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Harp: Interview and demonstration with principal Nancy Allen

Video transcript
(slow string-based music) (ascending notes on harps) Nancy: This is a very important member of the orchestra. It's a harp. It's a very large instrument. A harp is made out of wood. It has 47 strings, which are made out of gut and nylon and metal. It's a large triangular shape that makes beautiful music when strummed. (ascending notes) 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 runs all along the top of the instrument. This consists of over 2,000 moving parts. It's connected to a system of pedals at the bottom of the instrument. Seven pedals. Each pedal has three positions, so I have 21 slots to choose from. The pedals are a way of changing the pitches, by turning little levers, which exist at the top of the instrument. They are called forks, and they actually turn because they're connected to a rod, which runs up through the column. This is actually the house, the container, in which there are seven rods connected to seven pedals. Why are there seven? Because there's seven notes of the scale. C, D, E, F, G, A and B. 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 (plucks) together at the same time. It does that by going from an open string, C flat, and then when I move the pedal, it turns a little disk, 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 air-stream shorter or longer. I change the pedal and it turns this little disk, because I'm busy playing with my hands, so I can't do that manually. On the 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 position, and it shortens the string by about a quarter of an inch. C natural. (higher pitch) C sharp. (lower pitch) C natural. (lower pitch) C flat. Same thing for the Ds. The D pedal controls all the Ds, which are a white string. (differing pitches) If I want to make it very noisy, I can. (rapid pitch changes) You can really hear it going through the action. We call it the "action" of the harp, 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. (slow strings and harp) The harp 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, a glissando is different from plucking the strings. Plucking the strings in a scale ... (ascending notes) 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 pedals, and it sounds like this. (ascending separated notes) (slow violin music) (ascending and descending whole tone scales) The important thing is that you pull the harp back on your shoulder when you play. You're looking down the strings. 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 Cs because they're bright red, and I can always find my Fs, because they're black or navy blue. (string music in background) Everything else is white, so everything else is between, but it's the normal scale, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. (brooding strings) (ascending notes) The harp sound's 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. We have to be very careful about the fingertips and 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. (tinny sound) We have to only use the pads of our fingers. 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 buzz. We fit them in between. (ascending then descending notes) 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 no other way. There's no pedal that stops the sound, so if I play a glissando on the harp ... (strings continue to hum) it lasts for a long time, and the only way to stop the sound, other than wait all afternoon, is ... (sound stops) to use our hands. We call that muffling or etouffee. We're "etouffeeing" all the time. We stop individual strings ... (notes rapidly stop) or we just ... (notes rapidly stop) or ... (notes rapidly stop) or we just play a chord, (sound stops) and we stop the sound. That's very important about playing the harp, is that it's a two-part procedure. (lively strings and brass) (harp sounds rapidly ending) Many harpists start on the piano, and then transfer to the harp, or play both instruments alongside. We steal a lot of repertoire from the piano as well. It looks line the inside of your piano, because it's exactly what the inside of the piano is. Lots of strings. The piano strings are metal, wound around steel. We have gut strings, which are like tennis racket gut, only a little bit more refined, and those strings make a beautiful, warm ... (ascending notes) make a beautiful, warm sound, whereas the metal strings ... (gruff low notes) Very brassy and wiry sounding, and we need that for projection of the low notes in certain works we play. Then the top of the instrument is strung in nylon. It's very bright. (perky high notes) Very short, little strings. 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. Our little pinky just hangs alongside. All the fingerings that we do, although somewhat related to the piano fingerings, are very different, because we only use eight fingers. The other difference is that when we play the harp, 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. (ascending notes) On the piano it's the opposite. 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. (slow strings and brass) (repeated descending notes) I started 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 Spinalny's All 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. I loved the harp, but 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. I played the oboe until I was 19, and I played the harp, and I played the piano, and I learned to sight-read on the piano. 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 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 Juilliard, which was up-town in New York City, and she said, "That's the Juilliard School." Honestly, when I saw that, I said, "That's what I want to do." I won my very first, very small, but national, competition, when I was 14 years old. 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 way to express myself musically, and I still played the piano a lot, but 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. It 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 there was no going back. (ascending notes into strings) (ascending notes)