If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

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

Harp: Interview and demonstration with principal Nancy Allen

Video transcript

("Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) - 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. And, it's a large triangular shape. It makes beautiful music when strummed. (bright music) 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 and 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're called forks, and they actually turn because they're connected to a rod which runs up 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. 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. (light music) 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 air stream 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 I move the pedal down into the next position, and it shortens the string by about a quarter of an inch. C natural. C sharp. C natural. C flat. The same thing for the Ds. The D pedal controls all the Ds, which are a white string. (light music) And, if I wanna make it very noisy, I can. (light music) So you can really hear it going through the action. We call it the action of a 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. ("The Firebird Suite, Finale" by Igor Stravinsky (1919)) 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 (light music) is one thing. But, then when you change the pitches of the strings with your feet, you can actually make chords like an auto harp would, the way an auto harp 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. (light music) ("Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) The important thing is that you pull the harp 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 Cs 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 is in between but it's a normal scale: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. ("Symphony No. 5, III. Largo" by Dmitryi Shostakovich) 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 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. (light music) 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 buzz. So, we fit them in between. The other thing that we do with our hands is we also stop the sound. There's no airflow, 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, (light music) it lasts for a long time, and the only way to stop the sound other than waiting all afternoon is to use our hands, and we call that muffling, or etouffer, so we're etouffering all the time. We stop individual strings. (light music) Or we just. (light music) Or. (light music) Or we just play a chord. (light music) and we stop the sound. That's very important about playing the harp is that it's a two-part procedure. ("The Firebird and Her Dance" by Igor Stravinsky) Many harpists 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 is: lots of strings. Now, the piano strings are metal, wound around steel. But we have gut strings, which are like tennis racket gut, only a little bit more refined, and those strings make a beautiful, warm, (light music) make a beautiful warm, sound, whereas the metal strings. (somber music) are very brassy and wiry sounding, and we need that for projection of the low notes in certain works we play. And, in the top of the instrument is strung in nylon, it's very bright. (bright music) Very short little strings, and so 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. 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, you play with your hands suspended in the 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. ("Symphony No. 2, I. Allegero maestoso" by Gustav Mahler) 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 Spitalny'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, and 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. So, I played the oboe until I was 19, and I play the harp, and I play the piano, and I learned 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 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 Julliard School." And 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 way to express myself musically, and I still play 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. ("The Firebird Suite, Berceuse" by Igor Stravinsky)