Cynthia Cathcart

Learn Wherever You Can

Originally published in the Folk Harp Journal Spring 2007
Click here to jump to a list of suggestions for learning from any workshop

How nice of you to offer a discount on your workshop fees, but most of our members are nylon strung lever–harpers. No one would sign up for your class!

That was said to me a few years ago. Even though the organization included wire–strung harpers in their membership, the position of the workshop coordinator was that those few harpers should just attend the nylon–lever–harp workshops being programmed. I just tell them to come anyway, they might learn something. Yet here they were turning me down as a teacher because of the type of harp I play. Apparently this person didn’t believe knowledge could flow both ways!

Indeed, what is a harper on metal strings to do? And what does the nylon strung player do when faced with a choice to stay home or attend a workshop given by a metal strung player?

I have been honored to attend nylon classes given by renowned and talented teachers. I have also been honored to have nylon and levered harpers come to some of my workshops. Perhaps hearing about some of my experiences will move you to take a chance, whatever style of harp you play.

(In describing the workshops here, I will not be naming names because I do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings or imply a lack of respect by omission.)

A teacher who knew a great deal about the wire–strung harp, though she was teaching on gut strings, gave the very first workshop I ever attended. There were four or five wire-strung harpers present, huddled together in a corner. We were all tuned up with our F’s sharp (a prevalent tuning on metal strings) when the teacher cheerfully said, Levers to C Major! This tune is in C!

Overhearing our collective groan, she looked over and said, wire harp? to which we nodded yes. Well, then, it’s the fallen string! Don’t be afraid to re–tune one or two strings! This was an important lesson. We had only to re–tune one F string to play the song she was teaching. It led me to wonder how often that might be all that’s necessary to add a particular tune to my repertoire.

In another class early in my career, the teacher focused on the difference between Irish and Scottish ornamentation. This certainly was an important lesson for anyone playing either music, no matter the instrument. Even though I could not play the lever–harp–specific music in the handouts, I could listen to them being played by the others and in that way learn the concepts well enough to take the idea home with me.

A favorite memory comes from a class given by a harper who knew piping techniques very well. She gave a workshop on adapting piping ornaments for nylon strings. What fun it was to watch her as she described the specific ornament from a piper’s perspective, and then taught the rest of the group how to adapt it on their nylon strings. Naturally, I quietly made my own wirey adaptations. It was the concept of playing piping ornaments on a harp that was the silver lining of an otherwise inappropriate for wire class. The specific adaptations made were beside the point.

What do you do when you settle into a class and realize that things are not going well? One class I attended, given by a very fine player and excellent teacher, left me sitting with my harp on the floor in front of me. I just gave up, especially when she said, Everyone, engage you C, F and G levers! We’re in A Major!

Oh, dear. Retuning one or two strings is one thing, but the retuning she was suggesting would take me some time on my lever-free metal strings, especially in the drafty room we were in. I was having enough difficulty convincing my harp to just stay in tune, let alone try to re–tune to A Major. Hopefully, I asked, do we need all of those sharps? and with compassion she spent a moment thinking over the tune she was going to teach. Finally, she nodded yes, we needed all those sharps.

Rather than give up entirely, I sat and thought maybe I could listen and pick up the tune and try it later on my own. But then, as I listened to her instructions, I realized that there were no G’s in her tune. Interesting. Lifting my harp to my lap, I started quietly picking out the tune as she taught, ignoring the G–laden chords she was using. No G’s, and...wait a second, no F’s either? Too bad my C’s aren’t sharp, I thought.

There was free time scheduled after the class, and I spent that time working with this tune. Naturally, I could just transpose the tune down a step to fit my G Major tuning, but with these two strings being unused, couldn’t I figure out how to set it in a different key, to change up from G Major, without retuning? The teacher saw me working away, and stuck around to offer encouragement, and sure enough we discovered that the tune could be played on my harp without retuning by moving it to D Major. This was a bit of an eye opener for us both.

The list goes on:

There was the class with the Paraguayan harper, who opened my eyes to a double glissando, easily adapted to be a damped glissando.

An expert in Scottish ornamentation taught me that playing the same note quickly, but an octave apart, can fool the ear to thinking you just struck the same string twice quickly. What was the tune she was teaching that day? I don’t remember a note of it, but this technique she shared I now use in nearly every dance tune I play!

There was the class with a pianist, (yes!), an expert on Chopin and his ground–breaking work on the ergonomic use of the hand, many concepts of which directly applied to harp playing...we are both using human hands, after all.

There was a workshop presented by a classical guitarist! The guitar’s history, the problems of divining authentic historic technique, the problems of instrument reconstructions...I probably learned more from that one hour than any other hour spent in a workshop.

Then there was a workshop given by a harpsichordist who taught a completely different fingering technique that so changed my harp playing I found myself going back and re–fingering many of my old arrangements.

You can learn a lot from just about any artist. From the student who has no regular teacher to the student who is lucky enough to have weekly lessons, the fertilization of new ideas that comes from attending a workshop is priceless, even if those new ideas come from someone who plays a different instrument from yours.

What Can Lever Harpers Learn From A Clarsair?

So you’re looking for something to do this weekend, and find that the only thing remotely interesting is a music class being presented by a clarsair on a lever–free metal–strung harp with just over a two octave range. What if your instrument is a fully levered nylon–strung harp of 36 strings? Do you shrug it off and stay home and practice?

Let me share an example from the other perspective. I felt a sympathetic pang for one particular harper at a workshop I was giving. He was the only player in the room with a nylon–strung harp, and seemed frustrated when specific lever–positioning instructions were glossed over. Just make it G Major, I said, wondering how that must sound to him. But I was uncomfortable saying flip your F levers because of rumors I had been hearing about E–flat tuning!

I was working with a specific little tune, and the class was moving along well, though our nylon harper was struggling with the fingering and I could see him consciously filtering out the damping instructions as I gave them.

Finally, at the end of our time together, I sat and played the tune through at speed and with my customary ornamentation. The nylon–strung harper suddenly perked up, and asked me if I’d play it again so he could watch what I was doing.

How are you playing that ornament? he asked, stopping me in mid–tune. I showed him the trick, a simple little turn, and he just shook his head in something akin to amazement. I never imagined you could do it that way! he said. This changes a lot of things!

He then sat down with his harp, and pulled off a most exciting reel. I listened to his impressive performance and then, there! There it was. His reel contained a brand new tricky–sounding ornament, a little turn perfectly placed.

The workshop that day was not about ornamentation at all, but I suspect that one nylon harper out there still uses a tricky little turn when he plays a fast reel.

Some Suggestions for Learning From Any Workshop

  • Ask in advance what tuning will be used during the workshop.
  • If the teacher has any positive wire experience, sign up for the class! (or bray experience, or cross-strung experience, or whatever your specialty may be).
  • Sometimes the concept being presented is more important than the specific technique or tune being taught. Concentrate on learning the concept being presented.
  • Do a little research. Ask around to see if the teacher is open to helping people with a harp that is unlike their own. Look at their website, or read posts to one of the internet harp listservs.
  • Bring an extra dose of patience with you: it takes a little more work to search out useful information when the workshop is not up your alley.
  • Look for general–interest workshops: history, repertoire, theory, stories of the music, and so on.

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Slight editorial changes were made to this article, mainly to include content that was removed from the original journal article due to space constraints.

© 2007 by Cynthia Cathcart
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