Why the Harp?

“Everyone wants a go on a harp, just like everyone wants to see the pyramids.”

The harp is an ancient and beautiful instrument with strong connections to the Celtic nations and wider European, Jewish, African and other cultures.   It’s also a beautiful piece of woodwork that is embraced by the player, closely connecting the musician and the instrument.

The notes are laid-out simply and produce beautiful sounds the first time they are touched making it a rewarding experience for total beginners.

Equally it has as much potential for the serious musician as any other instrument, with new and exciting players pushing the boundaries of what can be done every year.

Small Harps for Coventry is committed to breaking down the posh image of the harp. We want it to become as familiar as any other instrument, and within the grasp of anyone who wants to learn it.

Hiring a Harp

We sometimes have harps for hire when they are not being used in our evening classes – details are here.  The Clarsach Society also hires instruments to its members and some makers also hire instruments.

Buying a Harp

We sometimes inspire some people to take the harp further, and they need to buy their own instrument.

Obviously a harp is more expensive than most instruments, and choosing a harp needs to be done carefully. In recent years there have been great advances in harp making and there are a lot of very well made harps available now.

The most basic ‘rule’ is to make sure the harp will let you learn the instrument – it needs enough strings (approx 26 for beginners, and 33 if you want to advance) and sharping levers or blades on each string, which will let you play in different keys.

The harps we used in the Harp Club are Dusty Strings “Ravenna 26’s” and Camac “Bardic 27’s”.

The bad news

The cheapest harps seem to be sold through internet auction sites. The ones like this we’ve seen have been quite awful – often with the woodwork pulling apart under the strain of the strings, semitone levers in the wrong place etc. There are repeated rumours of new models solving the problems, so do be optimistic, but try any instrument before you hand over your money. One rule of thumb is to buy instruments made in a country where they are widely played.

The other source of cheap instruments are those with cardboard sound-boxes. These are more limited, often designed for music therapy without levers, making them less than ideal for developing as a musician. We suggest playing them and talking to your teacher before you buy.

There are some interesting attempts at making high quality affordable instruments, including the USA made “Harpsicle” and the new UK makers “Derwent Harps”.

The good news

Second-hand harps are available – and we are often told about good deals – so let us know if you are thinking about buying. (We don’t trade or make any profit.)

A good idea for a beginner is to hire a harp – the Clarsach Society has some for loan, as do some of the makers listed on our links page.

There are an increasing number of excellent harps being made – some by individual makers, others by large companies. Most harpists are happy for you to have a go on their harp if you ask nicely, and you can begin to get a feel for the differences and what suits you. The Edinburgh International Harp Festival is a showcase where you can try most harps and meet the makers, and usually see a good range of used instruments.

Harp strings are either “concert” tension or “folk”. Although a softer tension is a little easier to play, most teachers believe that it is best to learn on the concert tension. Again, talk to a harp teacher or other players to learn about the pros and cons. There are new strings being developed which also add to your choices.

We feel that the relationship with the harp maker or seller is a long term partnership. Most sellers are friendly, knowledgable and helpful, but there are some with a reputation (born out in our experience) who don’t share those values. If you are talking to a maker or dealer, consider whether you want a long term relationship with the person – one example is whether you are being encouraged to consider instruments which are outside your stated budget.

If you buy a harp, please make a commitment to learn from a teacher – it is very easy to learn a bad technique that will set you back.

(The views on this page are the personal opinions of the web author. Small Harps for Coventry has no financial interests in any harp makers or traders. We welcome comments or corrections.)