The Folk Harp
The first time I ever heard a folk harp at a music festival many moons ago, it was 'love at first listen.' A Wisconsin performing artist by the name of Glenn Walker Johnson, introduced me to this instrument by graciously allowing me to play his. I have always been partial to the harp, but the sheer size and cost of a full size concert harp was a little intimidating. So the folk harp, with all it's variety of shapes and sizes was the perfect compromise. It was many years after that first experience before my harp followed me home thus . . .
My family and I loved to go up to Door County, Wisconsin in the summer. There is a gentleman there who hosts the Sunset Dinner cruises on Lake Michigan. He also happened to assemble harp kits on the side. For several summers, I visited his shop and played the harps and dreamed. In an unlikely turn of events, one summer we decided to chaperone a group of middle school kids on a camping trip up there. Don't ask me why I decided to break down and buy a harp on that trip (it must have been therapy after trying to feed all those kids from a two-burner camp stove), but that's when 'Harpo,' became one of my performing partners. Harpo made the 5 hour trip back home securely perched atop a pile of sleeping bags, and we have been inseparable ever since.
The folk harp is an important part of many of my programs. My harp has 29 strings and 4 octaves. Harps come in three basic forms: the bow, angle, and frame. Harps are chordophones; instruments that produce sound through the vibration of strings.
The harp is a very ancient instrument. The first harps were shaped like a bow, and appeared in Egypt and Sumeria around 3000 B.C. Today, bow harps are still common in Africa and Eastern Asia.
Bow harps lacked the structural strength to support a large number of strings. The first major improvement to the harp was the addition of a rigid pillar in the front enabling the harp to accommodate increased tension and more precise tuning.
Unlike the orchestral harp, the folk harp is not a fully chromatic instrument. It uses sharping levers to raise the pitch of individual strings by one half step. When playing in the key of 'C,' no sharping levers are engaged. In order to play in the key of G major, you engage the sharping levers on all of the 'F' strings to bring them up to F-sharp. Notice the very top string in this image has the sharping lever flipped up, or engaged.
People often ask how I know where I am when I play all those strings? Simple! All of the red strings are 'C' notes, and all of the blue strings are 'F'notes.
. . . the lowest string on my harp is a 'G' that sounds two octaves below middle C. The highest is a 'G' that sounds three octaves above middle C.
My harp is a good example of a frame harp. All harps have strings that run at an oblique angle from the soundbox to the neck. This distinguishes them from the lyre, whose strings run straight up from the sound box to a crossbar supported by two arms.
The longest strings make the lowest tones, and the shortest strings the highest.
The harp is very important in Celtic cultures. Harpers were poets and musicians who were said to have magical powers. They were required to evoke three specific emotions with their music; laughter, tears & sleep.
Folk harps come in many different styles. My harp is in keeping with the Gothic style because of the distinct point at the top.
The sound box on the folk harp acts as a resonator that amplifies the sound.
The harp has an important and ancient tradition in many cultures around the world. From it's earliest and simplest forms, the folk harp has evolved into the versatile and complex instrument that graces symphony orchestras today.