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A Tour of Ancient Harps
By Peter Berry
At the end of March I had the great blessing of going on a private tour
of ancient harps “behind the scenes” in museums in Dublin. The tour was
led by Simon Chadwick, a renowned expert in early Gaelic harps (see
On the tour was a dear friend of mine in Dublin who plays the harp, her
Mom, her harp teacher, a friend of Simon’s researching for a biography
of the harper Patrick Quin, and myself.
We began in a private room at Trinity College Library where we had 45
minutes alone with the exquisite “Castle Otway Harp”. It is signed and
dated by its maker “Cormack O’Kelly, 1707”. It was played at the
Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 by Patrick Quin. It was thrilling to be
in the presence of this beautiful harp. Looking closely, one can see
that it had been elaborately painted, but it is still a gem in its
From this private room we entered into the back of the “Long Room” in
the Trinity College Library where we joined throngs of people to see the
famous Trinity College Harp, estimated to be 600 years old. This is the
harp that is the National Symbol of Ireland. It was ancient when it was
played in the streets of Limerick in the 1700s by Arthur Ó Néill, one of
the last of the old Irish harpers in the 18th century.
From the library we went to the National Museum where we saw the
Ballinderry harp fragments and depictions of harps on various relics and
shrines from medieval times. Afterwards, we had the privilege of going
into the storage rooms of the museum to see nine harps not on display
for the public.
One of these was the Cloyne harp, signed and dated 1621 by its maker
Donnchadh Fitz Teigh. Only the neck and forepillar of the harp remain,
but in 1996 a replica of the harp was made. Chemical analysis of
pigments barely visibile on the harp fragments allowed the replica to be
painted as it may have originally appeared. It is stunning! It bears
the inscription “I am the Queen of Harps” in Latin, near a bust and head
of a Queen at the top of the harp.
Our final stop was the Guiness Storehouse where we saw the Downhill
harp, made by the same
Cormack O’Kelly who made the
Otway harp, but this one was made five years earlier in 1702. It was
amazing to see the difference five years made in the skill of the harp
maker. It was played at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 by Denis
O’Hampsey, the only harper at the Festival to play in the ancient style
with shaped fingernails. O’Hampsey died at the age of 112 and was alive
in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s and is a fascinating harper to
contemplate, and the tunes he played were from the mists of time. To be
in the presence of his harp was an inspiring privilege.
In Which Your Editor Leaves Her Comfort Zone
By Diane Moss
A couple of years back, Seattle harp player Carol Levin sent me a note
for Reigning Harps, a little announcement about how she had played and
appeared in a YouTube compilation made by the Dr Who Fan Orchestra. (The
DWFO, led by Stephen Willis, was the first "virtual orchestra" on
YouTube that compiled recordings made by musicians from all over the
world into one whole. You can learn more about them at
As a big nerdy Dr Who fan myself, I wrote back to congratulate her and a
correspondence followed in which Carol encouraged me to "try out" for
the next compilation. The harp parts are written for pedal harp, but she
was managing well on her lever harp and thought I could do so as well.
The next DWFO piece filled up before I applied (they cap applications at
500 and usually fill in one or two days!). However I was ready for the
one after that, and after filling out the required forms, learned that I
was "in" for compilation #9, "Martha Meets Shakespeare".
This was very exciting, and I waited happily for my part to arrive. And
then it did, and reality set in. What was I thinking? The part was not
difficult... in fact, much of it was one hand at a time. But that's
where the easy stuff ended and mild panic ensued!
Let me set the scene... I am primarily a "folky" player. I can read
music, but I prefer to play by ear. I'm not the most coordinated harp
player that ever was, and I enjoy traditional music where I can "wing
it" a bit, improvising here and there when I go astray, employing a
rubato style rather than metronome-strict renditions. I like to play in
groups, but tend toward harp circle or session playing where everyone
plays an individual version of a tune, adding texture and depth through
variation. I rarely play in flat keys, so keep my harp tuned in C. I
play a few tunes that require lever flips, but I often rearrange tunes
to imply accidentals rather than actually play them. I prefer not to
have a music stand or printed music in front of me... just me and my
harp and the tune in my head.
But now, I had signed up to play a harp part that came complete with its
own "click track"... a computer playback of the part, with incessant
unforgiving metronome. I needed to learn it EXACTLY as written and
EXACTLY at tempo so my part would match the hundreds of other
submissions. This meant I needed to learn how to play with earphones
stuck to my head and a computer plus a written score at my side. Never
mind that the part (in five movements) required a number of key changes
and as many as four flats! Oh, and did I mention the glisses? My folky
self had never really glissed, except as a joke, but this was no
My first job... retune my harp from C to Ab, with all the extra tuning
required to get that stable. Then, read through the part very very
slowly, noting that it exceeded the range of my 36-string harp in a
couple of places. Fortunately, the notes I didn't have in the bass were
doubled an octave above, so I could at least play those. And the notes I
didn't have in the treble I produced by retuning my top three notes (my
highest C to a necessary D, my highest B to C and then levered up to get
a necessary Db, and my highest A levered up for a necessary Bb... this
meant missing a note in the scale here and there, but they weren't
needed except in the glisses and I'd at least have the proper ending and
beginning gliss tones.) Next, I marked in all the lever flips (my
teacher Harper Tasche was a big help with this)... there was no time at
the key changes to flip all necessary levers, so the job was to work
backwards from each key change to find an appropriate moment to change
individual levers up and down and back again, working from C to Ab to Eb
to F and back to Ab over the course of 7 minutes. Then, I had to buckle
down and learn to gliss properly, in all directions. My thumb and first
finger developed sore calluses from zipping up and down the strings, and
I realized that rather than the dreamy arm-waving that I had imagined,
glissandi have duration and rhythm and accents of their own... some of
those in the final movement of this piece were very aggressive, true
Finally, nothing for it but to practice. It was one thing to get used to
playing with one earphone in so I could hear the click track and my harp
at the same time, and a cord going from my head to my computer where I
could see an oscillating soundtrack of the harp part going by, all this
while I was reading from a score which I had taped together to minimize
page turns. It was another thing to find that I could not practice up to
tempo with all those lever changes, yet I needed the click track to get
my entrances timed correctly and my sense of how my part fit into the
whole. Enter Transcribe, a program I purchased which allows you to slow
down a recording without changing its pitch. For a week I practiced my
part at 50% speed, then increased it by 10% a week until I was able to
play along at the correct tempo, lever flips and all.
Finally, with the submission deadline approaching, I felt ready to try a
practice recording. Fortunately my husband has a digital recorder, and
we have a nice quiet back room where I could shut myself in and record
take after take after take. Never have I been so aware of dogs barking
outside, or jets passing overhead, or heaven forbid the phone should
ring... any of those would scrap a take, no matter how well I was
playing. Of course I had to change levers quietly, turn pages silently,
and avoid tapping my foot. But the most embarrassing part was realizing
how often I talk out loud (sometimes not very nice words) while I play.
I honestly thought I might have to tape my mouth shut!
My first attempts at recording were far too "live"... the reverb from my
harp was extreme. Again, with the help of Harper Tasche, who willingly
crawled all over the floor taping "marks" for microphone and harp
placement on a rug, an appropriate balance was found and recording began
in earnest. After three or four days I had an mp3 recording to submit,
via DropBox due to size, which was the best I felt I could do. All the
notes were there, though I was painfully aware of one place where my
finger slipped off a string and twanged a little, and another place
where I had a nano-hesitation in a fast rhythmic part. But I figured the
sound engineer could erase me if necessary, so I hit SEND and celebrated
for a few hours...
Until I started another project! Originally, I had thought if I could
just submit the audio recording, I wasn't even going to worry about
doing a video. But I still had some time, and with the audio gone, the
video suddenly seemed like it would be easy... it's basically "lip
synched" as no sound from the videos would be used. I raided my closet
for anything I could find that looked slightly Elizabethan, and found a
mob-cap type bonnet and a chemise-style gauzy blouse... good enough! It
was actually fun to just play along by memory to the click track while
my husband shot a video, no headphones or music stand required. And to
ensure a nice relaxed looking playing style, we only shot the middle
slow section, without any key changes. I figured the fast parts with all
the glisses could be demonstrated by the pedal harpists.
Months later, the finished video appeared on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3uPy1hB_iY),
and I was thrilled to see that I had made the cut... despite being
dressed like a poor washerwoman in her nightie, there are two nice video
clips of me playing, one at 3:20 and one at 5:12. Carol Levin, who got
me started on this crazy voyage, appears at :55 and at 1:26 in a stylish
chapeau. I owe her thanks for all her encouragement and good hints. It
was out of my comfort zone, for sure, but a great musical "stretch"!
(Oh... and the day after I finished? I tuned my harp back to C!)
A Sleeping Beauty Awakens
By Peter Berry
I have a new treasure in my life, and a special one..
Here's the background... I went to Ireland in 1992 for the first (of
many!!) trips and met with a man who made replicas of medieval Irish
harps, the most authentic replicas I've ever seen or heard of. The
soundboxes were carved from a single block of willow, and the soundbox
then was sealed at the one open side with a soundboard of bog pine,
estimated to be between 5 and 11 thousand years old! The combination of
the one-piece soundbox and bogwood soundboard, and high tension brass
strings, are what gives his harps a clear resonant bell-like tone,
bringing back the ancient sound of the early Gaelic harp in our time. At
the time I contracted with him to make my harp, he said it would take a
year and I'd have to return to Ireland to get it because he had had a
bad experience shipping a harp to America and wouldn't risk it again.
The one he had a bad experience with was shipped from Ireland
to America by boat in 1991 and was stored temporarily in a customs
warehouse in Norfolk VA in the August heat and humidity. I don't know
how long it was in the warehouse before it got to its owner in NC, but
it had been heat-damaged and she found it to be unstable and couldn't
keep it in tune. She was a novice harper, and it was a sophisticated
harp to begin with, and
she was overwhelmed by the challenge. Frustrated, she put it back in
its case and didn't touch it for over two decades!
I remembered the harpmaker saying one of his harps went to NC, so this
winter I asked him for the name of the person who bought it, and through
the wonders of the internet found her phone number and called her in
January. We began a pen pal correspondence and I offered to buy the harp
from her if I deemed it could made to be playable.
When I first laid eyes on the harp on a trip to Carolina at the end of
April and held it, I carefully scrutinized it, and found a couple of
places where there was evidence of the forepillar having shifted.
However, I saw nothing so drastic as to dissuade me from buying the harp
and bringing it home to Seattle. In the meanwhile, for the previous
month of April, she had followed directions we had both recently
received from the harpmaker, and she was able to get it stabilized and
to stay in tune.
In the first weeks after bringing it home, I consulted with the
harpmaker in Ireland and an expert on early Gaelic harps in Scotland,
and ordered a complete set of strings to replace the strings on the
harp. The combination of metallurgical expertise and early Gaelic harp
expertise of Simon Chadwick in Scotland has been invaluable!
The lowest 8 strings in the bass are sterling silver, and I put the last
of those last silver strings on the harp in rhythm with the Full Moon in
June. Silver moonlight magic!
I call this harp Aisling, an Irish word sometimes used for a woman's
name (pronounced ASH-ling). It means dream or vision. She's been in her
case silently dreaming of making music for a very long time! Soon that
dream will come true for her. I'm playing all three of my harps in a
concert on Sept 13th at East West Books. This will be the first time
this harp, more than two decades old, has EVER been played in a public
concert. We're both excited!
Harp to Hawaii
By Diana Beaumont
I didn’t tell many people that I wanted to take my 34-string Dusty Strings
harp with me on vacation to Hawaii because I was afraid it would seem
frivolous or extravagant. But the truth of the matter is that I suffer
from “harp separation anxiety” in much the same way that a toddler cries
when separated from her mother. So I justified to myself that I needed my
harp so I could practice for the small gig I was to play within days of my
But how do we carry a full-size lever harp on the plane? Or should we ship
it separately? How do we make sure the harp doesn’t get smashed or broken?
How do we afford the cost and still expect to buy suntan lotion?
First we had
to find a suitable protective cover. That was easy. “Dusty Strings makes
harps and ships them all over the world,” I reasoned. “What do they do?” A
phone call to Dusty Strings Interbay Workshop (206 634-1656) resolved that
question. They make custom-built boxes of heavy-duty cardboard reinforced
with struts and stays and hard foam braces. I could purchase one for a bit
over $70. But no, they couldn’t ship my harp to Hawaii for me. I would
need to do that myself.
investigated FedEx and UPS only to learn that the cost would be in excess
of $900. Perhaps we could ship the harp a few days ahead of our arrival by
Alaska Airlines airfreight, since that’s the airline we had reserved. But
no, we would need a special shippers’ license that would also involve some
sort of advance security clearance. Alaska Airlines advised us, however,
that we could check the box as excess baggage if it fit within certain
size parameters. It did! And the cost? They quoted us $50.
before our departure I was nervous as I loosened the harp strings a turn
and sealed the box with layers of heavy-duty strapping tape. The box
already was printed with the words FRAGILE INSTRUMENT and THIS SIDE UP,
but we added several photos of an actual harp as a visual cue to busy
ma’am.” It was the curbside check-in guy running after me. “TSA wants you
to open the box for inspection.” The TSA officer could clearly read my
dismay, but she was unsympathetic. “You have to open it,” she insisted.
“Well, I don’t have a box-cutter with me,” I replied, “so do you have some
scissors?” As they began to hack indiscriminately at the box, I jumped
into the fray and yelped, “No, no, no! Not like that! Don’t hurt my harp!”
A small group of onlookers gathered. Probably against all TSA rules, I
pointed out to them where to slice along the seam of the strapping tape.
Then, seeing the large zippered instrument case inside the opened box, the
TSA officer simply waved a piece of bomb-detection cloth over the top and
ordered me to reseal the box again. Good thing I’d thought to bring the
spool of strapping tape in my carry-on.
I chewed my
lip when we arrived in Hawaii and my husband went off to fetch the box at
oversize baggage claim. The balmy air and swaying palm trees did little to
sooth my worry. Would the box have a huge dent in the side? Would my harp
be in one piece? At last he appeared, a grin of relief on his face as he
pushed my precious box through the throng of gawking travelers. It was
having unpacked my harp at our rented condo, we took a walk to a nearby
shopping center to clear our heads of travel weariness. I admired a pretty
sundress in the window of a posh dress shop, and in a flash the sales
clerks were all over me.
“Oh you must
try it on! Here’s the flyer for our special event tomorrow evening! You
must come!” Hot and tired, I just shook my head.
have music at your event tomorrow night?” my husband wanted to know. “You
don’t? Well, here’s a harpist for you!”
how I picked up my Hawaii gig…and a gorgeous sundress!
And There Will Be Goats
By Shawnmarie Stanton
friend, Nik Perleros, called and asked if my husband and I wanted to be in
a music video he was directing for the Tea Cozies, we immediately said,
“Yes!” Nik’s a very talented guy and fun to be around, so we knew it would
be a great afternoon. He asked if I’d bring my Thormahlen Swan as well
since he thought it would look great in the shot we were going to be in. I
readily agreed because I love to show off my baby.
We showed up on the day of the shoot and walked through the set-up of the
shot. Nik explained that I would be blindfolded and my husband would be
behind me placing my hands on the harp. I would then pluck a few strings
as my husband laid his head on my shoulder. Nik then said very casually,
“Oh, and there’ll be some baby goats running around. We’re just waiting
for them to get here.” I thought he was kidding. My husband, rightly, took
him seriously. About 30 minutes later, we were in costume, the baby goats
arrived, and we were shooting the scene. There were three goats, each with
a person assigned to hold the goat until the fog machine was going and Nik
called “Action.” Did I forget to mention the fog machine? So did Nik until
right before we started shooting.
I sat at my harp, blindfolded, and listened to the chaos. Nik would make
sure everyone was ready, then he’d tell the fog machine to go, then he’d
say “action” and I’d feel my husband’s hands on mine, trying to place them
somewhere on the harp strings that made sense, I’d begin attempting to
pluck the strings in a manner that looked beautiful or, at the very least,
interesting, and the goats would clomp around the stage, primarily
gravitating toward me and trying to hide under my chair. The only thing
that kept me from completely freaking out about them possibly hurting my
harp was the knowledge that my husband is even more protective of the Swan
than I am. In any event, I can assure you that any sounds coming from my
harp during this madness could hardly qualify as music. After about six or
seven takes, Nik decided he had enough footage to work with. I was very
relieved to take off that blindfold.
Nik then asked if we wanted to be in a few other shots. How could we
refuse? If you watch the video, I’m the woman in the red lighting running
in slow motion and my husband is the man with the hospital face mask on,
sitting in a theater seat holding a baby goat. He’s also the man painted
silver, lying on a hospital gurney with blood on his forehead, while a
woman in red sequins (me) dances next to him. Now surely, those teasers
must make you want to watch the video and listen to the Tea Cozies’ Cosmic Osmo.
[You can see
the YouTube video at
Shawnmarie and harp appear at 2:22.]
Performers are Shawnmarie and Roy Stanton, Harp from Thormahlen Harps, Baby Goats from
Boise Creek Boer Goats.