Hi, I’m Cynthia Shelhart. You can call me Cindy. And it’s time for some Double Talk. Double-strung harp, that is.
In our last episode, we literally talked about the nuts and bolts of the double-strung harp’s hardware: lever harp strings, tuning pins, and levers, and all the things that make it work behind the scenes. Now today, in Episode 3, it’s the exciting part—it’s Double Harp Decision Time! So, if you’ve caught the double-strung harp bug, today we’re going to talk about the ways to choose either your first one, or the next one, so that it’s right for you.
Think Differently about DSH
When you’re choosing your double-strung harp, it might seem like choosing any other harp. But there are a few things that you need to know that are different about the double-strung harp; it has some different advantages that you should know about before you go shopping. So, before you measure your car seats, and check your budget, let’s talk about those differences.
One important thing to know is that the double-strung harp is more effective than single-row harps when you’re dealing with a smaller range. Literally, it sounds bigger than its footprint. The overtones from the extra row of strings give you extra sound, and that makes it sound bigger than it really is.
Also, the bass or lower strings can sound kind of muddy when you are echoing them, or playing them in a double harp effect down low. So it’s actually advantageous to have a smaller double-strung harp, rather than a larger one, because it’s going to sound better throughout the full extent of its range.
It’s NOT All About the Bass
And that brings us to our next question. I hear this all the time: “Won’t I miss the bass strings, if it’s a smaller harp?”(By the way, I’ve got to share this: one of my superfans has a great comeback answer to the range question: “Do flute players miss the bass notes?” Well, of course not. They don’t.)
So, think about a guitar: 6 strings, right? Maybe 12? Or think about different sizes of instruments in the string family or the wind families. These are different instruments, and they have different ranges.
And so with double-strung harps, if they have a smaller range, that doesn’t make it any LESS of a harp. It just makes it a DIFFERENT harp, with a different approach to playing the harp, and a different approach to the music that you play on it. It doesn’t make it any less important, just because it has a smaller range.
What Do YOU Need?
Now that we’ve talked about those differences of the double-strung harp, and what you might need to know before you start shopping, let’s also talk about YOUR needs: your lifestyle, your body, your musical needs. And we’ll start with your body and lifestyle. When you’re shopping for a double-strung harp, think about things like: where and how are you going to play it? Where are you going to store it? Do you need to move it anywhere? How would you transport it? That kind of thing.
YOUR Body & Lifestyle Needs
Let’s start first with things that relate to your physical body, things that you might need to choose, such as the physical size and weight of the harp, and its string tension—things that affect your body—and find out what works best for you. For example, for the size: do you need a larger or a smaller harp? Are you a large human or a small human? Maybe you need a floor harp, maybe you need a lap harp, or something in between.
For the harp’s weight, you might physically need a lighter harp, or you might need a lighter harp for another reason, maybe easier transport. If you are playing it in therapeutic settings, or teaching, or playing at a festival, it might need to be lighter just to make it easier to carry around.
Two things to consider when you’re thinking about the harp’s weight: The harp can be lighter if it’s smaller, but smaller harps are not always lighter; it depends on the construction. Also, certain woods can be lighter than others. For example, maple is REALLY, really heavy compared to harps that are made from woods like cherry and walnut.
For string tension—this is how hard (or not hard) you need to pull on the strings to make the sound—this is something to think about: If you have physical challenges that make it harder for you to pull on a harp with high tension, you might need a harp with lighter tension. You might also play a lot of, for example, traditional Irish and Scottish dance music that goes along pretty quickly; it makes it easier to play if you have lighter tension on the strings. On the other hand, you might be a pedal harp player, or used to playing other harps with higher tension, possibly with gut strings. You might be looking for a double-strung harp that has higher tension. (You might, in that case, be looking for a double-strung harp with gut strings.)
Moving from you, yourself, out to your environment: let’s talk about storage. Where are you going to store your harp? Where are you going to be keeping it in your living space? Do you need to take it to a place of work? So, think about things like square footage, and climate control—you’ll need to be thinking about humidity (or possibly getting rid of humidity, depending on where you live). You also might need to be thinking about your children, or maybe your four-footed children (your pets). Think about places where you have room for your harp, and where it is safe to keep your harp and take good care of it.
And if you need to play your harp someplace other than your place of residence, you’ll need to think about: how am I going to get it there? Maybe you need to move it once a year; maybe you need to move it once a day. How often do you need to move it to a different place, and how will you be doing that? Do you have a car? Do you take it on public transportation? These are all things to keep in mind.
Oh, and while you’re taking care of yourself, don’t forget about your budget. Make sure that you get the harp of your dreams, but that it doesn’t leave you lacking in funds for having food to eat and a roof over your head (always very important).
YOUR Musical Needs
Okay, so we’ve talked about your personal needs—physical needs and your lifestyle. Now let’s talk about your musical needs. What kind of music do you want to play on your double-strung harp? It lends itself to all kinds of music; really, anything that you play on a single-row harp, you could play on a double-strung harp.
But, you may want to start thinking about range a little differently: how many strings, and how low and high do they go? You might want to think about: do you absolutely have to play the music as written, with those notes in the lower range of your harp (just like the ones in your single row harp library, for example)? Or, can you be flexible with adapting music for your double-strung harp, that fits in a different range?
DSH Size and Range
There are three general categories for size and range when you’re talking about music for a double-strung harp:
- The smaller category of range can bring you up to 24 x 2 strings. The lowest note is usually F or G below middle C, but it can sometimes be a little bit lower than that.
- Medium-sized double-strung harps are usually in the 26 or 27 x 2 range, and their lowest string goes down to the C below middle C.
- The largest of the double-strung harp family goes anywhere from 29 to 34 x 2 strings. This can add up to an octave lower than the medium-sized category.
And don’t forget your levers! Don’t forget to check and see the configuration and number of levers that works best for you, and the music that you want to play. And, if you didn’t get to see it, Episode 2 is all about lever harp hardware, as it’s used for double-strung harp. That’ll be a great place to check for more lever information, so check back on Episode Two.
What I Do: Then and Now
Okay, so we’ve talked about musical differences and advantages of the double-strung harp that you need to know about when you’re shopping. We’ve talked about considering your own personal and musical needs and wants. And I bet you’re wondering by now what I do, and what I might recommend. So let me tell you a little bit about that.
Back in the Day
My path to double-strung harp came directly from arranging for very small single-row harps (even in some cases, lap harps), with fewer strings. So I’m used to adapting music for a different range on a harp. And I’ve always loved that challenge. I’ve loved the challenge of arranging for fewer strings, and making it more musical and effective with a different setup with the strings.
Back when I started double-strung harp—this was the first year of the double-strung harp being available in North America—there really weren’t very many choices. There were 2 builders in the US. Double-strung harps were made by Stoney End Harps in Minnesota, and Triplett Harps in California (although Triplett only made a couple of double-strung harps before they discontinued them).
So Stoney End is really the oldest (continuous) builder of double-strung harps in North America. And when I got to see one for the first time, this was their very first double-strung harp. It was the 29 x 2 harp that later became the Lorraine. My former teacher had the very first one, made of cherry wood, and that’s the one that I got to see and try out and fall in love with. So a couple of months later, I decided to pick up the next one in production; that was their second DSH, and the first 29 x 2 in walnut, also later called the Lorraine.
OK, Now What?
And since then (although I’ve played larger and smaller double-strung harps), I think now that, although at the time I wanted a floor harp with a larger range, I would have been just as happy with a slightly smaller harp (had they been available). So that’s what I play now. I play harps in the medium-sized range, the 26 or 27 x 2 range, and that’s what works best for me.
As far as weight and tension go these days, I prefer to play harps that are made of cherry wood. All of the harps that I have in my studio—some of them right over there on the floor—they’re all made of cherry wood. I like the combination of durability and lighter weight. They’re almost as durable as maple wood, but they’re not as heavy as maple. And I like the way they look. So I’ve decided to go with cherry. My Dusty Strings FH26 double is cherry wood, my Rees Double Morgan Meghan is cherry, as are a couple of single-row harps that I have. So, that works for me.
And the harps that I play, I prefer to play them with lighter tension. Musically speaking, it’s a better choice for the music I play, because I include fast dance tunes in my repertoire. This also works for me physically, because: the way my hands are built and designed? They’re not as good with high tension. So I use lighter tension harps to help me keep playing my harps longer! (Also, again, that works for me; your mileage may vary—it definitely will vary. And that will influence your choices.)
My DSH Range: Why Medium-Sized?
And as I just mentioned, I’m playing medium-sized harps, with that medium-sized range. And I gotta admit, I used to be one of those, “oh, I’ve got to have bass notes” kind of harpists. I definitely love a great bass line. But, since then, I realized that I could adapt even my 29 x 2 harp repertoire from my original double-strung harps, I could adapt those compositions and arrangements to a medium-sized double, without too much trouble. It’s only three fewer strings. So, it didn’t make that much of a difference. And it was easy to make that transition and adapt the music, just a little bit more, to fit on the harp that I was playing more recently.
The medium-sized range encourages you to play more with both hands in the same register, in the same range, overlapping each other. And this is one of the key things that makes your double-strung harp “sound more like a double,” which is everyone’s goal. I’ll be talking about how to do this with my signature double-strung harp techniques in future episodes.
So I hope this gives you some information for that first (or next!) double-strung harp. Don’t forget that a double-strung harp is a DIFFERENT harp, with DIFFERENT advantages, and different things to think about before you go shopping. And also, since “less is often more” when we’re talking about range, it may be that you don’t need a large one to start with. In fact, that may be to your advantage, to start with a small one. And if that helps your budget, if it helps you to join the club sooner, I think that’s a great idea!
If you liked what you heard today, make sure you’re subscribed, so you can be notified about future episodes. And if you want to be the FIRST to hear some more Double Talk, head on over to my website, cindyshelhart.com, and sign up for my mailing list, and I’ll keep you notified.
And in my next video, we’re going to look into the double-strung harp family tree. We’re going to explore the origin story of the double-strung harp, with its historical, traditional, and modern ancestors and relatives. Can’t wait to share that with you. See you next time!