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Current time:0:00Total duration:12:55

Harp: Interview and demonstration with principal Nancy Allen

Video transcript

[Music] this is a very important member of the orchestra it's a harp it's a very large instrument the harp is made out of wood it has 47 strings which are made out of gut and nylon and metal and it's a large triangular shape that makes beautiful music when it's strummed but the mystery of the harp is that it has a mechanical system within it it's not just about plucking the strings it has a mechanical system that that runs along the top of the instrument and this consists of over 2,000 moving parts it's connected to a system of pedals at the bottom of the instruments seven petals each petal has three positions so I have twenty-one slots to choose from the petals are a way of changing the pitches by turning little levers which exist at the top of the instrument I have they're called Forks and they actually turn because they're connected to a rod which runs up through the the column so this is actually the house the container in which there are seven rods connected to seven petals why are there seven because there's seven notes of a scale c d e f G a and B so the C pedal which is located on the left side of the instrument and I press with my left foot controls all the C strings together at the same time and it does that by going from an open string C flat and then when I move the pedal it turns a little disc which makes the string shorter it's like putting your finger down on the fret of a guitar or on the fingerboard of a violin or even like putting a key down on a flute to make the airstream shorter or longer I change the pedal and it turns this little disc because I'm busy playing with my hands so I can't do that manually on the old old folk harps you did it manually with your hand but this is too complicated so C flat and then I move the pedal down into the next and it shortens the string by about a quarter of an inch C natural sharp C natural same thing for the DS the D pedal controls all the DS which are a white string and if I want to make it very noisy I can so you can really hear it going through the action we called the action of the heart because that's where all the action is happening these things are turning and turning up there on the top of the instrument while we're just playing with our hands [Music] the harpa has a unique role in the orchestra because it can make a certain kind of sound that no one else can make that's called a glissando now the glissando is different from plucking the strings plucking the strings in a scale is one thing but then when you change the pitches of the strings with your feet you can actually make chords like an autoharp would the way an autoharp changes the pitches of the strings and you get a chord for example if I wanted to play a whole tone scale I can do that by setting my petals and it sounds like this [Music] [Music] the important thing is that you pull the heart back on your shoulder when you play and you're looking down the strings now it looks like a lot of vertical strings to me but I bring my head a little bit to the side and the color-coding red-white-and-blue is very handy I can always find my C's because they're bright red and I can always find my FS because they're black or navy blue and everything else is white so everything else has been between the normal scale doremi Fussell s ego [Music] the harp sounds always beautiful you don't have to produce the sound with a reed or a bow we only use our fingertips and that's perhaps the most magical part of the harp is that it's just finger power we don't have anything in-between our skin and the strings no pick nothing so we have to be very careful about the finger tips and the the quality of the skin if you practice too much on the harp your sound can be rather harsh abrasive or even thin we don't use our fingernails except occasionally for a special effect we have to only use the pads of our fingers so we keep our fingernails short and we have to actually fit our fingers in between those vibrating strings which is not easy because if you look how much vibration there is laterally you have to be careful that you don't but us so we fit them in between the other thing that we do with our hands is we also stop the sound there's no air flow we're not using a woodwind instrument there's there's no other way there's no pedal that stops the sound so if I play a glissando on the harp it lasts for a long time and the only way to stop the sound other than wait all afternoon is to use our hands and we call that muffling or etouffee so we're etouffee a to fading all the time we stop individual strings or we just [Music] or we just play a chord and we stop the sound that's very important about playing the harp is that it's a two-part procedure many harpist start on the piano and then transfer to the harp or play both instruments alongside and we steal a lot of repertoire from the piano as well but it looks like the inside of your piano because it's exactly what the inside of the piano has lots of strings now the piano strings are metal wound around steel but we have gut strings which are like tennis record gut only a little bit more refined and those strings make a beautiful warm [Music] make a beautiful warm sound whereas the metal strings [Music] very brassy and wiry sounding and we need that for a projection of the low notes in certain works we play and then the up top of this instrument is strung in nylon it's very bright very short little strings and so it's it's a fun instrument to play but it's very complicated because a lot is going on in your mind your fingers are playing and by the way we don't use our fifth finger we are little pinky just hangs alongside so all the fingerings that we do although somewhat related to the piano fingerings are very different because we only use eight fingers and the other difference is that when we play the harp when you learn when you play the harp you play with your hands suspended in air and the fingers go in the same direction fourth finger to thumb on the piano it's the opposite so when you're a kid you have to get used to that you suddenly transfer from your thumbs meeting each other to the harp where the thumbs are doing the same positioning [Music] I sort of the piano first when I was about five I loved the piano and I had a harp in my living room and my mother wanted me to play the harp she loved the instrument she lived next door to a harpist in Phil Spitalny zall girl Orchestra back in the late 40s and she became enamored with the instrument so she bought an instrument and it was in the living room and I loved the harp and but I also had to play an instrument that was a single line my mom believed that everyone should have the experience of playing a melodic instrument I have a terrible singing voice that's probably why she assigned me to the oboe so I played the oboe until I was 19 and I played the harp and I played the piano and I would learn to sight-read on the piano but the harp I just found the most fascinating for me it suited me and I got a lot of jobs playing when I was young because there aren't a lot of harpists in every community like there are flutists for example or violinists so it's sort of a novelty although I saw it my whole life when I was about 12 is when I really started practicing hard my mother took me past Julliard which was uptown in New York City and she said that's the Juilliard School and honest honestly when I saw that I said that's what I want to do and I won my very first very small but national competition when I was 14 years old and that's when I thought I can do this I love to play I enjoyed playing I didn't get very nervous I thought it was a beautiful beautiful way to express myself musically and I still played the piano a lot but not not as well and it's such a competitive field the piano and such a big repertoire I felt that this was a manageable instrument for me and just suited me very well so I really made a commitment to it when I was I would say 13 years old that's when I there was no going back [Music] Oh