Saturday, 8 November 2008

Harp technique - striking versus plucking

There are two main harp techniques: striking versus plucking. They loosely correlate: striking / folk / unprepared and plucked / classical / prepared. Here is a bit more on each technique.

  • All fingers are placed on the strings before they are needed
  • The strings are put under tension and the sound happens when the strings are released (think archery)
  • Sound comes from a negative action (though you could argue that 'releasing the string' is a positive action)
  • Your fingers are always completely prepared, this works best for complete, fixed arrangements (classical performance practice)
  • This is a very consistent systematic method of playing - great for learning from score and for sight-reading
  • Very close attention is paid to hand shapes
  • Process for each note takes longer - place => pressure => release => relax
  • It's important to have a good contact on each string before you play for security and...
  • You have lots of sensory feedback from the string for tone and volume
This is particularly important for heavier strung instruments - you need this technique to get the sound out. For pedal harps, the tension in strings is equal to the weight of double Decker bus. Extra strength is needed to make the string vibrate well - hand shape and overall preparation is more critical. The hand shape is squarer (thumbs up fingers down), fingers work in parallel to your forearm, thumb works at right angles. Every digit always fully articulates.

The modern lever harp was initially a pedal harp primer with pedal harp tension. Gradually lighter strung lever harps with more in common with the traditional clarsach have evolved. In Scotland there is lots of crossover between classical and traditional players. Many harpists play both. The received Scottish technique reflects this. I learnt my harp technique from Scottish harpers so I have a technique that basically classical.

  • Hover fingers near strings you need or lightly place finger tips, when ready strike
  • Placing not so important - placing shapes less important
  • The sound happens when you strike (no pre-release pressure required)
  • Sound from a positive action (like every other instrument in the world!!)
  • Hands are more relaxed, looser
  • Thumb may pull into the palm not above index finger
  • Ornaments (especially triplets) encourage a twistier hand shape - less square
  • Lighter tension means less strictness re: hand shape - more fluidity
  • Often played with nails - gentle placing is with finger tips, nails create the 'strike'
This is technique is used for wire strung and other harps with very light stringing. This includes Paraguayan harps and triple harps / arpa doppias. The narrower the string spacing, the more you have to hold your hands sideways and classical squareness is of no use. Triple harps in particular force you to turn your hands sideways, otherwise you cannot get into the inner row of strings for chromatic notes. I think improvised music may be easier with this technique as you don't have to prepare so much - you get an extra split second to think and of course when the sound comes when you do something, not when you don't. I also wonder if this is more suited to ear learning.

You definitely get a different sound quality from each technique. Playing plucked harp uses the pads of your fingers and gives you a rich, rounded sound with lots of control over volume and tone. The downside is the attack noise as you leave the string and the damping sound when you place your fingers for the next set of notes.

Playing struck harp or with nails gives you a much brighter sound with a really crisp attack. I find the attack a much more attractive sound, especially for recording. I think the crispness also makes for better ornaments.

One of the things that drew me to the harp is I love the feel of strings under my pads. I've discovered that I love the sound of harps played with nails too. Can I do both? You can partially file finger nails to allow you to use pad or nail at the same time but apparently real nails tend to catch on gut strings. Mmm time for a new harp...!

1 comment:

leeg said...

Ahoy, interesting post. I think that other instruments can be played in something approaching those two styles; the difference is always between recitation and improvisation. In the former, the player wants fidelity and accuracy, so their style is controlled and they know - and are ready for - what's coming next. In the latter the player is making music by moving, so it's more important that the notes come as soon as the player makes a movement.

That's why metal guitar players like a lot of overdrive in fret-wank solos - if you can change note just by hammering on or pulling off with the fret hand then the tune comes from moving that hand - not preparing that hand then picking with the other.