #198386

    Some people change all their strings at regular time intervals (yearly, every two years, etc.) to avoid string breakage.  Perhaps you could try that.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #198399

    I change my strings regularly, but, as many of you have attested, they can break even when they are only a day or a week old. This is usually what has happened when one has broken in a concert. I change any string that shows signs of wear, but sometimes the weak spot is invisible. Still, it’s a very good suggestion, Sylvia.


    carl-swanson on #198406

    Jeesh! I must be really lucky. I almost never break strings. I leave them on my harp for years at a time, both gut and nylon. If a gut string breaks at one end or the other, I patch it and get a couple more years out of it.  Because I am a harp repairman, I have a big box of old strings(so did Mildred Dilling!) and I fish around in that for replacements when I need them(so did Mildred!).  I don’t pay any particular attention to string brand, simply because my sound comes from how I play the instrument, not from the brand of strings I use. But that’s just me…

    Biagio on #198421

    Ha ha, Carl me too – but how in the world to keep track of them all?  They used to be sorted by harp but then get raided – sheesh, probably I’d best sort them out by type and gauge…nuts another winter project!



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