A pianist’s view on harp playing
November 2, 2021
What I wish the sound of the harp would be like.
Usually listening to a harpist is like listening to a pianist who is keeping the pedal half way down, so that it seems that every note being played is trying vainly to escape from a general sonic blurriness.
As with any other instrument, what the sound of the harp should be like should never be dictated by what is technically possible, but entirely driven by an inner ‘vision’ of the harpist as to what the instrument should or could sound like. To overcome the general blurriness the sound of the instrument should be the creation of the harpist’s personal imagination. There is no reason, then, that a harp should not be as articulate as a violin, a coloratura soprano, or a piano.
Each note should match each other note in its resonance, and the clarity of its intention. Any difference between one note and another should be solely the result of a musical intention to have them be different, not the result of a lack of technical attention.
Granted that the harp has acoustical features that dispose it to be a blurry instrument, one must still overcome that. The least interesting harp players are those who only create “harp-like” effects.
The greater importance of rhythm on the harp.
Rhythms should be enunciated clearly, carefully, and understandably, so as to be almost like a drummer demonstrating what they would want to have be the ideal model or prototype for any musician playing that particular rhythm on any particular instrument.
It doesn’t matter when in the passage a note occurs, in what measure, on what beat, or location off a beat, all notes should be equally clear, have a space carved out for itself by the musician’s imagination in which it can fully resonate, and not be impeded by the sound of the other notes. This should remain true even if the strings of a particular harp are not as inherently brilliant as each other, or every single string is as brilliant sounding in every pedal position.
Even when playing what might not seem like much of a rhythm, for example a running passage of sixteenth notes, the effect should still be that of the revealing to the listener of an interesting, “dynamic” experience based solely on the properties of the rhythm. A rhythm in spite of any repetitiveness should be kept alive at every moment. Every note should be as audible and clear to the listener as every other, and fit into the shape of the rhythm. Not achieving this is a common failing among harpists.
Great harp players don’t play the ‘harp’, they play ‘music’. They will tend to gravitate towards the music written for the harp that is most musically substantial and worthwhile from a musical point of view. I confess that composers for the harp are not always cooperative in providing this sort of material.
Always take care in sculpting the ‘connection’ between one note and the next. No matter how fast the notes are going by, each connection should be as beautiful as if it were part of a slow melody.
The two hands should play as one melded entity. And the two hands plus the two feet should work as one united unit; no different than walking outdoors and simultaneously swinging your arms.
Any physical differences between the fingers should be resolved by their being mutually reabsorbed into the oneness of hand, where they become equal.
All physical limitations must be transcended, more so perhaps on the harp perhaps than any other orchestral instrument. Transcendence is not the result of working on making one finger as strong as another. Transcending means all is directed by the ear which in turn is driven by the imagination. Evenness doesn’t come from finger equality, but from an inner vision of what evenness itself should sound like, and the determination of hearing things come out of your instrument as conforming to that vision.
Every sound comes from the center of the body, not from the ends of the
outstretched hands. It is not only the string that vibrates it also
vibrates in the sound-box of the body.
Energy never sags. It is never anything but at its maximum.
Be as devoted to the passage that is of the least interest to you as to the passage that turns you on the most.
The energy you produce should not be blocked by any part of the body on its route from the body center all the way into the conjunction of the fingers with the strings. The fingers never do anything by themselves.