February 26, 2010

Pedal Harps and Folk Harps, Harpists and Harpers

Aeron sent me this article by Wm. Rees, and I thought it was worth sharing.  I'm down with almost everything he says, except for one thing: the pedal harp is a spectacular solo instrument!  Some of the most impressive instrumental solos I've ever heard are pedal harp solos.  I challenge anyone to listen to Carlos Salzedo's "Whirlwind" or "Variations on a theme in ancient style" and say otherwise.

Although I disagree with that conclusion of his, what he says about the acoustical differences between the two instruments is spot on.  The smaller folk harps have a different, often more subtle tone that makes them the better choice for solos in which harmony and counterpoint, as opposed to sheer technical range and prowess, is the focus.  They're obviously better suited for intimate settings, and they're preferable to pedal harps for accompaniment of voice and duets with certain instruments, such as guitar, lute or recorders.  They are different instruments that are made for different music.

I learned to play pedal harps as a teenager, and before I started playing Gertrude, I absolutely fell into the ignorant mindset that folk harps were dinky little wanna-be versions of "real harps."  I now know that could not be further from the truth.  Although I still miss wrapping my body around a harp that's bigger than me and ripping the hell out of it, I'm having a great time exploring the capabilities of folk harps!

But I think part of the reason I was so ripe for that misconcpetion was that I hadn't been exposed to much really excellent folk harp, whereas I took lessons from a former student of Salzedo's.  Now granted, I still am not really a part of any folk harp "scene," and most of my very limited exposure to folk harps has been through the SCA.  But so many players of folk harps never break out of plinky little chords and arpeggios, never really explore their dynamic range.  Folk harps are cheaper, so the ratio of "beginners" to "advanced players" can be quite a bit larger than with their more expensive and commitment-demanding counterparts.

I think this is why I have a hard time calling myself a "harper" (although I do).  I realize the distinction is this:  harpers play folk harp, harpists play pedal harp.  I have no pedal harp right now, so I'm unambiguously a harper.  But somewhere deep in my prejudiced little psyche, I also associate pedal harps with big, difficult, macho technique, whereas I associate folk harps with pretty, tinkly, simple technique (in fairness, folk harp technique can be very difficult, but big and macho it aint).  Guess which association I like best?

So in an effort to break down this bias, both in my own head and in the bit of the world I can touch, I'm going to continue to try to improve my technique and to write blisteringly hard accompaniment to my songs (I've slacked on that lately, I can do better).  I'll also look into local folk harp "scenes" - there's one here in Madison, but I'll probably have to wait until I move to DC to really have time to dive in.  I'm also going to try to feature examples of really excellent and impressive harpers on my website.  This'll require some research on my part, but I think we'll start with Patrick Ball.  Stay tuned.

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