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Harp is the New Guitar (or Singing With Your Harp)

February 10, 2015
Posted by
Christy Mooers

I have recently become aware of a startling piece of information, which is that you don't need to play guitar or piano to be a singer-songwriter. In fact, I'm pretty sure that harp is the new guitar. To back up this bold statement (and perhaps to inspire you to try it yourself), I present you with an assortment of videos of harpists singing and playing their original songs.

It is worth noting that you can accomplish this feat with any sort of harp (lever or pedal, full-range or lap harp, acoustic or electric...). However, the number of YouTube videos featuring singing harpists was unexpectedly large, so I've chosen to narrow it down by focusing on the lever harp, since that is what we build here at Dusty Strings.

It seems only fitting to kick things off with the video that inspired this whole escapade. Kate Wild (of the band The Ancient Wild) recently emailed us just bursting to say how much she loves her Ravenna 26, which she recently used to record an album. A visit to the band's website revealed this video of their new song Stream Into the Night, which features Kate singing while playing the Ravenna 26, which sparked a discussion with my co-workers about singer-songwriter-harpists, which led to searching for more videos... and anyway here we are. This song starts off with the harp laying down a catchy rhythm, and there's a fascinating contrast between that steady groove and the long soaring lines of the vocal melody.

Of course, you don't need to play a Dusty Strings harp in order to give a moving performance. In fact, you don't need to play an acoustic harp at all. And you can be literally moving. Around the stage, I mean. Deborah Henson-Conant shows us how it's done with The Nightingale, which she wrote about her mother. (And which reduced me to tears when I saw her play it live.)

If your harp is too heavy to wear and doesn't have a drop-down leg like the Ravenna, you can still play standing up. You just need to find something like a sturdy box or a milk crate that's a comfortable height to set the harp on. I know this video of Gillian Grassie doesn't actually show what her harp is sitting on, but seeing it would only limit your imagination, right? And listen to what she does with her right hand. She's simply doubling her voice on the harp, but she does it so tastefully that it adds a sparkly texture to the melody without really drawing attention to itself. Simple, but effective. This is her song Back to Your Flat.

Lest you get the impression that all the cool kids play their harps standing up, Jharda the Singing Harpist provides evidence otherwise. And really, if you're going to play two harps at once, it's probably best if you sit down. She recorded this snippet of her song Hollow just to see if it could be done.

But actually, it's easier if you only play one harp. One Dusty Strings bubinga FH36S, that is. This is a different song by Jharda called Come the Night. The harp accompaniment reminds me of a fingerpicked guitar part with its continuous rhythmic ostinato of individual notes outlining different chords.

Coming back around to ensemble arrangements, here is the Maeve Gilchrist Trio playing Maeve's song City In The North. During the vocal lines, her harp part is simply block chords with space in between, and only picks up rhythmic and melodic complexity in between. Unlike me, Maeve is probably more than capable of playing difficult harp parts while singing, but this arrangement is another good reminder that simplicity can be just as effective. Also, if you're looking for material for an instrumental introduction or solo, use the melody!

Ready to try it yourself? You don't even have to write your own songs; it is just as legitimate to sing someone else's. And if arranging your own harp part is completely daunting, here is our very own Molly Bauckham to reassure you that your harp accompaniment need not be staggeringly complex. She gave a workshop at our Harp Seattle festival last fall called "Sing With Your Harp," and this is a follow-up video demonstrating her simple but effective arrangement of Scarborough Fair.

Thoughts or comments? Awesome singer-songwriter-harpists I missed? Videos of the songs you were inspired to write after reading this blog post?


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