Sunday, May 19, 2013

Affair of the Harp

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but last year I hit 60 and resolved to play music regularly, every day if at all possible. However, when I got out my guitar, a beautiful instrument which my husband bought for me when we were engaged, I realised painfully that although I still read music, and my fingers still remember how to play and I know many tunes, my body no longer wants to hold classical fretting positions. So although I still love the look of my varnished instrument and I love its sound, I found myself reluctant to play it.

It dawned on me that a harp might be the instrument to replace my guitar. I’d have all the notes laid out for me, instead of having to fret them with my left hand. I’d have two hands to play melodies. And I learned from a radio feature that I could get one in kit form.

The one I’d heard was made by Waring Harps in Connecticut, USA, with a wooden frame and nylon strings, and a soundbox made of – wait for it – heavy cardboard. When I got over my surprise I realised that cardboard is not only light and portable, but inexpensive and musically resonant. Backyard Music, also in CT, made a slightly larger version with 22 instead of 19 strings, so I had a very friendly e-mail discussion with the two owners of Backyard, and my 22 strings and pins, three bits of wood and cardboard soundbox were sent on their way the next working day.

There are drawbacks to buying from overseas. Customs, as well as imposing VAT on the purchase price, are apt to hang onto items for an unconscionably long time. Although the harp only took 5 days to cross the Atlantic, before that it languished with Customs in New Jersey for 9 days, and afterwards in England for another 6! As the wait grew longer, I would have chewed my fingers back to the elbows, if I hadn’t needed them to make up the kit.

Building the harp, when I eventually got it, was fun. The prettily curved triangle of the body was easy to glue, screw and varnish, and quickly looked like a proper harp. To drive the tuning pins and bridge pins into the pre-drilled frame, I started with a rubber mallet, but I had to discard that when it began to shred! I changed it for a fairly hefty hammer, with a piece of scrap leather as a buffer. I also moved into the dining room which has a concrete floor, because in my front room each hammer-strike rebounded through the table into the floorboards and sent the harp, and the table, leaping back towards me.

Constructing and glueing the soundbox looked tricky but really only required big rubber bands to keep things under control while the glue set. The soundbox on a pukka harp is normally made of wood, which is sanded and varnished to show off its beauty. Mine was boring brown cardboard that definitely needed covering up. The DIY stores failed to produce the colour I wanted – burgundy being so 1980s as a decorating colour – so I ended up at Halford’s buying car spray paint. And primer. And next day, a second can of burgundy. The soundbox was much bigger than it looked.

The spraying really had to be done in a shed because the smell was vicious, but once the soundbox was dry, it came back into the house to be glued to the frame. The instructions said to “glue the frame and avoid the string holes,” but that sounded very fiddly, and since the soundbox had a long clear slot where the strings were to pass through it was actually easier to glue the box – between pencilled marks – and to fit the frame over it. Some heavy books held the two together overnight, and then it was ready to be strung.

Harp strings are pretty. The C strings are red, the F strings are blue or black, and the rest are uncoloured. Like a novice fisherman I made esoteric knots in my nylon strings and like captured eels they immediately tried to untie themselves. I learned to use long nosed pliers to tighten the knot before I pulled it inside the soundbox. Then with the string threaded loosely through the tuning pin at the top of the frame, I trimmed the excess and wound steadily with the tuning wrench, and behold! I had a harp!

An old joke runs, “Everyone gets a harp, whether they go to heaven or hell. Those who go to heaven also get a tuning wrench.” Newly stretched strings go flat within minutes! It took a week before the harp would stay in tune with itself and I could play without snatching up the wrench to correct something. The digital tuner’s implacable lighting display also corrected my own ear which thinks a note is in tune when in fact it is fractionally flat. I became hypersensitive about turning the right peg after I went on tightening the one next to the one I thought I was tuning. Snap!

I still play my little harp, but almost as soon as it held tuning I discovered that harps are like biscuits – one is never enough. I found a very beautiful 34-string Pilgrim Clarsach (a fully levered folk harp) at a bargain price and it moved in with me almost at once. I did, however, resist the George III pedal harp that my daughter photographed in an antiques auction sale. It was cheap, but I think at 200 years old it would have required far more TLC than I could afford.

One sad reminder of my age came when I sang to my digital tuner to find out whether I could pitch a middle C by ear, and was shown that I was singing the A below it. Piqued, I sang lower… and lower…down to the E above low C. I expect when I eventually join the heavenly choir they’ll put me among the tenors. Now there’s something to look forward to.

22 string Harp kit from Backyard Harps, CT, USA, $235 plus shipping (translates to GBP as approx £130).
34 string Harp from Pilgrim Harps, Surrey, around £2,500.

1 comment:

Richard Abbott said...

Sue, what a great account, it kept me fascinated. I also used to play the guitar many years ago, though last time I tried it out my fingers protested hugely at the steel strings... I had never thought of a harp, still less in kit form!