Irish Harp

By Kimble Howard

Since the early Seventies, when Alan Stivell of Brittany recorded his album The Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, a great many people have been attracted to the sound of the harp. Not only is the sound appealing, but relatively speaking, it is an easy instrument to learn to play – easy in the sense that even a beginner can make pleasant music from the start, unlike the beginning violin stage. (I should know – I teach both instruments!)

Little did I know that when I started playing the Celtic harp twenty years ago, one of my chosen instruments would cause so much curiosity and controversy. It is a constant source of amazement to me that I teach and perform on an instrument that most people in this country do not recognize. Perhaps I just don't look angelic enough or perhaps it's just that most people have the preconceived notion that a harp is a large gold instrument played in orchestras. I am constantly being asked "What is that you're playing?," "Gee, that's a nice hammered dulcimer" or "Where's your big gold one?" So it was some relief that I agreed to write an article on the Celtic harp.

Celtic harp, Irish harp, and small harp are all basically the same instrument. The "Celtic" harp can be anything from a small nineteen-string lap harp to a large, thirty-six string free standing model. The strings can either be brass or bronze wire, nylon or gut. Wire-strung harps produce a bell-like sound and are usually played with the fingernails. Nylon/gut strung harps are played with the fingerpads – nylon has a bright loud sound while gut is drier and more mellow. My instrument is a thirty-four gut string model from Pilgrim Harps in England. Having played the concert harp for awhile, I prefer the more mellow sound of gut although most players in the U.S. prefer nylon. My harp is also fitted with tuning levers; one per string, which allows each string to be raised or lowered a half step in pitch. While I can play in any key, I can not change between keys rapidly as I must flip each lever individually. Who wants to play Ravel anyway?

The term "Celtic harp" carries with it the implication that the harp is best suited for traditional music. There is nothing further from the truth – from medieval to traditional, jazz to modern you can perform just about any type of music you wish. Coming from a classical background, I have adapted other techniques quite successfully. Ever play a harp with a chop stick? Definitely a show stopper.

If I can help with any questions, please feel free to contact me. We are also working on setting up a local folk harp society for anyone who plays or who is simply interested in the small harp. We are hoping to set up a series of workshops by this fall.

Kimble Howard teaches violin and Irish harp at Bizianes Music Mart.