How to Play a Harp

All the latest wrinkles, tinkles, pinggggs and bunggggs of heavenly harpistry presented by an old student of earthly discord

LESLIE McFARLANE March 15 1941

How to Play a Harp

All the latest wrinkles, tinkles, pinggggs and bunggggs of heavenly harpistry presented by an old student of earthly discord

LESLIE McFARLANE March 15 1941

How to Play a Harp

All the latest wrinkles, tinkles, pinggggs and bunggggs of heavenly harpistry presented by an old student of earthly discord


In a recent issue, we stated that the versatility of Leslie McFarlane was for us a constant source of surprise. We pointed to a long, serious poem he had written, to his hockey and prize-ring stories. We said that we'd he only mildly surprised were Mr. McFarlaue to walk in some day with an article on “ How to Play a Harp.” A few days later Mr. McFarlaue iralked in and handed us an article on “How to Playa Harp.” This is it.—The Editor.

CAN YOU play a harp? Can any of your friends play a harp? In fact, have you ever known anyone who could play a harp?

See! It just goes to show what has happened to harpistry in Canada. Hardly anyone plays the harp anymore. Thousands of Canadians reach manhood and womanhood without ever having seen a harp. It makes one stop and think. After all. this is a civilized country.

Some authorities contend that the harpist will soon be extinct, but this is a pretty pessimistic view. The breed is hardy and has survived for thousands of years. There wenharpists in Solomon’s day-few in numbers, it is true, as against those who could strum the timbrel or knock out a few bars on the hautboy—but bona fide harpists just the same. And where are your timbrel players today? You couldn't find one with a search warrant. As for hautboy players, the last one known as such was hanged centuries ago. But there are still a few harpists around.

It is a pity there aren't more. If this article encourages an interest in harpistry. if it helps make Canada harpconscious, its purpose will be achieved. The plain fact of the matter is that Canada is not harp-conscious. When you walk into a music store, it is the rare salesman who will suggest. “How about a nice harp today?” He may say. “Could I interest you in a bassoon?” He may plead, “Let me show you our oboes.” But he won’t mention harps. You’d think he was ashamed of them.

The consequence is that very few people own harps. 1 f we want more harpists which, of course, who doesn’t?— we have got to have more harps. Especially in the homes where children can get at them. The best harpists begin young; the very best harpists are exposed to the harp in infancy. Some old fuddy-duddies claim this is rather hard on the child. but it must be remembered that it is also rather hard on the harp, which makes matters even.

One reason for the prejudice against the han-)—and we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that a good deal of prejudice does exist—is the size of the blamed thing. The average six or eight-cylinder model, complete with shock absorbers and license plate, F.O.B., is about seven feet high and has a wingspread of about five feet. It gets narrower at the bottom, of course, but that doesn’t help much if you are trying to get it through a door sideways.

In the good old days when life was lived on the grand scale, the average living room was large enough to accommodate a harp. But nowadays a harp is apt to make the ordinary city apartment seem just a little crowded. And so we have the tendency toward radios that can be carried in the pocket, or ukuleles that can be hung on the wall.

Then again, the harp is at a distinct disadvantage socially. Young people who might be persuaded to learn the harp are inclined to shy away from the instrument when they discover that harpists don't get asked out very much. Not. with their harps. It isn’t that harpists are regarded as social lepers. Harpists are often quite bright;

their manners are frequently quite good, and their moral standards are said to be painfully high. You cannot drink and run around with blondes and play the harp too. Not all at the same time. But the fact remains that although a hostess will say to one, “Horace, do bring your bagpipes." and to another. “Claude, won’t you tote along your trombone tonight? We’re dying to have you play for us," no such hospitality is extended to the harpist. She may say. “Julius, I’d love to have you come to my party, but I can’t ask your harp. We haven’t a spare room. If you care to come alone I’d be delighted to have you.”

She may say this. It is more likely that she won’t invite him at all. for fear of hurting his feelings. And even if she does ask him. harp and all. before the evening is over he will wonder if it is worth while. Because it is no easy matter to lug a harp to a party. It is not child’s play by any means. Usually it requires a small delivery truck and a couple of husky assistants in overalls. This seems like a great deal of trouble, and before long our harpist finds himself wishing he had taken up the piccolo instead.

The beauty of it is, the victims rarely suspect the harpist.

But the big reason so few people go in for harpistry lies in the common superstition that the harp is difficult to play.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Anyone can learn the harp. We must get rid of several ¡xjpular errors that have given the harp a black eye.

One is that the harp is only for the privileged classes. This is nonsense. Harps are very democratic.

Another is that the ability to play the harp is inherited. “Born to the harp.” as the saying is. This is ridiculous. Some harpists’ kids are so dumb when they try to learn the harp that it would amaze you.

The most foolish notion of all, of course, is that you have

got to die and go to heaven before you can take up the harp seriously. Obviously, this is a mere rumor. We won’t even discuss it.

A-Harping We Will Co!

ANYONE can learn the harp. You can begin learning the harp today. And make no mistake about it— harps can be fun.

Lesson 1 : The Approach— I f my readers will forgive a gentle jest, it might be said that the harp has something in common with Greta Garbo. Or the Archbishop of Canterbury. You can’t just walk up to it and start playing.

The point is—if you will settle down for a moment and be serious again—that there is a very definite technique to approaching a harp. If you fail to master it. competent harpists will look down their noses at you. “His approach,” they will sniff—and competent harpists do discuss these matters among themselves—“his approach is crude.” You don’t want them to say things like that about you.

Choose a large room, preferably with southern exposure. Move out all the furniture. All except one chair. I f it is an armchair, move that out too. You can’t play a harp in an armchair. Bring in an ordinary kitchen chair. Then tell the men to bring in your harp.

Have them place the harp in the middle of the room, standing upright. If they leave it lying flat on the floor— as they are likely to do if you don’t watch them—you will have quite a time setting up the harp all by yourself. The darned things are heavy.

Now approach the harp. Walk. Do not run. With confidence, but not too boldly. A good harp should be treated with respect.

When you are within arm’s length, take up a position at the front—or rear—of the harp.

This may seem a little confusing at first, but you will probably be confused anyhow as to just which is the front

-or rear—of the harp. It is wise to get this point settled before going too far.

Bear in mind that the tall side with all the doodads carved on the top is the side to stay away from. Try playing a harp from that side and you'll simply make a fool of yourself. Get away from it. Get around to the other side. Get around to the side the pedals are on.

Look for the pedals at the foot of the harp. If they are not there the harp is probably upside down, and you will look sillier than ever trying to play it that way, because the pedals are for your feet.

Let us now assume that both you and the harp are right side up. Let us assume you are standing in such a position that by extending the right arm you can grasp a harp string. But don’t do it. Not yet. I know you are itching to grasp a harp string, but lay off. That comes under the lesson on “Plucking and Strumming.” Be satisfied with the progress you have made and keep your hands off that harp. Perhaps you had better put your hands in your ]X)ckets. You have now mastered the first, and one of the more difficult lessons of harp technique— that of the approach.

I-esson 2: Plucking and Strumming—Now that you

have approached the harp, the next step is to get music out of it. Now you may take your hands out of your ixx-kets. P'xtend the right arm.

You will find that your right hand is within convenient grasping distance of the harp strings; unless you have been dopey enough to extend your right arm sideways, in which case it is very doubtful that you are bright enough to learn the harp anyhow.

Draw the fingers of the right hand briskly toward you. Be sure your fingertips are touching the harp strings when you do this, otherwise there is no sense to it. and you will look very odd making passes at a harp and getting no music— getting nowhere, in fact.

If you have drawn your fingers lightly over the strings in the correct manner, the result will be a series of highly agreeable musical notes. It won’t be “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” but it will be something.

Now extend the left arm. On the other side of the harp.

Don’t twist yourself into a knot trying to get your left hand over to that side of the strings already being played by your right hand. It will look very awkward, you may break your arm. and there is no sense to it anyway. Because the harp strings will give off the same sounds on either side. If they don’t, then you have bought a very unusual harp and you are going to have a devil of a time learning to play it properly. A harp like that should be sent right back to the music store with a stiff note of protest.

At any rate, draw the fingers of the left hand smartly across the strings. Again you will hear a series of musical sounds. They will sound just like the musical sounds created by the right hand. You may jump to the hasty conclusion that this is so much wasted effort. But wait a minute. Now draw the fingers of both hands along the strings simultaneously.

Surprised you, didn’t it? You never heard such a fine racket. It sounded like sixteen harps all going at once.

A Pretty Bit of Bungggg-ling

VOU NOW feel you are getting some-

where. But you must guard against complacency. At this point the average student is tempted to fritter away a lot of time in mere strumming. But nobody ever really mastered the harp that way. There are sterner lessons ahead. But if you must strum, do so systematically. Here is a simple lesson in strumming.

The strings to be strummed by the right hand are A, B. C and D. The strings to be strummed by the left hand are E, F, G and II. Great care must be taken to guard against confusing these. If you play the right strings with the wrong hand, it will sound awful. So:

With right hand, strum strings ABCD

With left hand, strum strings EFGH.

Simultaneously, with both hands, strum strings ABCD and EFGH.

With right hand, strum strings AB.

With left hand, strum string GH.

Simultaneously, with both hands, strum strings CD and EF.

It ought to sound pretty good if you don't split a fingernail.

But now we must go on to the second stage of our lesson.

Grasp one of the harp strings—any old string will do—firmly between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. Pull the string out from the harp, in the manner of an archer all set to let fly with an arrow. In fact, the harp string and the bowstring are based on the same principle. Confidentially, you can have no end of fun later on —after you’ve learned the harp well enough to earn a bit of relaxation—by slyly snapping paper pellets or small wads of gum off the harp strings at your audience while you are playing. A hard paper pellet, accurately aimed and fired from a taut harp string, can sting like blazes. The beauty of it is that the victims rarely suspect the harpist. It is highly amusing to see a baldheaded music lover

slumbering through a harp solo, suddenly arouse himself and begin threshing his arms in a vain and frantic effort to beat off an imaginary wasp.

This is aside from the point, however. You are still holding the harp string between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. Now let go. You must be pretty tired of holding it, anyway.

The result will be a deep musical note— “bungggggg.!”

This note will continue for some time. It will echo away like anything if you don’t stop it somehow. And obviously it will only cause confusion if you pluck another string while this is going on. That is a very tricky thing about the harp. Unless you take the proper steps, every succeeding note may be drowned out by the note just ahead of it, and vice versa. By the time you reach the end of a tune played in that manner, the result is chaos. You will lose your tune, your hearing and your audience.

The cure, however, is simple. After plucking the string and getting the deep musical note, “bungggggg!” reach quickly forward with the thumb and forefinger of the left hand and pinch the string. Pinch hard. There'll be no more “bungggggg” out of that string for a while.

How to Pingggggg a Stringggggg

'\7'ERY WELL. Now for the next step.

Y You have plucked the harp string. You have produced the deep musical note “bunggggg!” You have dexterously pinched the harp string from the other side with your left thumb and forefinger and the sound has been choked off. At least it should be choked off. If the string is still giving off “bungggggg,” do not be alarmed. You have merely pinched the wrong string. This often happens.

Now look down at the bottom of the harp. Much sooner than you expected, you are ready for the next lesson.

Lesson 3: Pedalling—Ever since you

approached the harp you have been having trouble with your feet. Perhaps you had trouble with your feet before you

ever came near the harp, but maybe your shoes are too tight. Or it could be a touch of athlete’s foot. The trouble I’m talking about is the problem of where to put your feet. Those pedals at the base of the harp keep getting in your way. And they will keep getting in your way unless you sit down and use those pedals and your feet as nature intended.

So sit down. That’s what the kitchen chair is for anyway. Now pluck that string that went “bungggggg!” It still goes “bungggggg!” Naturally.

Place your right foot firmly on the nearest pedal. Step on it. Now pluck that string again and listen.

It still goes “bungggggg!”

That’s odd. Probably you’ve got your foot on the wrong pedal. Try the next one.

Now pluck that harp string again.

This time, instead of going “bungggggg!” it goes “pingggggg!”

This will startle the daylights out of you at first, but don’t be alarmed. Take your foot off the pedal. Pluck the string again. It goes “bunggggg” as before.

Now you see the endless possibilities of the pedals. By pressing the pedals as you pluck the strings, you can get a whole new set of musical notes. It takes practice, of course, to know just when to press the pedals and when to lay off them. And some musical passages demand great agility and very snappy footwork. Try going to town on a number like “Bolero,” for instance. What with strumming, plucking the strings, pinching them and hopping around on those pedals to vary the pitch of the strings—brother, you’ll be a very busy fellow. You'll lose pounds. If you haven’t mastered the harp you'll go nuts.

But with these few simple lessons to aid you there is no good reason why you shouldn’t be able to master the harp. You have the fundamentals of strumming, plucking, pinching and pedalling. The rest is mere practice. In a relatively brief time —say, eight or nine years—you, too, can play the harp.