I once had a teacher who suggested to me that if ever I was asked the question "How much does it cost to buy a harp?" then the best response was to answer, "Nothing like as much as it would if you were to buy a really, really good violin."
Now, this is undoubtedly true, but then how many of us are in the market for a Sradivarius?...
So take a deep breath before clicking on any of the links to harp-makers' websites below. However, there is some good news:
- Firstly, you don't have to buy initially, you can rent instead, and some makers even offer a hire-purchase scheme.
- Secondly, there are good quality second hand instruments available.
- Thirdly, unlike in the past, there are now some budget instruments. Whilst these are never going to be of the sound and build quality of models coming from harp-making studios with a history dating back through the generations, they do not claim to be. And they do fill a gap in the market for an instrument for beginners. Whilst these harps may have fewer strings, and therefore repertoire can be limited, students are still able (importantly) to develop their technique and musicality, and have fun learning tunes, ready to move on to a different instrument at a later stage.
- Fourthly, it is worth bearing in mind that whilst this whole process may begin to feel comparable (in stress and potential outlay) to the purchase of a car, unlike your new car, if you choose well, your harp will probably last your lifetime, and well beyond it.
Before you launch into the websites below, you will want to have a think about whether you are looking for a clarsach or a pedal harp. There are some differences:
Clarsachs are the traditional instruments of Scotland and Ireland. They are smaller than pedal harps and have fewer strings. They often produce a beautiful, resonant, ethereal sound. To change key on the clarsach you use levers. Whilst many different styles of music can be played on the clarsach, they are most often played as solo instruments, or paired with voice, or paired with another instrument (such as drum or tin whistle or fiddle), or together with other clarsachs, or as part of a ceilidh or folk band. A full-sized clarsach will have 34 strings. Beginner instruments may have fewer strings. In order to be able to play a good variety of tunes, look for an instrument which has at least 26 strings. More advanced players will want more strings. In terms of the size of the frame of the instrument, there is no 'standard' size. Different harp-makers produce different sized instruments, so check out the dimensions and weight of the instruments and look for one which you think will suit you (or your child). Some instruments have in-built internal drop-down stands, or detachable legs so you can adjust the height. Be aware that you can also adjust the height by simply placing your instrument on top of a low stool or box, although then you will need to remember to take that with you when transporting your instrument.
Pedal Harps are larger harps which make use of foot pedals in order to change key (to obtain or cancel sharps and flats). The tension of the strings is usually (but not always) greater on a pedal harp, and this produces a different tonal quality from the clarsach. The pedal harp is a very versatile instrument and many different genres of music can be played on it. A full-sized pedal harp will have 47 (or occasionally 46) strings. Children harpists will often play on a smaller pedal harp, with fewer strings, perhaps 40 or 44. All pedal harps are quite bulky and heavy, and in order to transport a pedal harp you would need to have (or borrow) an estate car or a small van. In an estate car you would need to fold down the back seats in order to fit the harp in. You will also need a special trolley for your harp, and although most harps will come with a dust-cover, you will probably also want to have special padded outer covers to protect your instrument during transit. Most teachers will allow their students to play the teacher's own harp during lessons, to avoid the need for the student bringing their own instrument along on a weekly basis. However, the student might need to sometimes take their own harp around and about - for example for concerts or for orchestral rehearsals. All pedal harps will need servicing from time to time, and more regularly if the instrument is played very frequently and taken about a lot. Some students begin on a clarsach and then move on to a pedal harp (or learn pedal harp in addition to the clarsach). However, this is not to imply that the pedal harp is more 'advanced' than the clarsach. It it not. It is more to do with the styles of music the student wishes to play and the type of group they would ideally like to play with. For example, if you wish to play in a ceilidh band, you would probably, in the first instance, choose a clarsach. If you want to play in a symphony orchestra, you would need a pedal harp.
Whilst professional orchestras would always require harpists to play on a 47 (or 46) string instrument, it is worth noting perhaps, that it is only some advanced solo repertoire and some orchestral music that makes use of the very top and very bottom strings on the harp, and thus it is perfectly possible to play a huge range of music on a slightly smaller (and both more portable and significantly cheaper) pedal harp. Even many of the advanced pieces that do use the extremes of the range can often be adapted to suit a smaller instrument without too much difficulty or loss of musical sense and style. Some youth and amateur orchestras would still welcome a pedal harpist (especially a youngster) on an instrument with less than 47 strings.
Concert Grand Harps are instruments that have an extended soundboard: that is that the base of the soundboard is enlarged and curved. This gives a big, rich sound, and is preferred for orchestral work. However, good performers will also be able to produce a lovely full sound even on an instrument with a regular 'straight' soundboard.
Try looking for beginner harps at:
www.harpsicle-harps.com (Sometimes these need to be imported)
For more advanced students wanting A Clarsach:
For more advanced students wanting a pedal harp:
Sources of Second-Hand Instruments:
www.jack hayward.co.uk look for the register of available used harps (updated regularly)
www.clarsachsociety.co.uk (look under 'instruments for sale')
www.niebischandtree.co.uk (look for 'used harps')