The bigger the dream, the harder the determination must be to realize it. The same holds true for musicians. And when the dream is to play the harp, the eﬀort put in must be equal to one of the most challenging—and most beautiful—instruments there is.
Picking up the harp (or more accurately standing with or sitting next to it) is unlike learning to play any other instrument. The harp is unique, a work of art in itself, and complex and difﬁcult both to play and to maintain. Yet it creates a unique passion in its fans, and that passion drives amateur harp players to study, practice, and learn with unmatched zeal. Those who follow this path report that playing the harp provides deeply rewarding beneﬁts.
Wayne Snow, of Salt Lake City, Utah, understands the challenge of taking up the harp later in life. “Learning the harp gave me a greater admiration and appreciation for how music is crafted,” Snow explains. “Harp music is simply and elegantly beautiful.” As ﬁrst vice-president of an affiliate of ﬁnancial consulting ﬁrm Smith Barney, the 54-year-old father of six had a lifelong fascination with the harp. He found himself so drawn to harp music that he decided to buy his ﬁrst used harp two years ago. Recently, he bought a brand new Salvi Diana Pedal Harp, with a price tag comparable to that of a new car.
One difﬁculty for any harp player is the intense coordination needed. Harpists use the ﬁrst four ﬁngers of each hand to play, with both hands working separately to make music with the instrument’s 47 strings. Then there are the foot pedals, used to change the pitch of the strings. “Combining everything is hard, especially since you have to keep the rhythm steady,” Snow explains.
There are other considerations, such as the need for physical strength and endurance and intense memorization, not to mention the costs involved. Still, Snow has persisted taking lessons once a week since 2002, and he spends 45 minutes every day with his 74-inch-tall, 88-pound harp. “People I’ve known for 50 years would never expect me to sit at home on a Friday night playing the harp while my wife plays the ﬂute, and actually believe I’m having a blast!” Snow laughs. “Through the harp I’m redeﬁning my life.”
Reinvigorating your life, not to mention a marriage, is one of the many beneﬁts of choosing the harp. Another has to do with its positive effects on the mind and body. Investigating the effects of music on humans is the primary mission of Sarajane Williams, a licensed psychologist as well as publisher and editor of The Harp Therapy Journal. Williams created the international, interdisciplinary journal partly to inform people of the harp’s use as a therapeutic instrument.
Williams’ passion is harp therapy, a general term that includes many therapies the harp contributes to. There are passive types of harp therapy, which involve listening to its ethereal music, as well as active therapies, which encourage subjects to play the instrument. Williams suggests that individuals who play the harp may experience relief from pain. The harp can also help its players overcome mental and emotional challenges, and focus physical rehabilitation. “Good hand technique is an essential ingredient in producing a good tone on the harp, developing agility and speed, and preventing injuries,” Williams explains.
She also ﬁnds that the unique timbre of the instrument soothes and relaxes. In fact, Williams notes that the harp has long been thought of in western culture as an instrument of healing, it’s lofty position symbolized with pictures of harps in the hands of kings, gods, and angels.
“I think the general public has a fascination with the harp that helps them see it as therapeutic,” says Virginia Chang, an amateur harpist of nine years. “After all, the harp is the instrument associated with heaven.” Chang, 41, who lives in New York City, practices her harp every other day. She spends most of her time raising her two young children, having left a career as an environmental consultant for the government.
She wanted to play harp as a child and, as an adult, she promised herself she would learn to play by her 40th birthday. She reached her goal, beginning lessons in her early 30s, and she continues to take lessons every other week on her Lyon and Healey Style 23 Natural Harp. “It’s a different medium for expression that I didn’t have in my professional career. I love the concentration, the focus, the intensity, and the sound of the instrument,” Chang says. “When I play, I get lost. My love for playing the harp will last all my life.”
Chang says her favorites pieces to play include arrangements by Marcel Grandjany, Bernard Andres, and renowned harpist Carlos Salzedo. It was Salzedo who founded the prominent harp department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and who composed some of the most well-known harp pieces.
It was also Salzedo who coined a saying that sums up the hard work harpists need to play the music of the heavens: “To play like an angel you have to work like the devil.”
Sharon Clott is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, PA.