Q. How do I look after my new harp?
A. Harps are tougher than harpists sometimes think. Our harps can withstand a fair bit of abuse in the course of normal transportation and performance. However, following a few simple, common sense rules about harp care will keep your harp looking and sounding lovely for many years.
Your harp is finished with a durable “in the wood” polymerized tung oil finish on the frame, nitrocellulose lacquer on the soundboard, and a topcoat of hard carnuba wax polish. This finish looks lovely, is easy to maintain, and helps to protect your harp from a number of environmental stresses. All your harp will need under normal conditions is dusting with a dry soft cloth.
2. Extremes of temperature
Like all fine wooden instruments, harps will shift if the temperature of their environment drops or increases suddenly, and this shifting can make your harp go out of tune faster, and even cause structural damage in extreme conditions. Protecting your harp from rapid changes of temperature is relatively easy however. When you take your harp out of your home, use a quality case, or even, in a pinch, an old sleeping bag or quilt to insulate it from the elements. Under the insulation, your harp will still become colder or warmer but slowing that temperature change down gives your harp time to adjust to its new conditions. You can again reduce the stress of temperature change on your harp when you arrive at your destination by leaving it in its case until your harp’s case reaches room temperature rather than unpacking it immediately.
However, simple extremes of temperature can be hard on a harp regardless of how well it is packed. So never
leave your harp in front of a direct source of heat, like a woodstove, a heat register, a sunny window
leave your harp in your car on a hot day with the windows up
store your harp in the trunk of your car in the winter (assuming there is any way you can fit it in the cab of the car with your passengers)
subject your harp to climate conditions to which you would hesitate to subject a puppy.
3. Humidity and dryness
Even though it looks solid, wood reacts to varying conditions of humidity just like a sponge. In a wet environment, wood will absorb water and swell, and in a dry environment wood can shrink or even crack. Finishing a piece of wooden furniture or a musical instrument helps to protect it from rapid changes of humidity, but even the most perfectly finished harp is not immune to humidity’s effects. Most luthiers dry their woods carefully before using them to minimise the potentially detrimental effects of a dry environment upon a finished instrument, but there are things you can do to help protect your harp as well.
I advise my clients to purchase a hygrometer at a hardware store (they start at about $10) to keep in the room that is home to your harp. When the humidity drops below 40% it is time to consider humidifying the room. Coincidentally this is the point of humidity at which you yourself will begin to find your environment uncomfortably dry, so you will reap the benefits of humidifying along with your harp. If your room is small, an ornamental fountain may provide enough moisture to keep the humidity above the 40% mark. In a larger room, you might want to consider a humidifier (though don’t have the humidifier directly next to your harp!!) If humidifying the room isn’t possible, consider keeping your harp in its case with an instrument humidifier (Dampit is a popular brand, generally about $15 at a guitar store) inside your harp’s soundbox.
Q. How long will it take a new harp to settle in to pitch?
A. That depends on how frequently you tune your harp, how often you move it, and how stable its environment is. If you tune your harp daily for a couple of weeks, even brand new strings will settle swiftly into stable pitch. If you transport your harp from place to place a fair deal it will take a little longer. However, being consistent about tuning your harp regularly over the first few weeks will work wonders in helping it to settle in.
Q. Should I buy a tuner?
A. If you have perfect pitch or even perfect relative pitch and a well tuned piano in your home, you may be able to tune your harp quite easily by ear. However for the rest of us poor mortals an electronic chromatic tuner is invaluable, because the tuner lets you visually determine when a string’s pitch is accurately adjusted. Electronic tuners take the guesswork out of the process. Korg and Yamaha both make excellent chromatic electronic tuners for about $100, and Qwik Tune sells a very functional tuner with an LCD display for about $35 for the budget conscious.
Q. I have one string that seems to slide out of pitch the moment I’ve tuned it. What should I do?
A. It sounds as though you have a slipping tuning pin. Don’t panic — this is easy to fix : )
In the course of moving your harp around, it may happen that a tuning pin occasionally gets knocked back slightly in its hole, just enough so that it doesn’t “grip” enough to keep its string in tune. Tuning pins are tapered, and they fit into tapered holes. They work just like a wedge shaped door stop — the further into the hole the pin is pushed (or under the door the in the case of the door stop) the more firmly it will hold the string (or door) in place.
To re-settle a slipping pin, back wind the pin a couple of full turns to give the string some slack. Then wind the string forward very slowly with the tuning key, while using the key to push the tuning pin firmly into the hole. As you push you will feel the pin start to grip. Once the grip feels solid, bring your string back to pitch. DON’T use a hammer to bang the pin into the harp’s neck as this can actually damage your harp. Firm pressure combined with rotation is both more effective and much safer.
Q. Should I tune from the bass to the treble, from the treble to the bass, from the middle to the ends…. Help?
A. There are different schools of thought on this subject, but as a luthier I have a very firm opinion. When I tune I always start with the bass strings and work my way gradually to the treble. The reason? The longer strings exert a lot more force on the soundboard than the short treble strings, and in consequence they affect the pitch of their neighbours more. If you tune the treble first and then go to the bass, you will find that by the time the bass wires are up to pitch they have exerted enough force on the soundboard to slacken the treble strings and send them back out of tune.
Q. What key should I tune my harp to?
A. This depends entirely on the repertoire you intend to play. If you play mainly Celtic music, you may find that you never need to play with three flats, so why bother having those levers engaged at all? Lots of Celtic harpists keep their harps in the key of C. Classical harpists and musicians with lots of sacred music in their repertoires however will probably need to keep their harps in E flat. Personally I have a real preference for the key of F, which is one of my favourite keys in which to sing. I didn’t even bother to install a full rack of levers on my beloved Storm King 40 String harp (it has B, C, F and G levers only), because I almost always sing in the keys of F, C, D, G and A, and when I hit a song that is in a different key I tend to transpose it to one of my preferred keys anyway. So, once you have a sense of the keys you favour in your playing, tune your harp to a key that keeps them as accessible as possible and you will save yourself lots of lever flips!