Playing the harp is very much like playing the piano. In some ways it is easier, in some ways a bit more challenging. I personally found learning to play the harp far simpler than either guitar or violin, both of which I tried.
One great thing about learning to play the harp is that everything sounds wonderful on the harp – in five minutes you can sit down and learn to make pleasing sounds. So practicing becomes a fun activity, and learning is easy. (See Learning to Play the Harp for more information.)
The large orchestral harp is also called a pedal harp, because it has pedals that are played with the feet. These pedals allow you to change key. There are seven pedals, each one for a different note – for example, a C pedal, D pedal, etc. When the C pedal is moved, all of the C strings on the harp are changed to either natural, sharp, or flat.
The Celtic, or lever, harp does not have pedals, but has sharping levers to change keys. These small levers control one string at a time. A string can be set to natural or sharp, or natural and flat, but not all three.
The advantages of the pedal harp are that one can change keys faster, and play more chromatic music – jazz is playable on a pedal harp, but not realistic on a lever harp. The pedal harp is also built for volume, to be heard over the sound of an orchestra. Disadvantages of the pedal harp include the weight (usually 75 pounds or more) and the expense – $10,000-30,000 and up.
The lever harp is built for beautiful tone, to play beautiful music. Advantages of the lever harp include portability (20-25 pounds in wood for a full sized harp, or 8 to 10 pounds for the same sizes in carbon fiber) and more reasonable price ($2000-$6000). The variety of music playable on a lever harp includes Celtic, classical, sacred, folk, pop, ethnic, and original. There is an enormous amount of music published for lever harp, and more is produced all the time.
There is no particular ‘beginner’ harp. We don’t recommend a lap harp for a beginner, because having to balance or hold the harp in some way can interfere with learning proper playing technique. A floor harp (one that sits on the floor) is a better choice. After that, it’s a matter of budget and sound preference. One advantage of a full-sized Celtic harp (5 octaves, or 36-strings) is that you have all the notes available to you that your music will ask you to play – you’ll never ‘run out’ of notes.
Dave originally designed the curved soundbox for aesthetic reasons – to have a harp of all curves. The curve also has the following advantages:
Rigidity – a curved surface is more rigid and stiff than a flat surface. The rigidity of the curve creates a stronger harp that holds its tune longer.
Strength – because of the curved soundbox, the neck shape is less arched, meaning the neck is more stable over time.
Comfort – the curve means that the harp does not lean back, and puts no weight on the shoulder – very ergonomic! Also, there is extra room in the upper octave for the right hand, so you can maintain better playing technique.
To the best of our knowledge, two other harpmakers have tried curved soundbox construction. They both said ‘never again’! It is more difficult to construct a curved soundbox, but we feel the advantages are well worth it.
There’s a harp world joke that says ‘Every 20 minutes or when someone opens a door!’ That’s an exaggeration, but harps need to be tuned every few days, and weather or temperature changes (moving a harp from your home to a different location) will usually necessitate tuning. With an electronic tuner, tuning a harp becomes a quick and easy procedure, taking only a few minutes. The more you tune your harp, the more likely it is to stay in tune and require only minor adjustments. And, generally speaking, the carbon fiber harps tend to hold their tune much better than wood harps, because there’s no wood to shrink and swell as the humidity fluctuates.
Harp strings should be replaced every year or two, as they gradually lose their brilliance and become dull sounding. Breakage is rare – perhaps a few strings a year will break, and they are usually the higher, thinner, very inexpensive strings. Having a spare string set is a good idea, and strings don’t ‘age’ in the bag, so after two years you can put on your spare strings, and get a new spare set. (See String Changing Directions for more info.)