Harps Reach the Mainstream

When the invitation to attend a “Harp Tasting” in Owego came across my desk in October, I knew I had to go. Being a harpist myself, I was surprised and delighted to hear about a harp function in the Finger Lakes. (I would soon find out that there are several harp-related groups and businesses in our region.) I didn’t know quite what to expect at the Harp Tasting, but the invitation promised exposure to several styles of harps plus gastronomical goodies afterwards. How could I refuse?

After enjoying a color-filled fall drive from Victor, I arrived at the Tioga County Arts Council building, where I found eight harps on display. The Harp Tasting would be an opportunity to “taste” the different harps with our ears, explained Meredith Kohn Bocek of The Harp Studio in Owego. Meredith has played the harp professionally since the ’70s; she also sells harps and gives lessons.

She explained that every harp produces a slightly different quality of sound, from soft and mellow to bold and bright. This variance in sound can be due to the harp’s size, shape, type of wood, type of strings and even the player.

To demonstrate, Meredith briefly dabbled on a couple of harps to show how different they can be. She also pointed out what we should be listening for in the low, middle and high ranges of pitch. Then she began to play. She rattled off about two songs on each harp, and the other attendees and I were lulled into a trance.

Lever or pedal?
When you think of the harp, the usual image that comes to mind is a large, ornate, concert pedal harp. However, none of the eight harps that we tasted that day fit this description. Meredith had brought along four lever harps (each standing just under 5 feet tall) and four lap harps (measuring 30 to 36 inches long). In case you don’t already know, pedal harps get their name from the pedals at the harp’s base, which are used to raise and lower the pitch of the strings. Lever harps have switches, called levers, at the top of the strings, which are used to raise the pitch.

The fact that Meredith chose to show lever harps rather than pedal harps reflects a trend among harpists in the area. Smaller harps have grown in popularity in the Finger Lakes because of their portability and lower cost.

Lever harps, also called folk or Celtic harps, are a more reasonably priced option than their pedal counterparts, which start at $10,500 and go up to – well, as much as you want to spend. A pedal harp from Lyon & Healy, a popular harp manufacturer based in Chicago, can cost as much $179,000, depending on how ornate the carving is and how much gold leaf is used. Yes, your harp could cost more than your house. Lever harps, on the other hand, start at around $2,500.

The size and weight of a pedal harp also makes it prohibitive for many harpists. If you can figure out how to get your 75-pound pedal harp out to your car, the next hurdle is getting it into your car. Most cars, and even trucks, would be hard-pressed to accommodate a harp that is over 6 feet tall. Unless you want to buy a vehicle based on your harp transportation needs, you’d need to choose a harp that fits in the car you’ve got.

More interest in smaller harps
While some people still perceive lever harps as merely a pit-stop on a harpist’s journey to getting a “real” harp, others believe that the smaller harps have become an end in and of themselves. “Interest in lever harps has been growing steadily nationwide for some years,” says Paul Knoke, principal harpist for the Brighton Symphony Orchestra and a member of the Rochester Harp Network, a group of about 10 harpists, both lever and pedal. “Originally viewed as a less-expensive alternative to the pedal harp, they’re now seen as a distinct and separate instrument with their own resources and repertoire.”

My former harp teacher, Roxanne Ziegler of Rochester, agrees. “Tradi-tionally, the smaller harps had been associated mainly with folk music, but styles have evolved to include not only folk and Celtic but religious, classical, popular, and jazz. I now use my lever harps on about 50 percent of the jobs I play.”

Harps as therapy
In addition to playing for concerts, weddings and parties, Roxanne also uses her lever harp in medical settings. “Harp is growing in popularity as the instrument of choice in therapeutic settings,” she says. “The music is not played as a performance or entertainment; rather it is music that serves to benefit the wholeness and wellness of the person with whom I work.”

During her training to become a certified music practitioner, Roxanne interned at Clifton Springs Hospital. She says she chose this facility because the “philosophy of the hospital is open and welcoming to complimentary therapies.” She continues to play her harp there on a weekly basis, working with patients in pre- and post-op, emergency, intensive care, hospice, the cancer center and in private rooms. She also plays regularly at the Jewish Home of Rochester, the Edna Tina Wilson Living Center in Greece and at St. Anne’s Home, also in Rochester.

Multi-harp concerts
Given the soothing nature of harp music, it could be argued that all good harp music is therapeutic. And if one harp is enjoyable, how much more enjoyable would a whole group of harps be?

Jennifer Byrne, president of Harmony of Harps in Syracuse, says that her group’s mission is to get harp music out to the public and to educate them about harps, their history and music. While they play concerts at libraries, the Central New York Scottish Games, historical sites and nursing homes, Jennifer says they recently put on the biggest concert the group has ever done.

“It was called Harpa Galora and featured 36 harp players from upstate New York and Pennsylvania,” Jennifer says. “In 1932, there was a concert in Syracuse that was put on by a national harp society and included 71 harpists, some of whom were preeminent players of the time. For the 75th anniversary, we recreated that concert with 36 players, including one lady, Mary Lauver, who played at the original concert! It was a wonderful time.” My harp-tasting host, Meredith Kohn Bocek, was a guest soloist at that concert.

If you feel frustrated about having missed such a grand event, you will have an opportunity to hear another group of harpists play in the spring. On March 30, 2008, some of Roxanne Ziegler’s current and former students will be playing at St. Andrew’s Church in Rochester. The concert, called “Making a Joyful Sound” will begin at 3 p.m. and will feature a harp ensemble, comprised of 12 to 15 harps, as well as a flute choir and the Sampler Trio, made up of a harp, flute and dulcimer.

Local harp shops
You may be wondering where in the world anyone would purchase a harp in the Finger Lakes area. Sales of harps are going on in places you might never suspect. For example, Meredith sells lever harps and lap harps at The Harp Studio in Owego. Go north to Cortland and you’ll find The Harp and Dragon. Anne Habermehl runs her business out of her house, and customers come to her by appointment. She currently has 16 harps in stock (yes, 16 harps in her house, not counting her personal instruments).

If you’re thinking of dabbling in the harp yourself, both Roxanne and Meredith recommend renting first. “It is usually best to rent for awhile before purchasing, and when you’re ready to buy, get advice from a teacher or another harpist,” says Roxanne. “There are a lot of harps out there these days and many are fine instruments, but some are not.”

Whether you’re contemplating learning the instrument or just enjoy listening to it, rest assured that harp music is alive in the Finger Lakes. “Sometimes when I am out with my harp, people will say something to me about the harp being a lost art, but I tell them it is definitely not the case because the harp is really gaining in popularity,” adds Roxanne. “It is an instrument that has reached the mainstream.”
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For more information

• Meredith Kohn Bocek of The Harp Studio in Owego TheHarpStudio.net, 607-687-3410
• Roxanne Ziegler of Rochester RochesterHarpist.com, 585-288-3101
• Anne Habermehl of The Harp and Dragon in Cortland HarpAndDragon.com, 607-756-7372
• Jennifer Byrne of Harmony of Harps in Syracuse, harpy@twcny.rr.com
• Donna Beneir of the Rochester Harp Network, beneir_d@hotmail.com
• Kari Anderson of Victor, kanderson@fwpi.com

A list of upcoming events featuring the harp can be found on LifeInTheFingerLakes.com.


by Kari Anderson
Kari Anderson plays the harp, piano and organ professionally and is learning the banjo.