Planning for everything

Recently, a harp friend died. This was a tragedy as she was a lovely person and a very good harp player. I had known her almost all of my harp life.

Not long after that, her family wanted to move on and part of that was to assure that her harps went to good homes. And so I was fortunate to be able to help the family in finding each harp a new loving home. But it got me to thinking.

Picture1It was very difficult for the family – it’s a difficult time as it is, but having to figure out how to move these harps along was just another burden for them. Because we love our harps and our harp friends/family so much, we may forget that to our “real” family isn’t as plugged in to our harp world. They don’t know how we communicate, how to “shift” a harp, where to go for help, how to move on.

In addition, while our families might try to meet all our wishes, we may not have shared what we would like to happen to our harps (and their assorted detritus!). You may want to be sure that your harps go to a chosen friend or you might want them embedded in a local organization’s harp rental program, or you might want your local (or favorite) school to receive your bounty. But if you don’t tell anyone, no one will know. Be specific – remember that it is likely a loving, non-harper will have to attempt to do what you want, so guidance from you would be a big help!

Therefore it is important to document and share your harp wishes with your family. Think about (and plan for) where you’d like all your harps to find a new place when you will no longer need it. If you will donate to an organization – be sure that the organization knows it will eventually receive your bounty. Be as lovely and generous as you always have been and others will appreciate your kindness.

The Dr. is in

Last week we talked about the environment you can set to help assure your harp’s health so this week let’s talk about getting your harp to the Harp Doctor – your luthier. You want to keep your Harp healthy after all!

While many harp maintenance tasks can be performed at home, I prefer to take my harp to my local luthier* just to be sure I don’t break anything!  What do you mean you don’t have a luthier?!?

There are some standard maintenance items you should take care of annually – regulation and restringing.  Regulation is the practice of calibrating your levers so that, when engaged, they raise the pitch of the string one half tone.  Not about a half, not, like a half, not halfish, but a true half tone.  This assures that when you tune and when you play you get the tones you expected and desire. Regulation is a delightful and desirable thing because after you spend all that time tuning, it’s nice to set the levers and be in tune still! But I ask my luthier to do it because regulation is a fiddly business and I don’t have the patience to get it right**.

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Restringing is needed because your strings will get dull with age and wear.  You might have a hard time hearing it because you play on them every day. Sometimes the string will let you know it’s time, refusing to hit or hold a pitch for very long or sounding “thuddy”.  Its as if it is saying, “I’m soooooo tired, I just can’t hold this pitch any longer.” Restringing is not difficult but it is time consuming and can be hard on the hands.  Your luthier can do this for you (for a well-deserved price) or you can do it yourself.

Now annually might be a bit of a convention because how often you need to restring or regulate is a function of many things including how much your play your harp, how hard you are on it, how much it travels, how often you tune, and the harp itself.  Use “annual” as an estimate. Keep an eye and an ear on your harp and perform maintenance as needed.

So, take your harp to the Harp Doctor for regular checkups to keep it harp healthy!

*my local luthier is Rick Kemper (http://www.sligoharps.com/misc) and he does excellent work. There are other great luthiers throughout the country and there is likely one near to you – let me know who works on your harp and we’ll give them a shout out here too.

** knowing yourself is important in this – I am not patient, nor do I do well with tedious, repetitious, fine work.  If you are good at this sort of thing (clock repair, zymurgy, or other fine work) you’d probably do a good job.  I’m not like that!

In the Bleak Midwinter….

I assume, if you’re reading this, that you have a harp and likely you love it very much – all the joy it brings to your life, the opportunity to share your gift with others, the just plain physical pleasure of playing.  I think we would all say that our existence would be diminished without our harps.

So, the obvious question becomes, are you taking care of your harp?  In this, the bleakest part of the year, you can’t be harp healthy enough!

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It is winter – a time when the air is very cold and dry.  Be sure to heat your house enough to keep your harp room warm enough.  Don’t let it get below 55oF.  Ok, that’s not so much for your harp as for you – below 55o you will not have enough feeling in your fingers to do the fine work of playing.  You don’t have to keep it excessively warm but I do find that below 65o it’s a challenge to sit still long enough to get any practice in.

Whether you have electric, gas, or wood heat, the air is being dried – and that’s not good for the wood of your harp. If you get a shock every time you touch something, your house is too dry.  Try to keep the humidity up between 45 – 55%.  I suggest investing in a room hygrometer (inexpensive ones are available at your local ginormous hardware store) so that you will the humidity in your harp room. You can also invest in a humidifier – this could be anything from a pan of water (best if you have a wood stove), a small water fountain (best if you have the room for it), or a humidifier (best solution although the most expensive) for the room.

Take good care of your harp in winter so you can enjoy it year ‘round!

Travel can break your harp – air

If you have ever contemplated going on a trip with your harp (like HARPA 2015 Scotland?) you will quickly come to realize that you have to get your harp where you are going too! Like air travel isn’t challenging enough! There are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

First, you need to assure you have the right harp for your trip. Are you going to be playing to amuse yourself? Will you be sharing with friends? Will you be performing? Are you taking your only harp? This will help you decide the size harp you’re going to bring.

Picture1Second, you’ll have to decide where your harp will make the journey. This will be decided primarily by the size you’re your harp. If your harp is small enough, you can carry on and use our soft case.

Although there are small harps that will fit, typically even small harps are too large to go into the overhead. Be sure before you go if your harp will fit. Do not wait until the day you travel – it would be disappointing to get to the airport assuming you will carry on, learn you will have to check, and have nothing more than the soft case. In addition, while I used to be an advocate for carrying on, nowadays with packed planes and overhead hogs aplenty, it is a bad idea to pack assuming you will get bin space – you should be ready to have to gate check!

Third, if you are going to send your harp as checked luggage, it is essential that you get a hard protective case or crate. In some cases, the case is a crate with a handle! However, a good hard case will protect your harp and allow you to carry your harp through airports, train stations, and hotel lobbies safely and comfortably. And remember that you will need to include the possibility of oversized luggage fees in your planning.

There are a number of case makers available with different approaches so you can select the case that looks to support your budget and style of travel. Consider the following elements – the overall weight (include the harp in your thinking!), the placement of handles (really think about how you’ll move this through the airport, into and out of the car, bus, taxi), and the good sense of including wheels, pockets and identifying marks. All of these things should factor into your decision when selecting your case.

Flying with your harp does require some planning but don’t let that stop you – get out there!

Travel can break your harp – car

If you’ve been playing for more than about 15 minutes you know that people frequently want you to play in any of a number of places. And there is no limit to where people would like you to play – the tops of mountains, just below the low tide line, or inside the walk-in freezer! This, of course, requires that you get your harp there.

These are exciting opportunities to play and no one want to disappoint their friends (or clients) so you will need to get your harp to the even. But a car can be a very dangerous place for a car. A wise harper* once told me that you should never leave your harp anywhere you wouldn’t leave an infant. And it is wise advice, even though it is unlikely that your harp will toddle off!

Picture1But what does that mean? It means you need to remember what your harp is made of and how it’s put together. Harps are (typically) made of wood which is a natural material which is joined by glue (which can soften with heat) and finished (typically) with a finish (which could crack in cold).

  • keep it out of the direct sunlight. Remember how much of your car is windows! This is especially important in the summer
  • keep it at a comfortable temperature – remember that your harp can’t sweat like you can so keep it temperate
  • protect it from bumps, bangs, and potholes.  The soft case will help protect it but be sure you avoid harp points inside the car
  • don’t leave your harp in the car (overnight or on the road)

Of course, it’s your harp so you in the end you have to make the decisions. I find that it’s better to make cautious choices than have to get a new harp!

* Kris Snyder told me this the first time in when I was first learning to play!

Harp Care

It has been a rough winter for just about everyone – temperatures going up and down, rain, snow, ice, more snow.  Heater on, heater off, windows open, windows closed.  All that change can be hard on your harp. You probably find your harp is out of tune more than “usual”.  While all that is happening, don’t forget to check your regulation.

Regulation is a technical term for periodic maintenance for your harp.  It keeps it in good working order (or playing order if you prefer!).  Lever harp regulation is important and no less essential than it is for pedal harp.  How often you need to regulate is determined by harp type (with pedal harps needing more frequent regulation than lever harps) and how often you play (with more played harps needing regulation more periodically).  And if you are very picky about your tuning you might want your harp regulated more often.  If your lever harp is needs regulation, you will notice that when you set your levers your sharps are not accurate or your naturals aren’t right.  Your levers can be off in either direction (too sharp or too flat).

Not sure if you need regulation? Here’s a way to tell:

  1. take all your levers off and tune each string as accurately as possible*
  2. set all your levers
  3. check the tuning of each string (do this carefully – remember that you have set every lever not just the ones you usually set, so make sure you are getting sharps and naturals where they should be)

If your tuning with the levers set is not as accurate as it was with the levers off, you may need regulation.   There are, of course, matters of degrees (how far off are they) and your tolerance for any variance.  It is most likely that the levers you use the most will be the most affected (because you’re are always engaging and disengaging them, the bracket has more opportunity to move).

If you do need regulation, you can do it yourself, although I recommend you go to your luthier.  If you decide to do it yourself, I suggest you find more experienced harpers who do their own regulation and ask for help and guidance before doing it yourself – it requires patience and calm.

Regulation is a small maintenance activitiy that will allow you to enjoy your harp as well as making it “healthier” so you can play it longer.  Stay regular my friends!

* you can do the same procedure to check your pedal harp regulation

What scale do you tune to?

This whole series of posts has arisen because I am frequently asked to teach tuning.  The requester is almost always sheepish about asking – they seem to feel that you shouldn’t have to ask.  But really, if you haven’t been taught to tune, how will you ever learn?!?  Typically get a very short instruction (pluck the string, twiddle about with the key, get the green light, go on to the next string) very early when you’re a little overwhelmed with everything! 

You do need to know in which scale you intend to tune.   You can tune to any scale but we tend to tune into one of a few major scales (please take this on faith, if you’re really interested, let me know and I’ll do a post on it later).  Those scales we tend to tune in are C, Eb [read E-flat], or F (here too, I am going to assume you know the notes of the scales – if this is a wrong assumption, again, let me know and we’ll do that too!). 

C is familiar, it is a key many other instruments can play in, it “maps” directly to the white keys on the piano, and you are probably familiar with the scale from school music classes.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B (and back to C) all the way up your harp.  From the key of C you can get to other well used scales including G (one sharp – the F# [read F-sharp]), D (two sharps – F# and C#), A (three sharps – F#, C#, and G#), and E (four sharps – F#, C#, G#, and D#).

Tuning in the key of F gives you a very lovely and sing-able key.  It does mean that you will have to raise one lever to get into the key of C but it also gives you a flat note – Bb.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E (and back to F).  From the key of F you can get to C (no flats or sharps – raise the B lever), and then move into the successive keys above (just start with the B lever going up to get you to C to start).

But you’ve probably heard lots of people say they are tuned to Eb.  They may even look at you like you’re crazy if you say you’re tuned to C.  DO NOT LET ANYONE INTIMIDATE YOU!!  There is nothing morally or musically superior about being tuned in Eb.  There, I’ve said it.

Many people tune to Eb because it gives you the most options to change scales without having to retune your harp.  From Eb you can get to the most other keys – that’s the only reason to choose it.   So if you tune to Eb, you will have to raise three levers to get into the key of C but it also gives you three flat notes – Eb, Ab, and Bb.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D (and back to Eb).  From the key of Eb you can get to C (raise the E, A, and B levers), and then move into the successive keys as above (just start from C to start).  And you can get into the keys of F (which we have already talked about, just put up the E and A levers but leave the B lever down) and Bb (put only the A lever up).  And of course, from this tuning with all the levers down, you are in Eb.

Now you can get around the scales a little easier and tuning might make more sense.  As always – let me know if you have questions, otherwise I’m going to go on to other topics!

What scale do you tune to?

This whole series of posts has arisen because I am frequently asked to teach tuning.  The requester is almost always sheepish about asking – they seem to feel that you shouldn’t have to ask.  But really, if you haven’t been taught to tune, how will you ever learn?!?  Typically get a very short instruction (pluck the string, twiddle about with the key, get the green light, go on to the next string) very early when you’re a little overwhelmed with everything! 

You do need to know in which scale you intend to tune.   You can tune to any scale but we tend to tune into one of a few major scales (please take this on faith, if you’re really interested, let me know and I’ll do a post on it later).  Those scales we tend to tune in are C, Eb [read E-flat], or F (here too, I am going to assume you know the notes of the scales – if this is a wrong assumption, again, let me know and we’ll do that too!). 

C is familiar, it is a key many other instruments can play in, it “maps” directly to the white keys on the piano, and you are probably familiar with the scale from school music classes.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B (and back to C) all the way up your harp.  From the key of C you can get to other well used scales including G (one sharp – the F# [read F-sharp]), D (two sharps – F# and C#), A (three sharps – F#, C#, and G#), and E (four sharps – F#, C#, G#, and D#).

Tuning in the key of F gives you a very lovely and sing-able key.  It does mean that you will have to raise one lever to get into the key of C but it also gives you a flat note – Bb.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E (and back to F).  From the key of F you can get to C (no flats or sharps – raise the B lever), and then move into the successive keys above (just start with the B lever going up to get you to C to start).

But you’ve probably heard lots of people say they are tuned to Eb.  They may even look at you like you’re crazy if you say you’re tuned to C.  DO NOT LET ANYONE INTIMIDATE YOU!!  There is nothing morally or musically superior about being tuned in Eb.  There, I’ve said it.

Many people tune to Eb because it gives you the most options to change scales without having to retune your harp.  From Eb you can get to the most other keys – that’s the only reason to choose it.   So if you tune to Eb, you will have to raise three levers to get into the key of C but it also gives you three flat notes – Eb, Ab, and Bb.  You would use your tuner to get the following notes in the scale: Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D (and back to Eb).  From the key of Eb you can get to C (raise the E, A, and B levers), and then move into the successive keys as above (just start from C to start).  And you can get into the keys of F (which we have already talked about, just put up the E and A levers but leave the B lever down) and Bb (put only the A lever up).  And of course, from this tuning with all the levers down, you are in Eb.

Now you can get around the scales a little easier and tuning might make more sense.  As always – let me know if you have questions, otherwise I’m going to go on to other topics!

Everyone knows you have to tune.

Any sentence that starts with “everyone knows…” typically includes something that actually only a few people know and possibly even fewer understand.  So, why do you have to tune?

Tuning serves many functions, some aesthetic, others functional.  Let’s start with the aesthetic.

The harp makes a beautiful warm rich sound that we enjoy.  Tuning is one of the many elements of achieving that tone.  If your strings are not each in tune, the sound of each string will “fight” with the sounds of the other strings.  This is not pleasant to hear.  Even being off by a hair (as indicated by the needle and lights on your tuner) will be noticeable.  And the more off your strings, the easier it is to detect that you’re not in tune.  And of course, you will instantly sound better if you are in tune!

We habitually tune to an A of 440Hz.  This is a convention – you can tune to any frequency you choose (e.g., Highland pipers tune A to about 470 – which is just about our Bb!).  We elect to tune to A440 (just like a lot of other instruments) which allows us to come together as a group and play (or to play with other instruments).  Be sure to check that your tuner is calibrated to A440 or you’ll be in for a nasty surprise!

 
Now for the functional.  Each harp is designed with specific tensions in mind.  The harp maker goes through a great deal of work to develop the shape and sound of the harp and these calculations all account for the specific tension of each string as well as the overall forces of all the strings working together.  Keeping your harp in tune will keep all the strings at their appropriate tensions and will allow the harp to work together as the harp maker designed it.
 
And perhaps my favorite reason for regular tuning.  Frequent tuning improves two things.  First, the more you tune (read “practice tuning”) the better you will be at it (does this sound familiar?).  Second, the more you tune, the better the strings will stay in pitch.  Tuning the strings helps to “train” them so they require less tuning.  Frequent tuning makes you more accurate and faster at tuning so you can get to playing!
 
We will spend a couple of weeks talking about tuning because I have found that for something “everyone knows” many people are confused and a little afraid (or just plain tired of having to change out broken strings).

Everyone knows you have to tune.

Any sentence that starts with “everyone knows…” typically includes something that actually only a few people know and possibly even fewer understand.  So, why do you have to tune?

Tuning serves many functions, some aesthetic, others functional.  Let’s start with the aesthetic.

The harp makes a beautiful warm rich sound that we enjoy.  Tuning is one of the many elements of achieving that tone.  If your strings are not each in tune, the sound of each string will “fight” with the sounds of the other strings.  This is not pleasant to hear.  Even being off by a hair (as indicated by the needle and lights on your tuner) will be noticeable.  And the more off your strings, the easier it is to detect that you’re not in tune.  And of course, you will instantly sound better if you are in tune!

We habitually tune to an A of 440Hz.  This is a convention – you can tune to any frequency you choose (e.g., Highland pipers tune A to about 470 – which is just about our Bb!).  We elect to tune to A440 (just like a lot of other instruments) which allows us to come together as a group and play (or to play with other instruments).  Be sure to check that your tuner is calibrated to A440 or you’ll be in for a nasty surprise!

 
Now for the functional.  Each harp is designed with specific tensions in mind.  The harp maker goes through a great deal of work to develop the shape and sound of the harp and these calculations all account for the specific tension of each string as well as the overall forces of all the strings working together.  Keeping your harp in tune will keep all the strings at their appropriate tensions and will allow the harp to work together as the harp maker designed it.
 
And perhaps my favorite reason for regular tuning.  Frequent tuning improves two things.  First, the more you tune (read “practice tuning”) the better you will be at it (does this sound familiar?).  Second, the more you tune, the better the strings will stay in pitch.  Tuning the strings helps to “train” them so they require less tuning.  Frequent tuning makes you more accurate and faster at tuning so you can get to playing!
 
We will spend a couple of weeks talking about tuning because I have found that for something “everyone knows” many people are confused and a little afraid (or just plain tired of having to change out broken strings).