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  • Writer's picturemusicalmusings

More than one way to skin a....harp?

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

Me and my beloved harp. Photo cred: Ric Schmidt

When I was a teenager, I learned how to horseback ride English style. It could be best described as the "prim and proper" way of riding; Back straight! Both arms holding the reins! Look in the direction you want your horse to go! Be precise! Kick hard, but not so hard. You are in control of the horse and if you aren't clear in your subtle rein movements and body position, the horse won't know what to do! You do something called "posting", which is when you make your body rise and fall with the movements of the horse. You move together as one. But if you don't get the timing right, you end up flopping around like a rag doll. It ends up being a huge workout that somehow involves every single muscle in your body. That's my experience of English riding.


Then I learned Western, which is an entirely different beast. It could be described as the "lazy" way to ride. You just sit comfortably, one hand holding the reins, the other hand resting on your thigh, your body bouncing as the horse trots, or twisting back to talk to your horseback riding companion and trusting the horse to just mosey along of its own volition. You do have to do some work, such as leaning forward when the horse goes uphill, or leaning back when the horse goes downwards. But at the end of the day, you just end up with sore thighs, and maybe a sore neck from craning around to enjoy the scenery as you ride along.

But guess what? They are both perfectly valid ways to ride. Yep. An English rider might be critical of the western style as being "improper", or a Western rider might find English riding too strict. Yet, both styles get the horse and rider from A to B, or over the post, or through the river. Both styles work well for different purposes and people. But styles have their pros and cons, and take some training to learn how to do. What does this have to do with harp?

Well, like English and Western riding, there are also various styles of harp playing. Or, from my personal experience, one dichotomy is Classical vs. Irish.


My first experience of harp training was Classical. There is a very defined, specific method, right down to how you hold your arms, what angle your hold your arms, the position of your hands and fingers, how you pluck the strings. One strictly enforced technique is placement, which is placing your fingers on all the strings before you play them, to minimize the amount of finger plucking and up-and-down movement. It also ensures smoother playing and a reassurance that your fingers are indeed going to play the notes you want them to. Having gone to a harp retreat where the classical method was reinforced, I came out of that week feeling a lot of pressure to get the technique right, and feeling overwhelmed by all the little steps and tips I was given. I learned a lot, and am grateful for the experience and knowledge I gained, but I felt discouraged that harp was something I could ever master.

Then I was trained in Irish harp, having attended a harp retreat in Ireland. I was floored to see just how different the Irish style was from Classical. It was like they took all the Classical rules and threw them out the window! I had the privilege of seeing various professional and seasoned harpists perform, and they each sat differently from each other, held their arms and hands differently, plucked differently, and the biggest surprise was that they did very little finger placement. They would pluck freely more often than they would place, with their arms bouncing around and hands lifting off the harp more often. The thought that occurred to me was that they were less tethered to the harp, more free to move. They also looked like they were having more fun and were more relaxed. I'm not saying there is no technique, because there most certainly is! But it was liberating for me to see an entirely different way of playing, and a way that felt more comfortable for me.

It was then that I realized that there is always more than one way to do something. Even if a teacher or practitioner insists there is only one way, there usually is another way that just might work better for you. Others might judge that method, (just like some classical harpists would cringe at the Irish style). But if you have a dream, and one way of achieving that dream isn't working, try another way. If you want to master a skill, don't be discouraged if you just aren't catching on to a certain technique or method. Find another way. Think outside the box! God designed a complicated and limitless world, within which there almost always is more than one way to get something done. Look at all the new ways scientists and inventors and innovators are finding alternative forms of energy, and ways to renew it! Look at the ways animals are adapting to our changing world, and amazing ways that people are reusing and recycling garbage and other materials to make the world a better place. There is always another way. Don't be afraid to find it and try it!

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