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Chicago Harp Tour

Recently I was lucky to score two tickets to Lyon & Healy’s 5th Annual Gala Concert on Nov. 14th in Chicago featuring Berlin Philharmonic harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet. I invited my mother to join me for a big harp weekend in the Windy City.

We arrived in town a couple of days early so we could see some sights. On Friday morning we visited the Venus Harp factory, a small family-owned business that has been making fine pedal harps for 40 years. First we were given a fascinating tour of the harp making process.

All the parts of the action are manufactured on site in Venus' own metal shop. Then the plates, discs, forks and action arms are assembled by hand for each instrument.

Venus harp action under construction

It takes a lot of clamps to glue the soundboard onto the body shell.

harp sounboard being glued to body

After the columns are turned on a lathe, craftsmen hand-carve the flowers and other decorative details. These raw wood columns are waiting to be matched to a body.

carved harp columns at Venus

After the harps are completely assembled, master harp technician Kurt Berg regulates them so the pedals will give accurate sharps and flats.

Kurt Berg regulates a Venus harp

After the tour, we spent a few hours playing beautiful instruments in the showroom. My mother is fond of the newest model in the Venus line-up, a 42-stringed straightboard harp called the Seraphim. It has a strikingly powerful yet clear voice for a small harp, with warmth in the bass and mid-range and sparkle in the treble. There were several in the showroom but Mom preferred the sound of this natural maple one.

Karen plays a Venus Seraphim harp

Janelle Lake, the charming harpist who works in the showroom, played the Tailleferre Sonata on the Venus Classic model for us. This one has hand-carved roses cascading down the pillar and a big glorious sound.

Janelle plays a Venus Classic harp

Feeling a little dazzled by everything we’d seen at Venus Harps, we took a bus to the nearby Lyon & Healy Harp factory where they’ve been making harps for 120 years. The factory takes up five floors of the building and it is impressive to see such a large number of instruments in various stages of construction - from building of the action all the way to the final stringing and tuning. At the end of the tour we were taken to the vast showroom full of 60-70 harps, both pedal and lever, gleaming in long orderly rows, just waiting to be plucked.

The sheer quantity of perfect instruments was overwhelming but when I asked Mom which one she liked best she didn’t even hesitate before answering - her favorite is the Style 26 with gothic carvings of angels, 23-karat gold leaf on the column, hand-painted soundboard and bubinga veneer on the neck and body. Only $59,000 - I’d say she has good taste.

Karen with the style 26 gold Lyon & Healy harp

She also loved playing this more modestly priced Style 85CG. The decoration is restrained but the sound is big and rich.

Karen plays a Lyon & Healy 85CG harp

The showroom manager was kind enough to move a harp into a practice room for us so we could spend some time playing it and we both agreed that we’d be happy to take home this handsome mahogany Style 23 - if only we had a spare $31,000.

Laurie plays a Lyon & Healy 23

After a full day plucking on countless lovely harps you’d think we’d be tired but look - we’re happy!

Karen and Laurie with Lyon & Healy style 23 harp

The Concert

On Saturday we did some sight-seeing and then returned to Lyon & Healy for the concert. Five years ago a 200-seat concert hall was constructed on the 5th floor of the factory building. The stage has a breathtaking view of the city lights in the evening Chicago skyline which made a lovely backdrop for the music and the sleek Style 30 that Marie-Pierre had selected from the showroom.

Lyon & Healy style 30 at gala concert in Chicago

Marie-Pierre Langlamet is a powerful harpist, capable of a myriad of subtle nuances and expression on the strings. One fun solo she played was a medley using birds as the theme; The Cuckoo (Louis-Claude Daquin), The Nightingale (Franz Liszt) and The Lark (Glinka). Mostly though, she played duos or trios with the violist and flute player she’d brought along with her from Berlin. These ranged from compositions by Mozart and Debussy to a couple of passionately rhythmic Piazzolla tangos.

What impressed me the most was seeing how much fun Marie-Pierre had in performing and how much she lived her music in the moment. She obviously enjoyed playing with her colleagues, communicating with them wordlessly through eye contact and expressive body language as they told their musical story. Throughout the show I was transported by the magical harmonies woven amongst the three instruments, made all the more real by the musicians’ awareness of each other.

An elegant reception followed where we talked with old friends and marvelled at the number of famous harpists who were in attendance while sipping chardonnay and nibbling rasberry cannoli. It was a star-studded event and very satisfying to see so many talented harpists turn out to enjoy an evening of beautiful music.

Indian Summer Wedding

One of the many things I like about Santa Barbara is that the weather is nearly perfect most of the time making it possible to have outdoor weddings almost any time of year. A few weeks ago I played for a wedding in the Palm Court Garden at the beautiful Santa Barbara County Courthouse where the glorious mid-October sunshine brought temperatures into the 80’s.

Gold harp and harpist at Santa Barbara wedding

The adorable flower girl was enchanted by the harp - how cute is she?

flower girl plays harp at Santa Barbara wedding

Old Harp Sings Again

My friend T recently inherited a beautiful Lyon & Healy Style 16 from her mother. Built initially around 1920, the harp hadn’t been played in about 10 years and had been kept in storage. When T asked me to help her replace the many broken strings and determine if the harp was in playable condition we discovered a crack in the neck.

crack in neck of harp

Harp Doc Peter Wiley inspected the harp and said that replacing the entire neck would be expensive - or at least more than T wanted to spend. The crack didn’t go all way through the neck laminations and there was no way of knowing if it had been there for several years or if it had happened when the harp was recently transported. Peter suggested we could try the epoxy method which could possibly extend the life of the instrument without a large expense. It was worth the gamble and I was curious to see what the harp would sound like after all these years so I enthusiastically took on the project.

After taking most of the old strings off to relieve the tension I masked off the area around the crack, laid the harp down and filled the gap with a special slow-curing epoxy.

masking off the crack in the harp neck

In order to make sure the epoxy didn’t pour out, I upended the harp so gravity would help the liquid flow down into the crack.

upside-down harp getting neck repair

After a 24-hour curing time the harp was righted again. The action was a bit sticky and grimy so I lubricated it with a very light oil and worked it into the mechanism. I covered the body of the instrument with a sheet of plastic so the oil wouldn’t drip and stain the soundboard until after it had a chance to evaporate.

harp covered with plastic during neck repair

After I installed a full new set of strings we were happy to discover that this old harp has a rich, full, warm voice that had just been waiting to sing again. Now that it’s playable, it needs to see the Harp Doc again for a regulation so the pedals will be accurate. What a thrill to know this old beauty has a new life!

old style 16 with new strings

Wedding at Mission Santa Ynez

This afternoon I played for a wedding at the lovely Mission Santa Inés (Ynez) in Solvang. I welcome every opportunity to play here because no matter how hot it is in the valley, the thick adobe walls of the Mission keep everything inside comfortably cool. There are delightful frescos and 18th century paintings adorning the interior and best of all, the great acoustics make my harp sound crisp and golden.

bBride, groom and harp in Mission Santa Ynez.
Brian and Gloria on their wedding day

Beach Wedding

Last week I played a lovely wedding at a beach house near Rincon. The event took place on the deck overlooking perfect surf waves on a sunny afternoon. Still recovering from foot surgery, I arrived on crutches and brought an assistant to move my harp for me. The sunset made this whole scene a photographer's dream. My harpist's-eye-view was pretty nice, too.

gold harp and wedding couple on Ventura beach

Young Buskers

I encourage my students to take every opportunity to play for an audience. It doesn’t matter if they play at their church, at a retirement home, for their family or neighbors - any audience will give them the chance to hone their focussing skills and to learn how to prepare a piece for performance.

Sofia plays harp at farmer's market

One of my young students, Sofia, talked her fiddle-player friend into busking with her at a local farmer’s market a few months ago in December. They were thrilled to find that people enjoyed the music enough to throw money in the open fiddle case - even Santa and his elves dropped by to listen.

Sofia plays harp for santa

By the end of the set they had earned enough money to buy ice cream treats with spare change left over. That’s a motivating outcome and at the same time they got some valuable performance experience.

Sofia enjoys ice cream earned with harp music

Harp on Sick Leave

Recently my Wurlitzer, whose name is Goldie, called in sick for work. I guess the problem was just advanced age as she’s now about 92 years old. Last year she got a brand-new neck and soundboard along with some shiny new gold leaf so that wasn’t the problem. The issue was that the glue in the laminated layer on the back of the pedal box had gotten so old that it crystallized and was no longer doing its job to adhere the topmost layer to the the inner core. Pieces of the outer veneer were beginning to chip off around a few of the pedal slots. Shipping the entire harp to Virginia would have been costly and nerve-wracking so instead, I removed the base and shipped just the part that needed repair.

harp with chipped veneer at pedal slot
veneer chipping at upper left side of pedal slot

A harp with no base can’t stand up so I pulled out the sofa bed where Goldie reclined for nearly two weeks.

Wurlitzer harp reclning on sofa

When the repaired base finally came back I put it in place, tightened the four long screws that hold it on...

Replacing the base on the harp

... and Goldie returned to her full and upright position just in time for a Valentine’s Day outing.

Laurie Rasmussen plys a Wurlitzer pedal harp.

Harp String Maintenance

Recently I went to the home of my friend S. to help replace some broken strings on her harp. She hadn’t played it in quite a while and when I got to her house I discovered that about 10 strings in the upper and midrange were broken and springing out in all directions. We searched through her spare set, found appropriate replacements and I knotted, strung and tuned them up. This is an old (early 1900’s) L&H semi-grand with a straight board. It’s a solid beast with smooth action that sounded rich and robust once it was back in tune.

early 1900's Lyon & Healy pedal harp
early 1900's L&H semi-grand

I reminded S. of the importance of replacing broken strings as soon as possible. On a fully-strung pedal harp tuned up to pitch there are approximately 2000 lbs. of tension pulling up on the soundboard. Gaps in the string band will cause uneven tension which, if left too long, can warp and eventually crack the board or the neck.

The previous owner of my 1917 Wurlitzer didn’t play the harp and used it only as a decorative objective in her living room for 50 years. She never tuned it or replaced strings as they broke so over the course of those five decades the soundboard warped and cracked. A small crack also developed in the neck. It was playable in this condition but delicate and its expected lifespan was questionable. If the harp had been regularly tuned and the broken strings replaced the original board would have been in much better shape. Howard Bryan replaced the neck and soundboard before I bought it so now, withe regular maintenance, it should have a long and happy life. Just like people, harps benefit from regular TLC.

1917 Wurlitzer harp before restoration1917 Wurlitzer harp after restoration
1917 Wurlitzer model I before and after restoration

Princess Sakura Harp

The National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) holds an enormous trade show every January, the largest event that takes place at the Anaheim Convention Center all year. Manufacturers of musical instruments of all kinds come from far and wide to exhibit their products and there is a constant cacophony over the four days as all these instruments are being played at the same time. I worked at the Dusty Strings booth, playing their lovely harps and doing my best to be heard. I was pleased to discover this harp also on exhibit:

Aoyama Princess Sakura model harp

It's Aoyama's newest model, the Princess Sakura - easy to identify with its cherry blossom inlay. It was on display at the booth of North American Hardwoods who had provided the spruce used in the soundboard. I had a chance to play it against the background din of electric guitars, didgeridoos, cellos and amplified fiddles, etc. Although it's still a new harp, it had a full rich tone and smooth pedal action and I would have enjoyed plaing it in a quieter atmosphere.

Waltzing Matilda

Yesterday I played at the wedding of Jessica and Mark who were blessed with perfect weather for their celebration. Mark is from Australia so he requested that I play “Waltzing Matilda” as the recessional, which brought chuckles from his family members when they recognized the tune. It was a nice change from the ordinary.

bride and groom with harpist

The Harp Doctor is In

Today I returned to the Salvi showroom in Anaheim to fetch the Wurlitzer I’d left last week with Peter Wiley, the harp doctor. Pedal harps need to be seen by a harp technician once every year or two for a regulation because the use of the pedals over time causes all the thousands of moving parts in the mechanism to get out of alignment. At a certain point, intonation is affected enough that the harp no longer plays in tune. An annual regulation is just part of good harp maintenance.

Because of some other repairs that need to be done to my harp first, Peter wasn’t able to do my regulation this time around but we had a good time talking and I learned so much more about the intricacies of the inner workings of the instrument. Peter is one of the world’s most patient people - not only does he take the time to perfect every little nuance of harp intonation and repair, he also expertly soothes the jangled nerves of over-wrought harpists (and we
are an easily over-wrought bunch).

Peter Wiley repairs a harp at Salvi
Peter Wiley, the Harp Doctor

I took the time to play some of the exquisite instruments in the showroom and found that lately Salvi has been making great refinements in their designs. Smaller harps with sensitive soundboards are delivering bigger fuller tone. Showroom manager Alexandra Perdew played her favorite instrument for me, the beautifully inlaid Arianna model. I don’t have words to describe the lush rich sound that came from that harp even though it’s brand-new. As it gets played over time it will open up and develop an even more tremendous voice. It had already been sold and will soon be on its way to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY where some very lucky students will get to play it.

Alexandra plays an Ariana harp
Alexandra plays Salvi's Arianna model harp

Music with my Mom

Recently I had the pleasure of playing my first public performance as a duo with my mother. She’s been playing the harp for about eight years (yes - harping is an illness and she caught it from me). She used to be shy about playing where anyone could hear her but now she gigs practically more than I do, either with members of her local harp circle or on her own as a harper/storyteller.

Karen and Laurie play at Christmas
Karen and Laurie play Christmas carols

On Christmas Eve we provided the pre-service music at St. John’s Chapel in Monterey and it went so well that the bishop asked if we’d come back for Easter. I'm just happy to play music with my mom - how many people are lucky enough to do that?

Salvi Harps in LA

Over the weekend I drove down to the Salvi Harp showroom in Anaheim to drop off my Wurlitzer. Peter Wiley the harp technician will be in residence this week so my harp will wait along with many others for its annual regulation. When I dropped in I found that the charming Mr. Salvi himself was visiting from Italy.

Mr. Salvi and me
Mr. Salvi and me

I haven't had the chance to visit the Salvi showroom since they opened a couple of years ago so it was great to have an opportunity to see all the shiny harps and especially some of the newer models.