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A Case of Harp Neglect


Yesterday evening I played at UCSB for a graduate student’s composition recital. The piece for oratorio and orchestra was fairly complicated and there were only a couple of rehearsals so it was a little rough at first but I was impressed with the way it all came together for the performance.

I agreed to play the University’s harp rather than haul mine over to Lotte Lehman concert hall. The thought of looking for convenient parking on campus (it doesn’t exist) and then wheeling my own concert grand a long distance into the theatre wasn’t appealing so I thought I’d be saving myself some trouble by playing a harp that was already on site. This turned out to be not entirely true.

I’d played the school’s harp a few years before and remembered that it was a nice Lyon & Healy style 23 but at our first rehearsal earlier in the week I arrived at the classroom, pulled the torn dust cover off the harp and discovered that it had three broken strings and was filthy dirty. Since the school has no harp program or harp students this poor instrument spends most of its time packed in a trunk and stuffed under a stairwell in the bowels of the music building. The school doesn’t maintain it and certainly has no spare string set on hand, not even a tuning key. For the rehearsal I tuned it up (brought my own key) and just did my best to play around the gaps of the missing strings.

On the evening of the performance I arrived early with my black bag full of harp accessories, replaced the broken strings and tuned feverishly hoping to have the stretchy gut stabilized by concert time. Then I wiped a thick layer of dust and grime off the soundboard and attempted to clean up the deep recesses of the carved column. When was the last time anybody paid any attention to this poor thing? There was nothing I could do just then about the stripped tuning pin on 5th octave A - it would have required vise grips to turn it.

Harp at USCB concert

Despite the dings it has suffered in its 50-year life span the harp began to look its regal self once I had it polished up. And aside from its neglected appearance this instrument has a great mature voice, the classic full Lyon & Healy sound, and is a pleasure to play. There’s plenty of spunk left in the old gal. With a regulation, some new pedal felts and a new set of strings it would be in great shape.

I realize that school harps often live a hard life and that schools don’t have unlimited budgets but it pains me to see such a lovely instrument being treated with so little respect. When that harp was built in the Chicago factory there were countless skilled hands involved in assembling the thousands of parts that make up the action, carving the ornate floral patterns into the column and making sure an even finish protected the smoothly-sanded wood. I know that for some people harps are simply objects, tools we use to create and express, but for me they are also beings and they have their own souls. I feel sick just thinking about the horrible crunching sound of each new ding they acquire.