Thursday, December 17, 2009

There's Harp Music in the Air

There's music in the air this month -- and have you noticed that much of it is coming from harps? Harpists play all year 'round of course, but it seems that December programs tend to feature harp music -- after all, the harp traditionally has been considered the instrument of angels.

Harps really aren't as rare as some people think. There are plenty of local harpists, and they're playing on everything from troubador harps to pedal harps.

Here in South King County, we have several resident harpists. Maybe some of you remember the 8-piece "harpestra" that performed last summer in Burien as part of the "Pieces of Eight" event at B/IAS. Earlier this month, the Maple Valley Library hosted a holiday concert that featured an entire harp ensemble from Auburn.

At two concerts last weekend, harpist and long-time Renton resident Patty Warden performed with the Federal Way Chorale. Here's a picture of her taking a bow with Chorale Director Laird Thornton (photo credit Randy Inghram).

Patty and several other South King County harpists also participated in the harpathon at Seattle Children's Hospital last weekend -- a 12-hour harp-playing marathon that raised over $3500 for uncompensated care -- way to go! Then a couple of the younger harpists at the harpathon -- Clara M of Des Moines and Bethany E of Kent, packed up their harps and headed back to South King County to play at a party sponsored by a Renton bank. There were blisters and sore backs by the end of the day -- you have to be tough to be a harpist!

Several of the orchestras that belong to SoCoCulture have harpists on their permanent roster. In Enumclaw, Karen Reinbolt is the harpist in the Plateau Community Orchestra. Here's a photo of her performing in a duet with her daughter Cassie at an orchestra concert last spring. The Northwest Symphony Orchestra has harpist Melissa Walsh, and John Carrington regularly performs with the Auburn Symphony.

It would be fun to hear some behind-the-scenes stories from local harpists. Does anyone care to share?


  1. There are many pros and cons to playing the harp. On the pro side, and probably the most obvious thing, is the innate beauty of its sound. While there are differences in tone quality between different harpists and
    different harps, in general the sound of a harp is always beautiful.Harpists are privileged to play from a fantastic repertoire that is not
    limited to the stereotypical writing for the harp (glissandi and arpeggios). It is much more versatile than you would think, and lends itself well to contemporary pieces thanks to its broad range of sound effects.

    As for negatives...moving it. Every time you have a rehearsal or a performance, it's like moving a very large, bulky, expensive, temperamental family heirloom. And harps don't last forever. The tension from the strings, over time, wears out the sound board, adding to the stress of moving it. Orchestral playing can also be difficult in that many composers
    write for the harp as though they're writing for a piano, and the two are not the same. Also, harps usually play just a handful of notes relative to the rest of the orchestra, and often these notes are quite exposed, meaning we have to jump in cold after sitting and counting for what seems a very
    long time.

    One of my favorite things about playing the harp comes from one of my harp teacher's mottos: the harp will take you everywhere. Thanks to the opportunity to play with myriad groups and at a huge variety of events, I've
    gotten to attend fabulous parties and hear breathtaking concerts--everything from classical music to rock shows--that I wouldn't have even known about, had it not been for the harp. This is especially true around this time of year when there are so many functions and annual concerts.

    Playing with the Northwest Symphony Orchestra is a great fit for a harpist. While the audiences in all parts of the Puget Sound area seem equally appreciative, the NWSO is particularly satisfying to play with because of its broad repertoire. The NWSO gives me a chance to play new music, the standards and even pops (a guilty pleasure). Even the stage crew at Highline Performing Arts Center makes it easy, as they're always willing to help lug the giant instrument around.

    Just a few thoughts... Melissa Walsh, NWSO harpist

  2. I serve on the board of the Federal Way Symphony, and I've also played harp for a long time. I find that many people have no idea that the harp has seven pedals! If I pose the question to my listeners "What do they do?"...I receive many different answers. Is this how you control the loud and soft sounds? a frequent answer. No -- the pedals are used to raise and lower notes - flats and sharps. Often the feet are as busy as the hands!!

    Also questions about the colors of strings often are asked..."Why the colors?" How difficult is would be if they were all the same color! Now C's (red) and F's (black) can easily be found! Lowest strings are wires - also different colors.

    Last week I hosted my P.E.O. chapter for a sit down luncheon - 22 of us. Before we ate I had planned a short program - piano duets by two of our members, a poem presentation by my sister Joice and me, then harp music and singing. I find that no matter how many mistakes (the listeners do not hear them but I know!) I now make when playing, everyone loves the harp music! I love sharing my harp!

    Sometimes before going to bed I'll sit for a few minutes, no lights, and play. The harp is a very calming instrument for me.

    Best wishes, Janice Burgess

  3. Janice,

    I like the idea very much of playing in the dark! I've got to try that. A few years back I lived in a small studio and for that time I slept next to my harp. Did I feel closer to music? You'd better believe it. The harp infiltrated my dreams. I found myself wanting to play very differently because of that. In the dark there are less inhabitions about fear of experimenting. We are more forgiving of ourselves when we can't see.

    -Monica Schley