It's been a pretty stressful couple of years, if you have been one of the unlucky harpists playing Russian Roulette with your spare harp strings. That sinking feeling of knowing you have a full spare set in your bag when you are on a gig, but if you happen to have a string that breaks and you go to put the replacement string on.... will it work or will it break as soon as you put it on?
I first blogged about the harp string saga nearly a year and half ago, although I've been experiencing it for much longer.
I think the thing that annoys me the most is when I see posts on facebook now from harpists who think they are just unlucky to have strings which keep breaking and that it is just them, and not a manufacturing fault.
I've always used the same make of string and when my 1st and 2nd octaves started breaking, I too thought it was just me and would be completely stressed out when I needed to replace a string before a gig and the replacement string just kept breaking as soon as I put it on. To the point where I no longer had any spare of the broken string left and had to use the nearest string I had spare - 1st octave G string on a 1st octave A etc.
I must have spent loads of money over the past few years on strings which were completely useless until I realised it wasn't me.
Then I started sending them back to the shop I had bought them from, who would send me a replacement free of charge. Then when the replacement came, the same thing would happen, it would constantly break and I'd send that string back. Over and over.
The lack of a simple stock control sticker on the individual string packet so any "dodgy batches" can be identified by whoever is re-selling the string seems to me quite astonishing.
Whilst I completely sympathise with the problems of the manufacturers, and would always normally use their strings, the fact that it is the harpists who have bought the strings that have to then play Russian roulette is really unfair. If you are a professional gigging musician and you don't have the spare strings for your instrument, it makes your life kind of tricky to say the least.
So after resorting to putting nylon strings on I had a light bulb moment, WHY NOT TRY A DIFFERENT MAKE OF STRING!
With Pirastro gut being out of my price league, I started using Camac gut and have been using them for over 6 months now and... it's been absolutely fine. There isn't a difference in thickness and they have been no problems having a mix of strings on my harps. No intonation problems at all. No difference in sound between the strings. The Camac do 'feel' a bit different, but nothing that is off putting.
The only downside to the Camac strings is that they are a bit more expensive and that they take a bit longer to get to settle and stay in tune, but once they are settled in they are fine - and they don't break as soon as you put them on.
Which to my mind is what you want when you put on a string from a new packet that you have paid for.
I've written before, briefly, about microphone position but it's a subject always worth coming back to. I suppose it's a bit of a "holy grail" type thing for harpists; like wind players in the search of the perfect reed! Every harpist will have their own preferred set-up with microphones.
There is a really good article online from DPA microphones about miking up a harp. Definitely worth a read, despite it being about selling their particular brand of microphones.
I haven't done any CD recording sessions lately, but I have been miked up a lot on stage for live gigs.
Interestingly, the only microphones I'm given by sound guys now when I turn up on stage, are the small omni directional DPAs, the likes of which you see singers wearing on stage either in their hair, or just discretely on the side of their face.
Unlike the image above, (from the DPA website), I wrap (carefully) the lead around that strut (?) of the harp and then use a bit of gaffer tape over the wire to hold it in place on the inside of the harp so that it is held dangling about one inch inside the harp.
When I work with the NSO on the Katherine Jenkins gigs, the whole orchestra is miked up. For those gigs we use the small DPA above, wrapping the mike inside the harp, with the addition of an AKG pencil mike (or similiar) on a stand sitting on the right hand side of the harp and pointing to around middle C.
I HATE IT.
It picks up every finger noise on the string. It's fine when playing tutti and playing high in the harp. But playing completely solo below middle C is a nightmare. You get that FUTT noise as you place your fingers on the string, and you have to do LOADS of damping just to play a single solo line without it sounded rubbish through the PA.
On the latest KJ tour, during the sound check one of my strings snapped whilst I was miked up. That was interesting!
Since I got my lovely Camac Little Big Blue last year, I've been using the Camac harp all the time on solo corporate gigs, plugged into a battery powered Roland amp.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE playing on a harp where every string has it's own individual pick-up. A really round and gorgeous amplified proper "harp" sound.
I didn't use the Camac on this years KJ tour, as it's still sounding a bit "new", and although it's fine for solo corporate gigs it's not quite ready for taking out on pro orchestral-pops gigs yet.
However, next time, I will take my Camac and see what the sound guys make of that.
Over the years I have taught lots of adults who are learning a musical instrument for the first time and I always get asked,
"I've always wanted to play the harp, am I too old?"
The answer is NO.
The harp is a brilliant instrument to learn for many reasons, not least being that you can make a pleasant sound from the first lesson. Being able to flip some levers and get "hollywood" glisses by the end of a first lesson is pretty amazing.
It's good for you.
It's excellent for improving your co-ordination, a great "brain trainer" and that's without even going into the "therapeutic" healing effects from the vibrations coming from the sound board.
I'll never forget the time during a school workshop when a deaf girl came up to the front and hugged my harp with her hands flat on the soundboard and her cheek against the side of my harp. The look of joy on her face when she suddenly felt the vibration as I started to play was beautiful.
I've taught people who have had all sorts of long standing health issues, and it's possible to adapt your playing style so that you can play comfortably to suit you and your hands/health. You can get brilliant lightly strung, good quality, physically light instruments which are easy to pluck. There are just so many really great lever harps of all styles you can buy now.
You can play ALL styles of music.
It's not unusual to see a harpist playing jazz, pop or as part of a rhythm section as well as in the moretraditional folk and classicalsettings. You can learn to a high technical capability without having to play classical music if classical is not your thing.
It's easier than ever to connect with other harpists.
I was one of the first harpists to teach via Skype. Unless you are living in an Internet connection blackspot, if you don't have access to a harp teacher living near you, there is now a big choice of online teachers.
There are so many great harp festivals and harp organisations that there is no reason not to connect and meet up with other people who share your passion.
ALWAYS WANTED TO LEARN TO PLAY THE HARP?
There really isn't a good reason not to. Go on, it's never too late to learn!
Folie a Deux is a very exciting new opera for lever harp, electro-magnetic harp, and 2 vocalists by Emily Hall and Sjón by the Mahogany Opera Group.
It's been on tour and will be performed in London at the Spitalfields Festival 6th and 7th of June. details here
So what's an electro-magnetic harp?
OK - not harps as such, but..... a fascinating video interview with Andy Cavatorta, talking about the new instrument he's creating which is a magnetised piano-harp
Andy is the creative genius behind the Gravity Harps which he built for Bjork's Biophilia Tour which featured Zeena Parkins on harp.
Another lovely little news item, this time about therapeutic harpist and zoo volunteer, Teri Tacheny who plays once a month at her local zoo for the primates, big cats and polar bears. Teri says the Guerrillas show the most appreciation!
Click on image for video.
Oh my goodness!! A lovely article in The Journal & video about David Watkin's father, Donald Watkins who was a locomotive pioneer and amongst other things, designed the dead man’s handle safety device for train drivers.
It was seeing David Watkins in concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank when I was 6 that made me decide that I wanted to play the harp. The next day I drew a little picture of him playing the harp at the concert and my mum sent it to him. He was so kind and took the trouble of sending me a signed photo and kept up a little written correspondence with me for a while always making the effort to reply to the fan letters I sent him. Lovely man, a true gentleman.
I don't think I am alone in suffering some "disappointment" when the wheels from my lovely Harpo trolley first started to fall off.
The trolley IS really good and has lots of PLUS points. But the wheels falling off are a real design flaw. (This is of course a massive understatement on how annoyingly frustrating the wheels are.)
But here is how you can fix the Harpo trolley using just a cheap metal teaspoon.
The design problem is very small... it's the teeth on the metal disc which turn the wrong way round with use, meaning that rod can't go full length into the trolley.
The teeth should be pointing towards the tyre and flush with the wheel - the wheel below is ok
If it looks like this (below) then you need to fix it
Grab a metal teaspoon rather than a screwdriver as you don't want to accidentally break off any of those teeth, you just want to push the ring down and at the same time try to push the teeth so it's going inwards towards the tyre.
BE CAREFUL NOT TO BREAK THOSE TEETH - don't use a small screwdriver - use the teaspoon as it's less likely to cause breakage.
Make sure you pull the rod towards you so that it is extended to it's fullest and carefully push that ring down.
and voila! The pesky wheels go on the trolley first time without any fiddling about.
It's a 10 minute job and saves hours of cursing at your trolley when you try to get it out of the car and the trolley decides to be a pain... and the wheels keep dropping off... and you're trying to get the harp unloaded... and it's raining... and you're annoyed because you spent so much money on this expensive trolley and.....
Well here's a website worth bookmarking - New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives
Where you can view over 370 harp parts from the library of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
How amazing and incredibly USEFUL is that! FANTASTIC.
It is for research only and not for printing and using on gigs. How many times do you get booked for a gig, and the librarian can't get you the part to look until just before the gig... and it would be really handy to look at the part before you get there.
Well now you can check out that harp part and know whether you need to panic or not!!!
That's worth a round of applause to the amazing archivists who have done this work.
Steve Swallow's Ladies in Mercedes.... great piece and a great find on YouTube of this live performance from 1989 with Emily Mitchell on harp.
Fabulous playing from the Hermanos Corbalan harp duo, and also solo harp ofSixto Corbalan.
It's got everything: passionate playing, great music and also both are brilliantly filmed videos.
They also have free PDFs of sheet music of a few of their solo harp pieces on their website, so no excuse to not have a go at playing their music.
They are coming over to the UK soon, it will be great to see them play live.
Just done this teaching resource for a student - now there is no excuse not to practice ALL those scales, arpeggios and dominant sevenths as required for the ABRSM Grade 5 exam.
Feel free to share with any harp students who could do with this free handy practice chart.
Double click on each image to open the image fully and then print off.
Tick the box as you complete each one you need to do at least 10 each day if you want to get through the cycle in a 2 week period. Select across different keys and types of scales/arpeggios rather than working down the list in numerical order.
Isabelle Perrin and Barbara Fackler have created a guide to harp notation as used by composer Bernard Andrés with the intention that this collection be shared freely among harpists at no cost.
A Guide to Harp Notation Used in the Compositions of Bernard Andrès
A lovely Christmas video - featuring Tine Thing Helseth on Trumpet, Birgitte Volan Håvik on harp and Elise Båtnes on violin.
I had the pleasure of playing this arrangement with Tine when she was special guest with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for their series of Christmas concerts a couple of years ago. It's a really well arranged carol and she is a really fabulous player.
This is the first year for some while now (8 years I think?) that I'm not playing with the RLPO for their run of Christmas concerts. This year, instead of doing RLPO carol concerts, I'm working with a fantastic group of players presenting special one hour performances of the film "The Snowman" with live orchestral backing. Before the film, it's a seasonal introduction to the orchestra and excerpts from the Nutcracker Suite. We are currently on the final part of the tour and it's been pretty full on with 19 performances of the Snowman (and the Nutcracker cadenza) in 7 days!!!!
The Snowman is such a lovely film and the music is so wonderful and perfectly scored. Some tickets are still available for shows this coming week if you fancy a seasonal treat.
Paul Mitchell-Davidson's epic suite for mandolin and harp is now on soundcloud.
It's a real journey of a piece and I remember after one live performance a member of the audience came up to me and said, "I've never been to a classical music concert before... that last piece was like surfing a wave!"
Dance of Limewood, Smile of Ash is very still and etheral with astonishing harmonies.
A Joy of Wild Asses is my personal favourite, quirky and pretty manic.
Harvest of the Quiet Eye is a beautiful "folky" and evocative piece.
A Full Moon Rising Red is a real whirlygig epic, full of spirit & feverish dances and is the piece which inspired the "surfing" quote above.
Tapestry by Paul Mitchell-Davidson
Alison Stephens - mandolin
Lauren Scott - harp
A brilliant gliss-tastic arrangement of Silent Night by Graham Fitkin, beautifully played by Ruth Wall and available on her new CD, The Three Harps of Christmas available from this link.
Carols re-arranged by Graham for concert harp, bray harp and Gaelic wire strung harp.
I bet the harpists out there will be trying to figure out the pedal settings for all the gliss chords after listening to this!!!
I have a new harp!!! I finally finished paying off for my Salvi Iris, so I thought it was a good time to take the plunge and take out another loan whilst I still could and get this lovely harp... a Camac Little Big Blue.
It's an electro-accoustic harp and I'm really delighted with it. The acoustic sound is much better than I thought it would be, and it's perfectly usable as an instrument as it is without any amplification. I'm still getting used to the pedals as they feel very different from my Salvi, and of course the string spacing at the top is also different. But after a couple of weeks of playing I'm not finding it too difficult to go between playing this and my Salvi.
I particularly went for the smaller model - only 44 strings, as I wanted a smaller harp which was easy to move about. I really didn't want to take a blue coloured harp out on a gig, as I didn't want it to look any different from a normal acoustic harp, so I ordered a maple one. I've also bought a small battery powered Roland amp; more about the amp in another post.
I haven't had a chance to play around with loop pedals yet, but will do when work calms down a bit and I have some time to experiment.
However, I have used it already on a couple of weddings and it's been absolutely brilliant. It's so much lighter to move around, it really makes a huge difference. Using the amp has taken a little bit of getting used to, as I'm just not used to being able to simply turn a switch to turn the volume up. It still feels a little bit alien to play at a normal level and the extra sound coming out of the amp a distance away from the harp. But that's just a basic thing I need to get used to having only ever played acoustic instruments my entire playing career!
The major benefit was that I found it was so much easier when playing for long periods of time, and I definitely felt physically less tired.
Viva la revolution!
Camac - Little Big Blue (in maple finish!)
A pick up on every string
Where you plug in the lead
It's been a busy old week and a very enjoyable one! In between some freelance work in Birmingham, I managed to fit in a trip to London to see Sioned Williams performing at the Purcell Room. It was a fantastic concert, brilliantly conceived and performed and it was very well received by the near capacity audience.
The concert was put on by the Park Lane Group and was also part of the UKHA 50th birthday celebrations. And what a fantastic turn out by harpists from across the country who came to the concert. Playing the harp can be a solitary affair and it's not often we get the chance to all meet up, so it was lovely to meet up with so many harpists. I met some harp friends that I hadn't seen for nearly 20 years!!
It's been 18 months now since I became Chair of the UKHA and I was really pleased to meet so many young harpists at the concert. There is a real sense of a new generation of younger harpists coming through and being active in the UKHA, which bodes well for any organisation going into it's 50th year. For any organisation to have 80% of the committee being made up of people in their 20s and 30s is quite remarkable.
We have a new bursary scheme which is being launched in January, and we hope to be present at more harp events across the UK in the coming year.
Belonging to the UKHA is a fantastic way for harpists in the UK to connect with other players, whether they are a student, amateur, professional or harp maker. If you love the harp, join the UKHA and network with other harpists across the UK.
Setting up the UKHA table in the foyer of the Purcell Room before the audience arrived ;-)
I've just been practicing two lots of recital music I have coming up with flautist Clare Southworth and my trio Caliente, when I had a niggly feeling I really should be looking at some music for orchestral work I have in a couple of weeks with the CBSO.
I'm very glad I've dug it out! I do think this has to be one of the hardest second harp parts out there.
There aren't that many notes to play, but every passage has it's scary moments when you play it in the orchestra.
Especially the ones that look like they should be easy on paper.
Last time I played this was with the RLPO and the conductor took off like a rocket for the last section. I nearly had a heart attack!
I've finally got round to sorting out finishing off some demo recordings with my fantastic singing partner, Anna-Clare Monk.
What a voice!
We are working on some new recital programmes at the moment which is great, you can't beat a really lovely song. It's so good to be working with a singer, especially one as fabulous as Anna-Clare.
Next up on the to-do list, getting some more gigs... I really need a P.A
If you are in London next month, Tuesday October 14th, do go and see this concert at the Southbank Centre featuring Sioned Williams playing 6 new pieces by English composers.
A concert put on by the Park Lane Group, it also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the United Kingdom Harp Association of whom Sioned is president.
You can book tickets here and it will be great opportunity to meet up with harp friends old and new!
A harp you can pack in your suitcase?
What a great idea for keeping your fingers in shape whilst away on holiday!
I love the way it fits in the suitcase, although that does look like a pretty big suitcase.
Pretty nifty travel harp made by Don Peddle of randomsound music in Canada and it sounds ok as well.
This looks extremely cool - a new electric harp which has a bridge and more bass end - so a cross between bass guitar and harp? These are really going to take off.
Unfortunately not much in the way of videos on the internet at the moment which showcase the possibilities of what you can do with it, with slides and bending notes, but no doubt there will be soon. I really like the way you can wear it like a guitar as well as a harp.
Very cool photos of Remy van Kesteren playing one on the Delta Harps Facebook page
A fantastic video from Erin Hill, with some pretty awesome production!
Erin and her psychedelic harp, (otherwise known as a black Big Blue Camac harp) has made this video as result of crowd funding through Kickstarter and has a new funding scheme to make more videos through a tax-deductible scheme in the US.
I hope she gets to do more videos from her album as they are great songs and she also has the funkiest of CD cover designs, which is available to purchase here
Come on British Government, why don't we have tax-deductible schemes for sponsoring the arts here in the UK?
Regular HARPYNESS readers might have noticed that I haven't been blogging that much since January 2017. That's because my elderly father was diagnosed with dementia then. His care is shared between my sister and myself. This has meant my available blogging time on this website has been significantly reduced. As and when I can write a new harp blog, I will do!
Please follow me on instagram to see my (fairly) regular updates with lots of fun harp photos & cute photos of my puppy! Harpy hugs x