A Beginner’s Guide to the World of Harping
Who Should Play the Harp?
Anyone that wants to should take up the harp. The harp is first and foremost an instrument of the people. From fancy orchestras to medieval Celtic peasants, the harp has a long history of suiting anyone with the motivation to practice it. Small therapy harps are even designed for people who are bedridden. If you have the desire to pursue a harp, you should try it. There are more affordable harps on the market than there were in the past. There are rental schemes available that are now cheaper than a phone bill!
The Harper & The Harpist
A harper is usually someone that plays by ear or memory, often without written music, and is more inclined to play folk and traditional music. Reading music, playing classical and jazz on a pedal concert harp are generally the traits of a harpist.
How to Choose a Harp as a Beginner
How Much Does a Harp Cost?
In the beginning, you might become overwhelmed with how expensive a harp can be. It’s a good idea to figure out how much you can spend on your first harp, and take that into account. You know best your own budget and how serious a harp you want to take on-companies like Salvi, Teifi and Morley harps have “beginners” or “student” harps that start at around £1500-£2000. At the other end of the scale you can buy a Pakistani-made harp for around £400. These do have a bit of a ropey reputation, so do your research and buyer beware (don’t just take my word for it, I am, after all, competing with them). We make a harp in the UK, the Morwenna Rose 27 string, for £650 (without levers). This harp was designed with beginners in mind, being light enough to take to lessons/folk club with a sound that stands up against much more expensive competition.
Another consideration, related to price, is whether to have a harp with levers on. The trouble is that decent levers cost decent money. You can get cheap levers, but they often don’t work well-they can buzz and often don’t raise the string by exactly a half tone-basically the harp will sound out of tune. Decent levers are expensive and getting an unlevered harp might be a good option. Levers introduce the complications of key changes, and aren’t really necessary for the first year or so when the most important thing is to develop good habits and train your fingers to play different patterns.
You can’t hit a note that sounds bad on an unlevered harp because all the strings will be in the right key!
How many strings?
A question I get asked a lot is “How many strings does a harp have?” It’s hard not to be facetious with my answer and reply with “how long is a piece of harp string?”. You can get a “harp” with as few as 10 strings, though it’s basically a toy. Harps also come with as few as 22 or even 19 strings, but there’s not much you can play on them. We make a 27 string harp simply because that’s a harp with a decent range-there is plenty of music that you can play on a 27 string harp. Of course you can get harps with 44 or even 48 strings, and more than that when you consider triple strung harps! But these cost as much as a new car.
Another consideration would be whether or not you want to go through the ABRSM and Trinity grades on your first harp. Most people would probably upgrade before they finish their grade exams, and you need at least 34 strings on a fully levered harp to reach grade 8. That said, many harpers don’t go through the grades at all. It depends whether you have your sights on folk clubs and campfires or than concert halls and orchestras. Or to put it another way, do you aspire to be a harper or a harpist?
What is the arm reach of the new musician? Many times children and people with physical difficulty cannot reach around the large body of a 34 string harp or a pedal harp. Anything 34 string and larger is also going to be heavy, so whether or not you can manage carrying that weight is something to consider. Not all cars can even fit 34 string harps, let alone a pedal harp.
To Rent or to Buy?
Renting a harp is a good option if you are unsure you want to commit fully to buying a harp. However if you know that playing the harp is for you, then in the long term it is of course cheaper to buy a harp-unless you think you may want to upgrade after some time, in which case perhaps renting is better!
Many suppliers will have some kind of deal on transferring some of the rental income to save you some money should you choose to buy a harp. We offer 25% off the price of the harp for every year you rent it from us, with the option after 3 years to just forfeit your deposit and own the harp.
Methods of Learning
If you want to learn how to play the harp, there are many different ways to go about it. Here are some of the possible options:
One on one lessons
Pros: You’ll have all the resource you need from an experienced teacher, who will make the lesson tailored to your personal needs and goals.
Cons: It’s the most expensive way to learn, and not everyone has a teacher near them.
Pros: They are usually affordable, sociable, fun way to learn.
Cons: You’ll get less time from the teacher, and if you are shy about playing in front of others you might find group lessons stressful.
Pros: This is a great way to learn if you would like to be a bedroom harper(/ist). Books tend to be quite cheap and allow you to go at your own pace.
Cons: You won’t get guidance from someone on technique, and if you are playing something wrong and don’t realize, it might not be fixed. This is also the method that requires the most self-determination and is probably the hardest work.
Online video lessons
Pros: This is one of the more affordable ways to learn, and can be done at your own pace. The videos provide an example of technique and sound. The online course provided by Hands on Harps also allows you to send us videos of your playing, ask questions, and get feedback!
Cons: The downside of online lessons is they won’t be particularly social, and without a regular interaction with a teacher they do require you to be self-motivated.
To do grades, or not to do grades?
If you’re having a hard time deciding whether or not to take the grade examinations as you learn, think about what you want out of the harp. If it’s something you’d like to study professionally, you’ll need your grade 8. All U.K. based music conservatories only admit applicants with a grade 8. It’s also a great qualification that will help you get gigs and teaching work. It’s a very serious route to take. If you are planning on learning the harp casually with the simple aims of bringing joy to yourself and perhaps some people around you, you absolutely don’t have to take the grades.
Hopefully this article helps you make some decisions with the first steps of beginning the harp. We encourage everyone to play the harp that has the desire. Please feel free to email us if you still have any questions about how to begin your harp journey!