Archive for category The Harp World
Last month, Michael and I had the fun of attending a faculty recital by Texas Christian University’s harp instructor, Laura Logan. This performance was a special treat because Laura was joined by the other members of the Octavia Harp Trio, Jaymee Haefner and Maia Jourde, for a program of harp ensemble pieces. Grandjany’s “Aria in Classic Style” and Debussy’s “En Bateau” were highlights, and given my interest in Chinese folk songs, I was bound to like the Kondonassis arrangement of “Small River Flowing.” The piece I found the most interesting, though, was “Adagio from Symphony in C” by Bizet, arranged for harp ensemble by Clifford Wooldridge. Laura told the story of her accidental discovery of this arrangement and her growing appreciation of it. I agree it was a great find, and I hope to hear it again someday, as it seems to be the type of piece that unfolds more with each listen.
Now, you may be wondering why a harp trio would go by the name “Octavia.” (Good question!) It’s because they’re part of the Octavia Harp Ensemble, a larger group of eight professional harpists. My harp teacher, Sydney Howell, is a member of Octavia, so I learned about the group after I started my lessons with her. At that point, I was still getting used to the miracle of hearing one lever harp in person, so I couldn’t fathom a chorus of eight concert harps singing together! That was a sound I wanted to hear … and in a short time, I got my wish. Octavia was having a rehearsal for an upcoming private concert, and Sydney invited us to watch.
When Michael and I arrived at the rehearsal, we were ushered into a living room that had been rearranged to accommodate a semicircle of eight concert grand pedal harps, eight benches, assorted music stands … and eight awesome harpists. One piece of regular furniture that remained was the sofa, which was smack in the middle of the harp circle. That’s where we got to sit. Talk about a place of honor! Michael and I were treated to a full surround-sound harp experience that afternoon!
It was fascinating to have such a close-up view of professional musicians working together to hone their craft. Their playing was great, but I was also impressed by the warm welcome they extended to me as a baby-beginner. I still remember their kind, encouraging words, which is probably why I have a soft spot in my heart for this group of harpists.
A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a fascinating local harpist. She said he was gigging at a Tex-Mex restaurant near her house, and she described his instrument as sounding more like a Mexican guitar than a harp. This was exciting news for me! I love the Paraguayan harp music in my CD collection, but I’d never seen a Latin American harp performed live. I wanted to meet this harpist and hear his playing.
So on Friday evening, Michael and I joined my friend and her family at the Pulido’s Mexican Restaurant in Hurst, TX to enjoy some food, fun, and harp music.
The harpist, Gonzalo Mata, was amazing … and judging by the lobby sign advertising his gig, he’s had quite a career! Our party had a ten minute wait for a table, so I edged my way toward Gonzalo to watch his fingers and take in the fabulous resonance of his instrument. He was very friendly, so I struck up a conversation with him between songs. I told him about my own harp playing, and he cheerfully answered my questions about his Mexican harp, explaining the difference between it and the Paraguayan harps I’ve seen in pictures. The next thing I knew, it was time to join my friends at our table.
While I munched on a dinner of fish tacos, I enjoyed the dinner conversation, the sound of the harp, and other people’s responses to the music. Gonzalo played an entertaining mix of 60s pop hits, country songs, and traditional Mexican tunes, drifting from genre to genre with perfect ease and Latin flair. His music created a warm and festive atmosphere that invited audience participation. People applauded between songs, and the whole restaurant put their hands together when he played “Chiapanecas,” the Mexican hand-clapping song!
The longer I watched and listened to Gonzalo’s playing, the more I wanted to try that Mexican harp. My friends urged me to go for it, and Gonzalo seemed genuinely pleased that I was interested. He beamed at my attempts (which were clumsy, as his strings didn’t follow the normal color-coding pattern at all!) and we talked more about harps, harping, and music.
As it turns out, Gonzalo lives fairly close to Michael and me, and he knows other local harpists who play both Paraguayan and Celtic harp. I’ve been invited to bring my harp and join them the next time they get together to play. Gotta love the worldwide harp family!
[Thanks to Michael for wielding the camera, and to Wynde & family for sharing the music!]
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Dave Woodworth’s fascinating new carbon fiber lever harps. Dave and his assistant, C Jay, have been traveling all over the USA this summer giving harp demonstrations, and the last leg of their tour brought them here to Dallas/Fort Worth area. After much anticipation, I was excited to be among the group of local harpists who gathered at the Hilton in Arlington on August 10 to test-drive these innovative harps. The experience was well worth the wait!
My husband and I, along with harp friend Kathy, were the first to arrive at the demo and marvel at the assortment of carbon harps on view. We were also the first folks of the evening to pick up the harps and be stunned by their lightness. It’s a Law of the Known Harp Universe that harps are heavy, so harpists and their helpers are accustomed to making many provisions for harp-moving. That’s why it’s such a mind-bending sensation to pick up one of these harps for the first time! Descriptions and statistics can’t quite convey the otherworldly feeling of a full-size lever harp that only weighs 10 pounds!
I had time to get over my initial fascination before the other harpists arrived, so I had the fun of watching each of them make the same discovery, one by one. Maybe I’m weird, but I never got tired of seeing that first look amazement and wonder! My favorite reactions came from two lovely and distinguished local harp instructors, who I’m sure have spent their share of time lugging and wrestling heavy harps over the years. It didn’t take long for them to ask Dave if he has plans to make carbon fiber pedal harps too!
Since carbon fiber harps are nearly indestructible, they lend themselves to a number of attention-grabbing antics. Dave hammered the harps with tuning wrenches, turned them upside down and thumped the floor with them, and even poured bottled water down the soundboard of one harp, eliciting gasps of horror from every harpist in the vicinity. After all, another Law of the Known Harp Universe is “Harps are fragile! Guard them with your very life!” The concept of an abuse-proof harp is basically unfathomable to harpists. Dave seemed to be having a ton of fun trying to stretch our imaginations!
There were several samples of the Delight and Infinity models on hand in a variety of colors, from black to white to “Maserati Red.” Some were strung with nylon and others with fluorocarbon, giving everyone the opportunity to sample both. (My advice? Go for the fluorocarbon.) A few of the harps also had a new feature: red and blue C and F tuning pins, designed to make tuning easier. Dave also debuted the brand new Legend model, which has a straight soundboard and a rounded back, rather than the curved Heartland soundboard.
In my earlier post about these harps, I wondered if their sound and feel would live up to their other qualities. I was eager to find out for myself. It took a while for me to gather up the courage to seriously sample one of the harps, as I knew I was within earshot of two of the most accomplished harpists in the area! But with Dave’s kind prompting, I finally sat down to a black, fluorocarbon-strung Delight model.
This was my first time to play a Heartland harp, so the curved soundboard felt strange at first. The whole idea of not pulling the harp back onto my shoulder was a bit odd, too … but after a few awkward minutes of shifting and positioning, I found a posture that worked, tried to shut out everything else, and started playing.
As I focused on the sound and feel of the harp, I found myself slipping into that state where everything else but the music begins to drop away. I got into “The Zone.” Some harps have a way of welcoming me into that comfortable place right away, while others leave me cold from the very first moment. A number of factors play into this feeling, and they blend in ways I may never fully understand. I’ll just say this: if I’m able to get that feeling in a hotel meeting room with people walking by and multiple conversations taking place around me, there’s something compelling about the harp! It was hard to say good-bye to that Delight when the evening ended.
These unique harps make quite an impression. The only downside I can see is the price, which is relatively high. I hope this difficulty can be reduced at some point, as I can imagine these instruments changing the harp world in wonderful ways. Even though a new harp is not in my plans or my budget right now, I can’t help dreaming about these go-anywhere harps and their potential to empower radical new displays of unexpected beauty! (Benevolent art patrons who happen to like the idea of funding interesting experiments by aspiring musicians are more than welcome to contact me. ;-))
[Many thanks to my husband, Michael, for the fun pictures he took at this event.]
Dave Woodworth of Heartland Harps is touring the country right now with his fascinating new creations: acoustic lever harps made of carbon fiber. These harps have many potential advantages over traditional wood harps, which tend to be heavy and extremely sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Carbon harps are free of many of these difficulties, so they represent a significant innovation in the harpmaking art. I’ve been curious to see and try one of these harps, so I’m excited that Dave’s tour is bringing him to the Dallas/Fort Worth area on August 10, 2011!
These carbon harps were on my mind earlier this week when I braved the horrid Texas summer heat to transport my Merlin harp to a gig. The official high temperature in Fort Worth that day was 106° F … more than hot enough to destroy a harp if the vehicle isn’t adequately cooled for the ride. As I sat in my car, sweating and waiting for the air conditioner to make it safe enough for my precious cargo, I couldn’t help but picture the advantages of harp that (supposedly) can be left in a car for days under such conditions without suffering harm. No more concerns about outdoor gigs! And no more struggling to move an instrument around, as these new harps are ridiculously lightweight.
So, I’m looking forward to test-driving these harps. It will be interesting to see if they have a great sound and feel to match their other features. I’m not in the market for another harp right now, but I wouldn’t refuse one as a gift if it were offered! (I’d like the 38-string model in black, please. ;-))
A while ago I went searching for information on The 11th World Harp Congress, which just began in Vancouver, Canada. I landed on the program page, where I was stunned by the header image of China’s Hongyun Konghou Ensemble. In the photo, three beautiful Chinese women in elaborate, embroidered costumes are playing three every exotic-looking instruments: pedal harps with soundboards that appear to be perpendicular to the floor! Of course I had to find out more about this, so one Internet search led to another, as often happens.
It turns out that these wild-looking harps are a 20th century reinvention of the konghou, an ancient Chinese harp. According to Wikipedia:
The main feature that distinguishes the contemporary konghou from the Western concert harp is that the modern konghou’s strings are folded over to make two rows, which enables players to use advanced playing techniques such as vibrato and bending tones. Paired strings on opposite sides of the instrument, tuned to the same note, are fixed on the far end to a freely movable lever so that depressing one of the pairs raises the pitch of the other. The two rows of strings also make it suitable for playing swift rhythms and overtones.
Hmmm. Well, I can’t say that makes complete sense, or that I understand how these harps work, but I’m definitely intrigued. I wish I had a ticket to the Hongyun Konghou Ensemble’s upcoming performance in Vancouver! Ah, well … at least there’s YouTube, where I found several amazing videos of konghou in action. Now I’m feeling inspired to dig out the book of Chinese folk songs I purchased over a year ago.
When my husband, Michael, told his family that I’d taken up the harp, his father surprised us with information about a famous harpist in the Browning family tree: Mildred Dilling. Michael’s aunt Kay, the family genealogist, confirmed the connection for me. Mildred was a great ambassador for the harp, performing in thousands of Community Concerts around the world. Aunt Kay had the privilege of attending two of these concerts during her teenage years, and they made a lasting impression on her. Countless others were touched in one way or another by Mildred’s harp performances and teaching. She has quite a legacy in the harp world!
It was great fun to learn about Michael’s family connection to Mildred Dilling. In the process of searching the Internet for more information about her, I found and purchased this original print advertisement from 1948. It is framed and displayed in my practice room. This is the quintessential “evening gown and harp” portrait! Mildred’s face is angelically upturned, with the perfect performer’s smile in place, and her gown looks like an evening sky scattered with stars.
My other Internet find was an old Mildred Dilling LP that bills her as “The First Lady of the Harp.” It’s on my to-do list to transfer this LP to a CD for easier listening. Someday I may try to track down a few more of Mildred’s old LPs … or I may just get the special edition remastered CD that has been produced from her recordings.
In this wonderful video from 1940, Mildred certainly does look like the “Queen of Her Domain!”
In my last post, I sang the praises of Deborah-Henson Conant, harpist extraordinaire. Deborah has spent most of her career in search of ways to liberate her instrument (and herself) from traditional harp stereotypes and limitations. Her determination in pushing the envelope has resulted in an entirely new instrument (a lightweight, wearable electric harp) that is nothing like the picture most people have in their heads when they hear the word “harp.” This instrument is capable of sounding just as pretty as a gilded-and-carved concert harp, but in Deborah’s hands, it also channels Hendrix!
Now, I realize a video like this one may seem completely out of place on the blog of a beginning harpist who (at this point) primarily plays soothing music. But I see it as a perfect example of “The Wild Side” … the possibilities that exist when the only limit is the artist’s imagination.
Do I personally enjoy Hendrix on the harp? Not really. Crazy electric guitar has never been my cup of tea.
Do I get a thrill from seeing a harpist play her instrument in such a radically unconventional way? Absolutely!
For me, Deborah’s new video is a picture of an artist at play, following her creativity wherever it may lead, even if it means turning convention on its head. I may not personally enjoy the end product, but I stand in complete admiration of the artist’s commitment to authenticity and creative independence. My own journey with my instrument is just beginning … and though I can’t picture myself ever playing like Deborah, I do hope to live out my creativity like she does: honoring the music in my own heart, and giving it the freedom to sing with its own voice.
UPDATE: What fun … DHC posted a comment about my blog on her Facebook page! “I love what she says about taking inspiration from something – even if it’s not what you yourself would want to do,” she writes. “I think this is how musical spirit gets passed between genres.”
My local NPR station, KERA, just did a nice little story about the American Harp Society’s Summer Institute, which is currently taking place in Denton, TX. I’m certain that many people who heard this story learned about rock and jazz harp for the first time. Yes, the harp has a wild side!
In my book, no harpist shatters the evening gown barrier like Deborah Henson-Conant, “The World’s Foremost Electric Harpist.” She joyfully defies categorization! Check out Just for You, ‘Round the Corner, and the Grammy-nominated Invention and Alchemy.
There are quite a few wonderful artists who have taken the harp beyond its traditional image. Here are a few I like (with recommended recordings):
Michelle Whitson Stone (Late Night Harp)
Park Stickney (Still, Life with Jazz Harp)
“So, how does a person get into playing the harp?” Of all the questions I’m asked about my harp playing, this may be the one that comes up the most! For many harpists, playing the harp is literally a dream come true. That’s how it has been for me.
My interest in the harp started around the age of 12, when my family attended a wedding reception at a local banquet hall. Another reception was taking place in a room down the hall from ours, and as we walked by, we saw a woman sitting inside the doorway, making enchanting music on a tiny harp. It was small enough to rest in her lap as she played, and it looked nothing like the huge, ornate harps I’d seen in pictures of orchestras. Up to that point, I never knew harps could be anything but grand and intimidating. I was fascinated by the beauty and approachability of this little instrument.
My dad was an artist who loved to see people doing beautiful and unusual things, so he asked the woman about her harp. We were quite impressed to learn that she had built her harp from a kit, then taught herself to play it using instructional books and videos. Amazing! A seed was planted in my mind, and from that time on, I dreamed of having and playing a small harp. At one point I even acquired a catalog from Musicmakers Kits. I read and re-read it, soaking up the pictures and trying to imagine how a person would figure out all those strings.
When I met my husband Michael, I shared my harp dreams with him. Being a music lover, he was intrigued with the idea. Over the years we talked about finding a harp or getting a kit. The idea suffered a major setback when a debilitating chronic illness settled in and dominated my life for over 8 years. During that time, any such pursuits were impossible for me to contemplate.
The idea resurfaced again in 2008, two years into a recovery in my health. Harp dealers are few and far between, yet Michael found one in the D/FW area. We talked about the idea, but it still seemed ethereal and unlikely to me. Rare things tend to have that air of impossibility about them!
When we attend the 2008 North Texas Irish Festival, we expected to hear some good music, but we also hoped to see a Celtic harp. Out of the hundreds of attractions at this sprawling festival, what was the first thing we stumbled across? A booth for Harps International and the North Texas Harp Ring! A number of instruments were on display that day: a small harp similar to the one I’d seen as a child, several mid-sized floor harps, and a huge, shockingly blue harp that left me in awe.
The dream of playing a harp became more real to me that day, especially when we learned it was possible to rent a harp before buying one. That sounded good, but I thought I’d like to have lessons instead of trying to learn from a book. But what were the chances of finding a teacher within a reasonable driving distance?
The answer came a month later. Michael and I learned about a harp recital at Texas Christian University and decided to attend. Some very friendly folks welcomed us, and when they learned of my interest in taking harp lessons, they introduced me to Sydney Howell, who lives just 30 minutes away from us. She had a rental harp available and room in her schedule, so she became my teacher … just like that! It felt like a miracle.
All those years of curiosity about the harp weren’t meaningless. I was drawn to the instrument because it was a perfect fit for me. My plan was to take lessons for a few months to see how I’d like it, but I was hooked from the start! It wasn’t long before Michael and I met with Rebekah Passmore, the Harps International representative we’d met at the North Texas Irish Festival, to shop for a harp. When we brought home my glorious Pratt Chamber Harp and removed it from its case, I stared at it, unable to believe it was mine. The dream had come true!
Since I started playing the harp, I’ve been blessed to meet a number of other harpists in the North Texas area. Some were lucky enough to start playing as kids, but many came to the harp later in life, often after years of thinking, hoping, wishing, and dreaming about it. “It’s never too late,” they say, and I agree!
If there’s something you’ve “always wanted to do,” don’t write it off. Find out what it would take to give it a try, even if it seems out of reach. Your dream may turn out to be closer than you think!
[Many thanks to Triplett Harps, Musicmakers, and Camac Harps for their permission to use these gorgeous harp images!]