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New to the Harp

  • Bex
    Bex Bisch


    I've just joined and I wanted to ask for some advice. I would like to start playing the harp but I haven't been able to find any teachers near me. There is also the problem of language for me as I am British living in Alsace, France. I have found details for a shop selling harps in the south of Alsace and I'm hoping to go there this Saturday. I was hoping some of you might be able to spare some time to explain a bit about the differences in harps so that I am a bit more informed before I go to this shop. I'm not definitely going to buy one but I'm hopeful :) I'm trying to look into harp rental as well as that would be really good before committing to such a large expenditure. what is the difference between small (I think they're called lap harps) and big harps? From what I've read online there seems to be lever and pedal harps and ones with nothing at all, how do these compare? What would you recommend for a complete beginner? Do you have any other tips for what to look for in a good harp when trying them in a shop? I would normally ask the person in the shop 101 questions but whilst ly french is ok it's not great. I've never really been musical, I had keyboard lessons when I was little but had no real passion for it. I've wanted to play the harp for years but always told myself that I'll grow out of it but after 10 years of wanting to I'm saying heck it's time to give it a try. I can't afford a really expensive one and I'd like to know I'll stick at it before investing 4 figure sums into a harp but I can go up to a few hundred. Last question I was hoping to start off teaching myself with books a youtube and then once I know I like it and am going to stick with it progressing to lessons. Do you think this is possible or is the harp too difficult to teach yourself?

    Any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated,

    Thank you,


    replies to "New to the Harp"
    • Tony
      Tony Morosco

      Lap harp just refers to a harp small enough to sit in your lap. It may or may not have levers. These usually range from about 19 to 25 strings depending on the size.

      Lever harps are harps that have levers on the neck of the harp under the bridge pins that can be engaged to raise the tone of the string a half step. Using the levers you can change keys (although not to every key), and play some accidental notes.

      A lever harp can be a lap harp, or it can be a floor harp (a harp that stands on the floor). It can be virtually any number of strings, but the largest typically are around 40 strings, and on average most are around 34 strings or a little less.

      Lap and floor harps can be made without levers at all, in which case you need to manually retune the strings to change keys, so no modulating keys at all while playing, and the music you play needs to be diatonic (no accidental notes, only the notes that exist in the key).

      A pedal harp is a harp that has seven pedals along the base of the harp that the player engages with their feet. The most common type of pedal harp is the double action pedal harp, which has two different levels of engagement for each pedal. Each pedal corresponds to one string in the octave. Engaging a pedal to the first notch raises all the strings of that note one half step. Engaging it to the second notch raises another half step.

      The pedal harp allows you to play in any key without retuning, and also allows you to play very chromatic music that is hard to impossible on a lever harp.

      What kind of harp to chose depends on many things, from your budget to the kind of music you want to play. The smallest pedal harps are around $10,000 US. Lever harps can cost anywhere from a few hundred to $10,000 if you want something custom made with hand carvings and tons of extras.

      You can get a decent floor lever harp of about 34 strings for between two and three thousand, and a really good one for between four to six thousand US dollars.

      Levers add an fair bit to the cost, so if you know you will be playing styles of music that use limited keys and few to no accidentals you can always get a  harp with just levers on certain notes.

      Folk and Celtic music can typically be played on a lever harp. They often are diatonic or have few accidentals, and so your main concern is being able to change keys between pieces.

      Although there is a fair bit of classical and contemporary music you can play on a lever harp, if those are the types of music you really want to focus on then eventually you will need a pedal harp because a large number of pieces will be too chromatic to play on a lever harp, or will modulate keys during a piece which is difficult at best, and often impossible on lever harp depending on the keys involved.

      If you want to play classical or contemporary music, but can't afford a Pedal harp you can always start with a lever harp and save up for a pedal harp in the mean time. You can get a lever harp that has string spacing and tension similar to a pedal harp so that when you switch you can make the transition easier.

      Harps with lighter strings and closer spacing are often referred to as folk harps because they are used often for folk or Celtic music. If you are more interested in folk or Celtic music than a folk strung lever harp is all you will ever really need.

      This is why renting is best at first. You often don't know for sure what it is you want to do when you start, and you may think you are interested in one kind of music only to find that you are more interested in another.

      Many people started out as pedal harpists but ended up playing almost exclusively on lever harp, like Sylvia Woods. On the other  hand I started interested primarily in Celtic music but fell in love with Jazz, so I had to go from lever harp to Pedal harp.

      Rent if you can. It is really the best.

      As for starting with books and eventually getting lessons, I actually would recommend the opposite.

      Get at least a few lessons at first, or take at least every so often. At the start it is more important to develop good habits. Breaking bad habits will be harder later on. Getting the foundational techniques down correctly is important. Once you do it is more likely that you will be able to progress on your own without a teacher.

    • Diana
      Diana Lincoln

      Hi Bex!

      You are lucky to get such complete and sage advice from Tony. I've only been playing for a couple of years. From a beginner's perspective, Tony is spot on! Rent and get a teacher! I'm glad I made sure to find a teacher who teaches for pedal harp even though I may never play one. The only thing I might add is try to find a group to play in. Harp circles are so encouraging and lots of fun. Part of the pleasure of learning to play for me has been the amazing people I have come to know. Enjoy!


    • Philippa
      Philippa mcauliffe

      Can't add to the excellent advice from above about harps but I can about communication.    Go to the shop with all your questions written in a book, one on each page.    Get them to write their replies.     Full on pace of fluent foreign language esp if in dialect is impossible whilst written can be worked out over time with human and dictionary help.  

      They will almost certainly be able to play you something on whatever they have in the shop.    Jot down name of each, price and rental price and your thoughts on them.  The French have a strong tradition in celtic and classical harping. 

      I dont think it would be that much of a problem to have lessons in French.   And they will give you info on teachers at the shop.   Imitation is very useful - they might have to adapt to more monkey see, monkey do rather than too much spoken detail.    Again, get them to write what you dont understand down and translate it later.   Video your teacher each week to get her to show you what he/she wants you to aim for and work from that between lessons perhaps.  I have fairly rudimentary French and Italian  (travel, eating, shopping OK, not in depth conversations at full speed ) but I reckon that I would take the plunge in either language especially if I could read music.

      If you can't read music you might want to start some basic theory from English books too.  French are strong on solfege  in their music training and teach it separately to instrumental lessons from what I remember of my school exchanges there in my youth. 

      Have fun.



    • Bex
      Bex Bisch

      Thank you everyone that is great, comprehensive advice! I full understand your desciptions of different harps whereas before I was a bit patchy :) I had never thought about looking for harp groups around here but if anyone will know or have adverts up it's at this shop I guess. The same for the teachers I shall ask them at the shop. MY french is not too bad and I'm lucky to have my fiancé (who is french) with me to translate when it get's difficult. I think I will go for lessons to begin with, as you say to not form bad habits and then perhaps continue at a less frequent pace with them. It's a little complicated we're a bit short on money as we're getting married in July but it's at the wedding in July which I would like to play a small piece as we're having a kind of jam session for the entertainment in the evening :) we shall see though. I'm going to the shop tomorrow to have a look and give the harps a try and I shall let you know what path I take.

      Thanks for all the advice and if anyone has anything to add please feel free.


    • Jessica
      Jessica Wolff

      Did anybody mention that lap harps are not a great idea as a first harp? For one thing, you have to keep them from sliding all over your lap, which is not a problem with a floor harp.

    • Tony
      Tony Morosco

      Good point. Also a larger harp simply is more versatile and there is much more arranged music that is playable on them. On a lap harp you often have to make alterations to the music to make everything fit, such as inversions of chords in the bass. That's fine if you understand how to do it, but for a beginner who may not be familiar with the music theory necessary to effectively adjust the arrangement to fit a smaller harp it could be a road block.

      I have never heard anyone ever complain about having too many strings, but I have about having too few.

    • A.
      A. Riley

      What fun, Bex!

      I might suggest renting a lever harp that stands on the floor. It's easier to learn when you're not trying to balance a lap harp on your knee. Most harp manufacturers offer 34-string student models -- having that extra octave in the bass is really helpful. I've been taking lessons since last fall and even my little beginner books ask for the occasional note that my little harp doesn't have.

      Starting harp lessons is one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done. I know it'll be the same for you!