Wire-strung harp

Dave & Laura McKinstry dalm at enterprise.america.com
Tue Oct 10 17:02:00 PDT 1995

>I am wondering if anyone on this list can recommend a source of 
>information for learning how to "dampen" strings while playing 
>wire-strung harps.  I just purchased a wire-strung harp, and am used 
>to the nylon strings, and have no one to show me in person.  Is there 
>perhaps a good book, instructional tape, or whatever, out there that 
>I'm not aware of?
>Please advise!  Thank you!
>Also, were harps played on the left or right shoulder in the Middle 
>Ages and Renaissance?  Is there documentation somewhere out there for 
>Lady Carthann Bean Eachann
>(Jennifer Bogut)

Harps were played on the left shoulder in the middle ages and Renaissance,
and the right hand was used to play the lower notes, while the left hand
played the upper ones.  This was connected to the belief that the right side
of the body was male, and the left side female.  Since the male voice was
lower, the right hand was to play the bass.  Since crossing over hands was
strictly out of the question, ancient harps had two "B" strings in the
middle - one for each hand.

The technique for a wire strung harp is, of course, pluck/damp, since the
strings rang for so long they would muddy up the subsequent notes.  The
strings were also plucked with the fingerNAILS instead of the fingerPADS, so
start taking your gelatin every morning.  Beyond that, I know little, but if
I find anything I'll let you know.  There might be something on it in one of
the articles/books that dates back to the Belfast Harp Symposium in 1792,
the last known place where the wire-trung-fingernail-damping technique was
used, by a 92-year old man.  Some books regarding the symposium can be found
at "Lark in the Morning" - I have one on order, if you want to wait and find
out, from me, what's in it.  I can't remember which book I ordered - I was
mainly seeking melodies.  

There might be documentation in one of these books/articles on left-side
playing of harps. Pictures are a likely source as well, and you might wish
to look through back issues of the Folk Harp Journal.  There was an essay on
the Caledonian Harp and Queens Mary's harp by John Gunn published in 1807
titled, "An Historical Enquiry Respecting The Performance on the Harp in The
Highlands of Scotland from the Earliest Time, Until it was Discontinued,
about the year 1734" The essay was reprinted in the Folk Harp Journal, the
first portion of which appeared in FHJ Volume 40, March 1983, starting on
page 26, in an article titled "Trinity College Harp".  It's a good article
on ancient harps, I recommend it - though in perusing it, I don't see any
mention of shouldering or plucking.  It might be in there somewhere.  You
can get it through FHJ, for which (I think) you can check into "Harpers
Home" on WWW. If you don't have that address, let me know and I'll dig it up
for you.

I believe it took a harper about ten years to truly learn the ancient harp
technique, which is another reason so many medieval harpers were blind.  No
one else had the patience!

If your harp has levers, I strongly suggest you dispense with the ancient
practice of left shoulder and reversed hands.  Unless the harp was built
specifically as a medieval harp, the levers will be on the left side - your
upper hand side - and since the upper hand carries the melody, you will be
unable to give your hand a long enough break to flip levers with that hand.
You can't just switch the strings over to the other side, since side strung
harps (I assume yours is side-strung - the only ones that aren't are
paraguayan, which aren't wire-strung) are designed to counteract the tork
placed on the spine and column that results from being side strung.

On the other hand, if you don't have levers and/or prize authenticity
greatly, do whatever is important to you.  Medieval/Renaissance music didn't
have accidentals, so if you limit all of your harp playing to those years,
you need only flip levers between songs, which is feasible.

For some additional incidental information and "period licks" Ian of
Locksley has a delightful file on his web page regarding starting out on the
harp.  It's at:




and it's called:


and can be unzipped with pkunzip.  If you don't have a copy of pkunzip, and
you can't find one there, let me know and I'll send you mine, but I think
there is a copy you can download right there in his directory.

btw - accidentals were authentically produced by using the bray pin to press
the string against the spine in just the right spot.  THis is harder than
flipping levers, if you'll excuse the incredible understatement.

Finally, more information might be available to you on the harp mailing
list.  You can join us by sending a message to harp-request at mit.edu with the
message "subscribe" in the body.  If you don't want to be on another mailing
list, I can forward your query to them and ask them to respond directly to
you (let me know if you want me to do this), but we'd love to see you over

Blessings be upon your new wire-strung baby,
Lark of Cire Freunlaven

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