I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I feel I need more music.
My guitar is a beautiful instrument, which my husband bought for me when we were engaged, and I resolved to play it regularly, every day if at all possible. I was prepared for sore fingertips, for keeping my nails short, and for the annoyances of hearing buzzes where there ought to be clear sound, but I hadn’t realised how painfully it would remind me that I’m no longer a teenager. I still read music, my fingers remember how to play and I know many more tunes than I did then, but my body no longer wants to hold classical fretting positions. So although I love the look of my varnished instrument and I love its sound, I am reluctant to play it.
Then I heard a harp, on Radio Cumbria, being played by a total beginner.
It dawned on me that here might be the instrument to replace my guitar. I’d have all the notes laid out for me, instead of having to fret them with my left hand. I’d have two hands to play melodies. And I learned from the radio feature that I could get one in kit form.
The Cumbria Cardboard Harp Project uses harps with a wooden frame and nylon strings, and as the name suggests a soundbox made of heavy cardboard. They are light and portable and inexpensive. The one I’d heard on the radio was made by Waring Harps in Connecticut, USA, and I found that Backyard Music, also in CT, made a slightly larger version with 22 instead of 19 strings. I had a very friendly e-mail discussion with the two owners of Backyard, and my kit was sent on its way the next working day.
The only drawback to buying from overseas is that Customs are apt to hang onto items for an unconscionably long time. My 22 strings and pins, three bits of wood and cardboard soundbox languished in New Jersey for 9 days, and in England for another 6, although the harp only took 5 days to cross the Atlantic! As the wait grew longer I would have chewed my fingers back to the elbows, if I hadn’t needed them to make up the kit.
Building the harp really was fun, although for some of the tasks I felt I needed three hands. The prettily curved triangle of the body was easy to glue, screw and varnish, and quickly looked like a proper harp. To set the tuning pins and bridge pins into the pre-drilled frame, I started with a rubber mallet, but I had to discard that when it began to shred against the pin heads. I turned to a fairly hefty hammer, with a piece of scrap leather as a buffer. The second change was to move into a room with a concrete floor, because each hammer-strike rebounded through the table into the floorboards which then sent the harp leaping back towards me.
Constructing and glueing the soundbox was tricky but only required big rubber bands to keep things under control while the glue set. On a pukka harp the soundbox is normally made of wood, which is sanded and varnished to show off its beauty, but mine was boring brown cardboard that definitely needed covering up. The DIY stores drew blank on the colour I wanted – burgundy being so 1980s as a decorating colour – so I ended up at Halford’s buying car spray paint. And primer. And next day, a second can of burgundy, because the soundbox was much bigger than it looked.
The spraying really had to be done outside because the smell was vicious, then once the soundbox was dry, it came back indoors to be glued to the frame. The instructions said to glue the frame and avoid the string holes, but that sounded very fiddly, and since the soundbox had a long clear slot where the strings were to pass through it was actually easier to glue the box – between pencilled marks – and to fit the frame over it. Some heavy books held the two together overnight, and then it was ready to be strung.
Harp strings are pretty. The C strings are red, the F strings are blue or sometimes black, and the rest are uncoloured. Like a novice fisherman I made subtle knots in my nylon strings and like captured eels they immediately tried to untie themselves. I learned to use long nosed pliers to tighten the knot before I pulled it inside the soundbox. Then with the string threaded loosely through the tuning pin at the top of the frame, I trimmed the excess and wound steadily with the tuning wrench, and behold! I had a harp!
An old joke runs, “Everyone gets a harp, whether they go to heaven or hell. Those who go to heaven also get a tuning wrench.” Newly stretched strings go flat within minutes! It took a week before the harp would stay in tune with itself and I could play without snatching up the wrench to correct something. The digital tuner’s implacable lighting display also corrected my own ear which thinks a note is in tune when in fact it is fractionally flat. I became hypersensitive about turning the right peg, since the fastest way to break a harp string is to go on tightening the one next to the one you think you’re tuning.
One sad reminder of my age came when I sang to the tuner to find out whether I could pitch a middle C by ear… I was singing the A below it. I can’t get anywhere near the top Bb I could sing at nineteen, but at the other end of the scale I can now go down to E below middle C. I expect when I do join the heavenly choir they’ll put me among the tenors. Now there’s something to look forward to.