Seven things no-one tells you about pedal harpsPosted: 22 January 2016
You took the plunge and now it’s there. Your pedal harp. Here are seven useful things to know.
1. It won’t break.
Yes, it cost a lot of money. No, it won’t break when you try to pry the transport cover off (you did buy one, did you?). Nor will it break when you move it. Your new harp is made of nice and sturdy wood, there’s a reason it cost so much! You can just put your hand in one of the sound holes and grab the pillar, just like you would do with your lever harp.
2. Yes, the two lowest strings and the highest string are supposed to lack discs.
Breathe! You didn’t just discover a manufacturing flaw, all pedal harps are made like that.
3. Tuning it may be a challenge
The first time I tuned my new harp it seemed impossible, I had to stand on a chair to get to the lowest strings and even then it was hard to turn the tuning key on the lowest strings. The lowest C and D are also not picked up by my electronic tuner so it was a bit of a struggle to hear whether it was in tune or not. I found out that it works to play it really softly and then play the string an octave higher and then it’s easier to compare. You can also look at how it vibrates but I am never sure which way it should vibrate. However, after a couple of weeks, you’ll be used to it and tuning 47 strings feels no different than tuning just 34!
4. There’s an art and science to pedalling
Of course you also splurged on heaps of interesting sheet music. So you sit down at your harp and you decide to try that one piece you’ve always wanted to play. You play half a measure… and then there’s an accidental. What to do now? Your feet shuffle a bit and you hear some wonky sounds, but how to proceed?
There are various schools of harp playing, so I can only share what I was taught. You always keep your heel on the floor and then engage the pedal by sort of pushing it diagonally. In the beginning it may help to first slide it out of its slot and then pressing it down/letting it go but that doesn’t work anymore for fast pedal motions. So you are not really pushing on the pedals like driving a car (or like I imagine how you’d drive a car 🙂 ) but you sort of lightly touch them on their lateral side. It helps a lot to wear heels if you are not too tall.
Then, when you can comfortable move the pedals into various positions, it’s time to try to combine playing with pedalling. In the beginning everything will fall apart because you have to concentrate on two things at once, but supposedly, eventually you will be able to continue playing without stopping or producing weird pedal-related noises.
Do not give up! It takes a lot of practice! Try to refrain from the temptation of looking at your feet. Try playing in your socks. It will really get better, don’t feel like you fail at being a good harpist if you can’t do it in one week.
5. Writing in the pedal markings before you start playing saves you a lot of annoyance
Some music already contains pre-written pedal markings but in most cases you’ll have to figure it out yourself. I was sorta used to writing in lever changes, but it was a bit daunting to start on the pedal changes, especially as I wasn’t any good at it. However, pedal changes work almost the same as lever changes. Sit down with your score, see where the accidentals are and write in where you could feasibly do a pedal change. Easy, right?
But how do you decide where it’s feasible? First you look at where the pedal is needed again. Even though you will probably struggle with the pedals a lot in the beginning it works to put in the pedal marks as if you could properly do them. So don’t engage a pedal 4 measures before you need it, I generally write them on the beat. Don’t forget that all the notes change pitch when moving a specific pedal, so you should also pay attention to when you last used it. It takes a while before you get the hang of the pedals but that’s totally normal!
6. Playing it is like a full body workout
If you were previously a bit lax about posture, the pedal harp will punish you for it by making you feel sore as though you ran 10 miles yesterday. So don’t forget the low shoulders, sitting straight on your ischiadic spines, keeping yout head in a neutral position etc. etc. Something new may be the balance point, where lever harps are rather light, you can’t carry the full weight of a pedal harp on your right shoulder without getting injured after a while. So try to find a position where it will rest very lightly on your inner knees and a litle bit on your shoulder – there should be one (the balance point of the harp). It may also be necessary to adjust the height of your bench and the distance to the harp.
And take it easy, it’s probably better to restrict the playing to 30 mins at a time during the first few weeks (which is almost impossible, I know!).
7. Buy a harp trolley as soon as possible – don’t wait until you’ve finally scheduled your first concert.
These things are way over priced but not being able to move your harp outside the house apart from lifting it and carrying it is extremely annoying. Order it now! I didn’t and I had to stress until it was delivered a couple of days before Christmas.