So you want to buy a pedal harpPosted: 11 December 2015
You’re not a 6-year old prodigy, you’re an adult buying your first pedal harp from your hard-earned generously gifted money. You love your harp teacher and will certainly bring them along but in the end, you would like to make your own decision. There is surprisingly little information about how to buy a pedal harp. So here are my tips! (Evidence class E or so, non-expert opinion based on N=1 and I happened to be the test subject. So do take this with a grain of salt 🙂 ).
It helps a lot to know what’s out there. There is an entire range of pedal harps, from the concert-hall grade concert grands to harps geared toward students/ and others on a budget. Of course I dreamed of a L&H Style 23, but that would have required taking out a mortgage so that wasn’t an option. There are plenty of harps for people who can’t afford the Ultra Top Of The Line Models but would still like a good instrument that could possible be of use in an orchestra / public recitals. Actually, apparently there are heaps of people, even professionals, playing their straight-backed Daphne in orchestras. Or so my harp teacher told me.
So, for me, the options were the Salvi Daphne series, the Salvi Arion, the Camac Clio and the Lyon and Healy Chicago. ‘Stretch goals’ included the Salvi Aurora and the Lyon and Healy style 30. I know that Pilgrim offers very affordable pedal harps but I’ve never liked their sound so I haven’t tried them. You can visit the websites of various harp makers to see what they are currently offering. (I didn’t mention Aoyama and Venus and there are probably many more harp builders).
Let’s not forget the option of buying second hand! This may allow you to acquire a harp from a higher price segment, but the downside could be that the harp is nearing the end of its life cycle. Harps that were intensively used by a music school or an orchestra may sound like a nice deal but can end up costing lots of money in repairs and regulation. Eventually, I decided not to go down this road because I have been playing a clunky old harp for years – I allowed myself the ‘present’ of not having to worry about things falling apart or soundboards imploding.
Harps being sold by professionals or students upgrading to a newer / other model remain a good option – usually these harps are very well cared for and in a good condition, but then you need to be lucky that someone is selling their harp at exactly the moment you are looking for a new one. I can imagine that this option (waiting and seeing until you find a nice ‘deal’) is a good option for younger students or if you are very happy with your current harp. Check the listings of local harp societies and craigslist-type websites to see what’s available. In the Netherlands, there is folkharp.nl and nederlandseharpvereniging.nl and marktplaats of course. There are a lot of nice used pedal harps on marktplaats!
The integral part of harp shopping is that you’ll need to try various harps and listen/feel to what happens when you play it. So it really helps to be prepared to play a lot of harps! I wish I’d practiced more before I went – now I blacked out in the middle of the Handel concerto. I did bring some sheet music, though, that saved my a** in the end. Definitely don’t be afraid to play other genres on it for testing if that’s what works for you!. In the end, I mainly used the Montfort Bourree for sound testing because I knew exactly how it was supposed to sound like.
Another consideration is that it helps to know how to move pedals. I couldn’t play anything with pedals when I went pedal harp shopping, but I at least knew how to put them in various keys. I didn’t practice for this but I’ve played on a pedal harp during my lessons so that really helped.
The Harp Shopping Itself
If you’re shopping for a new harp, or just interested in trying lots of hatps, visiting a harp store is the next step! Try to find out whether you need to make an appointment beforehand – though judging the response when you show up unannounced can also give you an indication whether you would like to spend a year’s salary on this shop/these people. Sometimes there will be harp exhibits – then a harp builder ships lots of harps to the shop and will display them there for a week or so – don’t expect loads of harps and loads of types to be in stock if there’s not an exhibition.
Be sure to try various brands – be sure that you tried at least 1 Camac, 1 Salvi and 1 Lyon and Healy harp. You will hear the differences even when not really musically trained (like me), even your ‘layman’ partner will hear it. Stick with the brand you like and don’t let yourself be led astray by the ‘image’ or ‘branding’ of a certain brand. Actually, I thought I’d prefer Camac because I had heard that Salvi harps were really tight and heavy to play.
List of things to check
When not playing
How does it feel on your shoulder? Heavy? Light? Can you find the balance point?
Can you reach all the strings without having to contort yourself / bumping into the soundboard?
How are the pedals? Easy to move? Hard to move? This heavily depends on your pedal harp skill so I didn’t judge my harp by this criterion. Now I’m still happy with my choice, I think my harp pedals lightly but not too light.
Try the different registers. Apparently, the sound will change and ‘mature’ when you play the harp more, but of course you have to like what you hear. The lower register will usually mellow a bit more and the higher registers will display less change – apparently (this is all what people said to me while I was trying the harps, so I can’t judge the evidence-based ness 🙂 ). Also, check if they strung the highest registers with nylon because then the highest registers can sound a bit off – restringing with gut as soon as you’ve bought it is the best option then.
Feel how each register plays. Is it tight? Or not at all?
Try the harp in various pedal settings, is the sound still nice and resonant with all the pedals engaged?
How to ‘try’ the harp? Well, play some scales, some chords, try playing pieces in the different registers. Here’s where that preparation comes in. Definitely don’t forget to check your posture. If you’re not very tall, you might see that the large concert harps aren’t really feasible. Personally, I chose for the most ergonomic nice sounding harp. Why make learning more difficult?
For me it was really hard to judge all these things when playing on just one harp – it helped to switch back and forth and directly compare things.
When listening to someone else
Have someone else play your harp! Bach on your harp? Jazz? Some classical sonata? While I was pretty advanced lever harp wise, I didn’t really know any pieces which utilize pedals or pieces in other tonalities than on the lever harp. It was great to have my two top choices played by a professional who could really make it sing!
Listen how it projects and do you like what you hear? There are probably more technical things to listen for, but I listened mostly ‘with my gut’ (emotion).
Making a decision
This was of course the hardest part, spending so much money and hoping that this will be THE instrument, the one you’ll probably be playing for life. You’ll know when its the one. It’s just like shopping for a wedding dress! It’s mostly emotion.
Don’t be afraid to call it a day and come back later, yet you’ll probably not get a note from heaven telling you that this is going to be the harp. Just like picking what you’re going to study in uni, you probably can’t be a 100% sure.
Trust me, all doubts will be gone when your pedal harp is finally delivered at your home and you have this huge instrument sitting in your living room… 🙂