What is a Gaelic harp or early clàrsach? Is it different from a lever harp? Is it the same as a wire-strung harp?
The first challenge is terminology. A clàrsach (say, klar-shuck or klar-suck) may mean a lever harp to a European player, whereas it tends to mean a wire-strung harp to others. Essentially, there are modern and historical instruments strung with metal, and they have different names.
A Gaelic harp / early clàrsach:
• is strung with wire (brass, silver, 14k or 18k gold, iron, and various alloys)
• is played with the nails
• is traditionally played on the left shoulder, with left hand treble and right hand bass (the reverse of modern lever harp practice
• likely employs some quirky arrangement of strings, such as “na comhluighe,” or adjacent strings both tuned to G
• may have a soundbox carved from a single block of wood
• is likely a replica based on an extant early instrument such as the Trinity College Harp, the Queen Mary Harp, the Castle Otway Harp, or the Downhill Harp
• tends to have a very resonant voice which requires a playing technique that incorporates damping the sound
• has a foot at the base of the soundbox which requires that it be placed on its back on the floor when not being played
• examples: historical replicas and undecorated student models of instruments by Davy Patton, David Kortier, William MacDonald, Tim Hobrough, etc.
A wire-strung harp:
• is strung with wire (usually phosphor bronze or brass, but sometimes includes a little silver in the bass)
• is a modern adaptation of older harp designs
• tends to be played with nails, but might be played with finger pads
• is more likely to be played on the right shoulder, in the same manner as a lever harp
• might contain sharping levers to change keys
• is not a historical replica of an old instrument, but might incorporate romantic-sounding names to convey the idea of ancient traditions
• might have an offset neck that favors right shoulder players
• examples: Ardival Kilcoy, Kinnellan and Rose harps; Triplett Ancient Irish or Avalon harps, and various wire-strung models by Caswell, Argent Fox, etc.
A Lever harp:
- • is strung with nylon or, more rarely, gut strings
• utilizes levers to allow key changes
• is played with finger pads (although some players use nails on gut strings)
• is commonly played on the right shoulder, with the right hand in the treble, and the left hand in the bass
• is typically a larger instrument, with up to 34 or 36 strings
• is far more commonly seen and heard than its wire-strung or early harp neighbors
• rests on its base, upright and free-standing
• has a more muted sound than wire strings, but can have significant volume
• is a modern adaptation of 19th century harp designs that were developed as drawing room instruments
• examples: many harps made by Dusty Strings, Triplett, Caswell, Heartland Harps, Starfish Designs, etc.
Questions that Incite Controversy
In this small community of harpers, there are a number of subjects of debate. Some of these topics go through a rather cyclical discussion on the WireHarp list as new people join the list and begin the conversation all over again. Here are a few of the more well-worn controversies:
Left shoulder vs. right shoulder players
Since the vast majority of lever harp and pedal harp players rest the top of the soundbox on their right shoulder, a significant proportion of harp players who come to this instrument from other harp traditions continue with their right shoulder playing. Some are very matter of fact about it, pointing out that they have learned this way, and that they would rather continue to play well than begin afresh on a different shoulder. This seems valid to me. Others are defensive about their decision, and seem to feel the need to explain why they play on their right shoulder. Some claim that it is almost impossible to make a switch once they’ve learned to play on one shoulder. While I am an amateur musician, I can vouch for the option of switching from right to left shoulder playing, having done so myself at the end of 2009. No, it is not easy, but it is possible with persistence, practice, and with some neurological repatterning.
The evidence points clearly toward the placement of the Gaelic harp or early clàrsach on the left shoulder, with the left hand taking the treble, and the right hand taking the bass strings. There has been research on wear patterns on the soundboxes of early instruments in support of this. Here is a simple example from the National Museums of Scotland on the wear patterns of the Lamont harp. Why might you consider playing on the left shoulder? You are participating in an old, historical approach that might well inform your playing, and you are deliberately setting aside a modern approach to the instrument. Anecdotally, it also makes playing a duet with a right-shouldered friend easy, as you can look at one another when sitting side by side…
This is some preliminary, and rather subjective information on the differences among instruments. I will be posting more on this page in the coming weeks.