the harp and patience

The 19-string medieval harp isn’t as well made as my 22-string model. It has only a single set of pins and the highest C doesn’t sound, since it rests on the rosewood frame. The frame itself is austere, more line than curve, and contributes to a sound that’s more primitive, less resonant.

Yet I love it. Not more than my 22-string, surely — that’s always my first love.

It’s tuned to F, which gives me the opportunity to explore modes with a different base key. I particularly enjoyed F Aeolian, with its beautiful melancholy. The simplicity of the instrument gives it somewhat of a queer quality, something fey. But my instruments tend to be of the simple, folk variety: dulcimers and kanteles handmade by my father, a kalimba made with bobby pins. There’s not a shred of mother of pearl ornamentation anywhere.

It’s a strange aesthetic, I know — once that I put to good use in my music. And it’s a strange contrast to my voice, which decidedly isn’t plain after a dozen years of classical training.

I’m no maestro; I have too many instruments to focus all my time on just one. Granted, I’ve been focused on harp lately due to the class and the new instrument, which I can’t actually play yet until the nylon strings stretch. Otherwise, it falls out of tune in five seconds flat. I’ve ordered a replacement set of strings for the 22-string harp, which means I’m going to be in that boat yet again shortly — or not so shortly, since Lark in the Morning didn’t ship my strings with the other harp. I’ll give them a week and call again Tuesday.

The harp teaches you patience, with its constant tuning, the burn of your arm as you turn the pegs — one pass, two, three. It teaches you that simple patterns can create beauty, that you needn’t fill every space with noise.

And I think: the traveling bards likely had more simple harps — lyre-like, even — rather than the deeply resonant monsters that require wheels to transport. Their frames were banged and worn from travel on foot, back, horseback, cart. They were worn by use and had no levers.

Abandon all your expectations, the whip you flog yourself with in your failure to reach commercialized perfection, all ye who enter here.

In one of my favorite pictures of Brighid, she’s playing a small harp — very similar to my 22-string model. The prince riding The Chariot in Robin Wood’s deck is, as well.

The harp teaches you authenticity, the limits of your skill and your passion. It weaves a simple net that supports the soaring wings of your voice, or a pattern drawing your mind to praise, meditation, trance. And so does the dulcimer, the kantele, the bulbul tarang.


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