So what makes the harp unique? “It’s in a family all its own,” said harpist Julie Hussar of Fenton. She said the harp doesn’t fit into any other family of musical instruments, like woodwinds or stings.
These instruments take specific sheet music, because unlike a piano that can play in any key (chromatic), a harp can only be set to play in one key at a time (diatonic).
“You can walk into most any music store and buy a guitar; you can’t walk into any music store and buy a harp,” Hussar said.
She transports her 90-pound pedal harp to Fenton Community Orchestra concerts where she plays.
The instrument is plucked by four fingers on each hand to make full or partial chords or to play individual notes. The seven floor pedals adjust the individual seven notes from flat to “natural” to sharp.
Full-sized harps have between 40 and 47 strings, nearly matching the range of a piano, according to harpspectrum.org.
Hussar said she started playing the Celtic harp for therapy work at the University of Michigan Hospital. “The harp is very calming,” she said.
Her background as a multi instrumentalist made it easier to learn the instrument. She said there’s a learning curve to playing the harp correctly for the human body. One can damage their shoulder and hands if they play incorrectly.
She has two harps. One is a lever harp, which she took to the hospital to play. These are also known as Celtic harps. This is much easier to maintain than the pedal harp, which requires a certified maintenance technician.
Kelly Yousoufian of the Michigan Harp Center in Clawson said the harp has more than 2,000 pieces when disassembled.
Hussar said learning unique instruments can be very frustrating. “It might be difficult to find someone to teach you,” she said. She added that the skill could make you very in-demand as a professional player, and offer the satisfaction of learning a unique instrument.
Origin of the harp
According to The International Harp Museum, the harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world. Harps evolved from hunting bows. Early bow-like harps are depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings as early as 3000 B.C. It also has origins in Asia.
Through the centuries, the harp evolved into what it is today.
What does a harp cost?
According to Virginia Harp Center, a Celtic harp usually costs between $2,500 and $5,000. A full-sized pedal harp costs between $15,000 and $20,000.
Yousoufian said a $199,000 harp would be highly carved and plated with gold.
Level of difficulty
“Anyone can walk up to a harp and pluck a string and a beautiful sound will be produced,” Yousoufian said. She compares playing the harp to driving a car. “Most of us do drive. However, those of us who want to drive on the racetrack have to develop a special skill set.”
What do they sound like?
Yousoufian describes the modern pedal harp this way: “Resonant bass made with metal strings, warm mid-range with gut strings and usually a brighter treble resulting from mono-filament nylon strings.”
The next installments of the series will include the accordion played by a young local multi-instrumentalist.